Much of my recap for last week’s “Signal to Noise” was a discussion of how Halt and Catch Fire uses boxes as a visual and thematic metaphor. The characters were metaphorically boxed in, the frames were defined by boundaries and enclosures, and boxes and doors became abstract representations of the show’s technological interests. Imagine my delight when episode three took that metaphor, then ran it over with a semitruck.
As Halt and Catch Fire has aged into its fourth season, the show that was once about young upstarts doing their best to define the technology of the future has become about something else. The main characters are older now, and they’ve been through the cycle of excitement, struggle, success, and disappointment. They now know that being the next big thing is great, but there will always be a next next big thing after that. The challenge is no longer just a question of finding the right wave to ride into the future. It’s also about how to move on from the past, and how to find the energy to start over again.
Season three began to play with this idea in the stories about Joe and Ryan. For the first time in his life, Joe found that he was the older, wiser, less impulsive one in a professional relationship. He stood out on his balcony looking over San Francisco and mourned the way the city erases everything that came before. He’s now on the upswing again, buoyed by his happiness that he’s finally in a relationship with Cameron and excited by the prospect of Haley’s Comet website. But aside from his brief melancholy about Silicon Valley, Joe’s special talent has always been the ability to leap on a new idea and discard the old one. Once he came to accept that the browser was really dead, he found Comet and never looked back.
It’s harder for everyone else, and it gets even harder as time passes. Donna and Cameron take a panel that’s supposed to be about the Future of Internet Gaming and turn it into a referendum on their past, sniping about the role of creatives versus business management in tech innovation. Gordon wonders how much energy he has for the next thing, and at what point he can just stop and go camping in upstate New York. (Gordon’s eternal love of camping will always be one of my very favorite tiny things about this show.) In episode two, Bos admits that he needs to find work because he’s tight on money, but also because he can’t accept that he’s worked on his last project. He needs to know he can still make things.
It may be hardest of all for Cameron, who’s always been the most emotionally attached to her projects. She’s so invested in her new game, and so utterly convinced that the right players will recognize its genius, that she leaks a copy to Electronic Gaming for prereview. They eviscerate it, and like any reasonable person, it takes her a while to recover. “Put it behind you,” Joe tells her. “Start fresh, move on.” “It’s not that easy for me,” Cam tells him.
Meanwhile, as all of our main players are wondering how to negotiate between the past and future, the next generation is arriving. Enter Haley Clark: tech entrepreneur, high-school student, and former SmutHut novice. The scene where she sits down in front of Joe and Gordon for what’s essentially a venture-capital meeting is great, and it’s funny in the way Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t often get credit for being. Gordon’s spluttering astonishment at Joe’s purchase offer, Haley’s utter seriousness and her desire to use this for school credit, plus the idea that she would’ve sold the site for a gift certificate to Blockbuster? Perfect.
Haley’s Comet project is an ideal fictional premise for the kind of story Halt and Catch Fire likes to tell about tech. It’s small enough that it doesn’t interrupt the real-world tech landscape they’re trying to replicate, but smart enough that they can play with the big ideas about what the internet is trying to become. It’s also a lovely return to the kind of story the series tried to tell in the first season, a family story about computers. Except now, Donna isn’t a frustrated and underappreciated housewife — she’s an executive fighting for her place at the table. Now, Gordon isn’t angry that no one appreciates his genius. Now, the idea has been filtered through the show’s years of development and experience. The family story about computers has become a story about a very young woman with a great idea, and her parents trying to manage both her legacy and their own.
I never, ever thought I’d say this at the beginning of Halt and Catch Fire, but I love who Gordon has become. In the middle of the night, he wakes up Haley and tells her that she’s right. It’s her idea and if she wants to work on it, he’s going to help her. And then he stands up for her idea with Donna — who also happens to be looking at younger employees and reflecting back on her early parenthood days. After years of “wait, where did Gordon and Donna’s kids go?” the show has finally figured out how to turn their family structure into something interesting and complicated. It’s great.
And now we come back around to the box metaphor. In the season’s second episode, the boxes articulated the idea of isolation. Joe and Cameron were literally trapped in their own spaces, unable to connect. Now the boxes have become baggage. They’re Cameron’s unpacked moving boxes at Joe’s place, and the box Tom sent her that she keeps forgetting to bring home.
After Cameron’s Pilgrim game implodes amid this amorphous, ill-defined relationship with Joe, she has a hard time moving forward. He’s all excited about Comet, but her head is still in this failed game and her failed marriage. She’s trying to get rid of it: Gordon has to remind her multiple times to take the box home, and even then, she leaves it on the back of her car. So it flies off, a semitruck comes barreling down the road, and splat goes the box. We can’t even see the contents. There are papers flying around, but Cameron makes no effort to collect things.
At the end of the episode, Joe finds her hauling the rest of her boxes from Japan into the dumpster behind his house. “I’m unpacking,” she tells him. It’s hardly the most subtle metaphor: She had baggage and now she’s unloading it. She’s realized how freeing it is to just throw it all away. But the idea of Cameron’s destroyed box is so thoughtfully woven in with the rest of the stories this episode and this season are building. How do you let go of the past so you can move on? Should you? Cameron has thrown away her marriage, while Donna, who’s gone full ice queen in her interactions with the Rover team, finally softens when talking about moments from her past. (After utterly botching the worst dinner party ever.) What’s the right balance between holding on to your early moments and chasing down the next challenge? When you’ve had a few battles under your belt, as these characters now do, how do you respond to newcomers? It’s a lot harder to dump your past when your competition may well be your 14-year-old daughter.
• Gordon does not respond happily to the news of Joe and Cameron’s relationship, bless him. “Because I know you two! And it’s like, you’re a train, and she’s a train, and you think, ‘Ah, we’re both trains, we should get along great!’ But then, both the trains are on the same track and they’re both headed right for each other and guess what! Both the trains are carrying dynamite. It’s going to EXPLODE!”
• After skipping the first weeks of their relationship, HACF does a really fabulous job of leaping right into an established rhythm between Joe and Cameron. The bit with Joe’s gift of headphones, their mutual low-level disdain for each others’ living styles: They quickly feel very comfortable together.
• It’s such a gift that the series has finally figured out how to deal with Haley and Joanie. The whole SmutHut situation is hilarious, but Joe trying to fix Comet by asking Joanie how to make it look “you know, cool to you” is even funnier.
• Remember when Cameron and Gordon hung out all day and played Super Mario Bros. in season three? It’s so nice to see a callback to that in the Doom scene here.