Halt and Catch Fire Recap: The Future

Kerry Bishé as Donna. Photo: AMC
Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire

NIM Season 3 Episode 9
Editor's Rating 4 stars

I love a good time-jump, particularly at the end of a season. I loved it in Battlestar Galactica, and I loved it in Parks and Rec. But this is something else entirely: The sheer nerve of Halt and Catch Fire’s flying leap into the future is more than just admirable. It’s astounding, especially after leaving the mid-’80s in such a fraught, overwhelming place.

Looking back at where episode eight left off, a time-jump looks almost inevitable. Everyone has been forced into their own separate directions, we’ve seen the initial consequences of the Mutiny split, and short of Cameron refusing to get on the plane to Japan, I’m not sure where else the story could’ve gone. But even though it makes tons of sense in hindsight, I don’t think I would’ve ever guessed they’d shift the timeline forward this aggressively. The back half of this season of Halt and Catch Fire has been full of exactly this kind of effective storytelling — when it happens, it feels surprising and gutsy. In retrospect, it feels so right that it was almost inevitable.

The leap forward in time allows the show to have its cake and eat it, too. The narrative can take advantage of all the pain and estrangement that comes from several years’ absence, without having to actually sit with these characters as they stare mournfully into rain-drenched windows. We get to skip straight to the good parts, the reunions, the confrontations. And now that these characters are so thoroughly developed, we can feel invested in who they’ve become. The trajectory from where they were to where they are makes sense; it rings true even though it’s also full of unexpected changes.

The mechanics of the time-jump itself are also so awesomely HACF. We begin with Donna watching as the Amador, Gould, Gilson sign is taken off the wall and replaced with one reading Amador, Gould, Gilson and Emerson. Bos comes in, congratulating Donna on her rise to senior partner. Only when Donna turns on her computer and we watch it boot up that we learn exactly how far we’ve come — she’s on a Microsoft machine, and she’s running Windows 3.0. It’s 1990.

The episode opens with Donna, and we get a few establishing scenes near the beginning: She calls Joe to beg him to track down Cameron at COMDEX, and she stumbles across Gordon at a bar, which is how we learn that they’ve divorced. I was truly surprised by how upset this made me. The writing has been on the wall for such a long time, but I was still gutted to see that things did finally fall apart between them. This is another mercy of the time-jump — at least we didn’t have to watch the wheels come off their marriage in every excruciating detail. I don’t know if I could’ve handled it.

This may also be a good moment to mention that dang, the ‘90s are a good look on these people. As has always been the case for HACF, the costuming and styling does so much terrific character work: Donna owns her serious businesswoman looks, with shoulder pads and huge glasses and a razor-sharp bob; Cameron’s white slip dress over a black turtleneck is classic early ‘90s layering; Joe’s Jobsian glasses and trench look seems less costumey on him now, and more like something he actually chooses to wear. And Gordon, clean-shaven and without his glasses … well, he looks pretty good, you guys. The changes are not massive. It’s only four years. But they’re big enough, and thoughtful enough, to do some narrative heavy lifting about where these characters are in their lives without moving too far into caricature.

Although the episode opens with Donna, most of the hour is devoted to two plots: Cameron and Joe’s meet-up at COMDEX, and Gordon’s disastrous dinner with Joanie and his date, Michelle. Let’s talk about Gordon first, because it’s the more unexpected of the two stories, and also because damn if it wasn’t surprisingly good.

He’s now divorced, he’s taken up “fine cuisine,” and he’s dating someone who works for him. He’s also doing some video dating, because Gordo is nothing if not cutting edge. The video profile he makes for himself, which a hilariously sullen Joanie locates and watches in the living room, is exactly what you’d imagine. He is awkward and sincere and at least a little humiliated. He describes emphatically how much he likes camping, which is a nice callback to the moment his marriage with Donna seems to have begun crumbling.

The dating video comes back to haunt him. After Gordon refuses to let Joanie go to Jennifer’s party, she’s stuck hanging around the house for dinner, and does her best to turn his date with Michelle into a living nightmare. (First step: explaining her “Boy Knife” shirt.)  The whole sequence is painful to watch, and it’s a testament to how well it’s constructed. Michelle oscillates between amused and sympathetic before finally landing in aggravated territory once Joanie marches into the living room and pops in the VHS of Gordon’s video dating prospects. Gordon is exasperated, but surprisingly willing to counter his daughter’s outstanding teen awfulness. Joanie hates everything about the dinner, but she also clearly enjoys feeling out exactly how much power she has to smash her father to bits.

Everything about it is so plausible. So when she and Gordon are eating breakfast the next morning and she realizes how much trouble he’s having getting up the stairs, her sudden solicitousness is equally believable. I was waiting for the moment when the revelation of his illness crept into the new timeline. This was about as heartbreaking a possibility as I could’ve imagined.

But the primary story in this hour, the one that will propel us into the final episode of the season, is Cam and Joe’s encounter at COMDEX, and Cam’s eventual reunion with Donna. Almost all of it is lovely. Perfect, even. Cameron and Joe’s survey of the COMDEX floor, their barely hidden delight in the S-Printer presentation, the NIM lighter game, Cam’s Space Bike success, and Joe’s clear inability to move past Ryan’s death — it’s all squarely within that golden TV place where stand-alone moments feel satisfying but also make you long for even more.

Which is my one complaint about this hour. I wish Cameron and Joe hadn’t slept together. It’s felt like a possibility all season, and I just wish that Halt and Catch Fire had left us maybe wanting this one thing for them, rather than actually giving it to us. I like Joe and Cam best as platonic, but with some brief, uncomfortable friction.

It doesn’t really matter, though. The most important reunion of the hour is the one that happens right at the end, as Cameron squares her shoulders and knocks on Donna’s door. Donna’s arrival at the Atari party the previous night is such a strong scene — she looks completely out of place with all of the gamers dancing to the Pixies, and it signals exactly how far she and Cameron have grown apart. They’ve always lived in different worlds, but now all of the tenuous bridges they’d so carefully built over the years have entirely washed away. You barely expect them to even speak the same language.

Then Cameron knocks on her door, and says that working with her was the most fun she’d ever had in her life. And the project Donna brought Cam, the project Joe finally goes home and reads from his fax machine, says “World Wide Web” across the top. It’s only 1990, but it feels like Halt and Catch Fire finally caught up with us. The future is now.

Random-Access Memories:

  • I so appreciate that we’ve finally hit what seems to be a Joe MacMillan rock bottom. Donna and Cameron moved on with their lives, but Joe looks like he sat down on his sofa with that carton of Chinese food four years ago and never stood up again. (Except to pace around the apartment while doing some day trading, apparently.) When Cameron explained what he actually does well, I was ready to hear it. I’m ready to believe in him again.
  • “Did you know that almost all beef at the grocery store tests positive for E. coli?” “Did you know that there’s a detectable level of cow piss in most milk?”
  • Your response to any fiction about the recent past will depend on your age in relation to the time period. I suspect my early-computer-adopting father has a different reaction to much of Halt and Catch Fire’s nostalgia moments than I do. But in this episode, as Joanie sat on the sofa eating cereal and watching Saved By the Bell … that was the moment the nostalgia came for me.

Halt and Catch Fire Recap: The Future