One of the lessons that sticks out in my mind from my attempt at studying film in college is how period films are made and how we as audiences engage with period films. Halt and Catch Fire has come on the air at an interesting time, with shows like The Goldbergs capitalizing on superficial ‘80s nostalgia. While the Reagan-era setting is part of the show’s brand, its look and feel is almost anti-nostalgic; unlike its predecessor, Mad Men, the directors and crew have rarely fetishized the sleek, neon-lit aesthetic associated with the decade.
As the third season of Halt and Catch Fire winds down, the time period jumps four years into the future with a pointed close-up of Donna’s computer screen. Although the nascent decade hadn’t found its identity by that early date, the late ‘80s felt like a hangover from the public displays of affluence in previous years. The harsh lighting, muted, yellow-toned colors, and miles of beige in Donna’s new office looks like how the characters must feel after four years of infighting and poor decision-making. The protagonists have spent more time apart than together at this point—Cameron is still in Japan, Joe has a consultancy of some sort, and Donna and Gordon have gotten a divorce.
The past two seasons of Halt have ended with a getting-the-band-back-together scheme, and this one is no exception: Donna finds a “great new opportunity” for which she thinks Cameron would be perfect, and she reaches out to Joe and schemes on her own to bring the coding genius and videogame rock star into the fold. Knowing how badly Donna and Cameron’s relationship fell out, Joe is reluctant to contact Cameron on her behalf, but finding out Cameron will be at Comdex with her Atari series Space Bike leads him to attend the conference for the first time since the Cardiff Giant hit the floors.
The couple’s reunion unfolds like a less racist version of Lost in Translation—all industry parties, neon lights, nonsynchronous sound, and knowing flirtation. I’ve mentioned in the past my painful identification with Cameron, and while her and Joe’s slow, mutual seduction has a swoony quality for it, I know how sociopaths like Joe can treat manipulate someone with Cam’s background. Watching their love scene made me cringe for Cameron and fear for how she let her guard down with Joe.
If Joe and Cameron’s reunion unfolded like a Sofia Coppola fever dream, the tension and shared history in Cameron’s scenes with Donna play like something out of Edward Albee. As visionary as Donna’s investment in the nascent World Wide Web was, her shared history with Cam and their mutual mistrust for one another hangs over the pair like stale cigarette smoke.
In spite of her frustration with Donna, Cameron signs onto Donna’s business proposal and brings Tom with her. The second half of the Halt series finale, “NeXT”, comes off like a slow-moving soap opera with a side order of speculative techspeak. Donna’s flirtatious asides with Gordon leaven the turgid, dialogue-heavy scenes, but Tom’s behavior both in the office and in the couple’s hotel room doesn’t speak well to their holy matrimony.
While Donna and Cameron appear to mend fences, Cameron’s power play at the close of the episode is gut-wrenching. Kerry Bishe invests a frequently unsympathetic character with a sense of vulnerability, and the defiance of Donna’s final lines makes me excited and a little scared for next season.
Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of making its audience feel nostalgic about the ‘80s. Its broadcast during the iPhone era shows how technology can create communities, complicate communication, and isolate individuals, something worth remembering even as we’ve evolved away from the first 20-pound laptop computers.
The series will be returning to AMC for a final season in 2017. In the meantime, check out Silicon Cowboys, a new documentary about the early days of the Silicon Prairie.