Gordon and Donna were right about one thing: A convention is a party, if you’re doing it right. Like the Scottish boat-burning ritual for which it was named – and that little shindig in San Diego you may have heard about this weekend, making this some pretty inspired piggybacking – tonight’s excellent episode of Halt and Catch Fire, “Up Helly Aa,” was a celebration. For a while, anyway.
It had a killer party playlist, a selection of New Wave hits — “Psycho Killer,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Space Age Love Song,” “Fascination,” “Sex (I’m A…)” — to rival the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtrack. It had laughs, assuming that you think Gordon and Joe conning some hapless printer programmers out of a hotel suite is funny. It had sex, both flaunted by the always absurd “booth babes” pheonomenon and demurely hidden away on the computer screen of “the Giant” as Gordon and Donna use it for foreplay. It made great use of that hotel, with striking window-illuminated conversations amid rumpled covers, discarded clothes, and dishes of half-eaten room service.
But every party needs a crasher, and this one had two: Donna’s failed flame and ex-boss, Hunt, and Gordon’s neighbor and ex-employee, Brian. Using their inside information, they beat Cardiff Electric at its own game, unveiling a faster, cheaper portable PC with the in-your-face name of the Slingshot. It’s a Giant-killer, which Joe and his team recognize instantly; so do we, though at first the surprise of Hunt’s betrayal and that “payback’s a bitch” smirk on Brian’s face are too darkly enjoyable to fully process. Hunt attempts to present it to Joe as the cost of doing business — but they both know business is personal.
Yet Hunt’s “‘two paths in a wood’ bullshit,” as Joe puts it, is spot-on in one respect. In a rare move for, well, pretty much any drama on television, Halt gave its characters a complex personal, professional, and perhaps even moral choice to make in which neither outcome was the clear-cut “right thing to do.” When Gordon guts Cameron’s forward-thinking, interactive OS to cut costs and increase speed, what should Joe do? Siding with Cameron would honor her genuine vision, preserve the one thing that made the Giant unique, keep the hope of an eventual reward for their cutting-edge tech alive, and maintain the romantic relationship that clearly matters a lot to both of them. But it would cost them the only competitive edges – speed and cost – that matter in the face of the Slingshot knockoff’s debut earlier that day, which in turn would cost them the entirety of Cardiff Electric. Fiction in general (and prestige TV dramas in particular) conditions us to root for the maverick, the underdog, and the visionary, so our initial inclination is to pull for Cameron. But Joe’s face as the elevator doors close on her speaks volumes. He knows that her computer would be better. But her better computer likely will never get the chance to exist unless they act now. And the sacrifice their love requires is too steep.
When we see the results of Joe’s decision play out on the convention floor, the issues remain just as complex. His speech about the reprogrammed Giant joylessly champions all-business values, at times echoing Alec Baldwin’s legendary Glengarry Glenn Ross monologue (“Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids”) in its cynicism and intensity. Finding Cameron’s ketchup stain on his notes would normally be a sign he’s about to have a change of heart; watching him power past his qualms, then quietly close the notes away in his briefcase undermines all the expectations a moment like that naturally raises.
Yet there’s genuine fervor in the speech – a chance for Joe’s skill as a salesman to shine, which is his art as much as coding is Cameron’s or engineering is Gordon’s and Donna’s. The presentation is a hit, scoring the Giant a big order with a major retailer. There are even personal victories to echo the loss of Cameron – a loss which, importantly, Joe and Gordon honor during their presentation. Joe’s decision may have cost him Cameron, but it made possible the rapprochement between Gordon and Donna, who at last is credited with her role in the computer’s creation. It also drove a stake through the heart of Hunt and Brian’s sleazy Slingshot project – which is a bit rich, given the similarly unscrupulous way Joe and the gang have gone about everything, but is no less satisfying for it.
In the end, Halt still sends signals that Joe made the wrong choice, if for the right reasons. He and the Clarks share the world’s saddest champagne toast, with the camera lingering on the popped bottle long after such shots normally cut away, transforming its celebratory effervescence into just a spill to be cleaned up. Gordon and Donna are back together, but the events of the day make their demeanor seem miles away from their sweetly sexed-up chemistry of the night before.
Finally, Joe stumbles across a nearby suite and gets a glimpse of the future – one more ambitious than anything he or Gordon or Cameron or the cheerful Xerox boys saw coming. It’s the Apple Macintosh, though it may as well be the 2001 monolith for the size of the evolutionary leap it represents. (At least to contemporary eyes – Apple’s dominance took nearly two more decades to firmly take root.) Its unveiling has the air of a religious ceremony, or a cult initiation – candles, hushed and reverent voices, murmurs of joy when the ritual is performed. “It speaks,” Joe marvels with a mixture of horror and awe, like a human encountering his first talking chimpanzee in a Planet of the Apes movie. Only it’s Joe who’s the ape here, and in cutting Cameron loose, however well-intentioned and even necessary that may have been, he rejected his chance to walk upright.
Previously: Come Together