Halt and Catch Fire
Dear readers, it’s as I feared. Cameron secretly married Tom, which means we’ll never get to see what Cameron Howe’s choice of wedding outfit looked like. The world is a sad, dark place sometimes.
It also means that Cameron pulls even further away from Donna, confiding in Tom over Mutiny private chat while she and Donna ice each other out. As a result of that secret, and more significantly, of Donna’s discovered lie, “And She Was” tracks the dissolution of their working partnership. It’s remarkably sad, particularly as it comes at the same moment Cameron grows close to Gordon and Mutiny reaches new milestones of success.
I still have hope that this isn’t the end for Donna and Cameron — I have to, because they’re so great together, and because the story of a female partnership running an ‘80s internet start-up is too good to sacrifice to personal differences. “And She Was” is undeniably a breaking point, though. Even if they reconcile, their partnership will always look a little different after this.
Things fall apart at Mutiny in two ways. Cameron offhandedly tells Donna that she fired Doug and Craig, the two Swap Meet employees who formed the basis of Donna’s lie to Cameron. Donna is aghast, but before they can hash out the argument, Diane arrives to tell them that CompuServe has made a $20 million offer to buy out Mutiny. Although Diane doesn’t think the CompuServe deal is right, she does think it might be time to consider an IPO.
It’s not hard to anticipate Donna and Cameron’s dueling responses. Donna is beguiled by the potential, by the money they could use to grow the company, and, frankly, by her own desire for the success and wealth. (That second element is made abundantly clear by her awe of Diane’s Sonoma house — the sensory experience of good fabrics and opera and luxurious bathrooms.) Cameron, of course, immediately shies away from the idea of being beholden to a company board, and of losing control of Mutiny. Donna’s perspective is reasonable, and hard to argue against. But Cameron’s is, too, especially after the end of the episode demonstrates how much power a company’s board can have.
So everyone goes off to their own corners. Donna takes Diane up on the offer of her Sonoma house for the weekend, envisioning a dream world where Mutiny makes her independently wealthy and she can stand bathed in sunlight and draped in impeccable white knitwear whenever she wants. She’s interrupted by Diane’s daughter Kimberley and two of her (male) friends who’ve driven up from Berkeley to crash for the weekend. They offer to leave, Donna tells them to stay, one thing leads to another, and Donna suddenly finds herself high off her gourd, lying in the grass and having hallucinations.
Rather than join Donna for a Mutiny summit in Sonoma, Cameron chooses to stay home with Gordon and binge Super Mario Bros. for the day. This whole Mario sequence is my favorite of the episode, and one of my favorites in the season so far. While passing the controller back and forth between levels — because Cameron’s good at boss levels and Gordon’s good at the water levels — they really start to bond. At one point Gordon collapses, they replace the TV, and he tells Cameron about his neurological disease. They talk about Joe, and they talk about Mutiny’s success. After they beat the game, Gordon shows Cameron his ham radio, and she’s legitimately enthusiastic. It is wonderfully sweet.
It’s a remarkable feat for the show. It’s so easy for these “oh, yeah, the ‘80s!” references to be sly in-jokes or offhand color — they’re fun, but usually not deep or transformative. Gordon and Cam playing Super Mario Bros. is both, and it has the distinct sense of a real cultural experience that’s meaningful in their lives. Television, for as much as it loves to watch itself, is also not particularly warm in its depiction of video games. On TV, a gamer is usually a derelict teen being questioned by a cop on Law & Order, or a man-boy who deserves scorn and pity. And sure, Gordon can be pretty pitiful sometimes. But this is a moving, entertaining, memorable sequence, largely because of how thoroughly it’s rooted in the actual Super Mario Bros. gameplay. The music. The boss. The warp zone. It’s a nostalgic conceit, and it’s immensely compassionate toward these two characters, but it’s neither saccharine nor soft.
My one complaint: Where did Gordon’s kids go?! He sent them outside to go bike-riding hours ago! They show up the next morning when Donna comes home, but what did they do all day? Did they eat dinner? Did they sleep over somewhere?
So Gordon settles in for a good night with the ham radio, and Cameron heads out. Rather than arriving in Sonoma for the reconciliation of Donna’s dreams, she shows up at Joe’s door, where he tries to needle her about her wedding ring and the late-night visit. Cameron stays on message with the thing that’s most bothering her after a day spent with Gordon — Joe needs to give Gordon credit for the anti-virus software. It’s apparently the last thing she feels she needs to do. When Donna comes back the next morning, ready to make peace, Cameron’s room has been packed up and she’s disappeared. The princess, you could say, is in another castle.
Nevertheless, the bond she built with Gordon is still there. Cam reaches out (over ham radio!) and tells him that she married Tom. But the relationship she built with Donna has been severely damaged, and I can only hope they’ll figure out how to put it back together again. Allow me to suggest they do so through a marathon play of another classic ‘80s game: Legend of Zelda.
While things slowly slide apart at Mutiny, Joe and Ryan are on a fast track to whatever the heck it is they’re doing with the internet. Things seem to be going well: There’s a setting-up-the-infrastructure montage, they secure a deal with someone at NSFnet, and Ryan even gets a professional person makeover. The idea is perfect — it’s guaranteed!
And then Matthew Lillard walks into the room before one of Joe’s depositions and blows the deal to pieces. (I know the character’s name is Ken, but it’s so hard to look at Matthew Lillard and not just call him Matthew Lillard.) In the face of Joe’s reckless charge into unproven, unapproved territory, the board has voted to remove him, and rendered it essentially impossible for him to work for them or any other software company for four years. This twist, the classic Joe MacMillan rise and fall, is something I’ll want to unpack more as it develops in the coming episodes. But for now, suffice it to say that Joe takes the enmity and frustration of that ousting, and the memory of Cameron on his doorstep, and uses it all to look directly into the camera at his deposition. “I, Joe MacMillan, stole the code for the security software from Gordon Clark … everything this company is built on is his.”
- Also, Diane and Bos bang in a car after skipping out on an opera to have a drink in a gay bar. It was fine, I guess? But Bos is still noticeably conflicted about his role in the company, and his current role in his own life. Whatever happens, they’ll always have Doris the bartender.
- I’m slightly unclear on Diane’s family structure. Her daughter Kimberley is old enough to be in college at Berkeley with some ne’er-do-well boys, but she also has a daughter the same age as Donna’s Joanie.
- Donna’s hallucination was very easy to see coming. (Cameron’s clothes were different.) But the conversation and Kerry Bishé’s performance of Donna’s happy acceptance were so lovely that I desperately wished it were real.