At last, a show with the courage to ask the big question: Can man invent a laptop computer?
Alright, maybe that's stacking the deck against Halt and Catch Fire's third episode, "High Plains Hardware." We knew it was historical(ish) fiction from the start, and acting as though foregone conclusions about the future of computers are matters of high suspense, well… that's just basic good faith on the part of the audience, right?
But it's no more unfair than the show is to its own characters, a whole room full of which shout at Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark that a lightweight, fully portable personal computer would literally have to defy the laws of physics to be built. Our 2014 vantage point makes Joe and Gordon look like prophets and this room full of interchangeable underlings look like visionless saps. Instead of allowing its main characters to earn our trust, Halt essentially extorts it from us. After a much-improved second episode, Halt's back to hitting its marks too hard, and trusting its audience too little.
Not convinced that Donna Clark looks at her jet-setting, ladder-climbing high-school sweetheart and wonders what might have been? Don't worry – we'll cut back to her later, bludgeoning a bird to death while sneering at her lifeless life partner for not doing the dirty work himself. Think Joe's too much of a loose cannon to follow company founder Nathan Cardiff's orders and let poor John Bosworth make the financial decisions? Fear not – he'll make an embarrassingly adolescent scene at an investor's dinner party and fuck the hostess's boyfriend, thus removing all doubt. Concerned that Cameron's bad attitude and anti-authoritarianism conceals a fatal lack of experience with actual work? Here's seven or eight scenes making that exact point, all set to songs from the forthcoming Halt and Catch Fire Season One soundtrack album. Is there a line of code that just makes the screen say "ALRIGHT ALREADY, WE GET IT" over and over?
The one rewarding exception to all this remains Bosworth, the unlikely conscience of the operation. Aware of how he seems to outsiders, the company's senior V.P. cranks up the Lone Star State shitkicker routine to scare off a venture-capitalist vulture (actor Toby Huss's crouching, looming body language in this scene is a real treat). Instead of spending all his time fuming about Joe's personal-computer coup, he burns the midnight oil reading up about coding. Bosworth shows more genuine empathy for lost-soul Cameron than anyone else at the company in their after-hours encounter – perhaps because he too is now living out of the office, perhaps because Cameron reminds him of the punk kid later in the episode who might be his son – and elicits surprising deference from her in return. The gentleman is hard to predict, which is a high compliment to pay.
The same can't be said for Cameron, aka the Girl With the (Partial) Black Flag Tattoo. Surely one scene in which she responds to her coder's block by spastically flailing around with loud music blaring would have gotten the point across, but handing over a third of the episode (!) to this monotonous routine is enough to make you wish for your own bottle of vodka. Even the ostensible climax for her arc this episode — the paycheck-blowing hotel party — was just more of the same, only instead of sharpening pencils in a basement she's watching refugees from the punk episode of Quincy dance in their underwear.
What's more, Cameron's joyless episode-ending booty call to Joe is yet another example of Halt's dire depiction of sex solely as a means of marking territory or venting aggression. Ditto Joe's left-field tryst with Travis, the closeted arm candy for the would-be investor played by Jean Smart: What seemed at first like both a revealing character development and a refreshing fuck-you to the relentless heterosexuality of TV antiheroes was quickly revealed to be just another business maneuver.
While displays of dominance and lack of emotional investment are inexplicably popular drivers of TV sex scenes, they have almost no bearing on sexual relationships (however brief) in the real world, which result from a complex cocktail of emotional compulsion. To make a comparison invited by AMC itself: From its very first episode, Mad Men made its sex scenes sexy by using them to show its alpha males at their most vulnerable. Even at the apex of his ladies'-man days, Don Draper still looked flushed and moony-eyed every time he made a move, not like some kind of dead-eyed sex shark. Sex is everybody's weakness. If you turn it into armor every time, you lose a chance to reach your characters where they really live.
The weird thing? Each member of our high-tech trinity is given a little visual flourish that does more to sell their watchability than all the punched-up drama does. Gordon and the dying bird, later found by Donna, getting literally eaten alive by ants. Gordon again, staggering away from the car accident that gave him the gumption to fire his naysaying neighbor. Joe standing shirtless, scarred, and menacing in his nightmarish apartment, blasting Gary Numan. Cameron responding to Joe's check-in phone call with frazzled bluster, her actions and dialogue cut to erratically overlap with a jittery rhythm reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker. A show this reliant on the use of conventional character work sorely needs this kind of stylistic innovation to turn its types into people. If only Halt had a Donna around to show it that the answer was right there all along.
Previously: Hostile Makeover