“When I met you, you know what I longed for? The day when we would get to work together, when we finally had something that would be worthy.”
“And that thing is an IBM clone?”
It’s been a few weeks since the Halt And Catch Fire/Mad Men comparisons have come up. When Halt was launched, such references were everywhere—I certainly made them—and with good reason. Joe MacMillan was the 1980s computer industry Don Draper, a brilliant manipulator with a mysterious past who used his gifts and his charisma to not only excel in his chosen business field but also bend others in that industry to his will. The white male antihero in period dress, his inner torment justification for our fascination. Tonight’s episode “Giant,” does itself the disservice of invoking the ghost of one of the most indelible Mad Men episodes in a way that only points out how Halt And Catch Fire is yet another AMC drama chasing the legacy of one of its betters.
In “The Wheel,” Don Draper’s masterful pitch to Kodak executives about that contraption people once used to display dull vacation photos was the culmination of a season’s worth of character building, a revelatory encapsulation of the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, all in the guise of a simple professional obligation. In “Giant,” the act of product naming muffs a similar opportunity, with the christening of Cardiff’s long-gestating new PC bogging down in a swamp of bad metaphor and signature Halt And Catch Fire histrionics. As the quote at the top points up, this show’s greatest failure is how it, unlike Mad Men, has failed to find meaning in its protagonists’ profession.
The pilot (ever more looking like a bait-and-switch) hinted at the idea that the central theme of Halt And Catch Fire was to be that of frustrated dreamers choosing to bend the world to their vision. Cameron the programmer, Gordon the engineer, and Joe the visionary saw the future of computers as central to society and banded together to risk it all in a common goal. But the writing of Halt has continually lost sight of that idea, with Joe, in the messianic tone he states everything, giving equal emphasis to the concept of Cardiff’s knockoff PC being on Sears’ shelves by Christmas. Here again, the show can’t make its own premise resonate, as Joe, launching in to marketing mode, underlines how Halt’s writing falters in making the plot’s stakes resonate with the characters’ arcs.
Joe wants to name the new PC the Contrail, which, as Gordon angrily points out, is the exhaust from jets. (When Joe claims to want to leave other computer companies in the dust, Gordon rightly objects, “Contrail is the dust!”) Gordon, as ever feeling emasculated, counters with the tossed-off suggestion of calling the Cardiff PC “The Giant,” an idea so laden with metaphorical historical significance that the episode spends the rest of the running time spelling it out.
As Gordon explains in a drunken bedtime story to his daughters, the Cardiff Giant was a notorious hoax wherein a farmer planted a fake, fossilized behemoth in a field in order to attract attention and rake in some bucks. Then legendary huckster P.T. Barnum swooped in, copied the Giant, exhibited it as the real deal, and made even more money. In this construction lies Halt’s mucky, overwritten quest for resonance. See, Gordon created his own computer (Symphonic), which Joe heard about and then recruited Gordon to clone IBM’s new PC. Except that Symphonic wasn’t a fake—it was a theoretically revolutionary computer Gordon couldn’t get to work properly. But that doesn’t stop Gordon at episode’s end from standing in the huge grave-like pit he’s dug in his backyard in a fit of bloodied, Close Encounters-style mania and telling the understandably aghast Donna, “I’m looking for the Giant.” Like Gordon’s dream that kicked off the episode (where he saw himself electrocuted in the hurricane that formed the climax last week,) the strived-for impact smacks of writerly effort and just doesn’t land as intended.
Which isn’t to say that Scoot McNairy isn’t solid as he continues to embody Gordon’s increasingly unhinged fingerhold on relevance. Gordon should be the most relatable character in the show—Joe and Cameron are the sexy, unattached geniuses with secrets, while Gordon is the short-sleeved everyman, fighting his way through self-doubt and the pressures of family and practicality. From his first scene, the show has offered McNairy the opportunity to get under the skin of a certain type, and McNairy acquits himself well—even when the shifts in his character are as jarring as tonight’s. It makes sense that Gordon’s increasing marginalization at Cardiff is making him more reckless and frantic as he tries to assert himself—McNairy’s darting, desperate eyes under his glasses continue to signal his inner turmoil, and his repeated appeals to his daughters’ self-sufficiency speaks volumes about his relationship with his wife. But, no matter how many of those beers he pounds while he recklessly parents his daughters in Donna’s absence, his final epiphany/breakdown comes across more like a writer’s contrivance.
Meanwhile, Cardiff hurtles on toward financial ruin. Toby Huss’ Bosworth gets the news that the PC division (essentially Cardiff’s only raison d’être) is out of money, leading to a series of choices that continue to make Bosworth one of the show’s most unexpectedly appealing characters, even as he continues to make little sense. Manipulated by a guy he just hired into mortgaging his company’s future on a project he doesn’t understand, Bosworth has been portrayed as a Philistine hayseed, a brutal manipulator, and a benevolent father figure. Huss is great in the role, even when, as tonight, he’s called upon to play each scene from scratch. When confronting Cardiff’s boss, he’s now defiant and quixotic, extolling the “kids” working on the PC and talking of the need to follow Joe’s lead. He cold-cocks the stereotypical redneck industrial designer guru he’d been pushing on Joe (at a strip club called “Strokers,” no less!) when said redneck suggests Joe might be gay, even though he’d sworn to destroy Joe a few episodes before. Character growth is fine, as long as it’s presented that way and not like a hastily sketched-in plot contrivance.
It’s by dint of personality that guest star D.B. Woodside doesn’t entirely fall into plot contrivance category. Ever a welcome presence (he’ll always be Buffy’s kickass Principal Wood to me), Woodside’s Simon, Joe’s first choice to craft Cardiff’s computer design, manages to assert a sense of personhood, even as he’s brought in to act as human exposition for the Joe MacMillan mystery. A brilliant artist, he and Joe, it turns out, had been lovers before Joe’s inability to commit to real feelings led Simon to leave him. Woodside, with his signature strapping gravitas, succeeds in creating an entire human being in the midst of his function as parallel backstory to Joe’s relationship with Cameron. Even his revelation that he’s dying (presumably from AIDS) is handled with an affectingly dignified understatement—Woodside’s Simon simply refuses to be a mere functionary in the Joe MacMillan show. As his incredulous question above shows, Simon is a visitor from a world outside of Halt And Catch Fire who inadvertently points out the fact that the series has an emptiness at its center.
- “No, I stole your keys—your car just turns on when I put them in.”
- Joe and Cameron’s electricity-powered make out session occurs right after Gordon’s electrocution dream. Because electricity.
- Oh, Donna and her boss went to that conference and almost made out. Kerry Bishé, too, is doing yeoman work with an inconsistent character. Here’s hoping the whole flirtation plotline is dropped entirely from now on.
- The future of the Cardiff PC remains an interesting and under-imagined idea. Gordon’s not wrong when he objects to the idea that Simon’s design values form over functionality, or that Cameron’s plans for a “machine with a soul” will mean the computer won’t work properly. One of the other main failures of Halt And Catch Fire is to fully engage with the creativity vs. practicality dilemma of creating the PC.
- The show keeps putting Joe in very 1980s romantic hero moments—tonight, he sprints after Cameron’s cab (in a Members Only jacket, no less).
- That being said, Joe’s reply to Cameron asking him if he’ll get tired of her like he did of Simon (“I don’t know”) ends with an affecting ambiguity that both Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis play nicely.