“What I’m really trying to do is create a world in which actions have consequences,” Cam (Mackenzie Davis) explains to her patron, Alexa (Molly Ephraim), in “Who Needs a Guy,” the Airstream papered with ideas still in progress. Her new project, a pioneering foray into self-learning AI, is a continuation of her career-long quest, at Cardiff and Mutiny and Atari, to capture the texture of life as it’s lived in the language of code; it’s also, as she explains it here, Halt and Catch Fire’s enduring credo, the animating force behind its shifts of setting, of subject matter, its chronological leaps, the belief in fiction’s power to come this close to the real. “I feel like I’m creating characters that have the ability to accrue memory and develop a personal narrative and change over time,” she says, as if to acknowledge the constituent parts in tonight’s big, bold beauty, “and it’s all just feeling really immersive and complete.”
If there’s one drawback to “Who Needs a Guy,” it’s that the pair of exquisite sequences that conclude the episode—the death of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and the transmission of that information through the circuit of affection he erected around him—makes the rest of the hour seem suddenly small, though of course this is part of its genius. Haley (Susanna Skaggs) lops off her hair, leaving it “somewhere mid-Hamill”; the A/C unit at Comet goes on the fritz; Joe (Lee Pace) balks at Gordon’s suggestion of a strategic shift; Donna (Kerry Bishé) enters the running for managing partner; Bos (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish) decide to get hitched: In the inescapable present of Gordon’s description, each of these looms impossibly large, and then, in an instant, they fade almost to nothing, brought to scale by that monster, mortality.
It’s the ordinariness of the episode’s action, in fact, that lends its wrenching conclusion weight. We know, intellectually, that life is fleeting, and fragile—Bos and Diane admit as much, explaining their decision to marry—and yet the essential untidiness of the mind requires compartmentalization; we can no more live each moment as if it were our last, to quote the old saw, than Cam can imagine robots on the surface of Mars, or coursing through the human bloodstream. Halt and Catch Fire, stretching its four seasons to fill 15 years, understands this dilemma intuitively. It pokes its head in on the characters only to find them going about the business of living—accruing memory, developing a personal narrative, changing over time—until it achieves that rarest of feats, grasping the golden ring built into the medium’s substructure. It’s not “solitary” or “hard,” as Cam says of Pilgrim. It’s immersive and complete.
In this, the series has been earning tonight’s final act since the start of the pilot: Gordon’s vision of Donna, spotted with the same lens flare as his more regretful reverie in Haley’s bedroom, is his life as we know it flashing before his eyes, a life in which the most important feature is—was—other people. And isn’t that everything, when you whittle away the detritus? Isn’t that the thing we know, intellectually, and yet always forget?
The last third of “Who Needs a Guy” expresses this conviction with such compassion, such ardor, that grief itself comes to taste like a tonic, the horrible proof that a connection was made. “You got Haley and Gordon and Cam. You got everybody,” Donna cries as she argues with Joe, unearthing the need at her ambition’s foundation: It is other people—the spouse finishing paperwork on the sofa, the children laughing in the kitchen, the friends we hold onto, or wish we had—that offer us meaning in this cruel, lonesome world, that trump IPOs, re-launches and algorithms, search speeds and traffic data, mergers and acquisitions, competitions and strategic shifts. It is other people we reach out to through the tubes and wires and lines of code, other people we need when the monster arrives. The series of connections made as the news of Gordon’s death circulates—Katie (Anna Chlumsky) hearing Donna’s voice on the answering machine; Donna approaching Joe’s car; Joe’s message for Cam; the call to Bos and Diane; the tear-streaked face that greets the girls when they return home from the movies, and the clasped hands of mourning when they climb into bed—trace those circuits of affection I mentioned, and against this humane reflection of life as it’s lived, everything else seems suddenly small.
That popular art can capture this texture is both the animating force of the series and one of its central subjects, and in what may be its finest hour, the connection is as clear as ever. Donna reaches the conclusion of Pilgrim as Halt and Catch Fire nears the end of its run, intuiting Cam’s purpose until it almost moves her to tears, and “solitary” turns out to be the last word to describe it. The figures embrace; the credits scroll; and through the tubes and wires and lines of code we’re reminded of the importance of other people. Who needs a guy? We all do, as it happens, because without connection we remain incomplete.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.