Still On Fire: Recap/Review of Halt and Catch Fire – “High Plains Hardware” – Spoilers Abound!
While watching AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” last summer, it almost felt as if every week audiences were being treated to a great mini-movie of sorts. Sunday following the premiere episode, “I/O” (which we’ve recapped here), felt as close as you could get to watching the fastest green-lit sequel ever made. For myself, there was a real sense of excitement as I awaited the next step of Cardiff Electric’s journey and by the time the opening titles rolled, I was hooked. No, addicted! With that said, something different happened with “High Plains Hardware”, the third installment in the first season of “Halt and Catch Fire.” As I’ve watched the episode more than 10 times by the time of this writing, I’ve grown to understand and appreciate it even more. Like certain wine, it aged well.
“High Plains Hardware” – aired 6/15/2014 – (5 stars)
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Jason Cahill
It’s another weekday morning. As the Clark family gets ready for work and school, a small bird is dying on their property. The first shot is of Gordon (Scoot McNairy) looking over the bird as it chirps. It’s obvious the day has not started well for him and he looks worn out. Donna (Kerry Bishe) tells him that the girls need to get to school and that his car is in the shop. Thankfully, their neighbor Brian (first introduced in “FUD”) steps in to help out. “Poor little sucker. Let go, let God right? Hey man, don’t sweat today.” Brian says to Gordon to reassure him. Will Greenberg brings an authenticity to Brian Braswell and while he may not be as gonzo as he was on “Workaholics”, he brings a sort of energy to the role that plays off of Scoot McNairy’s sulky Gordon.
While Gordon begins his day mulling over a dead bird, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) wakes to the cleaning man as she’s temporarily living inside the Cardiff Electric building. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is in his apartment when his stereo wakes him. We see a few shots of various electronics, along with his stereo system. He seems very mechanical and as Tubeway Army featuring Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” plays, he just stares at the various electronics in his apartment. By this third episode, Lee Pace has perfected the enigma of Joe MacMillan and this opening scene only makes us want to know more about him. If this were “Blade Runner”, we’d swear he just might be a replicant.
Gordon delivers a convoluted speech about being unique and a snowflake to one of Cardiff’s engineers. We know where this is going even before his 11:45 barges in. We learn that Gordon is laying off a list of people, which makes sense since they lost 68% of their core billings. The man demands that his recommendation letter be signed and shows hostility when wishing that he drives past the building one day seeing that Cardiff Electric’s “PC vision quest crashed and burns.” Vision quest? Burns? Those two words stick out. I wonder if that will ever come back in some way.
This is the opening theme for “High Plains Hardware.” The difference is noticeable right from the start.
The opening of the third episode of “Halt and Catch Fire” is one of the first changes we notice and still remains unexplained as far as I know. If anyone can answer why the opening theme was different from the first two episodes, please leave a comment and let me know.
Joe MacMillan speaks of Coleco and Atari to the engineers remaining at Cardiff. He tells them that they will release a truly portable computer that should weigh much less than 28 lbs. The engineers start to become rowdy at this idea so MacMillan pulls Gordon out of the room. He’s worried about the engineers as they don’t share his vision, nor do they believe his dream is reasonable. This is one of the first moments within the episode that we begin to see the ideas of reality vs. fantasy come to life. While this concept ran through “I/O” and “FUD”, writer Jason Cahill begins to explore it even more during “High Plains Hardware.”
While some former employees are still clearing out of their work spaces, Cameron loots the office for various items. She’s lost in her music and she takes belongings from ex-employees including a pair of bowling shoes. She returns to her new work station in the basement and as she continues to stuggle with the code, she types “Not good enough” on her screen. Let’s not forget we see more of that Ranger’s orange soda.
As Cameron contends with more feelings of self-doubt in her ability to write the BIOS and contends with the possibility that she may not be as good as she believed herself to be, Gordon and the engineers decide that their work space should be called “the kill room” as Brian suggests that they’ll probably all kill each other while working on the PC. In an equally stressful situation, MacMillan begins courting Venture Capitalists. He recognizes that Cardiff Electric needs money for their PC venture and speaks with Aaron from Iger and Littlefield. He flew in from New York and he’s skeptical about Cardiff in the wake of IBM’s raid. John Bosworth (Toby Huss) is annoyed as he feels MacMillan is undermining him, especially considering that Nathan Cardiff (Graham Beckel) gave approval to Joe to court venture capitalists money.
For the first time, we see Donna at Texas Instruments. She’s with her boss, Hunt Whitmarsh (Scott Michael Foster). Hunt, we learn, shares history with Donna as they went to school together. They speak about how far they’ve come since school and joke about “climbing ladders and quarterly targets.” Before he asks her for a report he needs in a meeting, he comments about her “marking time, waiting for something better to come along.” His comment immediately registers with her and we know she’s thinking about Gordon. It’s an important shift in this episode to see more of the Clark’s marriage through Donna’s perspective. We know she’s craving more from her marriage to Gordon and has already felt neglected as he has become consumed with MacMillan’s plan to reverse engineer an IBM PC.
Back at Cardiff, Cameron is still caught in a rut. She calls MacMillan, but Debbie (Bianca Malinowski) answers the phone. Cameron is thrown off guard a little as she couldn’t get through to MacMillan directly and hangs up. It’s understood that she’s calling for him so she could get her mind off the current issue of being “stuck.” While Cameron is thinking of MacMillan, he’s currently trying to sell Aaron on Cardiff Electric’s PC venture. Aaron is well informed and is aware of IBM raiding the company and addresses both Bosworth and MacMillan’s caginess. He tells them that he knows their cash from system packages are wearing out and requests what they are actively doing to save the company. While MacMillan attempts to sell Aaron and save face by telling him of the big marketing campaign they have planned, Bosworth steamrolls the meeting by undermining MacMillan when speaking of going out to “mom and pop stores and county fairs.” The meeting naturally ends on a sour note and both MacMillan and Bosworth have to search elsewhere for money.
Back at home, Donna is with her mother, Susan, played by Annette O’ Toole. (The fan in my has to point out that she played Lana Lang in “Superman 3” and was Martha Kent on “Smallville.” Hey, isn’t Scoot McNairy in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”?) She brings the children an R.I.P. Bowser electronic tombstone for the bird outside their home. Donna remarks “Not exactly a birds name.” Her mom and dad have a catalog business of tech items and have a good working relationship with the Japanese. We find out a little more about Hunt and that he has a foreign wife (she’s Canadian), and that management likes him. While Donna’s mother speaks of Hunt, we see on Donna’s face her reflection about his life and hers.
“A man needs to seek shelter.”
MacMillan meets Nathan Cardiff and John Bosworth at a steakhouse. Cardiff no longer seems to hold as much animosity towards MacMillan as we’ve seen in earlier episodes, but we still get the feeling that he doesn’t like him all too much. Cardiff tells him that “A man needs to seek shelter. I believe we have that in common.” The idea of seeking shelter brings to mind a literal and figurative sense for the current arc of all the main characters. Joe, for one, is looking for shelter from his own ambiguity. Since “I/O” he’s been running from something unspecified while chasing this dream to “create something no one else has the balls to build.” Bosworth, becoming increasingly uneasy with his status, previously steamrolled the potential venture capitalists in rejection that Cardiff Electric would be restructured with him answering to someone else. Cardiff tells MacMillan that while he’s the “vision guy”, Bosworth makes all the financial decisions. MacMillan reluctantly agrees to those conditions while trying to make a point for them needing smart money, not just any money for their PC. Cardiff tells them that he’s set up a meeting with Louise “Lulu” Lutherford (Jean Smart), a wealthy Texas socialite.
Here’s something you may have missed. Bosworth brings drinks to the table and places a glass of white wine in front of MacMillan. “I guessed” he says and we see a look of annoyance on MacMillan’s face. He isn’t happy with Bosworth’s choice and it seems as if it may have been a crack at his sexuality. While nothing has been made of this yet, Bosworth and MacMillan are polar opposites and two very different kind of men. While Bosworth isn’t necessarily mean spirited, it would seem as if he tried to get one on Joe with the glass of white wine. When the waiter comes over to take their orders, Cardiff and Bosworth make their selections. Bosworth orders the porter house rare. MacMillan says “I’ll have the same.” There are so many different ways to explore this scene and the context of it, but for now, it would potentially spoil further plot developments. (Some of which happen in “High Plains Hardware” and some that occur later on in the season.)
Back at Cardiff, Gordon begins to make progress. However, Brian continually complains saying the work can’t be done. He convinces Gordon to speak with MacMillan and tell him that the work can’t be done. He heads off to tell MacMillan, but then rethinks it. Cameron is still stuck, but this time MacMillan calls her. He tells her that he’s aware that she called earlier and asks if she wants him to come down to where she is. Cameron doesn’t and remains in control of her “relationship” with Joe. After she hangs up on him, it appears as if he’s annoyed that Cameron didn’t want him.
Later that night, Gordon and Donna are both at work on their own projects. Donna tells Gordon that she needs to finish, but he subtly insists that she help him. We get to see Donna’s intelligence showcased here when she comes up with a plan to split the motherboard and piggyback by doubling the chips. Gordon immediately recognizes that this will solve the current trouble with the ram. I loved this scene as we got to see more of Kerry Bishe’s Donna. She’s been an important character throughout the first two episodes, but we didn’t get to fully see her story until now.
Cameron is still sleeping in the Cardiff Electric building. She dances through the empty offices and walks into Bosworth’s office. She begins to look through his stuff and is startled when he announces that he’s still in the office. He asks her if she thinks it’s a good idea to be wearing a dead man’s shoes. Bosworth, of course, is referring to Lloyd’s bowling shoes Cameron took earlier in “High Plains Hardware.” He tells her that Lloyd had three kids, was a good bowler and Lutheran. For the majority of the scene, Cameron remains silent just listening to Bosworth. He then asks her what the difference between GOTO and GOSUB is. She explains to him and it’s one of the first times we see her in a professional way. I like that Cameron didn’t disrespect Bosworth and it shows the relationship she has with MacMillan. Through their shared time, he’s become more of her contemporary and not a figure of authority. She also sees through his performance and while it doesn’t give her reason to remain dismissive of who he is, we understand why she begins to respect Bosworth. He also happens to be the first man we see with her that doesn’t necessarily have any preconceived thoughts about her and treats her as a Cardiff employee. MacMillan and Gordon need her for the BIOS and have been relating to her in a particularly one-sided way. While Cameron isn’t the easiest person to socialize with, MacMillan and Gordon haven’t made any effort in making her feel welcome. It’s easy to argue that there’d be no reason for them to interact with her, especially Gordon for legal reasons, but MacMillan has already initiated a certain kind of friendship with her that undermines his position in relation to hers.
Before Cameron steps out of Lloyd’s shoes, Bosworth tells her that “You could work here as late as you’d like, but you can’t live here.”
The following day, Gordon tells the engineers of the layered array and the new plan to split the mother board. He keeps it to himself that his wife came up with the idea and the engineers quickly warm up to it. Brian pulls Gordon off to the side and asks what they’re doing. He’s not into the layered array as he cites that if they keep rethinking the wheel, they’ll just come up with a square wheel. Once again, Gordon allows himself to be undermined by his neighbor Brian and pulls the plug on the new plan.
Debbie gives MacMillan directions to Louise Rutherford’s estate and he says “Well, money’s money, right?” It’s a comment not geared for Debbie to understand and it goes right over her head. As MacMillan prepares himself to meet with an investor he feels is ill suited for their project, Cameron receives her first paycheck – a total of $382.67 She cashes it immediately and goes on a bit of a shopping spree of junk food. She proudly walks the streets of Texas as she finally has a sense of worth. She meets a group of street punks that remind her of herself. She takes a likening to Judy who tells her they’re waiting for it to get dark so they could go tagging and pound some vodka. Judy’s friend, Ajax, tells her that they don’t have an automobile and they don’t have any alcohol. Cameron looks across the street and decides for them to check into a hotel room to party. Inside the hotel room, the kids thrash to punk rock music, drink, get high, and are extremely rude to the cleaning lady. Cameron remains off to the side and feels as if she no longer fits in with the crowd. She drinks a little, but then lays down only to be tattooed by Ajax. She goes to the bathroom and while looking at the set of blocks he drew on her arm, she begins to write code on the mirror with lipstick. She’s still stuck, but realizes that she won’t find answers with her new crowd so she quietly leaves. We get an underlying hint towards Cameron’s maturity and Mackenzie Davis once again shines as the prodigy on “Halt and Catch Fire.”
MacMillan and Bosworth meet with Jean Smart’s Lulu. She’s perfect as the “bored, poisonous dilettante” and has a wild chemistry as she plays off of Lee Pace’s MacMillan and Toby Huss’s Bosworth. She speaks of growing bored with the opera and introduces both men to her boy-toy, Travis (Travis Smith). Cutting to the chase, she tells them that she wants 80% for 10 million. This angers MacMillan and he immediately has a knee-jerk reaction to her offer. Bosworth attempts to cool him down and talks with Lulu, but she knows that she wasn’t first on Nathan Cardiff’s list of investors. She has them right where she wants them. Over dinner, they discuss Sally Ride and Lulu asks MacMillan what he thinks of the space program to which he kills the mood by telling the guests that the Soviets did it twice. He believes the space program is a gimmick. This exchange of dialogue could have easily been overlooked, but it seems far more important as it adds a sort of credence to MacMillan’s story of being far more interested in Sputnik than in sports. Lulu asks MacMillan if he believes “it’s first or not at all” and that adds to his whole idea of being driven to build this computer in the first place. Gordon in “I/O” tells MacMillan outside the theater that they all missed it. Gordon, as we know, has settled for mediocrity in his life and essentially gave up on his dreams after the failure of the Symphonic. MacMillan, on the other hand, has not settled for anything less than what he dreams since being a child.
Lulu retorts on the dinner conversation by telling off MacMillan that “it’s just knowing your side of the saddle” which prompts him to destroy the deal in a far different way than Bosworth’s “can do, Texas spirit” while meeting with venture capitalists. Lulu asks Travis to bring them all a bottle of brandy as they celebrate. MacMillan follows him into the room and closes the door behind him. He doesn’t say a word and when Travis tells him that he doesn’t know jack about brandy, he places his hand over his and forcefully kisses him. It’s a debated scene as many viewers begin to question the direction Joe MacMillan is heading in. I’ve seen several sites ask: Is Joe gay? Is Joe bisexual? But I believe writer Jason Cahill and director Karyn Kusama (best known for directing “Girlfight”, featuring the debut of actress Michelle Rodriguez) use this development as something far more interesting. I don’t believe Joe MacMillan to be explicitly gay or even bisexual; just a master at manipulating people and situations and, in many ways, a sociopath. For him, kissing Travis isn’t so much about feelings and isn’t even about a release, which it probably is for Travis as he’s stuck in a posed relationship with Lulu. MacMillan already has an understanding for Lulu and recognizes that she makes everything about herself. He’s afraid that she will destroy his dream and ambition of truly creating something with style and a lasting benefit to users globally. For him, kissing Travis is another way for him to exhibit to Lulu his destructive tendencies. She wouldn’t be aware of his history with IBM, nor would that even be necessary to come up, nor would it be appropriate. Even Bosworth doesn’t fully know how literal the destructive force Joe is. So, MacMillan is able to successfully torpedo Lulu’s involvement with Cardiff by alerting her to his ways and destroying something of value to her – Travis.
Both men return and Lulu tells Travis that it’s too late for brandy. He tells her that it isn’t brandy; they (Joe and Travis) settled on a port. *Port wine is not usually white wine. While it does come in varieties, it’s red and would normally be served as a dessert wine. This gesture could also be taken as a bit of an indirect jab at Bosworth for earlier selecting white wine for Joe. Both men leave and while Bosworth asks MacMillan what he did as he figures he was responsible for Lulu backing out, he sees Travis watching him from inside. MacMillan tells Bosworth that they should jump start the project and then show investors as opposed to the other way around. He drives off leaving an angered Lulu, a perplexed Bosworth, and a now lovelorn Travis. Quite the contrail!
On their way home, Brian and Gordon get into a car accident. Brian immediately says “I told Vickie they have to trim those branches” passing responsibility yet again. “You’re fired” Gordon tells him while proceeding to get out of the car and walk home. Throughout “High Plains Hardware”, Brian is seen as a meddling and chirping bird in Gordon’s ear. Constantly having Gordon second guess his leadership of the engineers, he finally understands that Brian is lazy and not fully committed to the project. The appearance of Brian in “FUD” suggests their friendship going beyond just being neighbors. At the start of the episode, we find out that Gordon had to lay off 46 people. I’ve taken it that he decided to keep Brian on board due to their being neighbors and friends. But, over the course of the episode, realizes that Brian should have been let go as he’s added nothing to their project. The car accident is just the mercy killing and blow Gordon needs to work up the strength to fire his friend.
That night, Cameron finally shows up at MacMillan’s apartment and starts talking about how to solve the BIOS issues. MacMillan doesn’t seem to be too concerned and asks “Why are you here?” “I’m stuck.” Cameron tells him while taking off her top as she heads towards the bedroom. He watches her and thus begins their “relationship” built on her being stuck and him being there to help her temporarily get her mind off of the code.
We see Bosworth sleeping in his office after looking at a section in a manual that concerns gambling. “You could work here as long as you’d like, but you can’t live here.”
Finally, Gordon makes his way home and his head is bleeding. He blows off Donna and then hears the bird still chirping. “It’s alive” he says leaving the bird to Donna. She goes into their garage and finds a shovel with the words High Plains Hardware printed on it. That’s where the episode title comes from! She heads outside and sees ants are now crawling over the dying bird. She glances inside her home and sees her empty husband holding a beer and staring aimlessly in the kitchen. With a quick move, she puts the bird out of it’s misery. It’s a nearly perfect way to conclude the episode as it began with the bird dying. I’ve also seen certain people comment on how they didn’t care much for this episode, citing it as the weakest one, but I don’t agree. Mind you, this was the first episode not directed by Juan Jose Campanella and written by creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell. Naturally, the direction and tone will differ, but this episode was well plotted and serviced all three of the characters journeys while tying into the idea of something dying and the act of a mercy kill. Here we have Cardiff bleeding after IBM’s raid and they desperately need money. MacMillan believes in seeking out venture capital, but Bosworth is against it as it would dynamically reshuffle the way Cardiff does business. So he kills the vc plan. In turn, this leads to MacMillan killing the partnership by Lulu. We have Gordon, Brian, and Donna who comes across as one venn diagram. Gordon has to lay off 46 people while choosing to let his friend stay when ultimately he needs to fire him. Donna, feeling rightfully lost in her marriage, while also fighting feelings of being unfulfilled in her own life as she watches her friend Hunt rise in his career, comes to the realization that her dreams need to end as Gordon becomes more fixated on the building of a computer. Kerry Bishe is arguably the moralistic center of “High Plains Hardware” and the most interesting to watch. While we’ve become so used to watching Joe MacMillan take center stage, his arc wasn’t necessarily the most crucial in the third episode. While it was an important arc, Donna’s story brought everything full circle. She’s the one to kill the bird, she’s the one holding the family together, and she’s the only one seemingly grounded in a reality outside of Cardiff and T.I.
“Halt and Catch Fire” is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The first season is available on Netflix and series two premieres Sunday, May 31 at 10 pm ET. Check your local listings.