There was only one way for Halt and Catch Fire to really end, and on that note, as much as I want a second season of the AMC drama for my own personal reasons—mostly the music and also Lee Pace's face—I can't help but feel like "1984" managed to say everything that needed to be said.
In the end, the Cardiff Giant came to emulate its namesake more than anyone could have imagined. What was once envisioned as the ultimate technological package—an actual dream machine for the times—would ultimately go down in history as a serviceable but unremarkable machine, stripped of everything that made it special or authentic. Gordon made the transition from unhappy corporate cog to unhappy corporate executive, and while the genres are worlds apart, Gordon's final scene in the conference room emulated Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog with its implication that yes, our protagonist has won, but he's lost too much along the way to be truly happy with his victory.
All of Cardiff's idea people are gone, and the comments of those left behind—"If Joe MacMillan were here, he'd have us building a spaceship"—imply that they're just fine with being "fine." With Apple, Microsoft, and other huge names already leaps ahead of Cardiff—the Macintosh talks!—the sense that Cardiff is already failing is impossible to shake. The theft of Gordon's shiny new Porsche, just days after he bought it, is practically prophetic. The experience of working on the Giant may've been life-changing for Cameron, Gordon, and Joe, but the sad reality is that the finished product was not the revolutionary game-changer it was meant to be. The sales will be strong enough, but the press surrounding the release of the product already reeks of disappointment. The Giant is "good enough," but given what we know (and if they're being honest with themselves, whose those remaining at Cardiff Electric know) about what's on the horizon, "good enough" is actually going to be far from that.
Of course, the crux of Halt and Catch Fire has never actually been about the technology that drives the plot (however, ArkhamNative's techsplanations throughout this season have offered a fantastic coda to each episode). While some have compared the series to a 1980s version Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire's time period and the careers of its core characters don't quite carry the same weight with Joe, Cameron, and Gordon as Mad Men's do for the likes of Don, Peggy, and Pete. Where Mad Men is a very nostalgic show at times, completely enmeshed in its era, Halt and Catch Fire has always looked toward the future. Where the general aura among those at Sterling Copper & Partners is that the future is some terrifying thing and that the good old days are gone, the fears that plague the characters on Halt and Catch Fire are that the future is going to be awesome—and they're not going to be a part of it.
Sure, we can draw tons of parallels between Don Draper and Joe MacMillan, what with their tall, dark, and mysterious pathological liar routines, but there are some key differences that set the two apart. Don Draper knows who he is, and it's his tireless denial of the truth about himself that tends to get him in trouble. Joe is a chameleon. Throughout the entire first season of Halt and Catch Fire, we've seen him take on roles as effortlessly as he changes his socks, and while that's a handy skill to have when you're a crazy Patrick Bateman clone who will literally do anything to make a sale, it's not exactly helpful when you decide you want to forge real relationships with real people. Joe's relationship with Cameron was a very positive experience in that sense... until it wasn't. She helped Joe solidify himself as an individual, but in the process, she came to see that what was hiding underneath the silver tongue and bravado was just a sad, scared little boy who so desperately wanted to be the dreamer he remembered his mother as, but lacked the imagination to do it on his own... or rather, he lacked the bravery to embrace his own imagination.
As a drama about the personal computer revolution, I'm aware that Halt and Catch Fire stumbled in places, in particular because it seemed perfectly willing to bill itself as such, only to evolve into a drama that relied heavily on the nuances of its kooky characters. Cameron is "the future" and as such, she's pretty obnoxious and eye-roll-inducing at times. As the series progressed, it became obvious that Cameron earned every bit of her prodigy title and, if anything, also served as the cautionary tale against judging rough-around-the-edges geniuses for their (lack of) social graces rather than their contributions to the world. One can argue that at least Cameron made contributions. Everyone on this show was an A-hole, but not everyone managed to bring about the revolution that they all believed would justify their actions—which is not to say that accomplishing awesome feats automatically excuses dickhead behavior, but in the grand scheme of awful things these people have done to each other, Cameron's crimes are relatively tame.
If there is one character whose evolution I am truly interested to see in the event that Halt and Catch Fire receives a second season, it has to be Donna. I think that we learned more about Donna in these last two episodes than we did in most of the ones that came before. Her dissatisfaction with her life has been obvious since the pilot, but who could've known what mutineer hid beneath her mom persona? Donna's adventures in being drunk and stoned for most of "1984" were kind of amazing. Given that tech is often accused of burying the contributions of women, the fact that Half and Catch Fire ultimately allowed the two women in its cast to have the happiest endings is telling and welcome.
I'm not convinced that all is well in Donna and Gordon's marriage, even with the decoder ring and his career successes. Gordon wears his disappointment on his sleeve, and even at the height of his newfound success, his contentment is debatable. Plus, as we've already established, Cardiff Electric is in serious danger of fading from the silicon landscape. If Gordon isn't already binge-drinking behind his desk, it's really only a matter of time until he starts—and therein lies the ribbon of unspoken sadness winding its way through Halt and Catch Fire's finale. It seems everyone has the sense that this victory was in vain, that it doesn't matter anyway, and that the high hopes of imaginative men and women will not explode in a blaze of glory, but fade from existence like a funny dream in the morning.
Cameron said that Joe will be a footnote in history, but she was really talking about Cardiff as a whole, and the Giant, both in terms of public history and her own personal history. Working on the Giant consumed her life for months. It was everything—but now that it's over, it was nothing. In yet another one of Halt and Catch Fire's displays of hilarious WTFery (see: torching a truckload of computers, getting off on electrocution, and stealing a Cabbage Patch doll in the middle of a hurricane), we learned that Cameron essentially invented online gaming, meaning her Mutiny company is most assuredly poised for world domination or something. While her inspiration for Mutiny and the resources she has on hand to fuel it came out of her experience with Cardiff, when legions of Mutiny devotees read the visionary Cameron Howe's obituary, her time at Cardiff will likely only get a line—maybe half a paragraph at best.
If Halt and Catch Fire should find itself halted in it's tracks with only this single season to show for itself, we can at least appreciate it for the human tragedy that it was, regardless of whether that was always the show's intention. For a time, the key players at Cardiff came together to create something wonderful, but through their own flaws and hubris, they ultimately failed to deliver the mythical product they set out to develop... and sometimes that's just what happens. Projects lose traction, or they turn out to be poorly timed, or they blow up in their maker's faces. Of all the various huge names in personal computing in the late '70s and early '80s, how many still hold their elevated place in the kingdom? I mean, poor RadioShack is a joke these days.
Whether Joe, Cameron, and Gordon were building computers or cars or EZ Bake Ovens, the result would have been the same because the chemicals added to their mix came from themselves, not from the software they were coding.
– So: Do you want a second season?
– If Halt and Catch Fire gets a second season, what would you like to see? Where do you think the show can go from here?
– Yeah, I had to google the 1984 Apple commercial. I'm a baby, okay?
– You know how so many old-school sitcom plots just don't work now that everyone has a cell phone? I'm so programmed to accept that everyone on TV has one now that I was half expecting Joe to whip out an iPhone out during his computer BBQ to text Cameron a pic captioned, "Will u take me bak now?"