I loved the first episode of Halt and Catch Fire season four, but it was mostly focused on where everyone’s been and on establishing their current relationships to one another. “Signal to Noise” gets the main action going again, and wow, it is great.
Our attention is now split between two settings for tech innovation. On one side, there’s Gordon and Joe’s CalNet ISP business, which has blown a gasket. Their bid to keep their customers out of AOL’s ever-expanding grasp was to offer a flat monthly rate for unlimited internet hours, but Gordon now realizes, to his astonishment, that people are just staying logged on forever. CalNet has outages, no one can seem to get their bandwidth provider MCI on the phone, and they’re bleeding subscribers. Something obviously needs to change, and it may well come from Gordon’s daughter, Haley, who extrapolates from her dad’s directive to make a spreadsheet out of Joe’s website Post-Its, creating a front page of great internet resources. It’s not Joe’s index of the internet, but it may be something we’ll come to value just as much: curation.
On the other side, Donna’s promising, innovative idea to do algorithmic indexing of the web runs into a very old-school problem. A new, young, male partner at her firm named Tripp — who has a tendency to say things like “let’s circle back” — attacks Donna’s authority in order to establish his own. It is a tale as old as time for women in the workplace, and Donna does her best to pivot things back into her own control. She may not have the freedom to give Tanya the lead on the Rover project, but at least she can bring in her own consultant rather than submitting to Tripp’s suggestion.
It’s a compelling move for the series and for Donna. The season premiere established Donna as a power player teetering into villainous territory. She’s a remarkable, Miranda Priestley–esque figure, playing in a territory that’s even more traditionally hostile to women. She’s also willing to poach ideas for her own advantage, even if it feels ever-so-slightly over the line. “Signal to Noise” takes that idea and demonstrates how precarious it is: Donna can have tropical juices delivered to her desk and dismiss people without even a curt farewell, but she still has to ward off dull, aggressive bullshit from some new male executive. The resulting picture of Donna is awesomely layered. She’s strong, she’s vulnerable, she’s bloodthirsty, she’s driven. It’s great.
While Donna’s warding off power moves from young whippersnapper executives and Gordon’s coping with the collapse of his business, Cameron and Joe are in their rooms, talking to each other on the phone. For a full day.
I love this story device, both for itself and for what it does for the episode as a whole. The context is that Cameron tells Joe that she’s getting a divorce, and then they spend the next day talking about what’s happened to their lives during their years of estrangement. Like any really great, long conversation, they alternate between hyperserious existential questions and moments of lightness. They talk about whether they believe in God, whether they want to have kids, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, how Gordon’s doing, and what their Hawaiian names would be. Joe reads aloud from Updike. When an Atari employee shows up to tell Cameron they’re delaying her new game, Joe writes her press release. At one point, they desperately run away to pee.
It’s a beautiful way to address everything that’s happened to these characters in the past several seasons. They get to consider one another from a distance, without the complication of bodies that clearly confused things when they reunited at Comdex. The performances from Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis are as good as they’ve ever been; the moment when Cameron wakes up to Joe’s teapot whistling is one of the sweetest things Halt and Catch Fire has ever done.
But my favorite things about Joe and Cameron’s daylong phone call are how thoughtfully it’s directed by Meera Menon and the gorgeous symmetries between the concept, the direction, and the series’s bigger thematic ideas. There are close-ups of their individual faces, and there are many familiar images of people on the phone — one person lying back on a bed, someone else sitting on the floor, moments of pacing and moments of stillness. But the direction also does a ton of work with framing. With the camera up high, we look down on Joe inside his apartment, one small person boxed inside the outline of a doorway, taking up a tiny piece of the larger frame. We also see Cameron on her bed from up high, one small body in an otherwise empty expanse. In a shot we see a few times, Cameron is in focus in the background, leaning up against the headboard. In the foreground, there’s a huge stack of cardboard moving boxes, looming between her and us.
Again and again, we watch these two people pace around their small discrete spaces, framed inside borders or sitting next to some visual indicator of containment. We listen to them gradually figure out how to connect with one another, but our eyes tell us that they are literally inside separate boxes. It’s a lovely way to communicate the distance between Joe and Cameron and to contrast the intimacy of their words with the isolation of their spaces. It’s also a striking way to play with the ideas dominating Halt and Catch Fire’s technological side — after all, both Mutiny and Cameron’s long-held interest in the nascent web are about connecting people across boxes. It’s community, long distance. It’s the same thing Gordon and Cameron loved about the ham radio last season. It’s the pleasant friction inherent in experiencing solitude and togetherness at the same time. Joe and Cameron are working hard to connect, but they’re also physically boxed in.
Consider the moment when Joe finally shows up at Cameron’s hotel room. She opens her door and sees him, and then the shot cuts to a different angle in the hotel hallway. Joe stands centered in the frame, smack in the middle of a box created by the backlit hall. Joe and Cameron regard each other, and then the camera stays still as Joe finally exits his own box, strides across the empty middle space, and walks through Cameron’s door.
Like so much of this show, it’s a well-executed, thoughtful image that helps convey the magnitude of what’s happening in the story. It’s also almost uncannily apropos for Halt and Catch Fire’s deeper thematic preoccupations: Joe’s groundbreaking revelation at the end of season three, after all, was a metaphor for how people could navigate the internet, stepping from inside the closed box of their personal computers into a huge new virtual space. Joe began that season extolling the virtues of safety and impenetrability, and by the end, his big idea was a way to get out of your own box. His big idea was a door.
It all reminds me how much I will miss this show when it’s gone. Aside from its humor and its thoughtful character development, what I’ll miss the most is the way it takes big tech ideas seriously, with a grandiose sweeping abstraction that echoes through its dialogue and its visual language alike.
So that’s what I’m excited about for the rest of this season. That, and what I hope will be Donna Emerson’s alternate Silicon Valley future where women crush feckless male execs under their sensible heels and the Haleys of the world invent every good thing about the internet.
• For the most part, Halt and Catch Fire has either shed its original Mad Men influences or inherited them capably. It will be fascinating to see whether Tanya continues in the vein of Dawn on Mad Men, or if she gets more narrative space to herself.
• Haley! I want more Haley skipping school, weeping for mysterious reasons, and then casually inventing the future.
• “So, he’s from Philadelphia … ”
“West Philly, yeah. But his mom is really freaked out about what happened on the basketball court, so she packed up his stuff and moved him to Los Angeles, and he’s been living there ever since.”
“I’m sorry, but was the thing on the basketball court really that big a deal? I mean, to send your kid away forever?”
“Yeah, I think it involved gangs.”
“Ooh. And he’s not actually royalty?”
“Fresh Prince refers to his street cred!”
“ … So is there a Fresh Princess?”