Halt and Catch Fire
The year is 1986. The place is Silicon Valley. And Mutiny, the little internet startup that could, is celebrating a 100,000-person user base and independence from the outsourced servers it once relied upon to keep itself running. Bos sings Sinatra, Donna thanks the employees, and Cameron throws fireworks at the fax machine that will no longer send them invoices for their server rentals.
After two years in Texas, this is the way Halt and Catch Fire kicks off its reboot into a new space, and it’s indicative of what preoccupies the entire season premiere. There’s a great deal of place-setting: Where are we? What’s happening with the company? How’s Gordon’s health? How’s Cameron’s mood? What’s the next big problem? What’s the next big innovation? And where’s Joe?
Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not very nuanced, and they’re not very hard to come by. I have hope and faith that the third season of Halt and Catch Fire will give some complexity to the outline sketched out in this first episode, but what we get at the launch feels overtelegraphed. Mutiny, as always, is doing okay, but really needs to grow! Gordon’s health seems all right, but that won’t last long! And the company’s next big problem is presented with all the subtlety of a helicopter takeoff: Ryan, misunderstood genius coder, realizes that it’s possible to hack into people’s private chats, and presents this discovery to Cameron and Donna. They have no serious interest in fixing it, though Donna insists that it violates the user agreement, and offhandedly asks Cameron to handle the issue. Gee, I wonder if this will come back and bite them in the modem?
As Halt and Catch Fire grows closer to a more familiar narrative about the digital frontier, it also rubs up against the winking knowledge that its audience is in on the story line. They’re telling the story of a culture that’s now nearly universal, and as much as I like a good “how do you pronounce GIF” joke (and this one was pretty great), it’s indicative of the show’s bigger problem. Let’s call it the Newsroom trap: How do you position characters on the right and wrong sides of a familiar history without being too smugly obvious about who’s good and who’s bad? How do you make something inevitable feel uncertain? How do you create drama out of wondering if people will be able to buy stuff on the internet?
This is not an impossible problem to solve. I know the Cold War ends, but within the world of The Americans, that long forgone conclusion feels frightening and fascinating and somehow unthinkable. On Halt and Catch Fire, the corollary should be a deep desire to see how Donna and Cameron will shape and be shaped by the history we already know, along with a capacity to reveal things about that place and time that aren’t immediately obvious to anyone with a computer.
Nevertheless, hints of that good stuff exist. I’m as underwhelmed by the fictional potential of transactional interactions as Donna and Cameron seem to be — but to the show’s credit, their doubt about whether or not this is “it” does leave a powerful desire to know what “it” will eventually be. And the episode does play with some thoughtful ideas that will hopefully coalesce into a bigger story.
The best of these is the story that “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” starts to tell about fear and safety. It’s literalized in the Jobs-ian presentation Joe gives at the end of the episode, a deliciously senseless keynote about truth and the price of security, featuring a box covered in red velvet that, shocker, turns out to be empty. That’s the message Joe is ostensibly selling — that security should be free, just as his MacMillan virus-protection software will be to the average consumer. As with everything to do with Joe, it’s overwrought and all about his “vision,” and there’s something that I’d like to read as silly self-awareness in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” gag of the empty box. But that’s hard to do when the episode ends with everyone rising to their feet to applaud him, including our newfound “visionary” character, Ryan.
Joe’s speech is really broad. The earthquake that he uses as a framing device, and which the episode uses as a metaphor, is really obvious. But the ideas that come with them — underlying questions about safety and privacy, the horrified father who realizes Cameron snooped on his private chat, the question of what constitutes “real” human connection — are more interesting. And if the earthquake itself is an overblown metaphor, the scene that follows it is an excellent, tightly wound bit of TV. In the immediate aftermath, Cameron and the Clarks all run into the kitchen to ask each other what’s happening, and Cameron’s underlying need to be parented surfaces. She’s terrified. Donna and Gordon try to talk her down while also assessing their kids, and the rapid emotional escalation is capped off by a startling piece of toast popping out of the toaster.
That scene is so good, and it’s great because an earthquake, which comes out of nowhere, surprises everyone into an emotional place that feels actually revelatory. The episode’s brief interactions between Joanie and Cameron are also strong, as is Manish Dayal’s performance during Ryan’s largely incoherent presentation about the private chats. And Kerry Bishé is great, as always.
But I’m waiting for Halt and Catch Fire to figure its way out of the Newsroom trap. I want the show’s depiction of Silicon Valley to be something more than a sketchy outline of the ‘80s tech boom, a GIF joke, and its characters stumbling onto an idea that we know will eventually succeed. Season two was successful because Halt and Catch Fire figured out how to use characters who didn’t look like pop culture’s traditional tech nerds, and because the growth of Mutiny felt urgent and uncontrolled and revolutionary. I’m looking forward to season three getting some of that energy back.
- We didn’t get much from the InfoWorld reporter, but I’d like to see Halt and Catch Fire pursue more of the media-hype angle. The series has always been interested in advertising and media coverage, illustrated here both by the article and by the full-page “Are You Safe?” ad, and Silicon Valley seems endlessly ripe for more of that narrative.
- I know the point is that it’s hopelessly outdated, but I do love Donna and Cameron’s avatars in the Mutiny Community.
- Sure, Joe’s 1984-esque “Are You Safe?” presentation was incredibly on-the-nose, and the Joe-as-Jobs thing will probably grow old if it doesn’t get more complex, but as a first outing, I confess that I’m a fan of Joe’s scruffiness.
- What’s going to happens to John Bosworth this season? He seems to have adapted to the Valley pretty well: He’s certainly enjoying himself at that raucous sales party where he tells what’s clearly a killer joke that ends in “… and that, gentlemen, is how you jerk off a dinosaur.” At the same time, even though the grandson plot felt more narratively useful than emotionally motivated, I wonder how long Bosworth will put up with California shenanigans.