Joining The World of Missing Persons: Season Three of Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire’s main theme has always been communication. Technology – affordable desktop computers, chat rooms, games, the embryo of an idea like the internet, a place to buy all of the things you’ve been looking for, for years (from Winnipeg, no less!) – was all about connecting one person to another, or one person to the world. Unlike earlier seasons though, season three has been less about making things that facilitate communication, than it is about communication itself. Two people talking, through whatever form that might take – online, on a phone, over the airwaves, in person. After moving on and moving away, to varying degrees (because he’s never very far behind or away), from Joe MacMillan, the unhinged businessman and anti-hero/pure villain, Halt and Catch Fire turned to its much more interesting at-one-time secondary characters: Cameron, the unstable coder genius, and Donna, the put-together, business and tech-savvy mother of two and wife of Gordon, a technical genius in his own right. It was and continues to be the relationship between Cameron and Donna that provides the show with its heart. And it is their fraught relationship this season that, though at times too constructed, has become what the show hinges upon.

In some ways this season of Halt and Catch Fire has been circling in on itself. The characters are moving around and around, never quite moving forward. This has been somewhat frustrating. Cameron has been the same “petulant child” (as Donna calls her) she was in season two, where to her the most important thing is that her company, Mutiny, is hers and hers alone, making ambitious technological plans that will take years to create, even if it comes at the detriment of actual business progression. Donna, too, has been trying to help bring Mutiny forward in a different way, with the acquisition of the buying/selling app, Swap Meet (think an early Kijiji). But there is only so much you can do as a woman entrepreneur in the 80s, it seems, especially when your business partner is not sold on the business side of things. Neither of them can see the forest for the digital trees. Multiple times this season Donna and Cam have been told by outsiders that they “need” each other but it isn’t always clear in what way. This through-line has taken us to the home-stretch of the season and the Donna/Cameron friendship, relationship, business-partnership has become a study in what is and isn’t said.

In the show’s sixth episode of its third season, “And She Was”, we get a meditation on connections, both missed and successful. We see the technology, so loved by the characters on this show and the show itself, used as a means to say the things we want to say, as a buffer between the characters and the truth and the secrets that they hold. And we get a scene where the buffer comes in another form, a scene that tells the audience a truth that cannot be revealed beyond imagination just yet. When we keep things from each other we create needless divides and friction – but secrets also hold a kind of beauty, a kind of fantastical world of what could be. Through the course of the episode we get four confessions, admissions through different filters. Hiding behind something, sometimes allows you to open up.

Lonely, alone, on an island unto himself, lording over and looking down on San Fransisco from his apartment, Joe MacMillan, forever a low-rent Don Draper, communicates by selling. Always looking to manipulate through inspiration, through the human emotion that he does not quite understand, Joe’s way of selling has always seemed like bullying, too aggressive, too needy even when he tries to be slick, smart and sly. Joe has driven Gordon and Cameron away by being a parasite, for stealing away the knowledge and ideas that he cannot grasp, for lacking in technological know-how. Joe is finding it harder and harder to suck people in to his orbit, but he’s managed to sway Ryan, a young man with a similar passion for a technological utopia.

Ryan starts off the season at Mutiny as a twitchy, somewhat angry young man, too smart for his own good, trying to change a company that doesn’t want to budge. His heart is in the right place, probably – we don’t actually know why he wants to make Mutiny “better” other than he likes it and simply proving that he is smart enough to get it done. But Cameron, always holding on to her baby way too tight, won’t let him. Any change that happens at Mutiny is going to be her idea. Ryan is Gordon-redux and, much like Gordon in season one, the paper-thin charms of Joe work wonders on him. He is a blank slate character, though, and so when he decides to jump ship and head over to the “Joe MacMillan House of Internet Prototypes”, what we find is that what he really wants is for Joe to “like him”. Joe sells Ryan and shapes him in such a way that he becomes a mini-Joe, a mirror-image that no longer threatens to undermine. Ryan is not so much a yes-man but a mere mortal created in the image of god-Joe, hair slicked back, suit tailored to perfection.

Joe’s evangelism is finally a success and after so long without a willing disciple another human buys in. And it may be this connection that finally pushes Joe to confess that he stole the code for the security software from Gordon. Or, the confession could come because Cameron heads over to his place, way too late at night, and tells him to do just that. Or, it could be that he sees Cam’s wedding ring and explains to her, oh so helpfully, “you were happy for a moment and you thought the person standing closest to you was the source,” and in turn recognizes that what he is saying all too easily applies to himself and Ryan. At the end of the episode, Joe confesses to the lawyers on camera, through a technological filter, and gives Gordon the credit he deserves. An episode later, Ryan has become a monster, an uber-Joe that even Joe cannot contain, cannot save, can no longer even look at. But Joe and Gordon re-connect and, perhaps, re-establish a working relationship.

Gordon has spent much of this season talking to “the guys” on the ham radio he built and keeps in the closet under the stairs. Gordon hides in this little cave, under old jackets and warm clothes, hunched over and listens closely for someone far, far away. It’s childlike, it’s dreamy, it’s earthbound and alien at the same time. And it may not be real. In “And She Was”, after Gordon and Cameron connect over another form of technology – trying to beat Super Mario Bros in a single weekend, while Donna is away – he shows Cameron what he’s been up to in his little hidey-hole. She thinks the ham radio is really cool but also notices that it is unplugged. Has it been unplugged this whole time? Gordon’s condition, a degeneration of brain matter likely stemming from the dangerous chemicals he’s dealt with while building computers – the condition that he finally admits to Cameron he has, after he faints and falls on top of the TV – has left him in a semi-permanent altered state. It wouldn’t be out of the question that he’s simply imagined friends, these guys, on the other end of the microphone. Gordon and Cameron’s connection in this episode is solely about friendship and family (thankfully the show never makes it sexual), after all, Cameron has been living with Donna and Gordon this whole season – a kind of child/friend/roommate scenario that puts them all on awkward footing. But Gordon and Cameron are finally able to really talk like two people who care about each other and trust each other enough to tell each other secrets. Gordon tells Cameron about his condition with the helpful filter of the video game and his radio. Cameron, in turn, tells Gordon her secret about marrying Tom, fittingly over a ham radio that she built for herself.

Finally, we get a scene with Donna, a scene that takes place in an imagined dream world. Donna is our princess in the castle, briefly. It’s the scene that gives the episode its title, from the Talking Heads song. Donna walks in the grass of Mutiny’s new business partner, Diane’s (a woman who is dealing with her own vast loneliness) Napa Valley mansion during a brief holiday, a getaway that Diane suggested Donna and Cameron go on together in order to mend whatever fences need mending. Cam declines – wanting nothing to do with Donna, after finding out that she lied to her – but Donna goes anyway. And then, surprisingly, Diane’s daughter, Kimberly (who in another instance of mirroring looks eerily like Diane), shows up with her two friends. Donna has fun with the college kids for a bit, chats with them and enjoys their company. And they enjoy her. So much so that Kimberly tells Donna that she should be friends with her mom. Donna says she is friends with Diane, but we know she isn’t really. They are colleagues but they aren’t friends. They wouldn’t hang out on a regular basis outside of a work dinner here and there. And it becomes clear that Donna doesn’t have friends. Not outside of Gordon, who is retreating into his own world. Not outside of Cameron. And maybe Cameron’s not Donna’s friend anymore at all. And then Donna asks if the kids have any pot and instead of pot they give her mushrooms.

So Donna walks out onto the lawn and sits down and starts running her hands through the perfectly manicured grass. She lays down and looks up to see someone there. It’s not one of the college students, or Gordon. It’s Cam. And they have the following exchange:

Donna: You came?

Cam: I figured we should talk.

Donna: Come, sit with me.

Cam: I don’t like this. I don’t like feeling this way.

Donna: I hate it too. I don’t know how we got here.

Cam: You lied to me, Donna.

Donna: I know, but I – it didn’t feel like a lie at the time. It felt like what was best for the company, what was best for you. I am just as good at this as you are.

Cam: No one ever said you weren’t.

Donna: They don’t have to say it. It’s there all the time, deafening. Cam is the genius, Donna is the mom.

Cam: So we’re back where we started?

Donna: No. No, not yet. I mean, look at this place. Did you ever think we’d be here?

Cam: How many times do you need to hear that I can’t do this without you?

Donna: I’m sorry that I lied to you.

Cam: I forgive you.

The two women are lying down next to each other on the grass. The camera pans over to Donna’s face as she lays there looking up at the night’s sky and then back to the grass where Cam was but she’s gone. Of course, she was never really there. Donna says all the things she wants to say to Cam and imagines all of the things she wants Cam to say to her. It’s a re-tread of a scene that already, really happened, an episode ago, but in this case it’s undeniably romantic. It’s also sad. It’s the saddest scene in the episode because Donna’s not communicating with anyone – she’s talking to herself. And she’s still being the mom, explaining, futilely that she did what she did for the good of the company, so that Cam could shine a little brighter still. The confession is all the more sad because when Donna gets home and tries to talk to Cam for real, she’s moved out, unannounced. Donna confesses to herself, through a hallucinogenic filter, that she lied to Cam – that she was wrong. And she makes this created Cam, really herself, forgive her. Then she looks up at the sky and maybe dreams a little dream, wishes on a star, that this could be true, that it really happens.

In the following episode, “The Threshold” secrets, lies and attempted apologies form a tidal wave that will likely shape the remainder of the season. In the episode we see the completion of a trifecta of Donna’s apology and confession scenes. The apology begins with Donna extending an olive branch digitally, walking into the Swap Meet app with her avatar, and types a note telling Cam to answer her phone. Cam does and confirms she has married Tom. The conversation happens on the phone, through panes of glass as the two look at each other across the room over the expanse of their office. This continues through another scene at dinner when the women are out celebrating with their husbands and they escape to the bathroom. Surrounded by mirrors, Donna repeats some of what she practiced to herself on the grass. Even some of the lines she says are similar. Cam repeats lines too, if slightly altered, a real life version. Cam says, “I miss how it was between us” and the two agree on a “fresh start”. But everything is cut with tension and the knowledge of what was and what is. As we see, in the blow-out that follows, the fresh start is more complicated, much nastier, possibly to the point that the friendship and even business relationship is all but over.  Maybe they are back where they started. There is only so much power in Donna’s imagination.

And she was looking at herself
And things were looking like a movie – “And She Was”, The Talking Heads

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