“Up Helly Aa” – aired 7/27/2014 (5 stars)
Directed by Terry McDonough & Written by Jason Cahil
Before we talk about the penultimate episode of AMC’s first season of “Halt and Catch Fire”, I’d like to point out that this series has demonstrated a great track record for exciting episodic titles. Be it “FUD”, “The 214s”, or this ninth episode; each title is an invitation to adventure. (See what I did there? “Adventure.”) “Up Helly Aa” has much significance to the episode and character arcs then you may realize. Thankfully, after this current installment of What’cha Reading’s “Still On Fire” series, all answers will be revealed so please stay tuned for our final installment of “Still On Fire” for season one. And don’t forget, season 2 of “Halt and Catch Fire” premiers this Sunday at 10 pm on AMC. Check your local listings.
Our merry band of prodigies, engineers, and visionaries are 300 miles from Las Vegas. In the car ride, Joe (Lee Pace) prepares his speech for COMDEX. Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) takes a look at it, but gets a ketchup smudge near the last line that he’s written. We just make out “…part of your life.” They speak about the importance of the trade show and Joe tells them about a festival held in the Scottish Isles on the coldest day of the year. At midnight, after drinking, singing, and dancing, the people dressed as vikings march up to a giant wooden ship and “the winners burn it to the ground.” Gordon, doesn’t get the point of Joe’s story as he feels it’s out of context, and just groans.
For many of us, especially upon first viewing, it may seem as if Joe is just regaling them with a story of tradition, imagination, and winning. But, the story holds far more weight. The festival Joe is referring to is actually where the episode gets its name from – “Up Helly Aa.” The yearly festival takes place on the last Tuesday of January and has only been cancelled three times during the early to mid 1900’s, due to war and the death of Queen Victoria, and postponed three times in 1900, 1936, and 1965. Taking place in Lerwick, Shetland you could find more information at www.uphellyaa.org
The Cardiff Electric crew arrive in Las Vegas and at the concierge, Joe introduces himself as John Bosworth. The hotel released their room and the manager explains that their business card was declined, along with the corporate account being frozen. Joe then hands the manager his own card, but the manager refuses to accept it as it has a different name – Joe MacMillan. The hotel manager, already suspicious of Joe, denies them a room due to a pending criminal investigation. But, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the scene is when the manager tells Joe that he has a list of over 30 names for the room – “legitimate names.”
So, what now? With a quick idea, Gordon once again proves himself an effective leader and decision maker; he remembers three brothers from Sunnyvale at the demo in 1981. They visit the bumbling brothers presentation for the “OccasionMaster” with a steep price of $900 plus tax. Gordon brings up that he heard IBM is releasing their own multi format printer and then nods towards Joe. He takes them out and in the cafe area of the hotel convinces them to leave with IBM picking up their tab. It’s a great moment as we get to see Joe do what he does best – manipulate and convince by talking. It’s actually pretty ironic as the scene before had the hotel manager turn Joe down for not being a “legitimate name” and it’s this very reason that Joe uses to talk the brothers out of their room. He pretends he’s IBM and scares the brothers with a story of someone he knew that tried to take on IBM and failed. At the end of the scene, was it just me or did you really wish we could’ve seen a flashback to when Joe took his three promotions at IBM (the story Joe MacMillan Sr. tells Cameron in “Adventure.”)
Just as everything seems to be coming together at COMDEX, the computer won’t start. After people start showing up to their suite, excited by Cameron’s spark of creativity by spray painting a banner “There’s a GIANT in this briefcase…” on the show floor, we see the passion Cameron now has for the Giant and selling it at COMDEX. She understands that the machine needs to be successful, not only to validate her own work, but to make Bos’s sacrifice worth something. The set-up she makes to garner the show floor’s attention is also an excellent depiction of Cameron realizing that you don’t necessarily have to fall back on sex appeal to attract people. Earlier, when they first get to the show floor, Donna tells Cameron that the “booth babes” are really porn stars. Every year, the porn industry sets up their own convention at the opposite hotel and many of the stars walk the floor at COMDEX. Cameron, as independent and fierce as ever to make her own path, creates this pyramid with a briefcase chained at the top, along with the banner advertising their suite. The scene is also set to the Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun.”
That night, at the Cardiff Giant suite, Cameron meets Heath (Lou Taylor Pucci) a young man who works at Xerox. He talks to her about pure research and experimentation and of those that created the ethernet. (Xerox PARC) She hits it off with him and they seem like a good fit for one another as they’re both young and highly intelligent. Heath invites Cameron to Palo Alto. California and then asks if she wants pancakes. Joe, while off to the side with Dennis from ComputerLand, sees Cameron leave with Heath and a few other tech guys (who all seem harmless). We then see Lee Pace perfectly register jealousy on Joe’s face. Despite Joe’s distraction, he does manage to leave off with Dennis on a promising note. We’re told that ComputerLand is interested in the Giant as Dennis relays the story of learning that you need a sports car in the window to attract people in so you could sell them a station wagon.
“And you realize what the word ‘jump’ really means.”
Gordon and Donna successfully manage to turn the Giant back on. Early the next morning, while in bed, she tells him that she met Wally Turner (Griff Furst), someone they know from years ago. He told Donna during the Giant party the night before that her and Gordon “weathered the storm.” His words make her feel insecure as she thinks of being stuck in a dead-end job at Texas Instruments and having her mom raise the kids. (Which isn’t really true.) Donna tells Gordon that she would have liked an offer to work at Cardiff Electric, but he assures her that while he did think about it, he couldn’t bring her over to “the freak show.” He explains to her that he had a feeling one night where work was falling behind that if this were a dare for both him and Donna to climb a cliff and the only way back down would be to jump, he wasn’t sure if she would go with him. Donna tells him that they took the jump together once they get married. The idea of taking a “jump”, a leap of faith, is another major aspect of this episode. If anything, the season finale could have been titled “Up Helly Aa” and this one Jump.
Cameron returns from her night out with Heath and the Xerox boys. She wakes Joe up by placing a piece of the Hoover Dam on his nightstand. She tells him that what she liked about it was that there were no circuits or wires and that “it is what it does.” Joe tells her that “maybe you should go to Palo Alto” and she responds “Maybe we should.” This is a moment where we see Joe purposely attempt to destroy his relationship with Cameron out of jealousy. We’ve seen him grow frustrated and self-punish himself in many ways before; for Joe a relationship is a concept he doesn’t feel comfortable with. It’s not about him not getting it; it’s about him not taking a jump. Joe sees Cameron leave with the boys and immediately believes she’s lost interest in him, grown bored with him. She didn’t, as she was just going to enjoy an “entirely too wholesome” night out, but he doesn’t see it that way. For Joe, to understand those around him, he needs to project how he feels and his rationalizations on others. He knows that he grows bored in his relationships, like with Simon Church (D.B. Woodside) years ago, and figuring that it’ll probably happen with Cameron, he’ll end his happiness with her before he could get hurt. Cameron, on the other hand, looks at their relationship as most would. It’s clear that she loves Joe and is afraid he no longer wants her. At his suggestion that “maybe you should go”, she needs to reaffirm that they are still together by saying “maybe we should.”
“To the little guy that strikes first.”
On the main show floor, Gordon and Donna, Joe and Cameron come upon a presentation with a large gathering. We hear a voice speak about their product and say “Because, as Goliath found out, victory goes not to the swift, nor to the strong, but to the little guy who strikes ﬁrst.” As the group begins to further their way through the crowd, a creeping familiarity registers on their faces. It’s Hunt Whitmarsh (Scott Michael Foster) and… BRIAN BRASWELL (Will Greenberg)! Together, both men have formed the Slingshot for Whitmarsh Whitwell Computing. Stealing the ideas from Cardiff Electric, we now begin to realize just how manipulative Hunt is and of how literal the naming of their machine is. The slingshot is what David used to kill Goliath, a giant. For Hunt and Brian, they believe their machine will take out the Cardiff Giant and it would seem that way as their machine is cheaper and faster.
(Remeber the scene from “The 214s” when Donna finds Hunt outside her home? He leaves and we see Brian on his lawn. A HA! Hunt wasn’t there to say goodbye to Donna, he was there for Brian. And it would make sense that he seemed flustered when initially caught by Donna.)
Back in their suite, Donna and Gordon have a blow-out. It’s not unexpected, especially as it had seemed their relationship and marriage made a significant turnaround. He asks his wife if she was sleeping with Hunt and while she says she only kissed him, she feels it should have become an affair. Gordon readily admits to being a “part-time alcoholic; full-time failure of a father.” Scoot McNairy delivers the line perfectly and he doesn’t betray the character of Gordon in any way by admitting his mistakes. Gordon recognizes, along with the audience, that Donna has sound reasons for feeling neglected in their marriage. Yet, while that plot has been criticized for feeling too cliche, Gordon actually tells Donna that she’s “a cliche, a cheap rip-off.” It his line that delivers such an underlying power that actually makes the story arc of Donna seem so important to the conclusion of their arc (Donna and Hunt). The idea of showing Donna’s infidelity may have felt contrived to certain viewers, but this realization that Hun’t been playing her all along turns the idea of an affair on its head.
Possibly the best aspect of the revelation that Hunt has stolen Cardiff’s ideas is that it almost promises a confrontation between Joe and Hunt. They do end up meeting with one another and we learn a little more about Joe that finally concludes his past mystery departure from IBM. Hunt tells Joe that he looked into his past and found out that after he had an argument with his father, he ruptured a water main that flooded an entire IBM data center. Both men debate their machines and what it means to truly create something for yourself. Hunt tells Joe that his mistake was “falling in love” with Cameron’s “query-based interface” as it takes up too much memory and slows the Giant down. It’s fascinating to think of how Hunt phrases Joe’s mistake was “falling in love” as that was Cameron’s objective in creating her OS. She wanted to make people fall in love and in many ways she created something so unique that Joe not only fell in love with her creation but also fell in love with her.
Perhaps that’s what makes the following scene when Joe rides the elevator with Cameron back to their suite and takes her hand to hold it so striking. The idea of a physical intimacy based on love and a mutual respect would have originally seemed like such a foreign concept to Joe from “I/O.” But here, nine episodes in, we see Joe holding hands with Cameron.
Up Helly Aa
When they arrive at the suite, we see Gordon’s response to the Slingshot is by removing Cameron’s OS. It’s a challenging move on Gordon’s part, but ultimately “it’s what’s right for the machine.” By stripping out her creation, the Cardiff Giant runs faster than the Slingshot and will be cheaper. Cameron doesn’t agree and Gordon’s move upsets her greatly. Being in a business where so many become successful through ripping off others work is a heartless way of doing business and sadly, too much of Cameron’s heart is in the Cardiff Giant. Joe tells Gordon to leave her OS out and so Cameron hurriedly leaves with Joe chasing her once more. Tragically, this appears to be the killing strike to their relationship as Cameron’s reply to Joe’s “I want you with me.” is to place her OS back into the Giant; something that he can’t do or it’ll leave Cardiff with their throats sliced once again.
The very next scene is the sales pitch by Joe on the trade show floors at COMDEX. During his pitch someone from the crowd asks about the OS they heard it has. When asked what’s unique about the Giant, Joe tells him that their PC isn’t their friend, it’s their employee. He speaks of the Giant being a waste of time and a failure if it doesn’t function in servicing the very basic (almost primal) needs of the user. No longer needing his notes, he looks at them one final time, but notices that ketchup smudge Cameron made on his paper by “…part of your life.” He immediately is reminded of losing Cameron and tosses his papers back in his suitcase and then tells the crowd that the machine they built cost them people. Gordon agrees with him and says “It’s in the damn metal.” For once, we get the feeling that Gordon and Joe are now a team. They’ve “weathered the storm”, coming a long way from Gordon interrupting Joe’s sales pitch in “I/O” and drunkenly offending Hirohiko and Shuji in “Adventure.” After the talk, Dennis of ComputerLand returns and begins negotiating a deal with Joe for the Cardiff Giant.
A broken Donna, Gordon, and Joe return to their suite and sit broodingly in the room. Unlike the cheerful celebration of “Up Helly Aa” where winners get to burn the model ship down, Cardiff may have been able to burn Hunt and Brian down in the race to show who is “good enough”, but they certainly lost much. Donna and Gordon’s marriage is back on rocky grounds and Cameron is awol. They open a bottle of warm champagne and Joe tells them that he’ll get ice. While his head is sunken and he slowly trods down the hall, his attention is caught by another room. It’s dark, filled with excitement and hushed reverance, and quite frankly, looks like some sort of ritualistic ceremony as a young man lights candles in the room. He places a floppy disk into the familiar looking PC and …
“Hello, I’m Macintosh.” it says while the PC shines bright.
Joe is stopped in his tracks and just blankly stares at the Macintosh. Heath from Xerox is standing next to him and asks if he’s okay.
“Halt and Catch Fire” is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix. Season 2 premieres this Sunday on AMC at 10 pm ET. Check your local listings.