Halt and Catch Fire
Recently, while discussing Halt and Catch Fire, my husband reminded me of the allegory of the long spoons, in which the tables in hell are heaped high with the most delicious of foods, yet not one of the inhabitants can enjoy the feast because their unwieldy utensils disallow them from feeding themselves. In heaven, however, the situation is the same, yet the inhabitants use those same utensils to eat like kings, because instead of attempting to feed themselves, they feed each other. The most obvious lesson to take from this parable is that helping others helps you. But there’s another lesson to be learned as well: Heaven is just a place. If you find solutions to your problems there, it’s because they existed in your head all along. Peace is practical, and heaven is a state of mind.
The allegory has a lot of resonance with regards to the second season (and potentially series) finale of Halt and Catch Fire, titled “Heaven Is a Place.” After a season spent exploring the importance of connection and communication, the idea that the only way to make heaven a place on earth (with apologies to Belinda Carlisle) is through cooperation with those around you makes a certain amount of sense. Yet as our intrepid characters stand on the cusp of a future that seems significantly brighter than the present they’ve endured this season, it’s worth noting that each of them brings with them the element that burdened their happiness the most throughout season two: themselves.
As appealing as it may seem in a moment to throw caution to the wind and blow up your life in the hopes that a fresh start will reinvigorate flagging prospects, the truth is that, so often, the core of what you wish to destroy is inescapable, because it is all in your head. No matter what the circumstances they may have encountered throughout season two, Halt’s characters always found themselves most stymied by themselves.
The most obvious example of this is Gordon, who not only found himself struggling through a traumatic brain injury, but the recurrence of a preexisting mental illness, for which he finds himself back in therapy for. But more important than that, as both of those elements, though coming from within his head, are outside of Gordon’s immediate control, is Gordon’s reluctance to truly engage in the therapy to control his anxieties, scoffing through them and making a general jackass of himself. This moment of self-sabotage is all the more damaging because Donna witnesses it and (rightly) interprets it as yet another way Gordon is unwilling to do the hard work of self-improvement.
Heaven, all things considered, is something of a novel concept for a show that’s spent so much of the season fumbling around different versions of hell, but the finale was not without its own hellish elements all the same. In a line from his famous one-act play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre referred to hell as being “other people,” though what he meant by the line is not historically what people have taken from it. In 1965 he clarified his thoughts, saying:
“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because… when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters.
This idea of hell is precisely what Joe, in particular, finds himself suffering from perpetually. Time and again, Joe is regaled with what an awful person he is. He’s told that he’s not creative, that he’s a parasite, that he’s a loser, that he’s manipulative and slimy, and because of that, regardless of the accuracy, he finds himself imprisoned by those encounters, imprisoned in a hell that consists wholly of the reflection of himself, as seen through the eyes of others.
The world of Halt and Catch Fire, much like the world we live in, is complicated by the fact that each day we exist simultaneously in heaven and in hell, as determined by elements so nebulous and unpredictable as our own minds and the opinions of others. But what determines how we thrive in these circumstances is ultimately how we manipulate this information. We can allow ourselves to be beaten down or we can work to build something more beautiful with the help of those around us, though always aware that sabotage could come at any moment, likely from within our own head.
So with all of that in mind, where does that leave our intrepid heroes as they prepare for an unknowable California future? With the future of Halt and Catch Fire itself similarly hazy, to see the Mutiny gang pack up and relocate in pursuit of ultimate freedom and a network of their very own is heartening. It evidences a willingness to take chances, even if it indulges Cameron’s need to not feel beholden to anyone. A promising future, though with Cameron’s flaws in tow.
That Donna is moving along with the company is wonderful. It’s a big step that she doesn’t feel like she has to mortgage her future to maintain her family’s day-to-day operations, but the fact that she’s forced Gordon to join the company as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage is deeply concerning, and while the two surely have lingering affection for each other, they also seem like a physical representation of Gordon’s debilitating brain injury. I’m not certain there’s a solution for what ails the Clark marriage. A fresh start for the Clark family, but how long can secrets stay secret?
After a tumultuous divorce and a complete and seemingly final evisceration of his professional career, Joe is suicidal, even going so far as to make final amends with Gordon, at which point he is gifted with, in essence, the future of all technological security. With the reverse-engineered Somaris virus, Joe is able to secure an investment for $10 million and an anti-virus start-up of his own in the Bay Area, and with the final shot of him looking out over his pending empire, Joe, alone, seems ready to finally embrace the role of supervillain the world has been so anxious to shunt him into. Joe’s prospects are bright, but a lair seems like the first step to a prison of his own design.
Heaven may be a place where nothing ever happens, hell may be other people, but enlightenment is understanding that only you can determine which is which. It’s a lesson that the characters of Halt and Catch Fire have yet to learn, even with their bags packed full of long spoons. We can only hope they have another season to figure it all out.
- Just kidding. It turns out that Cameron was totally playing Joe last week, which signifies a lot of things. Namely, 1) Cameron may be an even better actress than Mackenzie Davis, which is kind of a mind-twister, and 2) I’m even more of a shipper than previously established.
- I’m also tempted to give up my official TV-critic credentials for spacing on the fact that the virus installed was the Somaris program from earlier in the season. This, however, I’m going to blame on being distracted by the extremely powerful sequence going on when this information was revealed.
- Donna and Gordon finally have their “Whitecaps” fight and their marriage nearly dissolves in its wake. Though Gordon’s infidelity comes out, Donna’s abortion does not, setting up an absolutely devastating moment in the final scene when Gordon theorizes about a happier future maybe containing another child, and Kerry Bishé’s stricken face says more than words ever could.
- In Joe’s defense, he did at least try to get Gordon to come work with him to develop his antivirus idea, which Gordon passed on. It’s not like he was intentionally just ripping Gordon off.
- Tom doesn’t get on the plane. Thank god.
- Boz, however, does. And he wears a cowboy hat. Which is basically all I ever wanted from the show, it turns out.
- I’m just saying, if my child had thrown pancakes on the floor and told me I sucked, I wouldn’t be so anxious to hunt her down when she ran away. Just keep that in mind for the future, Joanie. Not all parents are pushovers like yours.
- If AMC cancels this show, it will be their worst creative decision since cancelling Rubicon, ratings notwithstanding. As upset as I was at the thought of cancellation last week, seeing where the show is heading with a potential third season makes it unthinkable that we may not be able to witness it play out.