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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Halt And Catch Fire: “Up Helly Aa”

Mackenzie Davis (AMC)
Mackenzie Davis (AMC)
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The chief tension undermining Halt And Catch Fire’s pretensions to weighty drama is the gulf between its estimation of Joe MacMillan’s vision and the mundane reality of what the Cardiff Electric team is actually trying to accomplish. Even after shedding much of the overwrought melodrama of its early episodes, the back half of the season has seen its writers introduce characters whose puncturing of the Cardiff team’s high-minded rhetoric has landed with more resonance than perhaps intended.

Tonight, after it turns out that Donna’s former boss has—shocker!—taken her loose-lipped revelations of the Cardiff Giant’s technical specs and built a similar portable PC (called the Slingshot—get it?), there’s a confrontation between Scott Michael Foster’s Hunt and Lee Pace’s Joe. There, Joe sneeringly accuses Hunt of being “a pawn shop hack selling my dream under a cheap plastic mask.” Except that Joe, in his mission to get back at his IBM exec dad, has done exactly the same thing, manipulating Cameron, Gordon, and the whole Cardiff Electric company into stealing IBM’s secrets in order to develop the Giant. As much as the show gives the characters speeches delineating their purported lofty ideals in undertaking the PC project, it never sufficiently differentiates what they’re doing from what Hunt is revealed to have done here. They’re building off of the work of others and calling it their own and copping an attitude about it. When Joe tells off Hunt with “You cheated yourself—you’ll never create anything of your own,” there’s an irony in the air that is only partially acknowledged.


That being said, “Up Helly Aa” is a largely enjoyable episode. Like last week’s, it stays focused on a tightly drawn, specific situation and allows the characters to play out their various conflicts under pressure, in this case the Giant’s big unveiling at the annual COMDEX computer exhibition. The fake-out (teased in the previews) that the episode was going to be about whether the Giant would actually boot up in front of investors (an echo of Gordon and Donna’s failure with Symphonic) instead goes in a more fruitful direction, giving the Donna/Gordon and Joe/Cameron relationships an opportunity to come to a head in conjunction with the computer’s big debut. Joe, putting his innate showmanship to good use, buys time (with porn stars and shrimp) for Gordon and Donna to troubleshoot the Giant. (Sure, one would think they would have done that beforehand, but it still makes for an entertaining sequence.) And Gordon and Donna find their teamwork inspiring enough that they scandalize Cameron’s personalized computer interface with unseen sex talk before getting it on in an adjoining hotel room.

When the team discovers that Hunt and fired Cardiff engineer Brian (Will Greenberg) have scooped their ideas and introduced the faster, cheaper Slingshot, Gordon’s decision to scuttle Cameron’s Siri-esque interface in order to make the Giant faster brings the three main characters’ conflicts—and the show’s—to the fore. Halt has alternated between buying into Joe’s often-florid protestations of the project’s significance and reluctantly conceding that the central pursuit of the series is something of a MacGuffin. Like the gradually revealed details of Joe’s backstory (his druggie mom let him fall off a roof, he busted a water main and flooded an IBM facility after a fight with his father), there’s a prosaic dullness at the heart of Halt And Catch Fire that pokes its head up uncomfortably for all the show’s melodramatic claims of consequence.

Tonight, when Joe, having acceded to Gordon’s last-minute jettisoning of Cameron’s OS in the pursuit of marketability, makes his speech to buyers about the Giant not being “your friend, but your employee,” it’s clear he’s betraying Cameron’s vision. But if he didn’t go along with Gordon’s streamlining, then the Giant would lose to the Slingshot (again—get it?) and the Giant would fail. Mackenzie Davis plays Cameron’s betrayal with an affecting urgency, and the drama is all right there, played well by everyone involved, but it again points out the fact that, like the Cardiff crew, Halt is too ready to chase disparate new ideas—each could definitely benefit from a firmer hand at the controls. As it is, with one episode left in the season, the show hasn’t made a convincing case that its central conceit is a big enough deal.

Stray observations:

  • In the final scene, Halt reveals itself to be, essentially, a commercial for Apple, as the original Macintosh does everything the Cardiff team was attempting. Mac/PC war conspiracy theorists—have at it.
  • Scoot McNairy’s Gordon continues to take the lead, which continues to look good on him. Tonight, he uses his previous knowledge of COMDEX politics to employ Joe as a hatchet man, conning a pair of comically sweaty printer nerds out of their suite.
  • The Violent Femmes montage, with Cameron punkily tarting up the Cardiff booth and Joe creating a static-free environment for Gordon and Donna to work in, is well done. Even if the sight of Joe wrapping every surface in his bedroom with plastic wrap makes him look more like Patrick Bateman than ever.
  • Blabbiness aside, Kerry Bishé’s Donna continues to overachieve as a character. Her confrontations with Gordon throughout the episode and Gordon’s eventual public acknowledgement of her contributions to the Giant are more affecting than I would have thought at the start of the season.
  • 80s computer jabber dropped into COMDEX: Windows’ bugginess! Touch screens are a fad! High density floppy discs!
  • Solid burn from Gordon after Brian asks how they dealt with the heat problem. “A lot easier after we fired you.”
  • Up Helly Aa is a Scottish festival whose annual Viking boat-burning tradition Joe likens to the Cardiff mission. Honestly, it looks pretty fun

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