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The human element will always get in the way on Halt And Catch Fire

Toby Huss, Mackenzie Davis (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)
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“Our whole approach, the human touch, it’s now completely and totally... ”

So rants Joe MacMillan (final expletive cut off by end credits) at the conclusion of “Tonya and Nancy,” responding to the news that Donna’s Rover team has managed to crack a seemingly insoluble coding problem, thus securing major new funding and putting Joe and Gordon’s Comet web indexing site in sudden jeopardy. The dramatic irony is that Cameron, sitting in loaded silence listening to Joe’s angry analysis, is the human touch in the mix, having responded to the desperate Bos’ complaints about his programmer (poor Cecil) and his team’s inability to crack the problem by fixing it herself. And if that irony partakes of Halt And Catch Fire’s ongoing reliance on on-the-nose symbolism, it also restates the show’s theme in a reliably affecting way.


As I’ve talked about, the main thing that keeps Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna’s individual and collective insight and technical acumen from making them the household names that their truly impressive array of innovations warrants is the human element. These four people (and Bos) have the skills to become not only wealthy beyond their wildest dreams (well, maybe not Joe’s), but to find the fulfillment they’re seeking. But we know they will never truly capitalize on their inventions. (Whether the portable PC, online or console gaming, anti-virus protection, the entire concept of the internet, or, this season, the mapping of the web that will produce the likes of Yahoo! or Google.) These characters live parallel to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and their ilk, and unlike Mad Men, which put real-word advertizing successes into the head of Don Draper, there’s no fudging of facts to elevate Halt’s heroes’ fortunes for dramatic purposes. These people aren’t doing badly—Joe and Gordon turn down several offers for Comet from AOL and others here, representing millions of dollars—but Halt And Catch Fire (apologies) caught fire once it abandoned the idea that it was really about the technology. It’s the human element.

Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

Which isn’t to say that the technological components of Halt And Catch Fire aren’t a lot of fun to watch burst forth from the minds of the main characters. Tonight, Joe and Gordon’s rising success with the human-indexed, “curated” search engine Comet sees them assembling a colorful team of obsessives (or “surfers,” as Joe explains they call them, thus inventing another concept on the fly), holding raucously fun office games (where the winning indexers get to throw a pie in either Joe or Gordon’s kisser), and bringing in a library expert as their “chief ontologist” to truly organize their data. That that expert, Dr. Katie Herman, is played by new cast member Anna Chlumsky makes that news especially promising, as she brings a bespectacled, whip-smart geek-girl goofiness that livens the place up immediately. She passes Joe and Gordon’s interview with her dizzyingly expansive answer about how she’d organized her brother’s death metal CD collection (fans of Cannibal Corpse, Cradle of Filth, and Obituary please have it out over her sub-categorizations in the comments), and uncovering levels of meaning to their test question of how to categorize the search term “barks,” that even they hadn’t thought of. (“We don’t even know the answer to our own trick question,” muses the delighted Gordon.)

Scoot McNairy, Kate Kneeland, Lee Pace, Anna Chlumsky (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

Comet, with its disparate collection of esoteric oddball authorities on every conceivable subject is presented as an ideal home for such people, without its rambunctious morale exercises being codified into the sort of mandatory fun that smacks of carefully researched HR policy. Later in the episode, we see Gordon and Joe playing a late night game of pool in the office while they talk over their various, moderately lucrative buyout offers, goofing around about Joe’s fear of “click beetles” burrowing into his ears and Star Trek II. When Joe asks the smiling Gordon “What are you really excited about?,” Gordon’s immediate, “This, right here. You and me,” is incredibly touching and warm. After Gordon makes an impossible shot that Joe had bet would signal their sale of Comet, Gordon freezes for a long moment, only for Joe to get his biggest laugh of the series by assuring him, “We’re not taking the money.” That Joe, the messianic, manipulative Joe, doesn’t exist in this iteration of the pair’s relationship. This Joe and this Gordon are as in harmony as they’ve even been.

Anna Chlumsky (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

Things aren’t going as smoothly for Donna, as her Rover team stalls out, having rushed into release with a buggy version in order to compete with sites like Comet that are using a more hands-on, human approach to indexing the exponentially expanding web. Spying on their competitor, Joe and Gordon come away unimpressed by Rover, with the visiting Cameron grading it “a solid B for concept, but demerits for poor execution.” (She also takes a peek at the HTML, spotting in a moment how it could be improved.)

Complicating Donna’s life, of course, if the fact that Comet is her baby’s baby, as daughter Haley (Susanna Skaggs, making the Clarks’ younger daughter an endearingly normal teenager this season) is excelling as one of Comet’s “obsessives.” (She’s the one who gets to whap her dad in the face with a whipped cream pie, and comes home to her mom’s house toting the signed surfboard trophy-totem representing her triumph.) As I’ve suggested before, this inevitable conflict rings of contrived drama, but Skaggs and Kerry Bishé navigate the narrative clunkiness as adeptly as Haley and Donna do their relationship here. Their traditional “girls’ night out” scuttled by Donna’s sweatpants-signaled tiredness, the two bond over takeout and their shared admission that their very similar jobs are leaving them very similarly pooped. Haley, trampled as ever by rebellious older sister Joanie (Kathryn Newton), takes encouragement from her growing independence and makes a stand on her choice of food and TV programming. (She wants to watch the Olympics, specifically, the infamous figure skating showdown that forms the episode’s title.) Smiling, she places her coveted surfboard trophy as a lap-table, the three Clark women using it to rest their snacks as they hang out in cozy harmony.

Sasha Morfaw, Kerry Bishé (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

At Donna’s work, however, there’s a different sort of rivalry, as Rover co-leaders Bos and Tanya (Sasha Morfaw) continue to clash over the project’s direction, to Donna’s annoyance. Managing the human factor has been a minefield for Donna, considering her long friendship with now-subordinate Bos, and her affection for her former assistant Tanya, but it’s one she manages with hard-assed aplomb here. “In the meantime, have some grit,” Donna tells off Bos for urging her to sell off Rover rather than stick with what Tanya assures them will become a “billion dollar business.” But Donna also calls out Tanya, too, for her unwillingness or inability to get on the same page with Bos. “Don’t come whining to the boss,” snaps Donna, “This is 101 bullshit. Do better, both of you.” If, by embracing the corporate model of innovation, Donna was positioned against the individualistic paths taken by Joe, Gordon, and Cameron, the extent to which she’s managing that human element within the company stays true to her character.


And that human aspect runs even deeper there, as we see tonight when Tanya, upbraided by Bos for not backing up his assessment of Rover with Donna, reveals that she knows not only that Bos is deeply in debt thanks to that bad investment, but that he’s so fired up to sell off the promising technology because the infusion of cash would dig him out. Morfaw’s great tonight, with Tanya warily sitting through Bos’ folksiness at a lunch pitch of sushi (Bos calling one dish “Japanese soul food” isn’t as endearing to Tanya as he thinks), and eventually laying out just how invested she is both in Rover, and in her relationship with Bos. “I haven’t breathed a word of this because I have your back,” she tells off Bos, leaving him smarting and chastened by how easily Tanya has seen through him.

Cameron’s talk with Bos is similarly torn between business and friendship. Cameron has been, as she jokes to Bos, having a “pathetic early mid-life crisis” since the cancellation of Pilgrim, impulsively buying, in turn, a balky motorcycle, a bucolic parcel of land (after the bike breaks down there), and a used Airstream trailer to park on the land until, as she tells the trailer’s owner, she builds “something permanent.” At Cameron’s campfire trailer-warming party, Bos and Gordon play on-the-nose symbol-signaling by calling out Cam’s escape cycle as her Space Bike, but Cameron’s rootless desire for some place to call home remains one of her most defining—and affecting—characteristics. Trying out the trailer’s cramped bed with Joe while the owners wait patiently outside, Cameron taunts Joe by calling the Airstream a “jewel,” and promising that it will “sweep you away to a magical land.” As far as Cameron Howe has come from the duffel bag full of broken-girl clichés she started out as, her need to create her own worlds outside of this one remains, and remains quietly touching. Her fury when her shiny silver home shows its age with plumbing problems and a bout of storm-aided runaway mayhem finds her, clad only in her panties and a t-shirt in the rain (and muck, and sprung septic tank) screaming to the heavens and hurling one of her lawn chairs heedlessly into the pouring void.

Toby Huss, Annabeth Gish, Sasha Morfaw (Photo: Bob Mahoney/AMC)

So when Bos comes to lend a capable hand at the repairs and Cameron (spotting the expensive boat compass she’d gifted him stowed in his pickup’s utility box) realizes the extent of his financial troubles, she tells him to forget about all the complications of their interrelated business conflicts and tell her what’s wrong. “You took a risk. You got out of your comfort zone. I’m proud of you,” said Bos before Cameron found the compass, and now, seeing that Bos’ attempt to do the same has cost him his boat (and his IRA), she chooses to jump in and fix Rover’s search algorithm, even though she knows that it will result in Joe’s distress that ends the episode. As Donna told Haley when her daughter balked at talking shop with someone who’s technically her competitor, their relationship is too important to get jammed up by that. The same goes for Cameron, here, who responds to Bos’ not-quite plea for help, “In a word, darlin’, we don’t got you” by secretly making sure that Rover takes a huge leap forward—right into Comet’s path. Everyone on Halt And Catch Fire discovers eventually, and repeatedly, what the damned human factor costs you.


Stray observation

  • There may be a whiff of Sorkin-esque “female genius flibbertigibbet/male wish-fulfillment” to the ebulliently geeky Katie, but Chlumsky deftly hops around the possible cliché, creating a viable, unique character from her first moment. The idea of the bookish brainiac riding herd over Comet’s collection of Mutiny-like weirdo experts blends just perfectly in Chlumsky’s hands, as her enthusiasm for the project finds her both fitting in with and improving the team’s endeavor right off the bat.
  • She does also clearly have a thing for fellow geek Gordon, which comes off, in this early stage, like a perfect match, really.
  • There’s a procedure in place for when Haley stumbles across one of the proliferating porn sites in her indexing, as she calls out to her dad, amusedly, “Following company protocol, I am stepping away from the machine.”
  • “Is Scientology a religion or a cult?”
  • The Blue Man Group, now Haley—Gordon’s getting covered in goop a lot this season.
  • Donna is as happy and proud as we’ve ever seen her when reading what turns out to be Haley’s Comet synopsis of Richard Pryor’s web entry.
  • Rover team member Vera notes the suspicious coincidence of exes Donna and Gordon coming up with essentially the same idea at the same time.
  • Poor Cecil (Cristian Gonzalez) has to sheepishly take praise for Cameron’s secret help at the launch party for the Rover expansion. Donna’s not fooled, cornering him with a smiling, “I have to ask, who wrote the new algorithm?”
  • Gordon and Bos, as they watch Cameron’s trailer subtly rocking as Cam and Joe make out inside, sees Bos pronounce: “As of tonight, I am officially giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
  • Rover’s top search terms, according to Bos, are “sex” (naturally) and “Comet” (unfortunately).
  • “We’re so screwed, the light from screwed is gonna take a thousand miles to reach us.”
  • Check out Erik Adams A.V. Club interview with Anna Chlumsky, you.
  • Cameron’s muddy freakout is set to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” Enjoy!

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.