Halt and Catch Fire Recap: Back to BASICs

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Mackenzie Davis as Cameron. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC
Halt and Catch Fire
Episode Title
Flipping the Switch
Season
3
Episode
3
Editor’s Rating
4/5

In "Flipping the Switch," Halt and Catch Fire continues to split its action between two threads. On the one side, Donna and Cameron are trying to buy Swapmeet while also fixing the holes in Mutiny Community's code. Gordon's still figuring out his place within their company, Gordon and Donna are feeling the strain of the move, and Bos and Diane are slicing and dicing their way through the initial Swapmeet offer.

On the other side, Ryan has entered the "…very Asian?" world of Joe MacMillan, who smugly plays up the role of eccentric tech visionary. He wanders through his office with headphones on. He speaks in riddles. He looks at everyone with the quizzical head tilt of someone pretending to be curious. (That head tilt is so irritating. It is the expression of a parent who expects a better answer from you, or of a Golden Retriever who wants you to throw a ball.)

Thankfully, the Donna/Cameron/Gordon side of things hums along tightly enough. In spite of some incredibly unsubtle stuff relating to Gordon and his ham radio, the Mutiny story lines are running on all cylinders. The breakdown between Donna and Gordon at the first Swapmeet integration meeting is both cringeworthy and plausible, escalating their tension in a completely natural way. Donna's anxiety about Gordon's health and her frustration with his lack of respect are palpable. Gordon's understandably adrift. Cameron and Bos are mortified. This scene (and its remarkably satisfying bookend at the end of the episode) shows such a depth of compassion for these characters and what motivates them.

Gordon and Donna's marital strife does so much good work, too. It succeeds by simultaneously reaching back into the trauma of the past few years and projecting forward through Donna's ambition and Gordon's uncertain future. It also bounces through the whole Mutiny group in a way that reinforces the relationships between everyone. Donna and Cameron don't need much shoring up, but Donna's little check-in with Bos after her boozy lunch is sad and perfect, and Gordon's heart-to-hearts with Cameron are similarly welcome. These character moments are what enable the episode's closing scene, when Gordon once again cannot keep his mouth shut, to feel hopeful rather than disastrous.

In addition to all that strong character development, the season's early clumsiness has settled into something much more sure-footed, particularly where the Swapmeet plot is concerned. I would happily watch an entire episode where Bosworth and Diane storm into various offices, assessing their relative value based on the number of cars in the parking lot.

That ham radio, though. There are very few ways a story line like "Gordon finds solace through strangers on his ham radio" can be anything but over-telegraphed. Maybe Gordon's new friend is imaginary. Maybe this is how Donna will realize his mental state has disintegrated. Of course, that would also be a pretty frustrating and overused trope, but at least it would accomplish two super-obvious things rather than one.

And then there's the Joe/Ryan side of the episode. Ryan, for all his brilliance as a coder, is still a blank slate. "Flipping the Switch" attempts to fill in a few more details about him, but even those are stunning in their blandness: Joe asks, point blank, who Ryan is, where he comes from, and what he likes. Ryan's answers (Burlingame, I live in a house with some college buddies, and "Video games? Movies?") utterly lack any specificity or sense of personality. Two things define his whole character right now: He's a genius coder, as evinced by how much Cameron thinks of him, and "coding," an amorphous and ill-defined passion, is the only thing he really likes. The other thing that shapes Ryan is Joe's desire to use him as some kind of mirror, reflecting back a younger, less jaded version of himself.

That said, Ryan becomes a little more distinct in one particular scene. After capitulating to Matthew Lillard's nakedly greedy odiousness in the board meeting, Ryan goes charging back into the "very Asian" conference room to confront Joe. He's raring to speechify: Anti-virus software should be free! Freedom from fear is a right! But even in this moment, he's still just parroting Joe's ideas back to him, and the exchange is laden with self-seriousness. "You're ruining the product!" "I am the product!" "…I know." I am pretty sure that's an Aaron Sorkin rip-off.

There's a very big question hiding in the heart of it all: Does Halt and Catch Fire sees Joe the way Ryan sees him — as a genius, a visionary, a flawed eccentric who burns people and invents the future — or does it sees him the way Cameron does? From Cameron's perspective, Joe is playacting as an inhuman "humble Zen master." It's just an elaborate performance put on for his company and for himself. If HACF ever dismantles the sincere belief in Joe's vision, as it came so close to doing at the end of last season, then maybe this Joe-as-Jobs thing could be more interesting. If not … well, I've still got some books you might enjoy.

The most interesting Joe moment in this episode comes at the end, away from Ryan's wide, questioning eyes. He's taking an intro to BASIC programming class, which inevitably ends with him running into Cameron, who's on campus as a guest lecturer. Most of their conversation goes exactly as you'd imagine: Cameron's ready to receive Joe's wrath, and Joe's in full Zen master mode, thanking her for burning him to the ground so that he could rise from the ashes. The intriguing bit, the one that makes me hope that HACF won't endorse Ryan's perspective on things, the moment when Joe explains that he's actually there as a student. He's not "unteachable."

It's hard to say whether HACF will make good on the promise of Joe's back-to-BASICs turn. I've got to say, though, the conclusion where he kidnaps Ryan to invent a new revenue stream does not bode well. It certainly seems like the resulting product will once again reify Joe as the show's true visionary. But nevertheless, it's encouraging to see him painstakingly plunk away at his keyboard, looking at what I can only assume is a broken piece of code.

Random-Access Memories:

  • Sing to me, O Muse, a song of Diane, who drinks at lunch just because she feels like it, who knows her way around a male-dominated industry, who gamely follows Bosworth's lead in the offer meeting but still raises her eyebrow at his tactics. Please, please, please, let there be some future scenes between Diane and Joe.
  • The '80s, a time when no one knew about risotto. Risotto — like rice, but not.
  • It does not take much to make a man's ham-radio confessions into an overtaxed metaphor. But just in case you got the wrong idea, Gordon's opening monologue about the origins of "CQ" radio lingo hammers the point even further: "It comes from the French word for safety, or security."    
  • There's a lot of remarkable Joe nonsense in "Flipping the Switch," but the peak has gotta be his utter disdain for the crazy party in his apartment. People with pinstriped suits painted onto their bodies? Punks and coke and gender queerness and Matthew Lillard? Take your own advice, Joe. It's a party. Try to have fun.