A review of the two-hour final season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire coming up just as soon as I’m named Little Miss Flawless 1970…
“Are you there? I’m here.” –Joe
Halt concluded its third season with two episodes airing on the same night that leaped the action into the ’90s. In a nice bit of symmetry, season four opens with two episodes as well that bring us another time jump, but one revealed in deceptively complicated form: the entire pre-credits sequence of the first episode, “So It Goes,” covers roughly three years since the meeting of the minds in the season three finale, as Gordon builds up CalNect into a thriving local internet service provider (successful enough that he can hire Blue Man Group to play his birthday party), Joe hides in the basement waiting for Cameron to finish their web browser, and Cameron and Donna are off pursuing other adventures. The whole thing is presented as one fluid take, and even though there are some very clear seams (whenever the camera pans through the floor, or when it pushes in on Gordon’s shirt — a trick Alfred Hitchcock used nearly 70 years ago to hide some of the edits in Rope), it’s still an impressive piece of choreography and direction, as well as a clever way to illustrate how relentlessly time marches on even when a man like Joe MacMillan wants to slow it down.
By the time the opening credits have played, we’re already into the Clinton administration, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a big enough hit that Joe has to explain it to Cameron, Mosaic has already won the first phase of the browser wars(*), and it’s time for all four of our leads (plus Bos and Diane) to figure out what the next phase of the battle is.
(*) Hi, kids! Time for a walk down memory lane! When the World Wide Web first became a thing, there were no graphic browsers at all. We used Lynx, which was a text-only interface (and apparently still exists in some form). I remember the first time one of my engineer friends from college showed me Mosaic, I felt like I had just touched the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s a tricky area the show is playing in at the moment. Joe and Gordon couldn’t actually invent Mosaic, nor can they invent Google, as we see Gordon and Donna each working on ideas about indexing the web, but there were plenty of Google precursors that either didn’t have the staying power (Alta Vista) or have had to content themselves with a life as Pepsi to Google’s Coke (Yahoo!, which in its early stages didn’t look too different from what we see of Haley’s nascent website). There are ways that the final season can show any combination of our characters making a huge breakthrough, and even another fortune, without them actually rewriting history, but the closer the series gets to the present day, the more we recognize the world its fictionalizing.
As usual, though, the most striking parts of these episodes aren’t about hardware or software, but interpersonal dynamics. The cards have been shuffled once again, and Gordon and Joe are still partners, but with Gordon as the alpha. Cameron has just returned from years of self-imposed exile in Tokyo, through the end of her marriage to Tom (good riddance!), unsure of what to do next. And Donna is now the rich, powerful, and feared businesswoman she perhaps always dreamed of being; she’s kind of awful now, which hurts considering how long the show spent on Donna as the most sympathetic of the four, but which also feels entirely natural given the journey she’s been on, particularly in those final episodes of last season.
And Joe and Cameron, who at various times in the middle years each wanted nothing to do with the other, have now made enough peace that they can spend the bulk of the second episode, “Signal to Noise,” talking on the phone all day and night, catching each other up on all they’ve missed, but mostly just reconnecting in a profoundly analog fashion. It’s lovely, and feels entirely earned, despite all the times he has betrayed her, and vice versa, in the past.
Glad to have this show back. Can’t wait to see when, where, and how it decides to leave us, and the central quartet.
Some other thoughts:
* We met Kathryn Newton as the teenage Joanie back in last season’s “NIM,” but Haley — perhaps because the creators knew another time jump was coming that would be more noticeable for a girl Haley’s age — was off at SpaceCamp then. Susanna Skaggs takes over the role here.
* On the one hand, it’s hard to see Bos again with hat in hand, desperate about both money and the state of his marriage. On the other, a well-to-do, happy John Bosworth probably wouldn’t need to get back in the game again at his age, and his bad real estate investment offers an excuse for him to go begging for money from Gordon, and to pitch his GPS idea to Donna. Any excuse for more Toby Huss works for me.
* AOL really did flood the market with free trial offers — at first floppy discs, later CD-ROMs — to try to muscle all the local ISPs out of business. I remember when I first got online in 1993, the Usenet veterans would always complain about September as the month when they had to deal with college freshmen who had just gotten internet access for the first time and didn’t know all the unofficial rules (“netiquette”) for hanging around each newsgroup. Within a few years, AOL had become so ubiquitous that those same veterans would begin to lament the “eternal September” of the place.
* The story Joe reads to Cameron in “Signal to Noise” is “Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike. (If you’re curious, here’s the New York Times review of the short story collection of the same name he published back in 1962.)
Finally, Halt is a show I have recapped weekly at times, and only intermittently at others. Due to the timing of this final season — I’m on vacation for the next couple of weeks, then trying to stay afloat with all the fall premieres — this will be one of the intermittent seasons. If nothing else, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say when we get to the finale, and hopefully sooner than that.
What did everybody else think?