Halt and Catch Fire is an interesting way to take the temperature of our current television climate. It is a very, very good show, with all of the hallmarks of a prestige cable drama, and yet it’s nobody’s favorite. Still, we’ve been covering Halt and Catch Fire since the first season, and Marisa has always found something about it that spoke to her personally, so she decided to write about the individual episodes as it heads into its final stretch. Read her reaction to the previous episode, “Nowhere Man,” here.
For most of us, our lives orbit around two loci: The place where we show our public selves, and the place where we get to be who we really are . Most often, those two places are work and home—but that’s not always the case, especially on Halt and Catch Fire. Cameron is unable to separate her work from who she is, for example, so her code follows her wherever she goes. Her public place is in Joe’s apartment, where she’s performing the part of Good Girlfriend; her Airstream is where, mostly alone, she gets to be the real Cameron and admit to herself that she’s not really as “sick of tech” as she claims.
Haley is a more heartbreaking case. School, of course, is where she has to put on her public face—and she’s failing, literally. Working at Comet makes her happy, but, under the watchful gaze of Gordon (and the more observant eye of Joe), she can’t really be completely unguarded there, either. No, she tells Joe, the one place she can be completely herself is on the internet, a place devoid of judgement because nobody cares enough anyway to pay too much attention. Ah, the pre-social-media internet, back when public pile-ons weren’t yet a thing. Don’t grow up, Haley.
And this is beside my point, but can we talk about how clueless Gordon is here for a second? Not the fact that he didn’t pick up on the clues that his daughter was crushing on the girl behind the counter of the fast-food restaurant she eats in all the time (with the terrible food, by the way), but he actually, unironically asked why his daughter wouldn’t invite her school friends to go set off model rockets. Geeky Gordon, of all people, should know that if your birthday activity consists of setting off model rockets with your father and his business associates, there are no school friends.
Which brings me back to Donna. Last week, I opined that Donna’s character is still the most mysterious to me. Apart from “driven businesswoman,” I still don’t know who she is. Where is the place where she goes to be totally herself?
It’s not work. She’s doing an excellent job of manipulating her (increasingly few—poor Cecil didn’t even get to write his own quit speech to his best friends) employees at Rover, but Diane is onto her. I didn’t love the parts of the episode that dealt with Donna’s career this time out. Diane’s sweeping in and demanding that Donna give up something she loves—torturing the Rover team—because of a mistake Diane’s husband made seems over-determined. But that isn’t as bad as Donna poaching a possible Microsoft employee to be the Rover CTO, only to blow the deal by sleeping with him. UGH. Must we, Halt and Catch Fire, have the b-school equivalent of the female-journalist-who-sleeps-with-her-interview-subject cliché? That doesn’t even gel with the other thing we learn about Donna this episode, that, apart from one reckless cartwheel, she’s a total rule-follower.
On the other hand, I loved how the show punctured Donna’s sweet moment with Joanie this week: After telling Joanie the story about the aforementioned cartwheel off the top of a quarry, she praises Joanie for being more fearless than she is, and tells her not to let fear get in her way. It’s good, solid, mother advice, something we’ve come to expect from Donna. But then, after things spiral out of control at work, Donna has too much wine and delivers the same inspirational words to Joanie again, this time drunk. It takes the one thing that is constant about Donna—she’s a good mother—and plays with that image of her just enough to tell us that she’s really in trouble.
So if Donna is a total construction at work and possibly puts up more of a facade than we think she does at home, where do we get to see the true Donna? I think she shows up twice in “A Connection Is Made.” One is the happy place I speculated about last week, which is with Gordon. Gordon, her ex-husband, is who she rings up when she gets her one phone from jail. Who else would it be? There’s history and a comfort there that will never be matched by the cute-possible-CTO-of-the-week.
And then second time we see Unguarded Donna is when we get to see what she does when she is really alone: She plays Pilgrim, Cameron’s shelved Atari game. Like Haley, she is more at home a virtual world than a real one. She admits that Mutiny is the most fun she ever had, so it’s fitting that the world where Donna lets her hair down is one that Cam invented.
Both of these relationships are broken, though the one with Gordon is functional. I don’t know if Donna is going to get a redemption arc in the second half of the season. It’d be cheesy if Cam finds out that Donna is the only one who figured out how to beat her game, and that they were only at odds because deep down they’re so similar. Not everybody gets to share their true self with someone else. (Ask Haley.) I just hope that, deep down, Donna has one at all.