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, “Tonya and Nancy,” here.
I really wish I were doing another Gordon-focused reaction. I could easily live inside his little slice of the episode, in a world where he went out and saw Sneakers four times in the theater—because of course he did—and is still down for another viewing at home. I’m sure having a neurological illness makes it easier to justify doing what makes you happy, but he doesn’t: He just likes what he likes. I’d love to spend time discussing how, to Gordon, swing dancing and roller derby are the same thing, because they basically are; they both turn out to be fads with no longevity, and Gordon doesn’t buy in to fads because he’s committed to staying uncool.
But instead of living the normcore life with Gordon, I think I have to talk about Donna.
It’s been hard for me to connect Donna to the rest of this season of Halt and Catch Fire. This is partially because she’s been so isolated from the rest of the core group, it’s like she’s off on some other TV show. But mostly I find it hard to recognize Donna.
She’s definitely changed the most over the course of the four seasons on the show. In the first season, she was the overlooked talent: the engineer who put in her time being taken for granted at Texas Instruments, then came home and ran the show as Mom and stepped in to help the Giant only when she was needed to put out fires. She wasn’t really on equal footing with Gordon, Cameron, and Joe. In the second season, she was brought to the foreground as Cameron’s partner-in-crime at Mutiny, where the two of them had to devise creative ways to be taken seriously as women business leaders. Making her the fourth spoke of the series’ No Exit polygon is one of the moves that made the show much stronger, especially given Kerry Bishé’s confident take on the character. In the third season, she was seduced to the money/VC side of things by Diane, but was still a newbie at making deals, so she was still a second-in-command who didn’t have that much clout. This year, she’s holding her own at a big firm, and the question is: Now that people are finally listening to Donna, who is she?
She’s not really the woman I want her to be, that’s for sure. I wish I were rooting for her. I want her to still rely on the cunning and quick-thinking she and Cameron used when they outsmarted the guy who was fencing stolen computer parts in the second season. I want her to use her position to try and find previously overlooked talent, like herself and Cameron, and I want her to use her motherhood skills to nurture that untapped pool of genius. And I want her to trounce her guitar-playing bro-rival—a guy who certainly had “a long life of being told that winning is his birthright,” as Diane described her cheating golf partner—in the process. Instead, she’s found a scrappy team of computer upstarts, and does nothing but hector and play mind games with them. (It doesn’t help that the Rover team is still paper-thin, with just the angry guy, the pregnant girl, and the guy who is bad at programming and lying.) I want the show to play with my sympathies, for me to pull for Gordon’s Comet one minute then Donna’s Rover the next. I see a glimmer of it in her relationship with Haley, but the rest of it is not that balanced.
“Nowhere Man” only gives us a tiny hint of who the core Donna is. The heated competition between Comet and Rover finds all of the characters in a moment of high stress, and when they’re put under pressure like that, they all fall back into old patterns. Gordon retreats into what makes him happy and tries to hold onto the status quo, keeping the company what it is at the level it is. Joe does the opposite, manically trying to envision the future and figure out the next step. (I loved the conversation where Gordon tells Joe, a man of vision, how freeing it is to have none.) Cameron does what she always does and tries to sabotage her relationship, telling Joe that she wrote the algorithm for Rover.
Because she’s changed so much, Donna doesn’t really have a familiar pattern to fall back on. So, besides playing Pilgrim, what does she do when the heat turns up?
She calls Gordon.
Maybe I do understand her after all.