UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire: Season 3, Episode 6 and 7
James R | On 05, Oct 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Halt and Catch Fire is the best its ever been in Season 3 – and Episodes 6 and 7 are beautiful, bitter proof of that fact.
AMC’s show is a manual in self-sabotage, a study of characters who repeatedly take themselves to the brink of success and then screw it up completely. They only thing they really succeed at is failing. And just as the start of Season 3 rode the wave of their rise to potential fame, the season passes its halfway point with an equally involving burst of potential – and an expertly heartbreaking sigh of collapse.
After Episode 5’s rocky reunion between Donna and Cameron, Episode 6 sees Mutiny receive an offer of acquisition from CompuServe, a million-dollar sum that instantly puts Donna in favour of going public. Fame, wealth and the resources to really improve the company. Why not? Cameron, though, is less sure, because it’s her baby; she hates the idea of losing control of it. Which is why, we discover, she’s already fired Doug and Craig from SwapMeet.
Diane, ever the tolerant adult to their squabbling siblings, offers them her vacation home to unwind and bond over a weekend. In true Halt and Catch Fire fashion, though, Cameron refuses. So Donna goes alone for some R&R, while Cameron stays home and plays Mario with Gordon.
The result is one of the best sequences in a season full of best sequences. AMC’s period drama doesn’t just nostalgia to frame its story in the pertinent tech boom of the 1980s; it uses it to develop its characters. Watching Cameron and Gordon play Mario, not unlike a modern YouTube video, sees the pair tell each other secrets, such as Gordon confessing his illness – Cameron admits she got married, tellingly, over his ham radio later that weekend – but they also work together effortlessly, him handling the water levels, her handling the boss challenges, proving that both are capable of teamwork in the right environment.
It’s an immediate harbinger of doom that when we do see Cameron and Donna make up, it’s not real – it’s something Donna imagines while high on mushrooms, given to her by Diane’s daughter, who also turns up at the holiday home. In reality, she returns home to find Cameron has moved out.
It’s a hugely effective trick the script continues to pull, revealing big life decisions made by Cameron, but only after they’ve happened. The sacking of the SwapMeet guys. Her marriage to Tom. Her decision to move out. We have no choice but to see her as unreliable and reckless, something that puts us on Donna’s side of the debate. Mackenzie Davis’ charismatic performance, though, leaves us torn between the two.
What we do see Cameron do, though, is go to Joe late at night and demand he confess he stole Citadel from Gordon – the kind of gesture that reinforces how well-meaning she sincerely is. Joe, meanwhile, unveils his own flourish of selflessness, as he confesses at his tribunal that he did steal Citadel from Gordon after all – although that decision comes after Matthew Lillard’s Ken tells him the board is moving against the NSFNET plans he’s made with Ryan. As ever, we have to wait for Joe’s real motivations to become clear; and Lee Pace is fantastic at being hard to read. EPisode 6 ends with a bravura bit of cinematography and editing, as Joe looks into our video camera, only for it to swing around and reveal we’re looking at a monitor for the tribunal’s camcorder.
And so we reach The Threshold, the all-too-aptly-named seventh episode. The title ostensibly comes from our opening sight: Cameron and Tom crossing the door into their new married home. But boundaries are being breached all over the place.
Cameron and Tom are, as you might expect, fantastic together – it’s a treat just to see Davis’ often-pained expression relax into one of pure happiness. Sure enough, soon after, they go out for dinner with Donna and Gordon, and that’s the time when we hear the story of them getting hitched; at an occasion shot through with awkwardness. Will Tom come to Mutiny? No, Cameron says, matter-of-factly. Mixing marriage and work doesn’t turn out well. No offence, she adds.
Gordon, though, is off in his own place, as he hears that Joe has confessed and that the company will, to some degree, become his. He visits Joe’s apartment and swaggers about like a douche, giving Scoot McNairy a chance to enjoy himself. This is one of the rare times when he’s winning. And he’s terrible at it.
Another meeting with Ken follows, as they suspect that Gordon and Joe are plotting something. It’s an unexpected clash of underrated acting titans, with both on superb form – what a treat it has been to have Lillard on the show – but it’s also a chance to watch as a board ruins a dream. Three seasons in and Halt and Catch Fire has lost none of its ability to echo and parallel subplots across its different character groups; no wonder Cameron is so wary of the IPO, you think.
Cameron, though, makes an effort to get on board with the idea, revealing plans to improve Mutiny to make the company more valuable and successful – for once, she’s being organised and thinking about the future. But that determination not to solely focus on the present, as she so often does, doesn’t work either; the timeframe for the IPO is three months and her proposals would take several years. Once again, as they start to agree on something, we witness Donna and Cameron tear themselves apart, bit by bit.
The real threshold, of course, is the fight over the IPO – and, specifically, Donna’s decision to use the board to overrule Cameron. (Gordon explains to her why crossing that line will be a big, and fatal, milestone, but also tells Cameron that he’ll vote against her out of loyalty to his wife. Given that Halt and Catch Fire’s character depth is primarily driven by their ability to empathise with the others in the ensemble, the nuances and layers to Gordon’s character are off the charts here.)
But, once again, the show forces us into no man’s land, as it’s not just Donna who forces the matter: Cameron calls a meeting, in the middle of her engagement part, no less, and orders a vote on the IPO there and then. She does that in the knowledge that Bos will also vote against her and side with Diane – the other key threshold we see in the episode, wonderfully, is him standing on her doorstep and refusing to enter her home without telling her everything about his past (sweet of you Bos, but Diane sees all and knows all anyway). The result is emotionally conflicting for us, but also for everyone else on-screen. And because they’re all so good at screwing things up, there’s no knowing what any of them will do. You will actually gasp and scream out loud with every shift of the conversation. This is Halt and Catch Fire at its absolute best: throwing its complex characters together and leaving them to be utterly unpredictable.
Speaking of which, what about Ryan? Well, it turns out he’s taken it upon himself, after getting fired by Ken, to hack and leak the Citadel source code to the world, making the whole thing free for good. It’s an act of desperation and, perhaps, love, as well as moral principle – it’s the first time Ryan has done anything more interesting than simply reflect Joe’s genius back at him. Joe, though, is shocked and leaves him, palming the key he was once going to give him to his new office – proof that even Ryan, the epitome of Joe in his youth, is not immune to self-sabotage. Joe is moving on, reinventing, as per their discussion on his balcony. Ryan, on the other hand, has made himself disposable.
Cameron has potentially done the same thing at Mutiny, with everyone voting against her – and her painful whimper, as she sees her baby lost to her forever, makes for gut-wrenching viewing. The chaotic office confrontation is the perfect inverse of the cheerful office discussions that closed out Episode 2 – a regression from happy family agreements to painful group arguments. It contrasts, too, with the teaming up of Joe and Gordon, with the latter offering the former a 49 per cent silent partner share in the NFSNET venture Gordon demanded from Citadel in a pre-trial settlement. They shake hands and see the future vision of their success writ in front of them. But, of course, the previous 59 minutes have made it all too clear that it won’t happen. Halt and Catch Fire’s secret is that it makes us really want it to.
And with that, the show may have just crossed the threshold from a great, underrated TV show into a bonafide modern classic.
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