Halt And Catch Fire is revealing itself to be two shows, neither of which is well-realized. On one hand, it’s the story of a handful of disparate players in the early days of the PC business trying to create new technology. On the other, it’s the tale of a secretive, manipulative mystery man playing those people as pawns in a long game whose rules are unknown to all but him. Either narrative could be compelling if the show committed to telling it. Neither story is convincing as Halt And Catch Fire tumbles them both together in a pile and fits pieces of each together to form each new episode.
That first show, about what Halt And Catch Fire contends was a Wild West frontier at the birth of the modern computer in the 1980s, could be an exciting, resonant series. There’s no invention of the 20th century more influential or important than that thing you’re reading this review on, but Halt And Catch Fire doesn’t delve deeply enough into that world to create compelling drama in itself. (For an example of a narrative that did accomplish that, check out Tracy Kidder’s book The Soul Of A New Machine, which even a technical dunce like me found a gripping read.) Instead, the show continues to toss off a few pieces of tech jargon per episode by having one of the main characters explain things to a convenient dum-dum. (This week: Toby Huss’ executive John learns about computer response times and, um, why you occasionally submerge your motherboard in a fish tank.) The pilot—which is looking better and better as the show plods on—did an admirable job at twining the technical and character threads of the series together. Now, each episode sees those two sides of the show trade off—to mutual disappointment.
When Halt And Catch Fire becomes the “Joe MacMillan Manipulation Hour,” it’s equally hobbled by the fact that Lee Pace’s Joe continues to crumble before our eyes into an inconsistently written plot device. This week, Joe conceives an elaborate scheme to both teach punk programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) a lesson about backing up her data (I guess), while giving a visiting tech reporter a real story that will get people talking about Cardiff Electric’s new computer. Couple things—Joe’s plan wipes out an entire day of work that Cardiff can ill afford and ensures a story about Cardiff as a slipshod, calamity-prone organization whose entire future could be wiped out if its lead programmer plugs a vacuum cleaner into the overloaded outlet in her basement storage space office. And sure, Joe gets everyone working together to solve the problem and (I guess) Cameron will make sure her backup discs aren’t sitting by her speakers, but the whole Machiavellian ploy continues the series’ contrived efforts to keep the “Joe MacMillan, mystery man” engine spinning. If the show just kept springing borderline-ludicrous plot twists like Joe’s this week, at least that’d be something, but its inability to decide what it wants to be makes Halt And Catch Fire tonally off-balance.
Lee Pace remains distanced by this conception of his character. In the pilot, his tortured manipulator was something of a calculated construction, but at least in the abstract there was the promise of a considered plan for him. Four episodes in, Joe is not only what each episode needs him to be, but what each scene in each episode needs him to be, and Pace is receding onscreen because of it. When he gives his rousing speech to the assembled Cardiff employees, his clichéd catchphrases (“We’re hittin’ the radar, people! We’re cookin’ with gas!”) are meant to be oversold, verging on cheap hype. But they’re his speeches to the audience too, and there, they still sound hollow. The show keeps wanting Joe’s rah-rah visionary status both ways—and that makes him veer into cartoonish territory. When, in an identical scene to the one with Cameron at the end of the second episode, Donna, having figured out his fiendish scheme, calls Joe out, he sits back and sneers like a Bond villain, “I’d hate to see their trust broken over something as… minor, as… superficial as this.” As the series’ antihero, Joe MacMillan keeps disappearing into a series of poses, tricks, and would-be soulful glances, with Pace straining to make them cohere. He’s failing.
Scoot McNairy’s Gordon and Kelly Bishé’s Donna, meanwhile, struggle to bring some life to their storyline, with successes coming only through the actors’ intermittent chemistry. Here, the enemy is mundanity—their track is “married couple juggling family and work” and the scenes where they argue about Gordon picking up the kids from school or Donna not being appreciated and getting chewed out at Texas Instruments are as perfunctory as such things get. Bishé comes into her own a bit in the episode, with the cool, competent Donna coming to the rescue and recovering Cameron’s lost data, but here, too, Donna and Gordon’s conflicts are set up and knocked down in such a tossed-off manner that it becomes ever clearer how subservient their story is to Joe’s. In the pilot, Donna’s quick turnaround in supporting Gordon’s dreams was rushed, but welcome enough. Here, when Gordon’s ongoing thoughtlessness comes to a head, he apologizes, reminds her of a sexy anecdote, and they’re smiling and kissing again. It plays less like storytelling shorthand cutting through the inessential than shortchanging the essential due to indifferent writing. (Bishé does look good telling off Joe, and the clear implication that she’s going to be coming on board at Cardiff is more welcome because of it.)
As for Cameron, Davis gets to play the all-too-relatable, stomach-dropping panic of having lost something invaluable on a computer (I still have that one college term paper dream), which looks good on her. But, again, Halt And Catch Fire leads her character in lockstep through some thinly sketched beats: Fight with Donna, apologize to Donna and offer to watch the kids, find out Donna and Gordon were saying mean things about her, steal Donna’s car, decide not to trash Donna and Gordon’s house, apologize to Donna again. Davis’ energy is welcome in a show so pinched by its programming but Cameron has no center—her whiplash mood swings here aren’t motivated beyond the conception of her as “mercurial punk girl.”
Throw in the increasingly crude attempts to integrate Huss’ good ol’ boy executive into the drama (here, after being taunted by Cardiff’s owner, he has some cop buddies beat the shit out of Joe to show who’s the boss), and Halt And Catch Fire continues to reveal itself as an overstuffed, underwritten enterprise.
- A lot has been made of Cameron’s resemblance to Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts in Some Kind Of Wonderful. As someone old enough that Ms. Masterson formed one of his earliest and most enduring movie crushes, I will say that, while Cameron is no Watts, I do appreciate the reference.
- Ron (the reporter) is a sneeringly over-the-top antagonist throughout, but he’s spot-on in response to Joe’s fast-talking spiel: “You just sound a bit canned—like you read it in a book.”
- Glad that Will Greenberg’s neighbor is sticking around after being fired last week. He’s doing a sawed-off McConaughey bit, but it’s been the most energetic thing in the last two episodes.
- “‘Cameron’ in this case is a girl—you don’t find that every day!”
- That Joe/Cameron confrontation on the roof (see picture) looked like it was set to be a big scene but shorted out after about 10 seconds. Strange.
- According to the Internet, the first consumer AC surge protector was invented in 1979. Is it simply ludicrous that someone working on a sensitive computer project in 1983 wouldn’t have one?
- Also, Cameron didn’t know that her speaker magnets would wipe her floppy discs? Cameron. The ahead-of-her-time computer prodigy. Sure, Joe saw she was being careless and wanted to teach her a lesson (to be more careful, I guess?), but these mistakes are just too basic for someone like her to make in the first place.
- “Did it work? Is the reporter gonna write about us? And our PC?”
- Tonight in Star Trek-esque science metaphors: “Imagine an invisible subway system with electrons for trains.”
- This week in down-home Texas guy talk: “You could call her a redneck sack of goat sperm,” “You’re gonna be on the outside with your little pecker waggin’ in the wind.”