Critic's Notebook: 'Halt and Catch Fire' and 'Survivor's Remorse' End — But Only One on Its Own Terms

AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' had a beautiful finale echoing back to the pilot, while Starz's 'Survivor's Remorse' had a good closing episode, but it wasn't designed as a series finale.
Courtesy of Starz

[This contains spoilers for the series finales of Halt and Catch Fire and Survivor's Remorse.]

Starz's Survivor's Remorse and AMC's Halt and Catch Fire both had their series finales over the weekend.

Both shows completed four-season runs, with 36 episodes for Survivor's Remorse and 40 for Halt and Catch Fire, neither highly rated and both now just sitting there available for future audiences to discover, binge, fall in love with and ponder, "Why the heck wasn't I watching this show when it was actually airing?"

They didn't end the same way, though.

Halt and Catch Fire completed a beautiful and climactic final season designed to bring the lives of its characters to a narrative resting place, the advantage of a cable network announcing well ahead of the start of production that these episodes would be their last.

Survivor's Remorse completed a strong season highlighting the family dramedy's tonal and topical versatility, but in a lapse of audience responsibility that we don't see all that often in today's cable landscape, Starz's decision to pull the plug was unforeseen and abrupt and the two-episodic block billed as the series finale offered no closure.

I've already written about the penultimate and antepenultimate weeks (not to be confused with episodes) of Halt and Catch Fire, which turned the death of a main character into one of the most powerful depictions of grief and mourning I've ever seen on TV. "Who Needs a Guy" ended with the punch to the gut of said death and "Goodwill" was all sadness and characters reaching out and trying to move forward.

That left Saturday's two episodes — perhaps knowing the limp numbers this final season would draw, AMC doubled up on both premiere and finale episodes — as a send-off, pointing frequently back to the Halt and Catch Fire pilot, an underappreciated pilot I strongly recommend viewers go back to, if only to experience the confusion of why the show was initially so tepidly reviewed.

The doubling of the concluding episodes paid off here. The first hour is great, but it's about failure, which was always a major thing Halt and Catch Fire had to absorb, because these characters were never destined to make the big leaps in the computing world, they were always going to just miss out. So the first episode paralleled the latest disintegration of Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Joe's (Lee Pace) relationship with their search engine Comet missing out on Netscape placement and Donna's (Kerry Bishe) Rover also falling short, ironically being sold off as the medical indexing software it began its life as. The real pain in the episode was Haley's heartbreak, but we still ended with the comedy of Donna incredulously reflecting on and repeating the word "Yahoo!" in reaction to the newly potent web behemoth.

The second episode, the real finale, was almost non-stop tears for me. Donna's Women in Tech speech, Haley listening to her father's relaxation tape and the closing Peter Gabriel-driven end to Joe's story, returning to his first lines from the pilot, all intermingled happiness and sadness for the characters and made me a wreck. The best/worst part was, of course, Donna and Cameron's initial imagined trip through the journey of Phoenix and then "I have an idea." Could the episode have ended with "I have an idea" and not with Joe in the classroom and "Let me start by asking a question"? Yes, but I admire symmetry and I get why creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers wanted to go full-circle with the pilot. Donna and Cameron together is the proper ending to the series that Halt and Catch Fire became, but Joe in the classroom is the ending to the series it started out to be and I think both shows were honored.

There are so many superlatives I feel like I need to give, because Emmy voters will not. No matter how packed the lead actress in a drama category is, Davis and Bishe both deserve places in the Emmy field next year. Your rewatch of the pilot will remind you that even in subtle ways, Bishe's Donna was always a powerhouse and I loved that the finale had Donna fixing Bos' radio and trying to fix Haley's hard drive, callbacks to the Speak and Spell in the pilot. Speaking of Bos, you could easily give Toby Huss an Emmy nod for his layered evolution of Bosworth from season one adversary to everybody's ultimate father/uncle figure. And speaking of Haley, Susanna Skaggs' joining for this final season may go down as one of the great late-run casting additions ever. Teenage awkwardness and yearning have rarely be captured with so much ungainly authenticity and I can't wait to see what Skaggs does next.

I don't think Halt and Catch Fire had the "leap" that some claim occurred between the first and second seasons. I think it was an organic process of growth that led it from being a solid drama in the shadows of Mad Men and Breaking Bad to being a very good show to being a great show and, as it ends, one of the very best on TV. I'll miss it tremendously and this was exactly how the show should have concluded.

I'll also miss Survivor's Remorse tremendously, but unlike Halt and Catch Fire, some of that regret will stem from the story not getting to end on its own terms.

I guess it could have been worse, though. The second season of Survivor's Remorse closed with Mike Epps' Uncle Julius on the verge of death. I don't know what I would have done if that had been where the show had stopped. The third season ended with Cam (Jessie Usher) going to prison to see his father for the first time in decades, as M-Chuck (Erica Ash) and Reggie (RonReaco Lee) also were in the midst of father drama. Both finales were big, dangling show-pivoting cliffhangers that Survivor's Remorse handled well, because creator Mike O'Malley endeavored to keep the series growing and changing as it went along, leaving behind its original "Entourage with Basketball Players" trappings.

Sunday's two episodes left smaller cliffhangers. Allison (Meagan Tandy) not answering Cam's phone calls leaves their relationship in doubt. M-Chuck's insatiable curiosity to get to the bottom of her paternity and now the murder of her rapist father leaves the entire family with a pretty big crime that could come to the surface. Reggie and Jimmy (Chris Bauer) being in business together with Da Chen Bao (Robert Wu) against Cam's desires set up the potential for either comedy or financial ruin. They're all reflective of a show that was planning to move on into a fifth season.

Even though we think of cable as more creator-friendly, cable shows get cancelled all the time, often abruptly. One need look no further than Sweet/Vicious getting the axe after one season or Underground getting pulled after two to know that even though cable shows almost never get yanked midseason with episodes unaired, as often happens with struggling network shows, they surely get truncated even with many stories left untold. Heck, even Netflix has started canceling shows. But for all the cable shows canceled after a season or two, it's much less common to see a cable show, especially not a premium cable show — HBO, Starz, Showtime, etc — reach a fourth or fifth season without getting the opportunity to wrap up. That's where the end of Survivor's Remorse is so frustrating. Our perception of the cable business model is that once shows reach a certain point, even if they're low-rated, their value is in existing in perpetuity as satisfying and complete entities on streaming or on-demand platforms. Or their value is in proving to future creative partners that the network will make sure that the integrity of the story-as-a-whole is protected. While Starz gets credit for allowing Survivor's Remorse to last as long as it did, this wasn't the end of the story and future showrunners will wonder at their ability to reach the conclusion of their choosing when they meet with Starz.

The Survivor's Remorse finale worked as a good episode of TV and it worked as a showcase for that versatility that I've praised so highly. M-Chuck and Cassie's (Tichina Arnold) fight about M-Chuck leaving the past behind displayed the raw family emotions that Uncle Julius' death allowed the show to explore in more and more depth in its last two seasons. The scenes with Missy (Teyonah Parris) urging Reggie to think for himself and not to be beholden to Cam's whims were confirmation of one of TV's finest and most believable marriages and partnerships. Jimmy's rant about American capitalism was one of those spectacular monologues that O'Malley and his writers have loved putting in the cast's mouths.

The finale also pointed to the complicated growth of Cam as a character, the journey from playful, immature young star to increasing socially conscious steward of the world. Without ever addressing Colin Kaepernick by name, this season of Survivor's Remorse was right in line with the athletic and cultural zeitgeist in showing what happens when wealthy players realize it's incumbent on them to use their platform for a greater good. In the finale, Cam won a small victory by getting Jimmy not to accept sponsorship from a company with deep ties to the prison industrial complex and maybe for purposes of a series finale, that's how the show should leave things. The reality is that we know that with this consciousness comes potential for blowback and I'm betting that's what a fifth season would have been. Still, I can take this as a destination for Cam, if we're not going to get more.

Like Halt and Catch Fire, Survivor's Remorse isn't going to get Emmy attention and so I have to give superlatives here, starting with praise for the wordy, tongue-twisting dialogue O'Malley and his writers gave this cast. One need only watch RonReaco Lee rip off a page of negotiating double-talk or hear Erica Ash spew a paragraph of gleeful profanity or witness Teyonah Parris or Tichina Arnold let loose a rant of righteous indignation to know that the faith of the writers in this ensemble was always justified. Survivor's Remorse could be hilarious and ideologically clear-minded, tackling social issues with a pundit's enthusiasm. It also had the ability to wade into a topic without necessarily knowing what the "right" or "wrong" side was, allowing its characters to do and say things that were messy. With the first two episodes of the third season, mourning Uncle Julius, and the first three episodes of the fourth, delving into all of those murky waters of paternity, Survivor's Remorse proved it could embrace gravity and earn sadness.

It also earned the ending of its choice — the opportunity to end like Halt and Catch Fire ended.