The Digital Picture of Cameron Howe: Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Episode 1 Episode 2 (AMC)
Halt and Catch Fire: Season 4 Episode 1 “So it Goes” and Episode 2 “Signal to Noise”
Halt and Catch Fire is back (despite all odds, thank goodness) and I could not be happier. I think it would be fair to say that I think HACF has one of the most bizarrely disproportionate quality to viewership ratios of any television show that I have ever watched.
I am sad that this is the last season of what I think has been must watch television. But I do want to thank AMC for continuing to put their weight behind one of the best shows on television over the last five years.
I do have one complaint, it seems pretty clear to me that there is no Blue Mohawk guy. WTF? RIP Blue Mohawk Guy, we never really got to know you, but you are missed!
As usual, if you haven’t seen Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 Episodes 1 and 2 (or seasons 1-3) *Spoiler Alert*
Welcome To Mutiny...I Mean MNet (Or whatever Gordon's New Company is Called)?
As some of you might know, Halt and Catch Fire was my entry into writing about television and I have been totally obsessed with the show since its first episode because it started located in Dallas Texas in the early 80’s which was where and when I started my own journey as a college student. When Joe visits the Starck Club, I could have been in the crowd (I used to DJ and I would often frequent the Starck Club, Club Clearview, Mistral and many other Dallas area nightspots on a weekly basis).
In other words, Cameron could have been me (gender differences aside). I myself was a punk rock college student surrounded by a world of yuppies. The show spoke deeply to an experience I felt I lived and the locations and characters deeply resonated with my experience.
But as the series progressed, and moved from Dallas to California, what started as good actors combined with great writing and believable locations grew into something much larger but at the same time more intimate. I am sure some people watch HACF because of the technology backstory, but for several seasons now this has really been a really great show about a non-nuclear family of five (Gordon, Donna, Cameron, Joe, and Boz).
In a sense what makes it even more special is that every character has been, at times, the hero and at other times the villain until we grew to understand that like Batman, if you live long enough, you will play all the roles under the sun. People are complicated, relationships are tenuous and fragile, and love is often as painful as wonderful.
I would argue if forced, that Season 3 of Halt and Catch Fire was one of the best seasons of television in the last twenty years (albeit a season very few people saw). While I largely mock the ideas of awards shows, that none of the cast has ever been nominated for an Emmy is to me insane and that Manish Dayal wasn’t nominated for his unbelievable work in Season 3 is unforgivable (only the snub of Michael McKean for Better Call Saul galls me more).
So, we arrive back in the old building, but with a much different energy. Gordon and Joe are working running the ISP Gordon created while Joe tries to hold on to Cameron through obsessively nurturing the browser that they all agreed to try to build together. Gordon seems to have nearly sole custody of both of the girls but has turned the company into something substantial enough that AOL is visiting and trying to purchase their client base.
Cameron is still in Japan married to Tom while trying to follow up her popular Space Bike game for Atari.
Donna has become a true Master of the Universe who literally switches faces on her watch to symbolically indicate her iron clad control over anyone who comes to her for anything. If you are coming to Donna (for anything), you have to accept that she controls everything up to and not limited to the amount of time you will matter to her.
Boz is still with Dianne and, as far as we know, still taking slow trips around the world on his boat and trying to adapt to the life of a kept man. The period of time we have missed appears to be about three years and everyone involved, including Donna, has swung and missed out on winning the contest for best browser.
Okay, enough pure exposition, let’s dive in.
Gordon Clark, The Human Paint Brush
Gordon Clark is happy, really happy (just ask him).
He has built his ISP into at least a regional success, his girls are grown up and approaching college age, and he is celebrating with a huge 40th birthday party starring The Blue Man Group.
I remember a scene in Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter asks Clarice if Buffalo Bill’s crime pattern seems “desperately random (as if designed to cover for something that wasn’t random at all).”
It seems to me Gordon seems “desperately happy” here, not genuinely happy.
There are a number of hints throughout that his disease is progressing, his girls seem anything but happy, Donna seems to have left most of the parenting to him but is fully willing to criticize his decisions, and just below the surface his business might not be built on a very sturdy foundation (in this case a need for more bandwidth from what seems to be an increasingly reluctant partner).
He seems a bit like Milton from Office Space here in that he is holding on to the traditional totems of success (his building for Milton’s red stapler) so hard he might actually burn his business to the ground. And part of his problem is that he is succeeding despite Joe, which in the short-term could be good but in the long-term will be a problem (Gordon is great at making things run but his Achilles heel has always been strategic vision while Joe is almost nothing but strategic vision).
Towards the end of the episode, we find out that the bandwidth provider is actively working against Gordon’s expansion and in a way that might actually collapse the business. On the other hand, Joe does provide him with his version of the idea that eventually Larry Page and Sergey Brin leveraged into a search engine we now know as Google. He also finds out that his daughter Haley might be a genius at exactly the kind of indexing that this kind of project, to be successful, might require.
Of course, he does make the mistake of sharing the idea with Donna as they are having a “talk about the kids” dinner. I suspect competing with Donna for indexing the internet will create some real stress for Gordon in Season four.
Donna - Good Champagne vs. Bad Rambling
We see very quickly that life is VERY good for Donna, she has become a very successful and well-compensated venture capitalist and wields a large amount of power. More important, perhaps, she now sees herself as living her dream (you can juxtapose the longing from the “And She Was” episode from Season 3 pretty seamlessly with the Donna montage from the Donna montage from “So It Goes”).
It seems fairly clear that in order to live her dream she has sacrificed everything she saw as a vulnerability from her earlier life. What made Donna seem like such an amazing person in the first two seasons was that she was both brilliant and incredibly empathetic. It seems pretty clear that she believes that it was that caring and empathy that led her to an unhappy marriage and unfulfilled career.
There is a sense in which, unlike Cameron, Donna’s dream was to succeed exactly as men do in a male dominated world (which often ignored, subjugated, or used her talents to make men look better or more accomplished).
Now Donna sleeps with who she wants to, makes bottom-line decisions as if all that matters is what she thinks (not about the people whose lives are affected), live as if the world (and even time) move to your drumbeat. And most important, never takes shit from anybody. She has become one of the sole feminist unicorns invited to the table of power in the 90’s and she is drinking everything in deeply.
But what the Master’s give, they can just as easily take away. Despite all of her (and Dianne’s) success, it is still the men that call the tune (even at this particular gender-sensitive magic factory). The head of the firm seems to be promoting his Son to a position of power and he almost immediately turns his attention to several of Donna’s recent decisions (the promotion of her African-American assistant Tanya to project manager and her decision to push a company called Rover to use their algorithm to start indexing the web).
You can feel in Donna’s push back, and in her decision to try to create a bridge with Diane (by hiring Boz to help Tanya) could be fraught with danger and that despite all of her seeming success, and that she seems to be standing on dangerous ground here.
It seems Donna has beaten the patriarchy by joining a club that only conditionally will consent to have her as a member. This will likely be the horns of Donna’s dilemma going forward.
Boz - Sloshing Around A Manatee’s Tummy?
Boz has not taken well to being the house-husband of a successful woman (and his manatee's tummy dream comment is odd even for HACF).
At first, he seems way too happy to see everyone at Gordon’s 40th birthday party and later seems to be straining to tell one of his classic Boz sales stories in a pitch in front of Donna. Boz says he is just trying to keep an oar in the water and stay connected, but we find out later that he has sunk all of his savings into a failed real estate scheme and that money is now due that he doesn’t have.
When he tries to use hustle by bringing a GPS scheme to Donna for investment it seems obvious Donna doesn’t think that the scheme has much investment potential. When he tries to deal with it directly by asking Gordon to loan him money, he is turned down because Donna would never be okay with the loan (given her close relationship with Dianne).
In both cases, you can see how much even asking is killing him (and how much being turned down hurts) but you can also see how terrified he is of asking Dianne to bail him out for fear it will seal his fate as either even more beholden to her or kicked to the curb during what seems to be a time of real tension in the relationship). I am not sure which fate Boz fears the most, but he is clearly coming unraveled quickly (he even sold his sailboat to pay part of his debt).
Donna, at the last moments of the show, throws him a bit of a lifeline, bringing him in to help Tanya on the Rover indexing play but we will see how it works out. I am not sure marrying Dianne ever even came close to filling the void in his heart from losing his real family and becoming estranged (or at least distanced) from his surrogate daughter Cameron. He clearly misses feeling a vital part of something meaningful and sailing is no longer getting the job done for him (if it ever did).
Joe - “How Many Times Do You Have To Be Right”
Joe spends the first hour of the double episode mostly hiding out in the basement of the company he shares with Gordon trying to build the web-browser that was going to be his project with Cameron.
When Cameron chose to leave him and return to Japan with Tom, Joe attached himself to their project as his only lifeline to her (literally covering bulletin boards with thousands of post-it notes and living in near darkness constantly working on the Lodestone browser). It is almost like some crazy horror movie where he is haunted by Cameron through the browser for three years. He looks gaunt, almost crazy, and humbled beyond anything we have seen from him to date.
When Cameron shows up out of the blue (man group) at Gordon’s birthday party (a party Donna didn’t even try to attend) she blows a hole in the feigned stability he has been living out over the last three years.
Joe tries to do what he has always done, relate intimately to Cameron through the technology they co-produce (since neither has ever been able to handle the full weight of uncoded intimacy between them).
At a particularly poignant moment, Cameron finally spells out the problem, saying:
“Do you want to talk about what we are really talking about?”
If that statement had been uttered three years ago, it would have had none of the impacts it does here. When I heard her say that it was crushing, heartbreaking. How many times have we all seen two people who, no matter how much they actually love each other, just have lost the ability to really honestly talk to each other?
In the case of Cameron and Joe, both of them deep down know that they love each other but neither of them has ever been able to fully get out from behind the protective wall of bullshit that keeps them both emotionally safe but totally miserable.
Cameron was willing to go to Japan and marry a person she didn’t even love just to avoid the vulnerability of being with someone who puts her at real and constant emotional risk. The mythos makes love seem easy, but this is what love so often really is. Powerful, meaningful, painful, and unfulfilled.
Seeing Cameron wakes the old Joe up, but Gordon thinks that Cameron puts Joe at real risk (exactly the point) and seems to suggest that he fold up the tent and put away Don Quixote’s jousting lance to join him in the ‘real world’ of ISP building.
Earlier, on a camping trip, Gordon accuses Joe of always needing to be right again (as if nothing is ever enough).
But Gordon is fundamentally misreading this new Joe.
What motivates Joe now isn’t the desire to be right, it is being obsessed by the three things that he has gotten terribly wrong.
1. His relationship with his Father
Joe tells a beautiful story to Cameron (during a phone call that seems to proceed non-stop for at least two full days) that starts with the death of his father and ends with his desire to become a father. He talks about how his father always seemed too big for him to ever measure up to (and that he never wanted to be a Father because he didn’t want to intimidate his own children in this same way). At the end of the story, he suggests that he has finally reached the conclusion that nobody ever has to be that big.
The Joe who was once like Donna (only even more ambitious) is gone, all the is left is humility and sadness and I totally understand where he is coming from. My own Father and I fought constantly until I finally chose not to talk to him for what seemed like a very long time. Thank God I finally grew up and realized, whatever his (or my) flaws, he was the only Father I was going to have before it was too late (luckily, my Father is still alive).
Joe never got to reconcile or accept the one father he had before it was too late and it is literally haunting him.
2. His relationship with Cameron
It seems so clear that while he has never been able to bring himself to say the words that he needs to say (I love you Cameron) he is so deeply and totally in love with her and always has been.
When he was younger, way back in the Dallas days, like Cameron would later, he ran from Cameron to virtually any other woman who couldn’t threaten him to the core like Cameron could.
Again, I really feel his struggle here, knowing that you love someone but allowing yourself to be open to what feels like it may totally destroy you is so hard. Anyone who experienced traumatic childhood events knows exactly what I am talking about, intimacy means trust and trust often means that we have to open ourselves up to radical vulnerability.
The walls we build to protect us from vulnerabilities have to be strong or we would never feel secure inside them. Joe’s walls are a mile thick but you can almost hear him screaming Cameron’s name from deep inside them in every scene.
There is no way, absent years of watching two great actors build such a complicated relationship that little moments like these could matter so much, but for anyone who has watched the entire series, but when you hear “it’s too late” at the end of their discussion it was crushing for me.
3. His Relationship With Ryan Ray
Ryan Ray’s suicide is the unspoken truth which has changed Joe from swaggering (but insecure) futurist genius to introverted basement dweller.
He is starting to understand how important really caring about people is because he lost his father and he lost Ryan without really ever expressing his love for them.
He is living in the basement connecting with a ghost of Cameron and actually investing in his relationship with Gordon because Cameron and Gordon are all he has left and he has finally learned that caring and connecting matters.
He doesn’t really know how and it often happens in awkward bursts (showing up at Gordon’s birthday party) but he is present and vulnerable for the first time in his adult life. He is finally emotionally open and it is wearing on him because he is still terrified of the consequences.
What if all he has of Cameron at the end of the day is memories of her and a wall full of post-it notes?
What if Gordon has a health crisis and leaves him all alone?
What if they both end up rejecting him?
What if it really is too late?
He is opening himself up and trying to fight off the ghosts of his worst fears.
This is Joe at his most beautiful.
Cameron - Little Miss Flawless 1970
Wow, Cameron is just a revelation in this episode. Mackenzie Davis has become one of the best actresses working in a very short period of time.
There is a beautiful scene where Cameron is fighting to keep her eyes open and literally defines her relationship with Joe by cradling the phone like it actually is Joe and places it facing her on the bed as she falls asleep (Joe actually stays on the phone waiting for her to wake up again).
There is a bookend scene later where Joe reinforces the point by looking at the character from the Beta of Cameron’s newest game with the same longing as if he was looking directly at Cameron herself.
Thank God he finally allowed himself to break the wall, traverse the fantasy, and go to her.
Cameron has been working on a video game that ends by rewarding the player by returning them to the very beginning of the game but while retaining all of the information that they have gathered along the way.
Both Joe and Cameron want to return to the beginning when they first fell in love, the question is if all the damage that has already been done to each other (the information they have gathered along the way) could allow them to succeed at a game they have both already played.
In other words, the question is not whether you can return home again but rather, can home be even better when you return?
Cameron tells Joe a story about her mother forcing her to enter beauty contests in Texas as a child (despite having no interest). Eventually, despite disinterest, she wins one, being declared Little Miss Flawless 1970.
Cameron’s marriage to Tom, just like Joe’s many attempts to be even bigger than his father, are examples of ‘winning’ prizes that satisfy what she thinks the world (her Mom) wants from her and not what she truly desires for herself.
Another story Cameron shares, about trying to have a baby with Tom just to make him less disappointed in her, follows this same pattern. There is a part of Cameron that feels ashamed for not wanting what the world wants for her and she continuously tries to appease the world by making concessions to avoid their disappointment in her.
It seems ironic that her concession to Tom, who she never loved but was challenged intellectually by, resulted in him leaving her for another woman (good riddance, I always hated Tom who was a controlling prick to Cam because deep-down he knew that he was unworthy of her and that she didn’t love him).
Anyway, Cameron is single and Joe is single, and they love each other, and now they are together and talking about important things and acting like maybe, finally, they can both be happy together (kind of odd that I feel so invested in fictional characters finding happiness.
One other thing about Cameron’s video game (which Atari ultimately kills because it is not enough like Mortal Kombat), it is described by her as “Not a game you play, it’s a game you live.”
Joe and Cameron are both (finally) living their game.
I, for one, couldn’t be happier. If the series ends with Joe knocking on Cameron’s door at this new place of emotional security, I will be more than satisfied.
This is a show about five friends who are really a family, but at the core of this family is the mostly unrequited love and pain between Joe and Cameron.
This is not a game you play, it’s a game you live.
At times, the premiere was like a beautiful tone poem and it often made me authentically emotional (something that rarely happens).
Kudos to Cantwell and Rogers and Bon Voyage to Season Four!