Halt and Catch Fire Recap: Glasnost

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Kerry Bishe as Donna, Joe Dinicol as Craig, Joe Massingill as Doug. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC
Halt and Catch Fire
Episode Title
Yerba Buena
Season
3
Episode
5
Editor’s Rating
4/5

To absolutely no one's surprise, Donna's betrayal of Cameron has already come back to haunt her. Cameron's weeklong disappearance in Texas leads to a confrontation between her and Donna over Mutiny's growth into monetary transactions, and that argument ends with a touching resolution, reaffirming that they have each others' backs. So of course, Cameron calls Diane, realizes that Donna lied to her, and seems to collapse. It is emotionally effective, but also an utterly inevitable bit of plotting. It's a good thing "Yerba Buena" balances out that predictability with some other surprises in its pocket.

One of the familiar truisms about Halt and Catch Fire is that it's intended to be a stylistic and spiritual successor to Mad Men, occasionally to its detriment and sometimes to its benefit. Setting aside the historical moment, the obsession with visionaries, and the workplace fetishization, part of that Mad Men DNA is in how HACF often builds its episodes around a unified theme. There's usually some big idea that bleeds through several plots, often in the form of a grand statement about humanity or design voiced explicitly by Joe, and then expressed through everyone else with more nuance. The thematic underpinnings of "Yerba Buena" are all about transparency and secrets — in Joe's new project, in romantic relationships, in histories, in partnerships, in tech.

The danger of thematic episodes is that they border on corny, diving into the overtness of Gordon's ham radio or a California earthquake. HACF has a frustrating fondness for showing its work, and that's the weakest part of this episode. But for however much you feel like rolling your eyes when Joe goes on about "glasnost" (or "openness," as he so helpfully translates), it works well pretty much everywhere else.

It's built into that Donna-Cameron breakdown, and the lack of transparency between them is the episode's fundamental cause of struggle. Cameron doesn't want to implement bulky, inept credit-card-transaction code to bolster the new Swapmeet growth, so rather than show up Monday to talk about it as she says she will, she disappears in Texas for a week. She travels there with Bos, ostensibly so that she can pick up her father's motorcycle and he can visit his grandson. Instead, she snaps at Bos, reconnects with Tom, and runs away. And meanwhile, Donna's left to deal with the nascent revolution at Mutiny, as more and more of their user base demands support for monetary transactions.

Cameron disappears without a word. Donna's abandoned. They're both operating with the best intentions — the same intentions, as it turns out — but they don't fully trust one another, and things fall apart. Cameron shows up at the end of the week with a better solution (direct deposit rather than credit cards), and everything looks okay again. But it means that when Cameron does find out about Donna's lie, it's not a first strike. It's a confirmation of something she already worried about.

The "openness" idea is also what fuels Donna and Gordon's Fourth of July staycation. The kids are away for the weekend, so Donna and Gordon abandon their plans to go camping and instead stay home to order pizza, get high, have sex, and wear sweatpants. Which sounds, you know, pretty amazing. That's exactly what Donna tells Gordon at the end of the night, and it's an initially offhand comment that escalates into Donna explaining that she never liked camping. Speaking as a person married to a camping enthusiast who has often found the activity more fun in theory than in practice, this would seem like a seriously minor revelation. It's a bit baffling that it rattles Gordon as much as it does, but it's still another failure of openness. Gordon's shaken by the idea that although he's known Donna for years, what he thought was a shared experience, a shared truth of his relationship, is actually false. If Donna didn't like camping all this time, how can Gordon know any of it was real? (Or something like that, I guess. It's just camping, Gordon.)

It's time to talk about Joe, who has two major stories in this episode. The first is that he and Ryan continue to struggle with what the Next Thing will be, a process that involves lots of takeout, little sleep, and a map of the Arpanet that resembles any decent Crazy Investigator's Manic Pushpin Board (but without the grainy photos). They continue to run into a problem with monetizing the 'net, a problem which HACF has an uncharacteristically difficult time articulating for laypeople. There's a lot of fast dialogue about regional networks and bottlenecks. When Joe pulls out most of the pushpins, has his "eureka!" moment, and starts going on about glasnost, you mostly have to take his word for it.

The other story is actually surprisingly understated for a Joe plot. As it turns out, that magnificent send-off Joe gave to the homophobic executive is grounded in personal experience, which we realize when Ryan happens to glimpse Joe embracing a young man in the hallway. Joe's also weeping in his bedroom, and later gets a call from a clinic with his test results. The music kicks in as the clinician on the phone delivers the news, obscuring her words. But I assume from Joe's gradual, relieved grin that we're meant to understand that he does not have HIV. This is fairly predictable, given how heavy it would be for both male leads to be suffering from a terminal illness.

Still, I am conflicted about this turn of events. On the one hand, I appreciate that this story is here at all — it wouldn't be surprising for a story about Silicon Valley in the '80s to ignore the AIDS crisis, but neither would it be true to the history of San Francisco. The vaunted history of our technological future is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the reality that people, especially gay men, were dying a mere ten miles up Route 280. There's a potency to Joe's brush with the epidemic. At the same time, it's just that — a brush. It lets Joe give a sweeping, cynical monologue about how San Francisco is built on disposability and impermanence, but surely Joe does that every day before breakfast anyhow. For this plot to have any lasting impact beyond being an extended "oh, yeah, the '80s!" reference, my hope would be that Joe continues to be affected. A brief stroll through the Castro and a slow nod of recognition with a guy he passes isn't enough.

If Joe's sideswipe with mortality is one of the surprises in "Yerba Buena," the other comes at the very end, after Cameron bolts into her bedroom upon realizing that Donna lied to her. Desperate to avoid a confrontation, she rolls onto her bed, hugging herself tightly … and then pulls a gold ring out of her pocket, which she places on her left-hand ring finger, and smiles. Did she get engaged? Did Cameron marry Tom!? I'm simultaneously thrilled and saddened by that possibility. That plot twist would be fascinating, but if they eloped, the missed chance to see Cameron's wedding outfit cuts me deeply.

Random-Access Memories:

  • The week's openness theme is also present in Bos's visit to Texas, where he learns that his son has a different memory of his childhood than the one he wrote for himself. Airline pins are no substitute for absentee fathers.
  • That trip also gave us the delightful awkwardness of Cameron holding Bos's grandson and, when forced, declaring that the baby was "really … cool …"
  • I loved Donna and Gordon's weekend at home, even though it was so overwhelmingly happy that it was hard to watch without anticipating its incipient demise. But if it has to fall apart, at least we got Gordon washing the dishes and then avoiding Donna so that he could "get some good ham time in." That line made me laugh for a long, long time.
  • The California setting has been working well — it certainly lets Joe deliver a lot of shower thoughts about how none of the valley is built to last — but it was nice to see Texas again. And it was very moving to watch Cameron walk back up to the old Mutiny house and find the "Mutiny Was Here" brick. The shot of her sitting on the roof with a flask, as the Fourth of July fireworks explode behind her, is one of those moments when I don't mind this show leaning into big, meaning-laden gestures.