Halt and Catch Fire has spent the opening episodes of its final season pushing around building blocks. The first three episodes have been strong, especially in episode two’s epic phone call. But “Tonya and Nancy” feels like the story is finally shifting into a higher gear. Most of the people are in place, the major themes and ideologies have been introduced, the teams are coalescing, and the stakes are getting higher. It’s fun.
The competition between Rover and Comet is now explicit rather than assumed. After the end of episode three, when Gordon and Donna confabbed about Comet, I wondered if Halt and Catch Fire would dither over Donna’s reticence to compete against her own family. I shouldn’t have worried. “Tonya and Nancy” moves straight into a head-on company versus company race, with Haley and Donna trying to negotiate the tension at home while not holding back in the slightest at work. There’s no time to debate the ins and outs of trying to crush your daughter’s company — there’s no time to debate, period. The show goes flying forward, skipping through weeks and months as it speeds to reach the most interesting moments. (Note to Game of Thrones: This is how you go about skipping the boring bits.)
Let’s take it apart in layers. On the plot level, Comet is growing by leaps and bounds while Rover struggles. Joe and Gordon respond to the massively expanding Web by hiring a mass of experts, who trawl the internet for new sites to index, sorting through the good and bad stuff, categorizing and blurbing their favorites. We get a glorious entrance from Anna Chlumsky as Comet’s new chief ontologist, who’s both motivated and wonky. It is massively fun at Comet, and Joe and Gordon turn down VC funding and an acquisition offer from AOL mostly because they’re happy.
Meanwhile, Rover falters. Poor Cecil, a cardboard-cutout character who exists only to be bad at his job, cannot crack the nut of their devastating algorithm troubles. (Even when Cecil finally does get some screen time, it’s just to admit his own uselessness.) Although he tells Gordon otherwise, Bos is still desperate for cash. He attempts to leverage AOL’s offer for Comet into a buy-out for Rover that would save his own bottom line. It fails. Tanya rightly takes him to task for putting his own needs above the company’s, and then Bos gets an idea from Cameron that catapults Rover back into search-engine importance. At the end of the episode, the fortunes have been inverted: Rover is back on top and Joe wonders how Comet can compete against a company with Series A funding.
It’s a solid structure for a story — two competing companies, racing for relevance — and the episode’s threaded references to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan rivalry is a nice historical frame. But the very black-and-white frame works all the better because HACF refuses to let us accept one as fully good and the other as evil. We root for Comet because of Anna Chlumsky’s chanting and because Haley throws a pie in Gordon’s face and we want to believe in Joe’s vision of the human touch. At the same time, though, Donna kicks ass as a venture capitalist, and we want her to rub her success in her male partners’ faces. Even as she cracks down on her team, the show deftly uses her motherhood to balance her image. She is painstakingly careful not to pressure or alienate Haley at home, in spite of how obviously weird it is for both of them. And over on the Comet side, Halt and Catch Fire finally gives us something it’s been prepping us to want for a long, long time: Joe and Gordon, happily and productively working together.
While the surface plot is a relatively minimal A versus B story, it’s layered over such a thoroughly, thoughtfully messy network of family relationships, past betrayals, ambitions, and passions that you hardly even notice how simple the story has become. (I certainly don’t mean “simple” in a negative way here; it’s simple in an archetypal, story-as-old-as-time sort of way.)
Underneath all of that delicious chaos of warring companies and business partners and parents and children and Anna Chlumsky’s crimped hair, there’s Halt and Catch Fire’s deeper story of how technology evolves. Rover and Comet represent two apparently opposed strategies. As Tanya explains in her defense of seeing Rover as a “big swing” idea, the world will need some way to navigate a Web that’s so large, no team of people could ever index it all. It is a machine over mind strategy. Comet is the boutique, curated, human touch side of Web browsing. Both companies are too early to see that their strategies aren’t competing for a zero-sum piece of the pie. Eventually search and curation will come to seem like entirely different projects, both of them necessary. But at this early stage, they represent HACF’s favorite technological preoccupations: the interactions between people and machines, the way technology helps people connect, and the difficulty of building a future no one’s imagined yet.
The machine side seems cold and heartless, and the people side looks so much more joyful. So let’s talk about Cameron. The show has its Tonya and its Nancy (and its poor Tanya, who regrets the way her name has been co-opted by a villain). They’re duking it out for eyeballs and cultural relevance. Cameron, meanwhile, is stuck trying to find herself with an Airstream and a dirt bike (“space bike!”) and a plot of muddy land. It’s frustrating to see her separated from the main action of the series. She gets that stellar little sequence where the Airstream slips and everything goes quite literally to shit, but I miss her and Donna together. I miss her engaging with such a dynamic tech moment.
In the Rover vs. Comet battle, though, it makes a lot of sense for Cameron to be stuck somewhere adrift in the middle. She’s always been on the people side of the “how people interact with tech” division, so I have no doubt she wants to put her faith in Comet. But she knows an algorithmic approach will be what the Web really needs. Where does that leave her? She’s tied to Joe, she’s alienated from Donna, Comet’s culture would be exactly her speed, and yet Rover is obviously the idea she believes in. No wonder she’s out there in the boondocks trying to get excited about chili-pepper lights.
I hope this episode will be Cameron’s turning point. I’m ready for her to get back to work. Because, as Joe yells in one of the best cut-to-black moments I’ve seen in a long while, Rover is in trouble. The crawler is interacting with the data indexing! Their whole human approach is now completely and totally fu— (end scene).
• Every scene with Haley working at Comet is a beautiful perfect gem that I want to treasure forever. Is Scientology a religion or a cult? Per Comet’s company-porn protocol, she is now stepping away from the machine. And the glow on her face when she nails Gordon with that pie? It made me so happy it almost hurt.
• I’m very excited to see more of Comet’s new chief ontologist. Raise your hand if you also rewatched that death-metal monologue a couple of times. No? Just me? Cool.
• One of the biggest shifts HACF made after its first season was toward a greater sense of humor. Now, we get moments like Joe swearing up and down that click beetles are a real thing, and Gordon insisting that no, Joe, they are from Star Trek. Which you did see.
• At some point, I’ll get into this at greater length, but for now let me just say how amazing it is to have a series about the birth of the internet age where one company is shepherded by a female VC exec and her driven, capable assistant who’s also a black woman, while the other company is founded by a 15-year-old girl who now continues to drive its growth, and the best new ideas about how to crawl the Web come from the show’s resident female genius programmer. Sure, we’ve also got Gordon and Joe, but nothing beats Donna, Haley, and Joanie on the sofa together.