Midseason Check-In: ‘HALT AND CATCH FIRE’s’ Lonely Geniuses

On the third season of Halt and Catch Fire, the characters struggle with communication breakdown at the dawn of the communication age.

It’s not uncommon for television characters to operate as grand ironic metonymies for the subject matter of their shows. It’s why we have forty years of TV about detectives who can’t unravel their own secrets and doctors who can’t fix their own broken hearts. It seems to be the same for Halt and Catch Fire, as the show’s superb third season hits its midpoint with a pair of episodes about how these tech geniuses can’t seem to communicate with each other despite laying the groundwork for the communication age.

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Despite the move to San Francisco, a move that was supposed to solidify Cameron and Donna’s pact to partnership with a fresh start, Mutiny’s co-founders couldn’t be farther apart. Note that I said co-founders, and not company co-heads, because being the head is exactly the problem. Donna has always been Mutiny’s head whereas Cameron has always been its heart. Donna dresses in professional clothes and goes to business meetings while Cameron works behind the scenes in dirty t-shirts. Of course, it’s this profound difference between the two women that makes Mutiny so successful, but that doesn’t mean it makes day-to-day operations easy.

In “Yerba Buena” Cameron continues to deal with the stress of having too many problems to handle, but she refuses to allow anyone else to work on them. She’s overly precious about every decision because she sees Mutiny as her baby. She won’t relinquish control over to anyone else, and, as a result, very little gets done. Buckling under stress, she disappears for a few days just as the company is preparing to make an important decision about how to process online payments for purchases made via the company’s online trading exchange, Swap Meet. Donna is left alone to sort it all out.

Furthering the baby metaphor, if Cameron is Mutiny’s fun parent, Donna is left to be the disciplinarian. She constantly feels like the only adult around, telling coders to get on schedule and stop spilling drinks near computers while Cameron gets to be the wild tech genius. Of course they need each other, but neither woman can easily bring herself to say it. Cameron finally tells Donna how important she is to Mutiny after suddenly reappearing at “Yerba Buena” with their transactions problem solved. Donna, on the other hand, can’t ever admit it — until she’s completely stoned on mushrooms and imagines Cameron is lying under a starry sky with her, that is. It’s easy to sometimes view Donna as the victim without her own secrets when comparing her to Cameron and Gordon, but always remember that she attempted to cheat on Gordon back in Season One and later aborted his baby. Any real confessions will have to wait for now, as will any unified progress at Mutiny until Donna and Cameron can get on the same page.

But that’s not the only secret Cameron is harboring. Where was she those unaccounted-for days? And how did she suddenly come up with a solution for Mutiny’s transaction problem after weeks of struggle? When Cameron and Donna were struggling to resolve some problems with a pernicious piece of code earlier this season, Gordon recommended that they just get whoever originally wrote the code to work out the bugs. The only problem is that said code is the last remaining Mutiny fragment written by Tom Rendon, Cameron’s former boyfriend. And, it turns out, maybe the solution really is that simple.

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Unbeknownst to her coworkers, Cameron returned to California with a ring on her finger and a new last name. She secretly married Tom Rendon while on vacation in Texas, and he plans to rejoin the company in San Francisco in a few weeks. If that sounds like a soap opera development, it wasn’t. Rather, it should be a moment of joy in a string of episodes wrought with emotional strife. Cameron’s marriage and Tom’s return would be a reason for Mutiny to celebrate if only she could bring herself to tell anyone. She keeps it a secret instead, only revealing the news to Gordon in the closing moments of “And She Was,” when she manages to find him on ham radio.

More interesting, we never actually saw Cameron and Tom’s wedding, not that Halt is trying to pull a fast one on us. It was probably a small affair at the Justice of the Peace, but “Yerba Buena” chose to focus on the pair’s awkward reunion at a restaurant instead. The only moments we see of newlywed flirting are when the two are chatting over the internet in secret once Cameron returns to San Francisco.

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Cameron tells Gordon of her marriage over the radio. She only emotes with her husband over internet chat. Add to that how Gordon only reveals his neurological disorder, and the worsening symptoms that he’s hiding from his wife, to Cameron once he collapses during a game of Super Mario Bros, and it begins to become obvious that these characters are only capable of communicating with the help of mechanical conduits.

The same goes for Joe MacMillian who, existing in a story arc almost completely separate from the Mutiny one, has flourished this season without having to constantly bristle against Cameron and Gordon. After pioneering his security software, Joe has set out on a new personal project with just the aid of his personal assistant, Ryan, the coder he poached from Mutiny. He works outside the confines of his board of directors and decides to develop a regional network from the backbone of the currently government-only NSFNET (the network that evolved into the modern internet).

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It’s an expensive and risky, if also genius, proposition, so the board votes the project down and removes Joe from power once they discover it (how apropos for a character largely based on Steve Jobs this season). It’s in light of his new powerlessness that Joe admits in a taped deposition that he stole the MacMillian Utility software from Gordon, with Joe staring directly into the video camera. Again, it’s technology that opens the emotional channels.

It seems like things are only going to get more complicated for Joe from here on out. There’s also the unstated, but highly implied possibility that Joe’s bisexuality in San Francisco has him brushing up against the AIDS crisis, as we’ve seen him weeping over a partner who arrived at his door with bad news, and receiving the results of his own negative test (over the phone, naturally). Does his brush with mortality make him more open to working with Gordon again, or is he just sabotaging his own company out of revenge? He and Gordon could do great things if they decided to work together again, but their history of dysfunctionality makes that seem unlikely. Joe would have to be the brain while Gordon would be the heart behind the scenes, and we’ve already seen how difficult that is for Cameron and Donna.

Communication breakdown. It’s always the same.

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