AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire returns tonight for its fourth and final season. It’s become one of the best prestige television shows still left standing, and while there’s a lot of stuff it gets right and does well, few things show off the series’ charm like the episode it dedicated to Super Mario Bros.
With all of the season’s conflicts are left up in the air and spinning like plates, a small CRT lodged into tiki entertainment cabinet displays the second level of Nintendo’s iconic game. Gordon and Cameron frame the shot staring intently at the programmatic edifice while Gordon’s two kids, one sucking down a Capri Sun, stare on in bored disbelief. “When will it be our turn?” the crow in an instantly recognizable tone. Cameron is playing, and of course Cameron immediately dies because dying is the only way to explore the game and figure out it’s bizarre logic. About to skip one of the level’s secret rooms hidden beneath a pipe, Gordon reminds her she has to double back, only for Cameron to do so and forget about the Piranha Plant waiting to punish her thoughtlessness.
It’s a moment I’ve experienced a hundred times and from all of the different angles the show brings to it—the person playing and failing while others shake their heads, the one sitting next to them trying to back seat drive, and the hopeless bystanders simply waiting for it all to end. And the masterfully understated way that Halt and Catch Fire handles it is emblematic of what has made it one of the best and most beloved shows on television now heading into its fourth season. There are a million reasons why the show shouldn’t work, and it almost didn’t, but the way it strings together individual stories about people and technology has helped make it more than just a knock-off of Mad Men or a nostalgia trap for 80s and early 90s consumer culture.
Acting as something of an inflection point for the third season, episode six titled “And She Was” is sort of the beginning of the end for a certain era of the show’s characters. Despite all the changes up to that point, some of them dramatic, some of them short-lived, the struggle between Cameron and Donna for the heart, soul, and future of Mutiny takes the to a place it can never retreat from. Sometimes in life you do certain things to the people around you that you can’t undo, if for no other reason than you don’t end up having the time, energy, or desire to go about the work of undoing them.
In the midst of the swirling personal betrayals and futuristic imagineering that gives the show it’s dynamic backdrop then, it’s moments like the Super Mario Bros. episode that help ground the show and make it feel ultimately familiar. Halt and Catch Fire has an uncanny way of making the old feel new again. The show traverses the decades leading up to Y2K, and yet it feels incredible modern; prescient even. When Cameron turns to Gordon and says, as intently as she’s ever said anything in her life, “Let’s beat the game today,” Super Mario Bros. goes from feeling like a period-piece prop to idealized possibility for technology and art that we’re still striving toward.
“When else are we gonna do it?” she hectors him, and in that moment the game goes from being a Saturday morning distraction to a life project. The episode captures all the ups and downs of committing yourself to highly controlled but entirely quixotic quest like trying to rescue someone from pixelated lizard. There’s Cameron and Gordon’s defeated weariness after dying for the umpteenth time on a water level and their joint euphoria over discovering the warp zone that will let them skip it. And of course there’s Gordon’s monetary loss of consciousness that keeps the scene from falling into cliche while also providing a rational for using a projector to showcase the game for the rest of the episode.
But the best part comes at the end of their endeavor when Cameron finally beats the game, breathlessly hopping over Bowser on the final level, and both her and Gordon, so often antagonists, shout and celebrate in relief. Of course it’s not the end, as the typeface that appears on the next screen explains to them. “Push button B to select a new world.” There’s a pause and then Gordon offers to show Cameron his ham radio. The game’s spell has been broken and just like that the goal they had devoted the weekend to shifts into something at once disappointing and incomprehensible once accomplished.
From there the shows plot jumps into overdrive. Donna who’s been getting high (“As She Was”)at a friend’s country escape lays out in the grass and confesses to an imagined Cameron who makes amends with her in response. The real Cameron, however, did not go to make peace with Donna as the episode earlier implies, and instead goes to convince Joe to give Gordon what he’s owed: the truth, Joe’s new computer security company, and the sense that his life’s work wasn’t simply a series of meaningless “push B to select a new project” moments. And to completely blow the episodes quota for groundbreaking plot developments, he actually goes and does it. Because of course he would.
The show’s real denouement comes a scene earlier, however, when Cameron, after putting her own ham radio together, announces to Gordon over the ether that she’s getting married. For a show that’s all about people trying to connect other people through technology, it’s rare that they ever succeed, especially when it comes to themselves. The build up to this moment, in which viewers finally get to see one of their favorite characters be happy, and one of their other favorite characters genuinely be happy for her, wouldn’t have been possible without the drama surrounding “the next big thing” thinking that fuels the show, but it doesn’t succeed because of it. It succeeds because of the way it takes all of tech’s baggage and reduces it to emotional terms with real, human stakes. Sometimes you want to shares something incredibly private and wonderful with another person over a bundle of wires or radio waves, and sometimes you just need a reason to spend twenty four hours straight with a friend on a couch.