UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 (Episode 3)
Ivan Radford | On 04, Sep 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
What’s the only thing harder than running a tech start-up? Running a tech start-up with your husband.
Gordon and Donna find that out the hard way in Episode 3 of Halt and Catch Fire’s third season – and so does everyone else in the vicinity, after an invite for Gordon to attend a senior management meeting leads to him shouting at them for not listening to him, then basically telling everyone about the time he had an affair (something that Donna, despite Gordon’s presumptions, hasn’t told anyone about).
After Season 2’s growing tension, it’s no surprise that the lid should blow so soon on their work-home partnership, but it’s a testament to just how good the show is at drawing its characters that their inevitable argument feels so natural; Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy could be married in real life, for all we know. Even Gordon’s extramarital fling, which seemed such an unnecessary, obvious device in the less rounded Season 1, works well as water under the narrative bridge.
Depth is a part of that sincere tone – Donna is not just annoyed at Gordon’s disrespect for her as a CEO, but is also concerned about his health. He, meanwhile, is frustrated she and Cameron won’t listen to his ideas and include him properly, but also wants to do his own thing. Their discord is so well struck that a rare bum note sticks out like a sore thumb, as we see Gordon retreat to play with his old ham radio in the cupboard – a literal and metaphorical subplot about his desire for both security and communication. (On the plus side, it reminds us that he’s no idiot when it comes to technical handiwork.)
The argument arises, of course, from what Mutiny must do without Ryan, who departed to work with Joe at the end of Episode 2. Do they go back to Tom, who wrote the code, but is Cameron’s ex? We see she’s not above stooping to survive, as she runs to Ryan’s to warn him about Joe, and also beg him to return. (Yes, he declines.)
Bos, meanwhile, goes to SwapMeet, after Donna and Cameron decided to acquire the trading marketplace rather than rival it with Mutiny’s own would-be proto-eBay. He teams up with Diana for the rendezvous and they make a fabulous pairing, trading quips and business smarts, again, like a married couple. Their double-act ends up bagging a bargain, when it emerges that SwapMeet is not as busy or successful as its founders first claim.
The gradual reveal is wonderfully done, not letting us in on the truth until our dynamic duo has worked it out. It raises the important question of appearance versus reality; in such a competitive industry, perception is what separates winners from losers. Joe is the epitome of that distinction; he perceives himself as successful, where Gordon perceives himself as a failure.
Joe, crucially, knows how to exploit his image. “I am the product,” he tells Ryan, shortly after hiring him… but to do what?
While Ryan struggles with how Joe sees him, and what Joe wants from him as an employee, Lee Pace does an excellent job of playing the role of the smug, zen-master-tech-guru – or, more accurately, playing Joe, who is playing the role of a smug, zen-master-tech-guru. He loves nothing more than asking people obtuse questions and then staring at them while they try to come up with an answer – a tic that’s as annoying as it is intriguing.
Ryan, inevitably, falls for it hook, line and sinker. The show remains just as in thrall to him; when he walks through the office with headphones on, we hear his music, rather than the noise of people around him. Ryan, though, also seems like he might have some sway upon his new hero; he, like Gordon (the writers are excellent at using echoing narratives to structure the show), is called to join a meeting with people more important than him, and he finds himself in the debate of whether to turn Joe’s revolutionary free antivirus software into a paid-for service.
It’s great to see the fantastic Matthew Lillard pop up in the board room as an enjoyably slimy shareholde, keen to milk customers for as much money as possible, but it’s interesting just to watch Pace’s facial expressions; Joe is always positioned as the visionary member of the ensemble, but it’s fascinatingly tough to work out if he buys the shill he shovels or not. That often-earnest streak is what makes him a complex character, and a sympathetic one. There’s a risk, though, that it may also jeopardise the development of Ryan beyond a parroting device designed to flag up the two sides of Joe. He’s a blank slate, both intentionally and unintentionally – and hopefully will get more to do in coming weeks. (Joe’s decision to keep Citadel free and start working from home with Ryan to find a new revenue stream doesn’t necessarily bode that well for Ray’s character growth – although the closing shot of Joe strolling out the building to “Burning Down the House” is as classy as you’d expect.)
Cameron’s perception of Joe, though, stops the show from fully buying into MacMillan’s Steve Jobs act. They bump into each other at a college where she’s teaching coding and he’s hoping to learn it, so that he can become “more than just a salesman” – and her reaction automatically reminds us of how, no matter how genuine he may or may not be, he ruins the lives of those around him. It’s crucial to stopping the show from disappearing up Joe’s proverbial, and central to its knack for balancing the personal and professional drama facing each character. Indeed, interactions are the key to that shifting sense of sympathy and subtle nuance; this episode, we don’t just get Donna and Gordon interacting, but also stellar scenes between Gordon and Cameron and Donna and Bos – small moments that do wonders for our understanding for each player. It’s telling that we’d be willing to spend whole hours with any of them, particularly in pairs. As Joe puts it, people are the product – and Halt and Catch Fire’s product remains as sellable as ever.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 to 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – until 16th October 2020.
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC