Spoilers, because fuck spoilers. You been warned.
The fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire, the show least likely to make four seasons in the history of all shows, has gotten a fair bit of attention for sheer simple quality. Of course, part of the reason there have been so many love letters to the show this month is the unlikely nature of that quality; the first season of HAFC wasn’t exactly terrible, but it was decidedly meh, to use a technical term. And so a million Think Pieces were born this year when the unlikely fourth season turned out to be a pretty fantastic story about characters that fans have come to enjoy, against all odds.
Other people have written persuasively about how this show, so mediocre in its beginning, came to be so highly regarded among the very, very small audience it managed to build. For me, though, what I came to really appreciate about HACF is simpler: Everyone on this show was a failure, and the show decided to find the beauty in that.
The fake-out of HACF is that it presented its characters as brilliant, and we as the audience were well-trained to accept that even if we didn’t quite buy it. After all, most characters in prestige dramas are presented as special, and the audience is supposed to go along with it (see Don Draper, Walter White, literally everyone else).
The main characters as presented in season 1 were all primed to be secret geniuses: Joe MacMillan, the tortured mystery man modeled so obviously on Don Draper, who has an audacious plan to manipulate two companies into building a market-defining personal computer; Cameron Howe, brilliant but socially-screwed young programmer; Gordon Clark, brilliant engineer simmering with rage at the compromises of his life and where they’d landed him; Donna Clark, brilliant engineer frustrated by the limitations of being a woman in a tech world dominated by assholes.
It should have been the story of these eclectic geniuses as they conquered the world. Instead, it’s the story of people failing upward and ultimately letting go of their dreams. And that’s the genius of the show.
They don’t build that incredible computer; instead they build an adequate machine that sells well enough to make some money, and destroy the company they work for in the process. They go on, in subsequent seasons, to be smart enough to anticipate the Internet, social media, and the World Wide Web, but they’re never able to move quickly enough or be brilliant enough to actually invent the amazing things. Someone else comes out with the Macintosh. Someone else builds AOL. Someone else builds Netscape. Our lovable losers are always a day late and a dollar short.
And the beauty of the final season is that they all accept this, to a point. Now, none of these people are failures in a conventional sense; they all participate in enough startups and product launches to be relatively rich and well-known by the end of the show’s run. Donna is a very successful partner at a venture capital firm. Joe has had a piece of several lucrative businesses that were bought out by bigger, better competitors. Cameron had a career as a game designer and is more or less widely regarded as something of a genius in the field.
Gordon, of course, is dead, but he was head of a successful if not world-changing company and had a fair amount of money.
But none of them had accomplished what they most wanted: Change the world, come up with “the thing” that changed everything. Their ideas always curdled into semi-success. Money, sure. Some sales. The sort of resume most people would love. But not the thing. As the show ended, Joe becomes an educator, finally realizing that this is what he’s wanted all along, to shape and mold the future. Gordon, as I mentioned, is dead, but before his death he’d achieved a quiet dignity in realizing his own limitations as a person, growing less angry and more giving as he gave up trying to assert himself as a genius. Donna and Cameron are about to embark on a new venture, it’s strongly implied, but they’re doing so out of a sense of excited connection, not because they think they’re going to change the world. They know they probably won’t, but they’re excited to work together again, a small-scale ambition.
That‘s what this show got right: Most of us, we don’t invent, or write, or compose the thing. We might have success, and we might do all right financially, but we don’t get the thing. Almost no one does. And HACF is one of the few shows to ever understand that a story about people not getting the thing could be great.
Because that story is almost universal.