UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire: Season 3, Episode 5
Ivan Radford | On 22, Sep 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
“You keep me grounded,” Cameron tells Donna in Episode 5 of Halt and Catch Fire, Yerba Buena. Three seasons in, we know that Cameron has always needed Donna’s influence to ground her, but this is the episode when she admits it to herself – and the episode when Donna realises it too.
It’s a standout conversation in an episode full of standout conversations. Interaction, as ever, is at the core of AMC’s show; Halt and Catch Fire is all about that collaborative spirit so essential to tech, to start-ups, to creativity, and to being a woman in a male-dominated world. That was the shift in attitude that gave Season 2 its spurt of inspiring, entertaining energy. Support is good. Getting high in your garage attempting to reinvent the microprocessor by yourself? Not so much.
We might as well be on a circuit board, though; these are tiny, microscopic moments that Halt and Catch Fire trades in. Yerba Buena has no huge arguments, blazing rows or grandstanding speeches, but the episode still feels big. Other TV shows would kill for the nuance and depth of these characters and this storytelling.
The best moment of the episode combines grief, struggling to move on, confronting the past, admitting faults to yourself, rejecting help from a father figure, failing to find acceptance in a surrogate child, and the perils of auto-trading, all in the simple act of watching someone get out of a car. That’s the difference between a good show and a really good show: a really good one gives you the breathing space to notice these moments, and to understand how important they are, without making a big deal out of it.
We’ve praised HACF before for being equal and even-handed in its understanding and emotional engagement with its entire ensemble – sure enough, every character has a similar showcase in this hour. That’s an achievement that the writers manage almost every week, without fail. At the halfway point of Season 3, though, they fail that little bit more important.
Joe (Lee Pace) is, as you’d expect, the least subtle in his musings of the past versus the present, pondering aloud to Ryan about the temporary nature of life and the short burst of influence you can have in Silicon Valley, before it boots up and leaves you behind, forgotten – the closest we get to the explicit spelling out of the episode’s title, Yerb Buena, the old name of the settlement became the shiny, new San Francisco. That heavy speech, though, is fed by another storyline, which is the discovery that a lover of his has HIV – a revelation that, from his discovery to his test results, is communicated to us entirely without dialogue. It’s that kind of storytelling that makes big things small and small things big; a single shot of at his balcony with music blaring in our ears carries with it the relief of having a future, the significance of his sexuality to his identity, and the awesomeness of his facial hair. You can forgive the series, then, for its slightly more obvious discussion in which Joe talks about the importance of “glasnost” (“openness”), as he and Ryan analyse the military’s ARPANET packet-switching network and spy an opportunity to make some money by giving it an upgrade.
These moments of respite from the day-to-day grind are because Episode 5 is set over America’s Independence Day weekend, so there’s a slight break from the usual workload. And so we spend a lovely few scenes with Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), as they decide to skip the traditional camping trip and have a romantic weekend in together. It’s just nice to hang out with them and see them be happy together for a change. But, of course, that doesn’t last, as Donna casually mentions that she doesn’t really like camping anyway, and Gordon responds by withdrawing back to his ham radio. As with last week, it’s the kind of thematic note (Glasnost, guys – openness?) that could feel forced or contrived, but McNairy and Bishé are far too good for that to happen.
These are tiny start-ups, though, so even on a long weekend, there’s work to be done. The work remains the integration with Swapmeet, as Donna wants to introduce credit card transactions, after spotting that people want to pay things, rather than just trade them. Cameron, though, doesn’t want lazy code to be added to her baby, so instead of turning up to a meeting, she flees to Texas with Bos to pick up her dad’s motorbike.
It’s a beautiful bit of homecoming drama, as you’d expect from anything involving more Toby Huss. His Bos just gets better and better, as we watch him try to bond with his son and his grandson – only to be confronted with the fact that his absence during his son’s youth left them more disconnected that he realised. Those airline pins he used to bring back from trips? His son hated those, silly Bos. His turning to Cameron to offer fatherly advice, then, gives us a double-punch of pay-off from both sides of the car, as she resents him for trying to interfere – and, while throwing a strop, misses out on getting her dad’s bike anyway. Mackenzie Davis is as superb as ever – and the show’s writers know just how to press her buttons, keeping her permanently on the brink of self-sabotage. She goes back to Texas, which is the right thing, and she even reconnects with Tom from Season 2 – a sweet scene – but, right at the last hurdle, she fails, and instead watches some stranger ride off with the piece of personal history she went back for.
With Cameron missing for a week, Donna, meanwhile, pushes ahead with the credit card coding. Their confrontation when she comes back is brilliant, because the two supportive friends discover they’re actually on the same page after all – and Cameron takes the chance to thank her for being her rock that grounds her. Donna’s face is priceless, as she’s both relieved and racked with guilt about suggesting to Diane that they should get rid of Cam. A phone call from Cameron to Diane later, and our wayward programmer almost visibly deflates. When Gordon and Donna arrive home, she locks herself in her room, clinging to a ring. Is it an engagement ring from Tom? Probably not (that would be too small for a big moment). It’s more likely from her dad. But it’s a quiet reminder that things don’t always pan out how you thought they would in the past. And it’s that understated willingness to take time for such moments that gives Halt and Catch Fire its charm. It grounds the show – even as the characters are doing their damnedest to shake the ground and bring everything tumbling down. “I may not have another next in me,” confesses Joe to Ryan. After being unexpectedly renewed for Season 3, here’s hoping the show does.
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