Why Halt and Catch Fire’s HIV Narrative Is So Unusual

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Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC

Halt and Catch Fire’s recent move to the Bay Area has let the series grow, throwing new challenges in the way of its main characters, and recentering the series in the most logical geographical place for a story about an internet start-up company in the 1980s. It’s a show full of “oh yeah, the 80s!” references, everything from cuisine to laser tag to Duck Hunt. Outside of the specific tech-industry details, though, the show hasn’t had much time to really dig into its new setting. There was an earthquake in the first episode, and Donna and Gordon planned to relive their grad school days by camping at Mount Tam, but up until this point, Silicon Valley as a place has been rarely mentioned and almost never seen.

This is part of what makes last night’s episode a shift — for the first time since the season-three premiere, HACF is incorporating a mythos of the Valley as a place into its very thinky, very theme-driven show. More importantly, that mythos is not the one we usually hear about when we think of the '80s tech boom, or of Silicon Valley today. California and the Bay Area in the 1980s has crept into Halt and Catch Fire, and rather than taking the form of a wondrous, competitive, cutthroat tech fairyland where money is everywhere and the best idea wins, the Bay Area creeps into the show as an AIDS plot.

In the episode, called “Yerba Buena,” the show’s usual visionary character Joe MacMillan is hard at work on his next big tech innovation when he opens the door and finds a character we’ve never seen before standing outside the apartment. They need to talk, the new guy says. Now. When Joe’s protégé Ryan returns the next morning, he rounds the corner to see Joe and this guy embracing tenderly in the hallway before the unidentified man leaves. Joe’s sexuality has been portrayed as fluid, including both a hookup with a man and a brief (albeit happy) marriage to a woman. The embrace is filmed with no ambiguity, and Joe’s apartment is full of evidence that they’ve been together all night — take-out containers, mess, an unmade bed.

The signs are not hard to read. There is a very brief shot, from a distance through his bedroom door, of Joe sitting on his bed, undressed and weeping. Joe opines grimly to Ryan about how San Francisco is built on impermanence, and how he’s not sure he has another “next” in him. Finally, near the end of the episode, Joe picks up a call from someone at a clinic, who’s calling with the results of his HIV antibody test. As she reads the results, the music swells so that we can longer hear her, and Joe walks out onto his luxurious balcony to look out over the city. From his relieved grin, and from his subsequent renewed enthusiasm for his Arpanet project, we assume that he’s been told he doesn’t have HIV.

In the larger picture of the series, it’s a minor story. It takes up a very brief portion of an episode that’s otherwise devoted to several more involved, more well-developed plots. It’s not even the main Joe story, which belongs to his and Ryan’s decision on how to move forward on their new post-Arpanet project. And it’s possible that this will be the only time the story appears on the series — a brief, almost entirely oblique brush with the AIDS crisis that becomes just one more false obstacle in the Joe MacMillan: Tech Visionary narrative. If that happens, it would be disappointing.

Even just this, though, even just the spare, under-explored story that the AIDS crisis received in “Yerba Buena,” feels notable. There haven’t been that many TV or film narratives about what the tech boom was like in the '80s, and most of them have centered on nonfiction or very thin fictionalizations of real life — Jobs, Steve Jobs, the 1999 Pirates of Silicon Valley. For the contemporary moment, there’s Silicon Valley, or the short-lived Betas. But partly because there haven’t been many of these stories, and partly because of the way we have culturally separated these two histories, it’s extremely unusual to see a show that connects the Triumph of the Nerds Bay Area with the Bay Area of the Castro and the AIDS epidemic.

We’re well versed in two stories about the San Francisco–San Jose area in the '80s — Silicon Valley and the AIDS crisis — but somehow the two never seem to overlap, even though they were happening at the same time, in the same place. In 1986, the year season three takes place, about 4,000 people were diagnosed with AIDS in California. Many of them would have been within several miles of the vaunted garages where tech companies were being born. They’re both stories of little-known, under-the-radar communities that quickly grew to international awareness. And yet, those stories are completely separate in our minds. In an Indiewire interview that asks two tech-industry vets to judge the season-three pilot on its accuracy, the question of whether a narrative about San Francisco in the mid 1980s touches on HIV/AIDS never comes up. Why would it? In our histories, they are two separate worlds.

So it’s heartening, and really intriguing, to see Halt and Catch Fire even brush past the AIDS epidemic in its story about Silicon Valley. It adds a different color to a tech culture that, until recently, has not been not been notable for its alignment with LGBT acceptance, particularly in its executive ranks. And for however glancing that plotline is, its obliqueness also feels suggestive. It’s easy to imagine conversations about HIV/AIDS in the '80s as being exactly this circumspect and unseen, especially if they were taking place outside of safe spaces for gay people. It feels true to the era, and to the understandable horror of HIV/AIDS, that Joe might have this experience in the background, quietly.

Instead of foregrounding it, Halt and Catch Fire makes Joe’s frightening encounter with HIV the backdrop for his bigger understanding of San Francisco. “This city,” Joe says. “I can’t decide if it’s beautiful, or horrifying … nothing lasts in this place.” Ryan interprets this as a benefit, a feature of the city that lets people fail and start again. He’s not wrong, but neither is Joe, who shakes his head sadly. For Joe, in this moment, it means people in San Francisco are “disposable.” If this plot now disappears from the story, it may be that the hopeful, exciting San Francisco is the one that wins out in this series. But whatever the future holds, it’s remarkable that Halt and Catch Fire has worked to blend these two visions of Silicon Valley, and to tell these two histories together.