Halt and Catch Fire finale recap: 'Search' / 'Ten of Swords'
Beautiful. That’s the only way to describe the two-hour finale of Halt and Catch Fire. Well, also satisfying. That’s another word for it! “Search” and “Ten of Swords” were beautifully satisfying episodes that perfectly sum up the show’s central themes while also bringing the characters to their poignant end points.
Over the course of these four seasons, Halt and Catch Fire told an insightful story about five people striving to find fulfillment through their work. As it followed Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon, it not only captured how exciting it is to work on something you’re passionate about, but to do so with people who share your passion; it showed how invigorating and inspiring that could be. In the end, it wasn’t a show about computers, it was about people simply realizing that connecting with other people was hard but worth it. In fact, “Search,” which picks up four months after episode 8, returns to this idea in the first scene — an idea that was initially presented in the first 20 minutes of the pilot.
“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Joe said that to Gordon in the pilot when they first met, and it’s true. Computers led Joe to Gordon, which was perhaps Joe’s most fulfilling relationship. At the top of “Search,” Joe actually brings this quote up again after he shows the completed vox pop-filled Comet commercial, which features a posthumous cameo from Gordon, to the rest of the team. However, this time around, he can’t complete the sentence because he gets too emotional thinking about how much he misses Gordon. Thankfully, Cameron, who temporarily joined the Comet team to help with the relaunch, starts a chant to help him move past it. With the re-design completed, Cameron is ready to say goodbye to the guys and call Alexa to get back to work on her project. This is our first sign that Joe and Cameron’s relationship might be coming to an end: Cameron walks away, exits stage right, leaving Joe alone in the frame. The blocking symbolizes how these two are in different places of their lives and want different things. And, that’s not the only time we’ll see Cameron move away from Joe. It happens again when Joe decides not to run the commercial because Haley hates it. Cam says he should still air it, but Joe stands firm because “it’s my company,” so Cam walks away from him once again.
“Search” finds most of the characters forced to make important decisions about their futures, both professionally and personally. Bos visits the doctor and finds out he has a clean bill of health and will “live well into the 21st century.” But, before he accepts that prognosis, he needs to take one more look at the past. He finishes cleaning out Diane’s garage, where he finds an old Cardiff Electric radio, the same type he used to box up when he worked in the Cardiff factory in his youth. It’s not working, so he takes it to Donna to fix. Once that’s done, he presents the cleaned garage to Diane and invites her to join him in doing some actual living now.
The Clark women also make some big moves in this episode. At the top of the hour, Joanie boards a plane to go backpacking through Asia. Haley, who is tired of hanging out with just her mother, Joe, and Cameron, musters up the courage to ask her waitress crush out. In classic Halt and Catch Fire fashion, we see the ask but not the rejection. The scene cuts to Haley running back to her car in tears. Meanwhile, Diane visits Donna, who spent the entire summer swimming and avoiding work, and tells her it’s time for her to make a decision about her future at the firm. At this point, Donna is unsure what she wants; however, the combination of realizing she misses having original ideas and fixing things, Cam apologizing for calling her a parasite, and Haley scolding for her wasting away in the pool these past four months pushes her to make a decision: She returns to the firm as managing partner. On her first day back, she invites Trip to join her in mocking the Rover and Comet-killing machine, Yahoo.
Oh yes, Yahoo plays a pivotal role in “Search.” Joe learns that a group of coders are developing a promising new browser called Netscape and he asks Cam for one more favor: help him optimize Comet so that it works perfectly on Netscape when it goes live. Cam gets a copy of Netscape from Alexa, who invites her to a conference in Paris, but much to Alexa’s disappointment, Cam says no. Alexa reminds her that it’s easy to get so caught in other obligations that you forget your obligations to your future self. Unfortunately, Joe and Cameron’s efforts are in vain because they discover Netscape has already chosen its internet directory/homepage partner: Yahoo. Thus, Comet dies.
The failure of Comet catalyzes the end of this relationship, too. That night, they return home, give their relationship a serious look — depicted in a beautiful, dialogue-free scene of them lying in bed not looking at each other — and in the morning, Cameron has already packed her things to leave. “I wanted us to work,” she says, before adding. “It did for a while.” While it’s sad to see this relationship end, it makes complete sense. Yes, these two loved each other, but the issue of children is something they could never get past. So, with that, Cameron decides to accept Alexa’s Paris offer. (Recap continues on the next page)
With the setup over, it’s time to get to down business and end this lovely series. “Ten of Swords,” which picks up two months later, finds Joe shutting down Comet in the wake of Yahoo’s launch. He begins the finale by bidding adieu to all of the people who worked for the company. Needing some clarity or something, Joe visits a fortune teller played by bloody Carol Kane. During the tarot card portion of the session, Carol draws a Ten of Swords, which symbolizes destruction, agony, and misery in his future. Joe assumes that means he loses again, but then Carol points out the golden horizon behind the swords, which “could be something.” As he leaves her home with a new pack of tarot cards, he’s almost run over by a sports car in a nice callback to the self-serious opening of the pilot.
From there, the finale turns its attention to the characters we’re most interested in: Donna and Cameron. This has been said many times in the past couple of years, but the show transformed into its best self when it realized these two daring women were the most interesting characters on the show, and the finale recognizes that fact, too. First, we check in with Donna, who has remade the firm, now called Symphonic Ventures, in her own image, infusing it with Mutiny’s start-up vibe: People experiment with robotic arms in the bullpen, Donna plays Playstation with Trip and the guys, and she celebrates Taco Tuesday in the office. Basically, she’s living her best life.
In the wake of her failed business trip to Paris with Alexa, Cameron decides it’s time to leave San Francisco and road trip to Florida, where her mom lives. Yet again, she has decided to leave right when things start to fall apart. Before departing, she makes a stop at Joe’s apartment to return some of his things, but when she rings the doorbell, a realtor who assumes she’s there to check out the place greets her. Yes, Joe Irish-goodbyed San Francisco.
Cam heads to Donna’s home to say goodbye. The two end up teaming up one more time when Haley’s computer halts and catches fire while she’s working on a big project for this college computer course she’s taking (Haley also has an idiot and useless boyfriend now). As Cameron works on the computer, Donna gets ready for this networking party she’s throwing, and when she returns, Cam impulsively suggests they work together again. Donna hesitates, which causes Cameron to immediately take it back. “Well, that’s her gift, thinking about impossible things,” says Donna later when she tells about Diane about Cameron’s offer.
When Haley returns from the movies, which is where her mother sent her and the boyfriend while they worked on the comp, she reveals to Cameron that she got a letter from Joe. While she doesn’t let Cameron read it, she summarizes it: Joe moved because he needed a change. Cam sees the envelope and learns Joe is back in the same town as IBM, which leads her to assume he’s working there again. Cam apologizes to Haley for not being able to recover the data on her computer, but Haley’s cool with it because that means, like Joe, she gets a fresh start, too. (Recap continues on the next page)
As Cameron starts to leave, Donna takes the stage to give a speech, which ends up being one of the most poignant scenes in an already heartwarming finale. She shares her hopes that these types of female networking events are no longer necessary by the time her daughters reach her age. (Alas, she would be wrong.) However, the crux of her speech is about what she’s learned in the tech industry for all of these years: the people you encounter along the way and work with are more important than the work itself. This message moves Cameron, whom Donna calls her best partner. However, Halt and Catch Fire has grown, too, over these past four years and cleverly undercuts this dramatic moment by having Cameron slip and fall into the pool. It’s delightful.
After the party ends, Donna brings up working together again and tells Cameron it means a lot that she asked. “I think in some ways I’ve probably been waiting for years to hear that,” says Donna, before admitting it’s probably the surest way to screw-up what they do have now. But, that doesn’t stop them from visiting the old Mutiny offices. The ensuing scene reveals just how much these two have matured and learned from their pasts. A logo for Phoenix, the hypothetical company they’d create, appears above their heads as they imagine what would happen if they worked together again. They realize they’d butt heads again, the company would fold eventually, but this time they wouldn’t let it break them.
Meanwhile, Haley listens to a tape of her father’s voice as she sits down at her computer to work on that project, and Gordon’s calming words sum up one of the show’s main themes. “Whatever’s burning you up now, just know it will fade. Every problem feels big in the moment, but Gordon, you know better,” he says. “So just stay focused on just being, being, and try to look up from your computer every once and a while.” That last part is essential and sums up the series’ progression, too. With each year, Halt and Catch Fire became less about the tech, it looked up from its metaphorical computer more and more, and recognized that connecting with people might be hard but it’s also important. But alas, both of them acknowledge they don’t have any ideas now.
The next morning, Cameron and Donna get breakfast. Once they finish, Cameron waits outside for Donna, who stays behind to pay the check. Inspiration strikes Donna as they look around. “Cameron, I have an idea,” she says. A smile creeps across Cameron’s face. This ending feels more than earned. The entire season has been about these two finding their way back to each other after their big rift; from only being able to connect with each other via their creations (Donna playing Pilgrim and Cameron writing code for Rover) to where we leave them at the end of the series: working together again.
As Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” fades in, we move on to check in with the show’s paragon of loneliness, Joe. The writers fake us out: First, we see the wheels of a sports car pull up, another callback to the pilot. We’re meant to assume Joe has returned to his old ways and is back at IBM, but no, that’s not the case. He’s actually works at a school teaching the humanities, which feels like the perfect ending for him. Joe spent most of the series obsessed with the future and believed he was a great man who could define it, but now it seems as though he’s realized that’s not the case. Maybe it’s time he put his faculty with words to help the next generation change the world. In a way, he’s fulfilling that insulting saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” except here, we’re given the sense that there’s actually nobility in that. As the song conveys, Joe cut ties with some of his past in order to find his home. I mean, sure, he’s off on his own here, but he’s not necessarily alone nor has he forgotten the ones he left in California or his past. His office is covered with artifacts from the show’s seasons: the failed computer, the Ten of Swords card, and photos of Gordon, Cameron, and Haley.
The bell rings. Joe heads to the class, and the camera dollies in on him as he waits for his class to get settled: “Let me start by asking a question.”
- Ugh, Donna’s speech is filled with so many great lines. Here’s one: “The project gets us to the people, because it’s people that got me where I am.”
- Another quote from that speech: “I am a partner by trade and a mother and a sister by design. I am so proud to be on this journey with you.”
- “This is good. Now everyone knows you were the crazy one,” Donna to Cameron after she falls in the pool.
- One of the funniest moments in the episode is when Donna and Cameron learn Haley dumped her boyfriend and acknowledge that they both sometimes wonder if Haley’s gay.