UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3, Episode 4
Ivan Radford | On 13, Sep 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Nothing has the whiff of sweet pleasure and bitter aroma of disappointment like a microwaved cheese Danish. We know it. Gordon knows it. And yet he still finds himself nauseous, dizzying and twitching, nuking one in the office’s science oven and throwing it in the bin after a single mouthful.
It might seem like a pointless prologue to this fourth chapter of Halt and Catch Fire’s third season, but it’s a perfect microcosm for what the show does so well – it leaves our characters teetering somewhere on the brink between triumph and tragedy, all the while sowing the subtle seeds of character growth that spell their eventual demise. If our group were to suddenly achieve everything they’ve dreamed of, there would be no more show – but that holding pattern never feels frustrating or dull. Amazingly, it still feels fresh and surprising.
That’s partly because we know the characters so well that we’re emotionally involved with their struggle; at some point in the last three seasons, we’ve sympathised with each member of the ensemble. But it’s also because the characters know each other so well too. Even Diane, who’s only been in the programme for a couple of episodes, is already familiar with Donna’s ways. Dropping in on Mutiny to see whether the merger with Swapmeet is going ok, she asks her. Donna replies with an unconvincing yes.
“You keep saying that with that not-so-sure thing in your voice,” observes Diane.
“What not-so-sure thing?” asks Donna. And, of course, we all hear it, not just Diane.
We all know, too, that this Swapmeet merger is doomed. Of course, Doug and Craig turn out to be douche-bags. Of course, Cameron’s self-centred stubbornness means she can’t collaborate with anyone else. Of course, someone punches Gordon in the face. (His “What the f–” cut to the opening titles is one of the best introductions to an episode yet.)
The show plays on our familiarity – and their familiarity – with each of their foibles, by once again presenting them as a dysfunctional family. Here, Donna is the adult, lurking quietly in the hallway, as kids Gordon and Cameron play Duck Hunt in the living room late at night, joking about how much they don’t like Doug and Craig.
While the show is great at those silent moments, it remains just as accomplished at the big speeches – one heart-to-heart between Cameron and Craig gives Mackenzie Davis the chance to sell a monologue about why she’s so protective of the Mutiny code: because it’s the last bit of the program she wrote herself. It’s accompanied by a phone call that informs her that her stepfather’s belongings are being sold – including the motorbike that she always treasured. Like Gordon’s old radio, it’s a far from subtle metaphor about letting go of baggage and being free, but Davis is so good that it works. And that, of course, is exactly what we expect from AMC’s drama.
But Halt and Catch Fire still manages to draw new depths from its complex characters, often by examining the way that they know each other.
When Diane and Bosworth hook up for a dinner party, for example, they seem to be getting on like a house on fire – but things ain’t hunky dory. They never are. She offers him champagne, after he returns from charming a group of businessmen with his joke about a bear. He refuses. “Somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for tobacco,” he sighs. “And champagne. And parties.”
Diane, of course, is still being swept up by Bos’ Texan charm – something that’s ironically emphasised by the fact that she’s the only one to call him “John”. Joe, on the other hand, turns up at the same party and immediately sees right through Bos’ tired act: he knows that the former Cardiff chief has gone from being the mentor and father figure at Mutiny to the sidekick with that bear joke. We never hear the full joke, just the punchline over and over, but, thanks to Toby Huss’ excellent performance, we don’t need to – we only need to know he’s sick of telling it.
His blunt admission that he’s tired of it all is a marvellous counterpoint to Cameron’s moment with Craig – a point at which the predictable exchange between two potential opposites doesn’t go the way it’s meant to. There’s no obvious metaphor here, just a renewed sense of intrigue and a bad taste in the mouth.
It happens again when Bos collides with Gordon and the gang, as they play laser tag – and Bos refuses to join in, a little too firmly. The sequence with Gordon is, like the Danish, another superb piece of editing and performance, visually communicating so much, with the kind of stylish nous for music and montage that Mr. Robot is normally praised through the roof for.
Gordon’s success at team-building is, as you’d expect, tempered with defeat, as he’s disqualified from the game for being too aggressive. But after two seasons of balancing loss and victory, it’s an incredible achievement that Halt and Catch Fire can still press those two buttons simultaneously without us getting bored. (Even Joe’s brainstorming sessions with Ryan, which give us no more sense of the latter’s character, are made interesting by the recurring appearance of Matthew Lillard’s snivelling account manager – and Joe’s ability to willingly torpedo a meeting designed to reassure an angry, homophobic client, whose under-age son got wasted at Joe’s shindig.)
The secret is that like the family-style arguments in Episode 3, the build-up of all the obstacles facing our group feels entirely natural and unforced. We know these people aren’t going to gel. And they know it too. The fun lies in seeing how long it is until they admit it.
When Donna brings up the idea of firing Doug and Craig, Diane isn’t surprised. When Craig hints to Cameron that he’d be willing to ditch Doug and go it alone with Mutiny, she’s not surprised. The shock, rather, comes with the revelation that Donna is all too aware that Cameron is the real spanner in the works – and that Donna’s known it for some time. Like Bos, though, she’s getting tired of it. Perhaps Cameron is too. But she’s the last to admit it to herself.
“When did you know you were losing Cardiff?” she asks Gordon, quietly. The look on her face is pure microwaved cheese Danish.
New episodes of Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 premiere in the UK on Amazon Prime Video every Thursday, 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.
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC