‘Halt and Catch Fire’ resets for final season by making one of its leads the villain

In the fourth and final season of AMC’s period tech drama Halt and Catch Fire, its lead characters are deeply concerned with morality. The Don Draper-ish salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, great as always) is reading John Updike’s 1962 short story collection, Pigeon Feathers, like it’s his personal bible. At one point, the brilliant but troubled game developer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) openly asks engineering whiz Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), “Am I cruel?” Later, Gordon reassures her. “It wouldn’t be so bad if my girls turned out like you.” The shifting allegiances and constant technological upheaval from the show’s first three seasons are weighing heavily on everyone.

With Halt and Catch Fire — which, when it premiered in 2014, was set in the 1980s and fixated on the rise of the personal computer — now moving into the ’90s and onto the dawn of the World Wide Web, this theme of self-interrogation runs throughout the new season. Showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers are asking questions that we’re still struggling with today: Are our advancements in technology bringing us closer together or pulling us farther apart? What sorts of sacrifices are necessary to achieve success and when do they become too much?

While Joe, Cameron and Gordon seem conflicted about their past transgressions against one another — at least, in the three episodes that were provided to critics — it’s gifted business executive Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) that really reads like a cautionary tale. Mostly removed from the other characters, and divorced from Gordon, Donna is a powerful VC partner at one of Silicon Valley’s biggest firms. Like the other characters, she’s intrigued by the latest venture for the web: a technology that can search and catalog the internet’s ever-growing slate of websites (in other words, a pre-Google Google).

But Donna’s pursuit of that technology could come at great personal cost. Instead of dealing with nameless employees or sexist Silicon Valley executives, she’s competing against the characters we’ve grown to love, flaws and all, for the past three years — as well as members of her own family. In its final season, it looks as though Halt and Catch Fire has found a proper antagonist.

Donna, listening to one of many pitches to the firmGene Page/AMC

Of the four main characters, Donna’s transformation over the course of the series is the most radical. (At least, from a personality standpoint — physically, Joe’s gone through some crazy changes. His hair’s long enough for a ponytail now, and it feels sort of like he’s a Pokémon that’s reached its final evolution.) Donna spends the first season on the show’s margins, working a dead-end job and raising her two daughters while Joe and Gordon get to work on a personal computer to rival IBM. As the viewer, it’s easy to see she deserves better.

Then, in seasons two and three, Cameron forms her online gaming company, Mutiny, and Donna’s brought in to, basically, run it like a functional business while Cameron preserves its creative soul. The friction between the pair’s fundamentally different philosophies proves too much to bear; a decision to bring the company public destroys their relationship and, eventually, Mutiny itself.

In season four, Donna is essentially the understudy of Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), the venture-capital partner who initially funds Mutiny in season three. Donna has a calculated regimen: Her assistant makes her some blend of fruit smoothie in the morning, as she listens to pitches from prospective startups looking for investment. In the premiere, one such meeting ends with a swift, brutal rejection — the pitch team doesn’t even realize it’s over until Donna leaves the room.

She now lives in a decadent mansion — sky-high ceilings, chic furniture — that still feels empty. Donna’s become the embodiment of capitalism, on a series that’s noticeably anti-capitalist. The ever-shifting dynamic between the four leads is the heart of Halt and Catch Fire, so it makes sense that a climactic villain would be promoted from within — and the show’s all the better for it.

What makes Donna’s evolution — from unfulfilled sidekick to cutthroat Silicon Valley executive — so effective is that it feels earned. The series isn’t pulling a 180 on the audience to suddenly vilify her; in fact, Donna’s arguably the most sympathetic character of the core cast. She’s never had a venture of her own creation: The personal computer from season one was very much Joe and Gordon’s project, while Mutiny was, first and foremost, Cameron’s baby. In her eyes, funding and helping to create the would-be Google could be her moment in the spotlight. She could end up overshadowing the achievements of Joe, Cameron and Gordon — which wouldn’t be all that hard, since their projects failed.

Occasionally, Donna has dinner with Gordon; it’s implied as more of a formality, a way for them to exchange progress reports on their now-teenage daughters. Broaching the conversation of work during one dinner, Gordon casually mentions the idea of a database for web browsers that Joe has been working on for years. Eventually, though, Halt and Catch Fire makes the conflict of its final season clear: It’s Joe, Cameron and Gordon versus Donna in the hunt for what we now know as Google. But there’s an X-factor, and that’s Gordon and Donna’s 14-year-old daughter, Haley (Susanna Skaggs).

Haley, now played by Susanna Skaggs Bob Mahoney/AMC

The divorced couple’s eldest daughter, Joanie, is the stereotypically rebellious, angsty teen (Kathryn Newton, the go-to for such a role, as seen on Big Little Lies and Supernatural), but the introverted, brainy Haley takes after her parents, developing a keen interest in the emerging web. Without giving away too much, Haley creates something that could offer a seismic shift in the characters’ race for new technology. It’s game-changing enough that the show’s fictional version of Google could even be named after her. But crucially, Haley’s breakthrough happens alongside her father and Joe — not Donna.

It leaves Donna with a daunting decision: keep working on her own Google-like breakthrough and compete against her daughter or, once again, like she’s done all series long, take a backseat. The Donna of the first three seasons probably wouldn’t even hesitate — she’d support Haley, full stop. But the Donna of season four, who’s a Silicon Valley VC player? Well, she’s a different story.

The most compelling villains are often the most tragic, the ones who are, at their core, sympathetic. Donna deserves a chance to succeed, to make something of her own. But if it does finally happen in the show’s farewell season, it might come at the expense of her crushing her own daughter’s dreams.

What’s helped make Halt and Catch Fire such an engrossing series is the depth and humanity that’s granted to the characters, who constantly break from and reconcile with one another. After spending four seasons with Joe, Donna, Cameron and Gordon, you want them all to have a happy ending. But Donna’s new arc suggests that that can’t happen for everyone — when this is all over, someone’s life may be left in ruins.

The final season of Halt and Catch Fire premieres August 19 at 9 p.m. Eastern on AMC.