Halt and Catch Fire
Last week’s tremendous episode felt like a high-water mark for Halt and Catch Fire. When the series ends, “The Threshold” may wind up being the episode that everyone will name-check in order to say, “This is how good the show was.” But thankfully, it ain’t over yet.
This week’s “You Are Not Safe” doesn’t quite reach those same dramatic heights. No single moment compares to Donna and Cam’s boardroom breakdown. After all, “The Threshold” was the earthquake foretold in the season premiere. It was the moment when everything fell apart. “You Are Not Safe” is necessarily about the aftershocks. We saw the cause, and this episode is a series of consequences, each of them less than what we want to see because the big, brave partnership behind Mutiny has dissolved. Of course it’s not quite as edge-of-the-seat remarkable. It never could be.
And yet, “You Are Not Safe” is better and more wrenching than it has any right to be. This is partially because of its accelerated timeline: The four-month time jump gives us a huge bite of the aftermath, rather than dragging it out at an excruciating pace. It also confirms the monumental consequences of the split in “The Threshold.” There are no take-backs, no fixes. Life zips along from that turning point, irreversible and with depressing speed. The other notable thing about the episode is that it’s wistfully sad, and not just for its gut-punch ending. In each story line — as Donna pursues Mutiny’s IPO, as Cameron figures out what her life will look like, as Joe and Gordon try to revive the NSFNET project — there are little touches of humor, melancholy, and wistfulness. Until the very end, I’m not sure that anyone really regrets what happened. But they’re certainly sad.
Those sad, frustrated moments are everywhere. You can see it as Donna struggles to prepare for IPO presentations to big firms, stumbling over how to explain Mutiny’s growth plateau and Cameron’s departure. It’s there when Bos charges out of the meeting, frustrated that he’s been forced into this position. It’s there as Gordon and Joe realize they have to put the NSFNET project on hold, and as Gordon tells Joe that he’s sick. It’s written all over that beautiful Halloween scene between Joe and Cameron, where as much is left unsaid as it is spoken aloud. (That scene also features one of my favorite lines in the episode, as Cameron opens the door and finds Joe on the porch: “Oh look, it’s a very tall child dressed as Joe MacMillan.”)
It’s also to HACF’s credit that no clear winners exist in the aftermath of this collapse. There are some terrible outcomes, and there are some very small moments that almost look like victories. Despite the excitement and optimism for Mutiny’s IPO success, it is a huge flop, and Donna’s left hyperventilating in her fancy hotel room. Without a doubt, the IPO was a terrible decision, as history told us it had to be. It is a loss. But even the moments that look like successes are full of their own nuanced melancholy. Cameron does not gloat about the Mutiny failure; instead, she seems truly conflicted over whether she wants it to go well or go badly, and it’s clear that neither option would feel good to her. The episode’s sole unadulterated moment of triumph — Cameron describing The Space Bike Chronicles to Tom — is still full of contemplative longing. She’s built a game about a space adventurer on a quest for wisdom and happiness. There’s no way to win. You achieve enlightenment, and then you just keep playing.
Donna’s only ostensible triumph is even less happy. Gordon wakes up the kids in California so they can watch their mother tout her company on TV. Donna is killing her ‘80s Working Girl look. This should be Mutiny’s big coming-out moment. Then the interviewer shuts down her explanation about modems, and puts the most depressing spin imaginable on Mutiny’s vanishingly rare female leadership — can we use this to buy shoes? “Finally! Something about computers to get excited about.”
I am angry at Donna for pushing forward with the IPO, for her (completely understandable) inability to foresee the future of tech, for pushing Cameron out — and I still appreciated this inane, rage-inducing interview. It reminded me that the real thing to feel is fury at the larger tech industry, and gratefulness that Halt and Catch Fire pivoted so that it could tell the Mutiny story at all.
The saddest story of all, the most tragic consequence to follow from the events of the last few episodes, is the story of Ryan Ray. Joe arrives at Cameron’s house to beg her to help track down Ryan. The FBI is on his track immediately, using a packet sniffer to trace his illegal release of MacMillan Utility’s antivirus software, and Ryan has been on the run ever since. When Cameron finally tracks him to a university student lounge, she pleads with him to go back to Joe and consider his options. When he does, Joe is incredibly compassionate — but the options are not good. If Ryan runs, Joe will give him $50,000. If he comes clean, he’ll do a year or two in prison, then be barred from touching a computer for five years. Ryan feels he cannot live with either option.
When it gets grandiose and overly metaphorical, Halt and Catch Fire can come off as self-serious and over-telegraphed. (See: Gordon’s ham radio.) But in the scenes that follow — when Joe realizes that Ryan committed suicide by jumping from his balcony, and when we hear the final note Ryan posted on the Mutiny board — the episode does a marvelous job of tying that heavy-handedness up with emotional outcomes. All of the themes that felt obvious at the beginning of the season — safety, connectedness, freedom, reinvention — now carry a newfound heft and complexity.
The one flaw? Although Ryan’s suicide is undeniably tragic, and Joe’s emotional response feels right, Ryan was never really a person. Even in death, his words are entirely about abstractions and vague futurisms. The most human thing about him is that both Joe and Cameron keep insisting on his personhood. And yes, the cynical reading of Ryan’s suicide is that HACF sacrificed him so that Joe MacMillan could become A Real Human.
Thankfully, that feels like a too-simplistic reduction of Ryan’s death. His final thoughts may have been impersonal and vague, but they were still his. Not simple parroting of Joe’s philosophies, or a brief defense of Joe’s actions. They were his own, and they connected his actions to a bigger narrative about fear and the “destructive new connection” he saw on the horizon.
Changes are coming, that’s for sure. Mutiny will have to shift in response to the underwhelming IPO, Cameron and Tom are moving to Tokyo, Gordon’s left with the dubious remnants of the NSFNET project, and Joe claims that he’s had it. Is it true? Is he really done? We’ve heard that before, Joe MacMillan. We’ll see.
- The character rehabilitation of Gordon Clark continues to impress and amaze, as he preps for Halloween during Donna’s absence by getting Hailey’s Ewok costume together and braiding Joanie’s hair so that she can go as Joan Montana.
- “You Are Not Safe” packs in a lot of story, and it is on that basis alone that I forgive the show for not including even a single shot of Gordon’s “very flexible” babysitter — Joe MacMillan.
- As part of this episode’s lovely wrap-up of all of the Joe/Ryan relationship dynamics, we open with a zoom-out shot of Joe, facing the camera as the F.B.I. knocks on his door. And we end with a last shot of Joe facing away, standing on the same beach where Ryan managed to track him down, given a visual kicker by a dolly zoom shot as he looks out over the Golden Gate Bridge. Well played, Halt and Catch Fire.