This is the Halt and Catch Fire I know! It is not especially subtle, and it doesn’t quite have the raw furor and sheer gestalt of season three’s heights. But it’s full of guts and honesty, and the performances are joyful even when the scenarios tilt slightly toward being over-telegraphed. A gaming fairy arrives to give Cameron freedom to do whatever the heck she wants, with no limits and no rules — job offer ex machina, if ever there was one. A brilliant coder happens to bring up exactly the most painful part of Donna’s history in a recruitment meeting, sending her into an alcoholic downward spiral. One crucial fact about Haley suddenly becomes the key to all understanding.
I mean, the episode is called “A Connection Is Made,” for goodness’ sake, and it ends with an MCI van pulling up to Cameron’s Airstream and Cameron smiling with relief at the unmistakable tones of a dial-up modem.
It feels distinctly like what it is: Halt and Catch Fire moving toward an ending as it pulls some final pieces together. And yet, I don’t mind. It’s hard to mind when Donna’s belting Pat Benatar, and her face in the side-view mirror is a glorious mix of wounded and defiant. It’s even harder to mind when Joe sits across from Haley at Hound Dog’s, watching her and Vanessa geek out over music. The look on Joe’s face in that scene is one of my favorite Lee Pace moments in the series to date. And the rocket-launching scene? Don’t even get me started on the rocket-launching scene.
On the tech side of things, the most significant development in this episode is the fallout from the revelation that Cameron wrote Rover’s secret-sauce algorithm. Joe is buoyant again, feeling that Rover now has a weakness Comet can exploit. Donna correctly (and ruthlessly) gives Cecil the boot, but then comes up with an utterly unworkable plan to get Rover back on course: Hire a new engineer to reverse-design the algorithm, completely eliminating any of Cameron’s role in the project. It’s a nonsensical idea, which Diane immediately recognizes, and further highlights how Donna’s leadership of Rover is now compromised. The grasping new young male partner will take over the project as soon as Donna gets Cameron to sign a release.
“A Connection Is Made” sets aside the season’s ongoing-algorithmic-search versus curated-list argument, and the tech side of the episode is thin. It’s mostly about the show’s bread-and-butter issues: big philosophical thoughts about the role of technology in people’s lives and how those thoughts play out for our characters. The centerpiece of this is Haley. She speaks feelingly about how hard it is to be at school, how the internet can be a place for real connection and real truth, and then she stares adoringly at Vanessa the rocker chick. Suddenly it all has different, more meaningful, more personally grounded stakes for Joe.
While Haley’s crush on Vanessa and her deep, intense love of the internet is the most obvious iteration of that theme, the episode plays with it throughout. It’s underneath Donna’s continued obsession with Pilgrim, a game apparently only she can solve, and it’s also the basis for Donna’s fascination with Rover, although she may never have admitted it before her meeting with the new coder. It’s always been Joe’s central fixation. And it’s how Cameron finds her way back to herself, in the form of a website called the Howe of It All, a fan page dedicated to her work. (Every person who posts on the Howe of It All is going to go nuts when LiveJournal becomes a thing.)
The other pervasive question of the episode is another Halt and Catch Fire classic: Can people change? Should they? Can Joe actually be a different person than he was in his youth? Bos thinks so, and as we watch Joe decline to lay down some knowledge when Gordon insists that he can see his own daughter perfectly well, thank you very much, I’m tempted to agree. The Joe MacMillan of the ’90s looks back on his past behavior and remember what it feels like to be compelled to act that way, but he values different things now. He values his friendship with Gordon too much to yell, “Haley’s a lesbian!” He values his relationship with Cam too much to blow up after her Rover admission. He values experiences now; that’s why he asks Cameron to record it while he sets off a rocket. He’s with his chosen family.
On the flip side of that coin we get Donna, opining half-wistfully on Joanie’s fearlessness and terrified that she’s now lost the parts of herself she most cared about. (Joanie’s disgust at Donna’s drinking is quite something to behold.) “You’re the same person you always were,” Gordon tells her, after picking her up from the police station. But that doesn’t mean she can always go back to what she had. Showing up at Cameron’s Airstream and trying to pay her for the algorithm is a way of trying to wipe the slate clean and undo what happened at the end of Mutiny: I’ve offered you money for your idea, and now you’ve taken it. We’re square. There’s no wrongdoing here, and we can both finally move on. But Cameron doesn’t take it, and she refuses to let Donna feel any better about anything that’s happened. Donna even tries to hold the threat of telling Joe over Cam’s head, but it means nothing because he already knows. She’s free. That dial-up tone at the end is everything she and Joe dreamed about at the end of season three. It’s a door.
Going into the second half of the final season, I’m excited for whatever Halt and Catch Fire is about to bring. I look forward to being surprised. But I have both a concern and a question. My concern is fairly straightforward: I have few designs on how I want this show to end. Almost no designs, actually. Joe’s conversation with Bos, though, and his longing looks at Haley, and Cameron’s distinctly childlike behavior in previous episodes of this season have me worried. I’m scared this show will pull a Girls and enact Cameron’s final growth by getting her pregnant. I truly hope not. You have to wonder where else all of that “she might surprise you” business from Bos is going, though.
Meanwhile, I wonder if Halt and Catch Fire will ever touch on one of the big questions about internet connection that still hums underneath our everyday existence now, and which is becoming a more and more pointed feature of the series: How far can it go? Haley loves the web — she loves its opportunities for honesty, and she loves the ability to be herself. They all love it. But you know when Haley flips out and throws a Hound Dog milkshake at the wall? It’s not because Gordon’s taking away her modem. It’s because he’s telling her she can’t work at Comet anymore; she can’t come into the office with the people she loves. And Joe’s pure joy doesn’t come out of hearing some transcendent explanation for what the web does for us. It comes out of running after rockets with his friends.
More and more, Halt and Catch Fire is pointing to the question of not just the role tech plays in our lives, but also of what it can’t do. Haley may be learning a lot about herself online, but she’s still going to the restaurant where her crush works every day. Joe may be tossing around slogans like, “Search It, Find It, Comet,” but he’s also the one extolling the virtues of “the human touch.” Halt and Catch Fire is a show about the dawn of the internet age; I wonder how much of its endgame will also be about its limitations.
• Hey, remember Donna’s glorious red blazer from the last episode? The one circling around that conference table like a matador’s red flag, shining like a beacon? Episode six takes that idea and turns it into a stunning reversal: Donna holds the blazer, crumpled and powerless, as she tries to pull herself together after her one-night stand with Bobby Aaron, whiz coder. And check out the color of Cameron’s tank top in the final scene of the episode, when Donna tries to paper things over and Cameron insists on retaining the power in their lost partnership. It’s partially obscured under her very Cameron overalls, but that shirt is a bright, dark red.
• Speaking of Bobby Aaron, I’m excited to see a little more from him. He’s played by Chris Coy, who is very good as a bartender on The Deuce, and I’m interested to see someone remind us where Mutiny started.
• We were spared any fallout between Cameron and Joe after she confessed to writing the algorithm, but the scene when Bos admits what he did to Diane? Brutal, just absolutely wrenching. I haven’t loved Bos’s story this season, but this scene is a highlight in the uniformly great work Toby Huss has been doing.
• Sure, Gordon. “El Gordo” means handsome. Yep.