“Last year, on June 1, 2014, I was caught up in the sweltering, swirling, and captivating freshman period drama, Halt and Catch Fire.” I wrote that as my opening in the first recap/review entitled “Still On Fire” for the pilot episode “I/O.” Almost a year to the day after having watched season one countless times, I could honestly admit that the work of Christopher Cantwell, Christopher Rogers, and so many others have left me still on fire. While I write this on the eve of mutiny, one of the many themes AMC’s second season concerns itself with, it’s quite impressive looking back on the underrated first season of “Halt and Catch Fire.” The quality of story telling and performances blended together so seamlessly and have given viewers a new set of lives that we are engrossed and sometimes puzzled by. “Halt and Catch Fire” season one truly is one of those shows you must start watching (if you haven’t already) and as season two has already met exceptional reviews, now is the time to get in on the ground floor.
“1984” – aired 8/3/2014 (5 stars)
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
Written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers
It’s 1984 and they did it. Cardiff Electric have successfully built their first PC. “The Giant awakens!” Gordon (Scoot McNairy) shouts as he triumphantly parades into the main floor while singing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” It’s a significant moment for Gordon as The Giant marks an end of sorts to his arduous journey of being more. Gordon, since the failure of The Symphonic, in many ways settled for being less while excusing his lack of drive on being a “misunderstood genius” as Donna (Kerry Bishe) had said in “I/O.” We’ve watched the fire from inside consume him after Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) came charging into Texas and first confronted him on his ideas – “I want to build a machine that nobody else has the balls to build.” While The Giant nearly destroyed his marriage to Donna and left him missing time with his family, Gordon was finally able to take his situation and turn it into an authentic success for himself and his family. One of the biggest moments for Gordon was when he credits Donna for the entire machine at COMDEX during “Up Helly Aa” and, quite even, when he forgives Donna for her moment of infidelity by kissing Hunt Whitmarsh (Scott Michael Foster) during their business trip in “Giant.” After a week of not talking or sleeping in the same bed with Donna after the fallout at COMDEX, Gordon finally gives up holding a grudge against her as he knows his severe neglect of her created a feeling of being backed against the wall. They “weathered the storm” and are still very much in love. Besides, it’s the Christmas season so they reunite. Oh, and let’s not forget that Hunt turned out to be a major opportunist who exploited Donna’s openness, honesty, weakness, and friendship to learn Cardiff’s secrets so that he could build a Giant clone named the Slingshot.
Gordon Clark, in so many ways, has gone through the ringer in season one of “Halt and Catch Fire.” When we first see him in the pilot, he’s incarcerated for being drunk and has resigned to being just a worker bee at Cardiff Electric. We’ve also seen the building of the Giant slowly chip away at his mental health to which led him digging the hole in his backyard at the end of “Giant.” “I’m looking for the giant.” For Gordon, having the Giant ready and to test 100 of the machines is a welcome project for him to take on. Adding on to that, Nathan Cardiff (Graham Beckel) resigns himself to taking a greater step back and allows Gordon and Joe to run the company as equals. Cardiff gives them a split eight percent of his company that his father started in 1934 so for Gordon, that’s precisely the step in the right direction to validate himself as a success. For Joe, it’s a product of the situation he orchestrated in the first place.
Unfortunately, while all of Cardiff Electric’s success in building the Giant can chiefly be attributed to Joe’s singular vision of reverse engineering an IBM PC, we are reminded that he isn’t equipped to be content. Instead of being proud of the machine and of its tangible reality, he instead feels as if he’s failed at trying to be good. His entire dream is crushed at the end of “Up Helly Aa” after he sees the Macintosh demonstration. While Gordon is busy making sure that all 100 of their test shipments are “perfect”, Joe believes that the machine is not perfect, nor is it relevant. How could it? In ensuring it to be ready for its March 1st release and 100,000 unit roll out at ComputerLand, they had to strip the machine of what made it “unique.” Sadly for Joe, that also meant stripping himself of possibly the first person he truly allowed himself to love – Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Joe, since COMDEX, has become obsessed with the Apple Macintosh Superbowl commercial. You could view the original commercial below:
Joe becomes transfixed with the Macintosh commercial as it’s a battle cry to the word. It’s Apple’s way of announcing that they are about to topple IBM. But, what really catches Joe’s attention is the girl in the commercial; she reminds him of Cameron. In his play to be a trailblazer, an authentic visionary, Joe has fallen short. In his singular vision to beat IBM, he created an IBM compatible PC that was immediately beat by Whitmarsh Whitwell’s Slingshot PC. Joe never stopped to think about what Apple may have been working on as he just concerned himself with Big Blue. It’s a failure on his part that reminds us he isn’t quite the master planner/chess player we thought he was. We’ve seen him come to this very same recognition of not fully thinking out his plots and plans and then being faced with the existential “Am I really a visionary? Or am I just a fraud?” question. The second episode “FUD” perfectly depicts Joe’s consistent oversights as he fails to foresee IBM raiding the company through the business technique of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Joe’s beginning to realize his idea of a perfectly constructed image, much like that of his father, is falling apart. The mask no longer fits. Just like the ketchup smudge on his notes for COMDEX, he too is beginning to feel a similar smudge on this part of his life. Both courtesy of Cameron.
Is it time for him to move on? It looks like Joe will try to come up with one more plan to salvage his image, his dignity, and preserve what he’s built for himself this far. But until he formulates his next plan, he’s too hung up on the girl from the Macintosh commercial. “She really did look like Cameron.”
“Leading the way,” “Moving ahead,” “Right on track,” “Falling behind,” or “Off track.”
The person taking over for Hunt at Texas Instruments gives Donna a performance review. She’s ultimately fired after she gives several candid and frank answers to her new boss’s questions. After she’s dismissed, Gordon picks her up in his brand new car which she feels is “the gaudiest exorbitance I’ve ever seen.” It’s in this moment that we really grasp how the performance review questions in many ways reflect each of our characters. “Leading the way,” “Moving ahead,” “Right on track,” “Falling behind,” or “Off track.” While Donna resets her life and starts anew outside of T.I. (Moving ahead), it seems as if Cameron will soon be leading the way for a gaming revolution. She’s currently working at Southern Line, a phone company. After she meets with her boss and decides to quit, Cameron decides to form her own company called “Mutiny.” But where does she get the nudge to do this? Joe! After he’s stuck trying to inspire the coders such as Yo-You, Lev and others to build a killer app for the Giant after certain issues arise, he visits Cameron. She is his Achilles heel and he visits her after two months of not seeing her after she walked out on him at COMDEX. He tells her openly that he can’t be without her and that he needs her. It’s an act of desperation on Joe’s part as we see him practically return to make amends with her in the same way he went to her at the end of “Landfall.” We see the pain that both of them are in and of how Joe realizes, for the first time, that he’s faced with losing someone he truly cares about due to his own actions. We’ve seen him manipulate others and orchestrate events to serve his own will and show little regard for the fallout from what he destroys. But this time, he’s changed because Cameron changed him. She wanted to make a people fall in love and she did. Maybe it didn’t work out with the machine, but it did with Joe. He cares for her and wants to find a way to make it work. In the only way he knows how, he suggests that she starts a company and that he could hire her as a vendor, or that they could move to California or anywhere and start over. Cameron, still reeling from the loss of her creation and of what felt like a betrayal when Joe agreed to strip her components from the Giant, looks to hurt Joe in a deeply personal way. For the first time in the series, Cameron tells Joe that she loved him, but goes on to stab him in the heart with “You’re still exactly what you were the day your mom let you fall off that roof. Just a sad little boy… with a lot of wasted potential.”
Joe, hurt from Cameron’s words, resigns himself to be without her and returns to Cardiff the following day. Gordon tells him that the coders left to work at a new startup company called “Mutiny.” Gordon, reprimands Joe for being late and asks to see him in his office. We see Gordon “right on track” and no longer playing the second fiddle to Joe’s antics. The “this is how this relationship works…” line from “Landfall” no longer applies. Gordon, believing Joe will try to undermine him with the Giant as he is unsatisfied with the project, came up with a plan with Donna to blackmail Joe into leaving Cardiff. Using a print driver, he believes he’ll be able to trick Joe into thinking it’s an uplink from the bank’s daemon. showing the alteration of transaction codes all routed back to Cameron’s office computer, proving she hacked Nathan Cardiff’s bank account. Knowing that Joe is in love with Cameron, he figures Joe would quit rather than seeing the F.B.I. arrest her. It’s a plan of comedic proportions as we contend with the possibility that Gordon will scare Joe into leaving through his threat of turning Cameron in. While Gordon fears that he can’t trust Joe as he may jeopardize all their work, the unexpected happens. Joe, no longer seeking to change the Giant as his dreams are constantly being redefined, tells Gordon to ship it. This is an clear sign that Joe no longer aligns himself nor feels connected with the Giant.
“Up Helly Aa.”
At the Cardiff Giant launch party, the music silences in Joe’s head and he just stares blankly at the Giant. It’s, in many ways, a bastard creation of his. Joe, yet again, basically removes himself from the party and launch and self-punishes himself by isolating himself from the joy to be had at this major accomplishment for everyone. Gordon invites everyone outside to christen the truck containing the first shipment of Cardiff Giants and first makes a toast to Joe.
“I wouldn’t be standing here tonight in front of all of you if it weren’t for Joe MacMillan. None of us would be. Sometimes you had to drag us forward kicking and screaming, but in the end, you were right. The Cardiff Giant is an incarnation of everything you are. It shows the reach and power of your vision and the very best of your abilities as a leader.”
The words particularly sting Joe even though they aren’t meant to. The idea of the Cardiff Giant being “an incarnation of everything” he is and showing the “reach and power of [his]vision” is a complete realization that he is no different from when he first arrived in Texas. His whole arc has not serviced any greater purpose for helping discover himself rather than to give Gordon the drive to “be more”, Cameron to realize her potential as “the future”, and Donna to go wherever her heart takes her. Joe, in many ways, has been the catalyst for change in others lives, but not for himself. He’s still lost as ever. If he believes the Giant is as hollow and soulless without Cameron’s OS, along with being an impersonation of innovation, and the Giant is an incarnation of him – then what is he really, but an empty suit. Naturally, Joe can respond in the only way he knows how – he burns everything down and starts again.
Joe, as we now see, is as “off-track” as he ever was. He douses the truck containing the first shipment of Giants in gasoline and then sets fire to the truck as the Suuns track “2020” plays. Lee Pace literally torches the scene with his embodiment of Joe as a destructive force. But more so, the scene isn’t so much about the force of nature Joe MacMillan is, it’s about him concluding his own chapter. The Joe MacMillan IBM suit no longer works nor serves his purpose of finding an identity or authenticity among others and in himself. So while the truck burns, he tosses his suit jacket inside almost as if to burn this current incarnation of him. It’s an act that says I won’t be deprived of winning. While he burns down everything that he’s committed himself to and worked on for the past year, it’s his way of burning it to the ground just like the festival of Up Helly Aa. While he’s not a winner in this situation, it’s ultimately another revelation of his acknowledgment that everyone’s suspicion was right – he was all hat and no cattle; just a fraud trying to “be the mystery.” He’s not a winner this time, just someone pretending that he was.
While Gordon and Donna drive home, they are car jacked. It’s an odd scene to have near the conclusion of the episode, especially as it doesn’t end where you don’t know what happens next. But rather the scene does more at continuing to solidify the Clark’s marriage and we see a slight reversal of sorts in their roles. As Donna is still dealing with the shock of that night, she’s in many ways like Gordon from the start of season one while Gordon takes over the duties for the house. After Gordon finishes making Joanie and Hayley’s lunch, he goes over to Donna and tells her “you just can’t sit here and stew.” In this situation, you get the sense that Gordon in many ways has matured since “I/O” and is now fully capable to take care of his family in a way he was incapable of doing before. Through his encouragement, Donna takes Cameron up on her offer to work for her start-up gaming community, Mutiny.
However, our two main characters end their first journey in a state of flux. Gordon, having risen to prominence at Cardiff, is without Joe MacMillan. Once again, Gordon finds himself in a creative rut, just this time he’s now the boss. The reviews come in for the Cardiff Giant and they are decent. But decent isn’t enough for Gordon anymore so he asks “What are we going to do next?”
Joe, resurfaces after having burned down the truck, somewhere in Colorado. He’s no longer the suit wearing salesman we’ve seen all season. Instead, he’s now a stargazer on a trek to Fiske Observatory. He parks his truck outside a gas station and asks the attendant which direction to head in as it’s not on the map do to it being built two years earlier. The older man points him in the right direction and tells Joe about a woman up at Fiske. She lives there and hardly ever comes down, except on a few occasions to buy groceries. He warns Joe to not get himself shot and Joe begins his trek through “raw hill country”, or as he puts it “the scenic route.”
The first season of AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” was a truly invigorating alternative to the standard prestige dramas of late. That’s my humble opinion of a first season that kept me talking about it for a whole week after each episode would air on Sunday nights. “Halt and Catch Fire” is the kind of show you’d probably pass over, but one day many years later ask yourself “Why did I never watch that?” Everyone that’s watched whom I’ve recommended it to has enjoyed and found varying aspects of the Cantwell & Rogers series to talk of. Be it Joe’s sociopathic tendencies, but underlying desire to be good, Cameron’s renegade spirit, clashing at every corner to express herself, Gordon’s sense of hidden greatness, or Donna’s feeling of being trapped – the first season was so rich in character that it’s near impossible to not see yourself within a myriad of situations and characters in the world of “Halt…” The show explored the thin line between genius and delusion, authenticity versus image, and the ability we all have to become a catalyst for change (for better or worse). Season Two premieres tomorrow night on AMC at 10 pm. “Welcome To Mutiny.”