Halt and Catch Fire recap: Play with Friends
It’s a new day in Dallas. Gordon and Joe are working together again, Cameron and Tom are falling for each other, and … Donna’s pregnant.
As new story lines sprout, old ones mature and are harvested, and we’re left with an open field of possibility. Will Gordon’s health issue take center stage? Will Donna’s pregnancy derail her work at Mutiny? Will Joe and Sara fail as he steps back into his familiar role of workaholic swindler?
But before getting to that stuff, let’s talk about the home pregnancy test in the last scene. Can you believe a gal used to have to wait 20 minutes to two hours for a result? The first home tests were made widely available to the public in 1976, and by 1985, they were still a slow, messy test tube situation—like a dial-up modem, but for women’s health. Re-experiencing ’80s technology is a big piece of watching Halt and Catch Fire; the show took a cue from its AMC sibling, Mad Men, and realized that audiences love to reminisce and ask each other, “Remember those?” and “Remember when?”
From the gigantic answering machines to those multicolored ’80s Afghans, pogo sticks, cabbage patch kids, chicken cacciatore, Neal Patrick (the hacker, not Neil the actor—Doogie Howser is still four years away), and of course, the beige-box desktop computers and slow-as-molasses printers, the show allows the audience to soak in nostalgia and let their own ’80s memories color the story.
It’s a brilliant device that’s been used plenty, Happy Days, The Wonder Years, That ’70s Show, etc. But it goes further when our ’80s tech wizards make “new” discoveries like chat rooms that they hope will succeed, while we know they will. (In season 1, Gordon calls touch screens a passing fad.) The audience feels powerful, omniscient, as well as nostalgic. It’s an addictive combination. Of course, if you’re too young to remember the ’80s, you’re not old enough to enjoy that cocktail. The Millenials may not get, or care, about what it took to digitize the world, and perhaps that’s a reason the show isn’t a bigger hit. But seeing the birth of the digital age is good fun for middle-aged viewers who can exclaim things like, “I didn’t get email until 1995!” to one another.
But back to the big bombshell in episode 4—Donna’s pregnancy. She’s referred to the Community rooms as her baby, but now that an actual baby is in the mix, her dreams will have to accommodate a new story line. And with Gordon collapsing, she may have to take care of him and her other two kids, too.
When Gordon passes out in the server room, he lies to Joe about what’s happened, but the reason for his cover-up is unclear. He’s been trying to impress Joe with his Sancerre and his jogging “nine miles,” so perhaps he just doesn’t want to appear weak (or human). Or, he may be continuing to use cocaine, though we saw him throw it away in a previous episode. Gordon also took a trip to the doctor after a nosebleed and claimed he received a clean bill of health, “The doctor says I have the body of a 25-year-old!” But in the final scene, as he’s talking to Donna, he looks in the mirror and says more to himself than to her, “Maybe you should go see a doctor, just to rule out anything serious.”
Mutiny is slowly recovering from its quite-serious Gordon virus, but to stay afloat, its employees have to agree to take shares of the company instead of paychecks, and a regular character, Yo-Yo, is lost in the process. Boz steps in and deftly recovers some lost subscribers, and we learn his sales skills rival Joe’s—a Texas version of Joe’s city slicker charm.
Boz goes to a gamer’s doorstep and convinces the kid’s “Luddite” mother that gaming is a healthy way for him to socialize. The teen feels seen, the mom feels like a better parent, Boz gets his groove back, and Mutiny takes a step back from ruin. Boz also makes the suggestion that Mutiny use ad space in Wired’s forerunner, BYTE magazine (remember that?), and advertise that they’re hiring to make it look like they’re “cooking on the front burner.” It’s an invitation for new faces to appear, and their Animal House-like group photo is sure to draw in some interesting characters.
NEXT: “Everyone wants to shoot their friends sometimes.”
While the show’s newest addition, Tom, had been challenging Cameron at every turn, the pair now team up to develop a big idea: the first online multiplayer shooter. Stuck in the closet with Tom during one of Mutiny’s continual Nerf gun battles, Cameron finds inspiration and points out how fun it is to shoot at your friends. As they start figuring out how to make the game work, they realize they’re into each other. Later, Tom takes the plunge and kisses Cameron, which could be the final nail in the coffin for Joe and Cameron’s romance.
And yet, Joe’s intended, Sara, isn’t even in the episode. As Joe gets to work on his big idea, Sara disappears. Joe risks his relationship with Sara’s father by making secret changes to the servers on his own dime, instead of going through official channels. It’s risky and could easily blow up in his face. He recruits Gordon (who has a Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters vibe going at the moment) to convert the mainframes for outside dial-in access.
Gordon at first refuses the project and his trust in Joe wavers. “Is Sara even your fiancée or is that just some person you hired to make yourself seem normal and trustworthy?” Gordon asks. In the end, Gordon decides to help Joe in exchange for mainframe support for Mutiny, a detail he wants to keep hidden from Donna. Joe will keep that secret if Gordon stays mum about their covert conversion at the oil company, and the two of them are back in business together.
Another partnership, Donna and Cameron’s, is unraveling. Cameron wants to cut Community, the online chat rooms that Donna has created. Cameron is worried about security and the status quo, while Donna sees possibility and the big picture. The two clash, and Donna asks Cameron if she’s resisting because she’s not the visionary this time.
The possibility of losing Community, her “baby,” wounds Donna, and she bonds with Gordon over the heartbreak of passionate work that goes unrecognized. It’s a relatable moment, and Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy bring it to life beautifully. As the show’s executive producer Jonathan Lisco has pointed out, this is “not a show that has meth dealers, and explosions, and shooting,” (well, just with Nerf guns). It’s a different kind of thrill to watch characters move through the everyday pains of ordinary people.
Before Donna’s pregnancy is revealed, Cameron broadcasts her view that children are limiting. She sends a nasty message about Donna: “Gordon = The guy who hung two kids on her and now she’s trappeD!” And her typo “D!” is the command that sends it to everyone at Mutiny. Although she regrets the incident, Cameron views Donna’s family as a hindrance to Mutiny’s progress. And now that Donna is pregnant again, the women’s relationship will be tested further.
The ways that work and family threaten and test each other, as well as how they support and confirm each other, is a primary theme. As gender norms continued to shift while technology exploded, work and home life became the blur that we are still trying to work out today. It may not be all action and explosives, but Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t back away from the difficult realities that we all face.