Halt and Catch Fire Season-Premiere Recap: The Browser Wars

Halt and Catch Fire

So It Goes
Season 4 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Gene Page/AMC

The Blue Man Group! Blockbuster! AOL on CD-ROM! Gordon has a Walkman, Joanie’s wearing grunge, and Cameron’s drinking Zima! Halt and Catch Fire is back for its final season, and it is the ’90s, friends.

“So It Goes” picks up almost exactly where the season-three finale left off, with Joe, Gordon, and Cameron considering their brand-new, rudimentary web browser. Through a lovely montage sequence that slides smoothly between the floors of the old Mutiny building, Halt and Catch Fire swiftly leaps forward in time once again, through the gradual growth of Gordon and Joe’s new ISP company and the slow collapse of their browser project. We finally land somewhere in 1993. Their browser, Lodestar, has been a flop thanks to Cameron abandoning the project; Joe is downstairs in the basement, buried in a mountain of Post-it notes while he continues to hammer away at a quixotic project. Meanwhile, Gordon is upstairs in the daylight, where the ISP side of the company is booming.

The story we pick up at the beginning of season four is a story of lost opportunities and the way personal relationships can utterly sabotage professional success. In the first scene, Gordon overhears Cameron tell Joe that she’s told Tom about their affair; when we pick up the action several years later, the browser project has failed because Joe keeps reaching out to Cameron as she’s pulled farther and farther away. “So It Goes” catapults them into the middle of the browser wars, but by the time the story really gets going, it’s obvious they’ve already lost. Mosaic can do in-line images and video, Donna’s Millennium browser is way ahead of them in users, and by the time Cameron delivers a finished Lodestar, the project is dead for everyone except Joe.

Cameron’s trying to save her marriage. Donna’s trying to win, and would be happy to do so at the expense of her former colleagues. Joe’s stuck inside the vision of this passion project with Cameron. As a result, they all miss out on history, sacrificing their historical advantage because they cannot work together.

The focus of “So It Goes” eventually pivots away from the browser, although it takes both Joe and the episode itself a while to let that really sink in. As is almost always the case on HACF, the real questions of the day are twofold: First, who’s going to make the right bet on what the future will look like? And second, does it matter how that future comes about?

Once again, Gordon is a dubious prospect on the “imagining the future” front. He’s reentered a familiar Gordon loop. He’s mastered something — his ISP business is doing well enough that he feels like he can throw money at their data provider, and you know you’ve made it when it’s 1993 and the Blue Man Group is shooting streamer cannons at your 40th birthday party. Who knows, maybe this really is plenty for Gordon. Maybe one of the major corporations will acquire his company and that’ll be enough for him. But once again, Gordon is reluctant to envision what the next future could look like. He’s happily perfecting this thing that works pretty well (and doing his best to ignore the ubiquitous AOL CDs blanketing the local Blockbuster). So here’s that question for Gordon: Will he be able to make the right bet on the future? Will he see the hidden utility in Joe’s insane project to index every single website by hand? Or is he too happy with what he already has?

The opposite side of that spectrum used to be Joe: He had big, pie-in-the-sky ideas, and he didn’t much care how they got done. The Joe of 1993 doesn’t look like that anymore. He has the idea for a browser, but it doesn’t happen because he cares too much about the how side of things. Or maybe he cares too much for the Howe side. (I know, I know. I’m sorry.) As Cameron points out, if he’d really wanted the browser done, he could’ve just hired someone else. Instead, Cameron’s involvement mattered too much to him and Mosaic beat them to the idea.

So Gordon’s in danger of plateauing again, Cameron’s written a game no one understands how to play, and Joe once again has a brilliant idea but lacks the innovative leap to make it happen. The final moment of the episode is the collapse of the Cameron-Tom-Joe love triangle, and I’m happy to see it go. While I understand HACF’s desire to tell a story about love getting in the way of innovation, it’s not so much fun to watch a show where everyone yells at each other and projects die on the vine because someone slept with someone else.

Until things with Cameron are straightened out, the Joe-Gordon-Cameron story can’t really get going. Instead, the most fascinating thing about this premiere is what’s happened with Donna. When we last saw her, she was skidding away in her luxury car, about to hop a flight to Switzerland so she could undercut the browser idea. When she arrives in season four, it’s as though she’s kept accelerating along that path. In her position as a partner at her VC firm, she moves fast, she speaks at a rapid clip, she demands aggressive progress, and she makes decisions in an instant. She is obsessed with time, and it’s apparent in everything from her laying on the horn when she comes to pick up the girls to the way she sets her watch at the start of each meeting.

Donna, we realize, can imagine the future. She can hear Gordon deriding Joe’s bonkers idea to catalogue the internet by hand (the fact that it’s even possible is a helpful reminder of how small the internet still is at this moment), and understand how to connect it with her investment in an algorithmic indexing company. If the two questions are “who can see the future” and “does it matter how you get there,” Donna is winning the first one by a long shot. That’s why there’s a flicker across her face as she realizes she’s going to steal Joe’s idea — she’s not entirely lost to that second question, but she can’t help herself. The idea is too good.

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was born with some strong Mad Men influences, and a part of that was the ongoing consideration of whether Joe’s Don Draper-y genius excused his behavior. He was molded as a Golden Age of TV white dude anti-hero, and it was one of the least interesting aspects of the show. In this last season, that role has passed to the person you’d least expect from the show’s beginnings: Donna, the former housewife who’s bent on taking over the world. Although I’d love for the whole gang to hug it out and decide to invent Google together, it looks like Donna’s about take a turn as the show’s greatest villain. And I am here for it.

Random-Access Memories

• Poor little Lodestar never stood a chance against Mosaic. Sixty-nine downloads in a quarter? Not nice.

• The small scene we get with Diane and Bos doesn’t bode well for Gordon’s company’s chances. They stand up high, surveying the lavish party, and make a frank assessment of exactly how much money they think he has. “All of this seems overly optimistic, don’t you think?”

• I didn’t dig into Cameron’s story because the episode is mostly uninterested with what she’s been doing. She’s broken up with Tom, and she’s rolling her eyes at Mortal Kombat while insisting that her Myst-like game remain inscrutable. For Cameron, the episode’s crucial moment comes when she asks Gordon if she’s cruel, and he later has to tell her how much she’s hurting Joe. Wake up and smell the Post-its, Cameron! Joe is a mess.

• “You wouldn’t believe the variety of household items [Joanie’s] figured out how to smoke pot out of,” Donna tells Gordon. “Well, she’d love Berkeley,” he quips.

Halt and Catch Fire Season-Premiere Recap: The Browser Wars