Warning: This contains spoilers. Not see Episode 3? Read our spoiler-free review of Halt and Catch Fire Season 4’s opening episodes here.
“That’s why the Web is so great. Because no one pretends. You just put it out there, who you really are.”
Halt and Catch Fire is a show that subtly captures the drive of human ambition, to change the world, make a difference, leave a legacy and conquer the new possibilities of a digital age. But every now and then, the show reaches more profound heights, as it explores not why these characters are so taken with being first in the technology race, but why we use the Internet in the first place. The third episode of Halt and Catch Fire’s fourth season is one of those moments – and it’s one of the best episodes of the season, if not the series.
AMC’s show has always mined the metaphor of virtual connections with real ones: Season 2 soared in its parallel of network gaming with the thrill of teamwork between Donna and Cameron, while Season 3 brought its ensemble back together with the sheer open potential of the world wide web – a door they all couldn’t wait to open. Season 4 has torn its group back apart again, as the series remains as much about compromise and conflict as it is collaboration. But if Episode 2 promised fireworks and fallings out, Episode 3 is a surprisingly – and satisfyingly – calmer chapter in this absorbing tale, as our quartet find themselves changing and maturing.
It’s a beautifully well realised portrait of how time, and a whole lot of life drama, can transform someone – and, for the most part, make them a stronger person. Where we’ve spent several episodes agonising over the merits of human curation versus programmatic scraping, Episode 3 tellingly brushes that whole debate to one side, so we can focus instead on the pure joy of people interacting: the best sequence in the episode, perhaps the entire show to date, sees Gordon (Scott McNairy), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Joe (Lee Pace) and Dr. Katie (Anna Chlumsky, already a natural fit among the veterans) all head into the countryside with Haley (Susanna Skaggs) for her birthday. Together, they set off rockets into the sky, as Cameron runs about filming it on a camcorder: it’s a gorgeous moment that has you grinning from ear to ear, with even the handheld lens adding a warm depth to the outing – this is a trip that Joe, instructing Cameron to film, wants to treasure. It’s worth something.
It’s even more touching because Julia Cho’s script contrasts it with Donna (Kerry Bishe), who is decidedly alone. She has an intimate chat in a bar with Aaron, a major coder whom she wants to replace Cecil, after she unceremoniously (but rightly) fires him from Rover. But even that is a conversation based around Aaron’s fond memories of Mutiny – and, after they end up spending the night in her bed, it seems unlikely that he’ll be spending days in her office in the future.
Donna exchanges with Diane have become much less friendly, meanwhile, as she suggests hiring someone to reverse-engineer Cameron’s algorithm, so they can claim the work as they own – because Season 1’s attempts to do that to IBM worked out so well. By the time we catch up with Donna at home, where she’s drinking wine and playing Pilgrim on her own, her slurred praise of Joanie’s fearlessness is deeply tragic (Bishe does vulnerable as well as she does tough-as-nails company woman).
It’s a tragedy that we’ve seen coming for a long time, because we’ve witnessed the toll that her past professional failures have taken on her life, from her marriage to Gordon to her friendship with Cameron. We can see, too, how much it has impacted Cameron – not because she’s throwing another strop, but because she’s taking a cool decision to step away from it all and effectively retire. It’s a wonderful sign of how grown-up Cameron has become, moving from the eternal child of the central cast to a reaffirmed adult, confident about making choices about what’s important in her life.
In this case, it’s Joe – and what a treat it is to see that, rather than repeat its cycle of self-destruction, Halt and Catch Fire has broken into new ground: Joe and Cameron, even after she essentially betrayed the Comet team, are absolutely fine, and it’s that revelation that kicks AMC’s drama into classic territory, as the series evolves at the same pace as its characters.
Joe, for example, is far more open to working with others now: after being the manipulative maverick of Season 1, he’s become a rational, caring man, who once again takes that camcorder and starts filming his colleague’s reactions to, and associations with, the word “Internet”. It’s a nice chance for Lee Pace to show off his reactionary skills, as he generously takes a back seat in each scene, while gently showing us how technology has, along with the people in his life, made him into a better person. His behaviour is in perfect synchronicity with Cameron, who meets Donna and happily signs a contract to let Rover have the code without any payment necessary.
While it’s deliciously obvious to us, though, Gordon – bless him – can’t see how his friend has matured: driven by Donna to suspend Haley from work until her grades improve and she stops flunking classes, he ends up arguing with her, as she storms out of the office. Joe tries to talk Joe into letting her back, because he can tell that Haley is happy and at home in the company – it’s not just us who’s noticed how brilliantly this season has allowed young Miss Clark to blossom into her own character. Gordon, however, just thinks he’s preoccupied with keeping Comet running smoothly.
“That’s why you’re not a parent and you never will be,” he snaps at Joe, and while McNairy’s intense, blinkered performance is excellent, Pace’s almost imperceptibly pained expression is priceless, selling an entire show’s worth of character progression in a glance. The old Joe might have retorted angrily, but the older, wiser Joe simply bites his tongue – after all, why risk ruining a friendship?
It’s a moment that’s born out of an earlier, even better conversation, as Joe takes Haley to the local diner and chats to her about the world wide web. Why does she enjoy Comet so much? “No one pretends,” she says, with the wisdom of someone who speaks concisely and simply without her guard up. “You just put it out there, who you really are.”
As they sit there, sipping milkshakes, Haley starts to chat to Vanessa, a waitress who works there – and their sparkling chemistry is immediately apparent to everyone around them. Joe, recognising someone who also has affections for the same sex, is content to sit back and silently watch, a smile slowly playing across his face. It’s one of those moments you could easily freeze frame and enjoy forever – a perfect reminder of how the Internet can serve to connect people, whether strangers or not.
So when Joe tells Gordon that he “just wants what’s best for Haley”, and that Gordon may not know his daughter as well as he thinks, we know Joe’s right. It’s the kind of gentle display of positivity that made Season 2 such infectious viewing – and it happens again, as Cameron discovers a blog about her made by a fan, talking about Space Bike, Mutiny, Pilgrim and posting drawings inspired by her designs. Like Joe and Haley, it’s a brief flash of recognising a kindred spirit – and, as Cameron is offered a job by effectively a gaming fairy godmother to do whatever she wants and get commercial support, we watch her install a satellite dish on the top of her Airstream, so she can get online. The noise of a dial-up modem is enough to bring a grin to her face: it’s the sound of freedom to be who you are. In an age of YouTube confessionals, decades after LiveJournal, it’s why the Internet is so great – and why Halt and Catch Fire’s final season may cement the series as one of the best works of modern TV.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes arrive every Monday, within 48 hours of their US broadcast. A subscription costs £5.99 a month, or, if you want next-day delivery on Amazon products too, is included with a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.