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 (a little late) to write about the individual episodes as it heads into its final stretch, starting with a quick catch-up of the season so far.
So, how did we get here? The conventional wisdom is that the show got better once it stopped being a Mad Men ripoff and found its own footing. That opinion says more about the watcher than the show itself. To me, it never really bore more than a surface-level resemblance to Mad Men. Sure, it was a period drama in a business setting, and maybe Joe got a slice of the backstory pie that was out of proportion to how much his character warrants. (Joe is the way he is because of…daddy issues? Snooze.) But Joe was never really a Don Draper, because Don Draper is widely recognized as a remarkable talent in the advertising world at the start of Mad Men, and Joe can rarely catch a break. He’s not an anti-hero in the he can’t accomplish anything major, good or bad.
Neither can the rest of them, even though all of the ingredients are there for them to achieve greatness. Together, they have the vision (Joe), programming talent (Cameron), engineering and hardware know-how (Gordon), and business sense/capital (Donna) to really launch a successful tech company—and they often have the right, world-changing idea at the right time. The show keeps bringing them to the precipice of runaway success. And yet, while they’ve managed in three seasons to amass some individual accomplishments, their volatile interpersonal dynamic keeps them from getting to that next level, because they need to work together to get there. And they can’t. But they know that, if they were able to somehow work on a project together and pull it off, the benefits would be immeasurable. But, again, they can’t. But they’re still drawn to each other, until they blow each other up again, retreat to their separate corners, and start the cycle anew. That push/pull dynamic, which has been there since the first season, is the whole reason for Halt and Catch Fire’s existence, and separates it from Mad Men, where Don was affected by the other characters, but not entirely dependent on them.
Which is why it’s so impressive that “So It Goes,” the fourth-season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, just kind of glosses over the whole process in one spectacular opening montage. The third season ends in a tense, single-location episode where the characters are starting to toss around a familiar idea about connecting computers to a worldwide web through a specific window. “Hey,” I said to myself. “I know where this is going: browser wars!” I spent the whole break excited about a fourth-season devoted to browser wars. I thought back to my earliest memories of Netscape, to Opera, to Mozilla.
I enthusiastically sit down to watch the season premiere, and the browser war is over before the first commercial break. They aren’t even in the fight. Bad blood between Donna and Cameron forces Donna out of the company (which we knew before the hiatus), and tensions between Cameron and Joe lead Cameron to flake on the project in favor of saving her marriage to Tom. Once again, they cannot work together, so they are all eclipsed by another company. Joe retreats to the dark basement to catalog websites by hand on a series of Post-It notes—a humiliation Don Draper never had to endure. The show took the material I thought would be the meat of a whole season, and shrugged it off in one, beautiful, time-jumping sequence.
Not that Halt and Catch Fire handles all of the aspects of its chronology as elegantly. We’re fully in the ‘90s now—1994 if the “Doll Parts” and Mortal Kombat are to be believed. And yet, the ‘90s of this season doesn’t feel as lived-in as the ‘80s of the first season. The reference points are a little bit more obvious (see: the aforementioned Hole needle drop) and a little bit more obligatory, like the token bottle of Zima. (Though I must admit, when Jesse told me he thought the Zima was a little on-the-nose, I hissed at him that it was a metaphor for the future of their ISP.)
But one thing that does ring true to the ‘90s is the daylong phone call that takes place between Joe and Cameron in ”Signal to Noise,” the second half of the two-part premiere. Any ‘90s kid with a crush remembers that feeling of not wanting to hang up the phone, wondering, “Can I just keep the receiver next to me all night?” (And the corresponding twin sub-worries of, “What do I do when the battery of my cordless phone dies?” and “How do I pee without him hearing?”) Usually, a parent intervenes and forces a hang-up. But Halt and Catch Fire indulges the sweetest of ‘90s fantasies in the most delightful of ways. (Although Joe gets negative points for trying to woo Cameron by reading her John Updike—there’s nothing there for ladies, fellas.)
It’d be easy to criticize the show’s characters for continuing to mingle in each other’s lives when their relationships are clearly toxic, but “Signal to Noise” offers a convincing illustration of why it still happens. In pairs, they can still bring out the best in each other. Same with Gordon and Cameron, who, throughout the episodes that have aired so far, have openly been hostile with each other’s life choices—but, when it comes down to it, can always hash it out over video games. (“Battle Mode?”/“Death Match?”)
Speaking of Gordon, he’s the most unsung character in the series. And, yeah, while his affair storyline is another narrative stretch where the series runs slack, I really find him more compelling than he’s given credit for. That’s because he’s the only one that is shooting to be successful enough. He’s happy to run Cardiff as a second-tier computer company. He’s happy to run CalNect as an ISP. He cares the least about getting to that higher level of success, and has the most to lose (his family) by taking these risks with Joe, and yet somehow always finds himself involved. For all his Blue Man Group-hiring bluster, he’s never going to be the famous one, the Steve Jobs of the group. He’s not even cool. Nothing gets that point across more clearly than when his driver honks at him insistently in “Miscellaneous,” and he responds with an exasperated, “Geez Louise!” I love little Gordon character moments like that. He has the power to just kill me. When he asks Joe why it wasn’t enough that Joe was just right about the web browser idea, and be satisfied with that even though they weren’t the ones to execute it, it’s just a little dagger through the heart. And when he wakes Haley up in the middle of the night to tell her she has to stop working with Joe if it stops being fun, I really felt his parental love and his past regrets about working with Joe.
I’ve written before that part of the reason that I watched the show is because Gordon reminds me of my dad. I always thought that made me Cameron. After all, I get snippy with people when they don’t meet my exacting standards, and I’ve always hated first-person shooters. But, with her Kids in the Hall appreciation and They Might Be Giants Apollo 18 poster in her room, I’m definitely Haley.