Halt and Catch Fire
Wow, this is a great episode of television. It’s tightly wound, it’s dramatic, it’s full of unexpected pieces, and everything feels totally earned. It was immensely sad to see Donna and Cameron’s relationship explode in such a furious conflagration, but what a fantastic, gut-wrenching way for it to go out.
Even the Joe and Ryan story, which has been this season’s weak spot, shifts gears into a plot with forward momentum and internal machinations. And Gordon! Knock me over with a feather, but somehow Gordon Clark has become one of the most fully realized, interesting characters on Halt and Catch Fire. Who would have seen that coming? In an episode that’s packed with big, momentous, paradigm-shifting events, it’s remarkable that nothing felt rushed or unexplored.
“The Threshold” is essentially a slow build to the showdown in the Mutiny boardroom, with Cameron and Donna initially agreeing to trust one another, consider an IPO, and celebrate Cameron’s marriage as a fresh start. And so, before everything falls apart, they get together for dinner. Cameron and Tom’s engagement story is unexpectedly adorable (in a way that admittedly made me glad we didn’t spend an episode watching it happen). Gordon is distracted because he’s about to become the biggest shareholder in one of the world’s most wealthy tech companies, but, you know. Everyone’s got stuff on their plates. Any past issues seem manageable.
The next day, though, Cameron shows up at work clutching a sheaf of scribbled-on legal paper that details all of the improvements she wants Mutiny to make. Donna is aghast. An IPO would need to happen in three months, and Cameron’s plan would take a year or more to implement. And here is the one fly in the ointment of this otherwise magnificent episode: I wish it were easier to root for Donna. Instead, she goes to Diane’s house to complain about how Cameron gets in her way, and without any further consultation, she begins planning to organize the board against Cameron’s vote.
It gets even worse. Although Donna’s position is completely reasonable — Mutiny could continue to grow after going public, they have an offer on the table, and there’s no way for them to see what the future might hold — Cameron’s vision has the undeniable ring of rightness. Of course they need to expand beyond the Commodore 64. Of course they need to shore up the community side so Swapmeet doesn’t become a collection of bots. Of course an IPO will force them to surrender control. It is unfair to judge Donna on what would’ve seemed like a sensible position in 1986. How could she know that sticking with the Commodore 64 will likely guarantee that Mutiny won’t survive the decade? It’s one of the crucial challenges of the entire series: Our historical positioning means that a fight like Cameron and Donna’s will never seem like a battle between equal positions. We know who the winner should be.
Donna’s instant leap to fighting for board control doesn’t make her especially endearing, either. And oh how I loved that scene between her and Gordon, with his absolutely frank assessment of what her move will do to Cameron. It is the high point of the episode’s thematic underpinnings: “The Threshold” begins with Cameron and Tom walking over the threshold of their home together, taking up the real task of a marriage together. The threshold Gordon points to is less real, and also more consequential. If Donna pursues this vote for the IPO, he warns, it will be an “act of war,” and she will “cross a line that [she] can’t uncross.”
But she does, of course. Donna throws a Mutiny-styled wedding celebration for Tom and Cam, with bottles of champagne and sparklers and a huge grocery-store cake, and in the middle of the festivities, Gordon feels he has to pull Cameron aside and warn her. The new intimacy between Gordon and Cameron is a lovely thread that Halt and Catch Fire continues from the previous episode, and so too is Gordon’s sad but firm insistence that he’ll have to vote with Donna. There has never been a hint of sexuality between Gordon and Cam, even when it would have been so stupidly easy for the show to go in that direction, and their platonic friendship makes the scene all the more effective. (Also, Gordon’s loyalty to his marriage is one of the many ways season three has redeemed his character.) After that, Cameron has a similarly emotional meeting with Bos, repairing the damage she’d inflicted on him.
And then, while the rest of the company gathers outside to party, Diane, Bos, Gordon, Cameron, and Donna gather in the boardroom to settle the question once and for all. It begins as a reasonable meeting, with Cameron admitting her own weaknesses: She failed to communicate her ideas and clearly lay out her vision for the company. Donna begins reasonably as well, pointing out that they can’t know what the future will look like, and that Cameron’s quest for a perfect Mutiny means they will never accomplish anything.
There are two great things about this scene. (Okay, there are more than two, but this recap would be longer than Cameron’s Mutiny manifesto if I listed them all.) The first thing: It is truly impossible to know what the outcome will be. We hope for calm resolution, of course. Bos and Diane try to be mediating voices. Donna and Cameron have worked so hard to be effective, caring, successful partners. At several moments, it really feels like they will find common ground. And then there’s the second thing: When everything falls apart, it does so with such utter, merciless venom that it feels like an exorcism and a murder all wrapped up together. The sound Cameron makes when the vote goes against her is the sound of something dying.
It is a remarkable feat that, despite all of this Mutiny trouble happening, the Joe/Gordon/Ryan plot isn’t just a throwaway part of “The Threshold.” Instead, it’s the home to a big chunk of the episode’s plot. Joe’s ousting turns out to be a classic Joe MacMillan desperation maneuver, a bid to throw control of the company to Gordon and pray that Gordon’s fundamental sense of fairness will kick in, letting Joe keep the NSFNET project. Except Gordon, finally allowed to use his ample intelligence in a constructive way, figures out Joe’s plan and wrests control of NSFNET as well, ultimately offering him the meaning-laden role of a 49-percent silent partnership. Joe accepts.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in this season is that Ryan has remained a cipher throughout all of its noteworthy development. He’s still just an optimistic mirror image of young Joe. He’s bought into the MacMillan myth, he’s idealistic and talented, and he is completely inhuman. “The Threshold” doesn’t do much to complicate that portrayal, but it does at least give Ryan some (seriously misplaced) agency. Rather than watch as his mentor is sacked for what he believes to be a baseless, strategy-free cause, Ryan instead releases the code for MacMillan Utility’s security software to the world, fulfilling Joe’s inspirational promise of freedom from fear. At the same time, Ryan releases documents proving that this was Joe’s intention all along, and that the board’s smear campaign is a false depiction of his true idealism.
What Ryan fails to realize is that Joe embodies his own defense of San Francisco. Joe sneered at the city as being disposable, as a place where people’s accomplishments are ruined. Ryan sees how the city offers new chances and new beginnings. What he hadn’t grasped is that Joe already moved on, and was already reinventing himself. Meanwhile, Ryan was left to fight a battle in a war that was already over. By doing so, he made himself toxic to Joe — he’s gotten himself stuck in something that Joe cannot associate with. As a result, even though it looked like Joe would live up to his promises and bring Ryan along with him, he’s repeating history. He’s cutting out the weak link and hitching himself to the best, most powerful idea. He’s crossing a new threshold. Again.
- The one threshold-crossing image I didn’t have a chance to mention was Bos, lurking on Diane’s doorstep until he told her the truth of his past and his current family relationships. Diane already knew, of course. Diane always knows.
- Thanks to his job as “chief person in charge of staring at Joe with mixed wonderment and confusion,” Ryan hasn’t had all that much to do. However misguided his actions, though, it was nice to see him go HAM on the criminal conspiracy computer.
- Along with all of those amazing Donna/Cameron meltdown moments, I should also give kudos to the initial scene between Gordon and Joe, in which Gordon sizes up Joe’s apartment and they circle each other warily. It’s so nice to see those two back sniping at one another.