Halt and Catch Fire Reaction, “Tonya and Nancy”: Folk Death

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 first three episodes here

Last time, I talked about how impressed I was with Halt and Catch Fire‘s ability to play with your expectations, setting up a Big Conflict, then pushing it off to the side in favor of something else. The title of this episode, “Tonya and Nancy,” promises much. Yet the big event that’s referenced barely makes a blip on the characters’ lives: Joanie actively tries to not watch the Olympics, while Joe and Gordon plan to view it at a small party that gets eclipsed by Cameron’s dramatic re-entrance into civilized society. (Hopefully Gordon and Anna Chlumsky’s Katie continue to watch, because I am HERE for that relationship, especially now that we know how bad at pool Gordon is. Although the series currently takes place the year of My Girl 2, which gives me weird, meta-concerns where I wonder if Katie knows about the My Girl movies. ) Tanya (Sasha Morfaw), Donna’s recently promoted employee, laments over a sushi lunch that her name will forever be entwined someone named Gillooly.

I thought the title would refer to a knock-down, drag-out, crowbar-to-the-kneecaps fight between Rover and Comet. Again, my expectations were subverted. The battle between the two burgeoning search engines were less Tonya vs. Nancy and more John Henry vs. The Machine. On one side, we have Rover, which delivers okay results based on a primitive “algorithm.” (Between this and Silicon Valley, I have a feeling TV screenwriters use the word “algorithm” to mean “computer magic.”) On the other, there’s Comet, at which a ragtag group of obsessives lovingly indexes websites by hand, under the watchful eye of Katie, an ontologist with a meticulously cataloged collection of metal cds.

Right now, the powers that be clearly have the thumb on the scale on the side of Comet. (C’mon, who ever roots for The Machine?) Comet is the underdog, with no financing but the windfall from selling CalNect. Its workforce is full of Rob-from-High-Fidelity types like Katie, who are in it for the love of blurbing Richard Pryor routines, so it’s immediately easier to love them than Team Rover. (Sorry, pregnant Vera, anonymous white dude, and can’t-cut-it-programmer guy, whoever you guys are.)  It’s got the fun, proto-startup culture, with inter-“team” rivalries that end with winning the golden surfboard and pies to the boss’ face.  And it’s got Haley.

Good God, how can you not love Haley? Her transition from shy, geeky, crying-in-the-car teenager to mini-mogul was the most satisfying arc in “Tonya and Nancy.” I already mentioned in last week’s recap that I over-identify with her; as a little sister, I truly understand the sting of never getting to pick the takeout cuisine or control the TV. (Ask me to tell you about the time that my sister sat me down and told me that we weren’t going to watch Sesame Street anymore because we were too old, and that we had to switch to Double Dare.) Haley winning the golden surfboard, then telling everyone they were going to watch the Olympics and like it, dammit, is more of a payoff than I’ve ever gotten from any of the other characters on the show.

Less successful is whatever the hell was happening with Cameron this week. I know she tells Bos that it seems like she’s having a mid-life crisis, but at least mid-life crises come with context. Her “Range Life”-soundtracked homesteading comes out of left field almost literally. I refuse to believe that the Mutiny-starting rebel girl could be so utterly transformed by a handpainted sign with the most trite of slogans: “If you lived here you’d be home by now.”  That’s like someone deciding to become a chef after going to Home Goods and finding one of those signs that say, “I cook with wine—sometimes I even put it in the food.” The Cameron I know and love would be decidedly on Team Click Beetles Are Real.

Then again, she’s not a successful Airstream denizen. (Beetween this and You’re the Worst, trailers are really having a moment, aren’t they?) And Halt and Catch Fire becomes itself again when she gives Bos the secret to a better algorithm. (Bos masterfully uses his snakeoil charm to get her to give it to him, too.) That has all the hallmarks of a classic Halt and Catch Fire moment: It’s in her best interest to just stay out of it, but she’s not great at living in the wilderness, is unhappy with Joe’s resistance to Airstream life, is jealous of his passion for Comet, feels left out of this phase of tech history, needs a win after the shelving of her most recent Atari game and—like most of the characters have at some point in time—just can’t help herself from getting involved. As satisfying as it is to see Haley come into her own, there’s a sinking feeling in knowing where search is actually headed. John Henry dies. Cameron beefs up the algorithm. What do you know? In the end, someone gets kneecapped after all.