It's the beginning of the end for Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon
It’s the beginning of the end for Halt and Catch Fire. The AMC drama’s final season premiere was a poignant hour that caught us up with what’s been going on in Joe, Donna, Cameron, and Gordon’s lives since we last checked in with them, while also setting the semi-fractured group’s next goal post: the world of search. In these first two episodes, there’s a very palpable and moving sense of loneliness for all four of the characters. Even though some of them are facing success, you still get the sense that something’s missing. And, the premiere sets them all on a track to find what that missing thing is.
When we last checked in with the four characters, Joe, Gordon, and Cameron were huddled around a computer working on creating a door to the World Wide Web, i.e. a browser, and Donna was off on her own after Cameron kicked her off the project because some wounds never heal. Unfortunately, as the premiere reveals, Joe, Gordon, and Cameron’s attempts weren’t as successful as they hoped, a combination of poor timing and interpersonal problems stalled their work.
“So It Begins” opens with Cameron informing Joe and Gordon that she has decided to work on the browser remotely from Japan because she told Tom what happened between her and Joe. This is huge disappointment to Joe, who wanted to work on this with her. From there, we follow Gordon through the intervening three years as he moves around the old Mutiny offices building up his ISP business, while Joe remains in a holding pattern in the basement frustrated by Cameron, who isn’t coming through on the project, and cataloguing every website that pops up on Post-it notes. The sequence captures that waiting period between when the Internet went live in 1990 and when Mosaic, one of the first successful browsers, entered the market.
Three years later, Joe still believes that the Internet, which has arrived, is still the next frontier. There’s something left to innovate there, but Gordon is more concerned with his ISP business and tells Joe it’s time to move on and rejoin the world of the living upstairs, especially since AOL, their main competitor, is stepping up their business. Joe seems reluctant. His unwavering belief that there’s still a door to the Internet to be created is both sad and hopeful at the same time.
With Joe and Gordon, you have this dreamer and realist dynamic. Gordon is willing to temper his idealism if it means making more money, and Joe isn’t. You see this same juxtaposition with Donna and Cameron in the first part of the premiere, too. Cameron’s new Pilgrim is testing terribly. It’s a defiantly puzzle-heavy and obtuse game that withholds information from players because Cameron thinks the joy of playing is in discovery and figuring things out on your own. “This isn’t a game you play. It’s game she lives,” she tells her bosses at Atari. However, this is not the direction the gaming industry is going, which is evident by the fact the testers name Doom as their favorite game at the moment. But, Cameron remains stubbornly attached to her creative integrity, whereas Donna is more than willing to abandon an idea if it’s failing.
In the wake of being kicked off of Joe, Gordon, and Cameron’s browser project, Donna pursued her own browser called Millennium. However, like their browser, it has failed to make a splash, and once Mosaic enters the scene, Donna decides to defund Millennium, a project she led from the beginning. Her past failures, which can at least be partially attributed to Joe and Cameron’s inability to remain objective, has taught her to temper her idealistic drive when money’s on the line. Donna wants to make the next big thing, too, but if an idea isn’t working out, she won’t be afraid to move on to one that will. (Recap
Gordon celebrates his big 40th birthday with an extravagant party that features the Blue Man Group. (Diane is worried that he’s spending too much money when AOL is coming up to steal his business). It turns out his party is the thing that lures Cameron out from hiding, and naturally, she ends up running into Joe. Their reunion is very tense since Joe is still pissed that their browser has basically failed, partially because she wasn’t responsive.
As it did with Gordon and Joe in the time-jump opening, the episode proceeds to explore where Donna and Cameron are emotionally after the latter’s encounter with Joe. One part of a montage shows Cameron, who wonders if she’s cruel, drinking alone at Gordon’s party and eventually settling down on Gordon’s couch to sleep. Meanwhile, Donna throws a big dinner party surrounded by friends. She seems to be enjoying her life and getting what she wants. (She boldly makes her needs known to Chris Lowell, whose character goes unnamed in the episode). However, seeing this part of Donna’s life via a wordless montage gives the feeling that this is all superficial; she’s just as lonely as Cameron and Joe, but she’s just found a better way of handling it.
These former friends and business-partners end up coming face to face the next morning when Donna shows up at Gordon’s home to pick up Joanie and Haley and finds Cameron there. This reunion is even more awkward than Cameron and Joe’s. You can feel the years between them.
After realizing the threat AOL poses, Joe rejoins CalNect upstairs to talk about the ISP stuff; however, he doesn’t remain a team player for long after another visit from Cameron that doesn’t go well. “If we had worked on this, it could’ve been amazing,” he tells Cameron, a moment that reveals his intense need for some kind of connection. But now it’s too late because of Mosaic. Realizing they won’t be able to move past this, Cameron leaves; however, before she does, she tells him that the number of websites is growing so much that he’ll soon start running out of Post-its.
And that sends Joe’s mind spinning and he comes up with a new way to become the door to the internet: building a website of websites that becomes the first place people visit when they log-on. This idea excites Joe, but it just pisses Gordon off because they need to focus on the ISP stuff, dammit. Gordon blames Cameron for distracting Joe from the ISP stuff yet again, and when he confronts her about just coming back into Joe’s life after he had started to move on, he tells her that yes, she is cruel.
That night, Donna and Gordon have dinner to discuss parent stuff, and Gordon shares Joe’s idea with her, which sets the gears in Donna’s brain spinning. The next day, Donna pushes Rover — a company with an algorithm that was initially used to create a medical file database — until they realize that their next big idea will be indexing the Internet. And back at CalNect, Gordon collects Joe’s Post-its.
Meanwhile, Joe tests out Cameron’s game and calls her about it. He apologizes and says he doesn’t want five months or five years to go by without hearing from her because he wants to know her. And then, she confesses that she’s not going back to Japan because she and Tom broke up. (Recap continues on the next page)
The second episode, which somehow manages to be even stronger than the impressive season premiere, is built around the ensuing 24-hour phone conversation between Joe and Cameron. It’s impressive that a story that doesn’t involve two actors in the same room together can be so bloody engrossing and moving. The director uses his camera to capture how lonely they are and longing for a connection; we see both of them alone in the middle of their respective rooms, surrounded by some empty space filled with things and missing people. When the camera moves in on them, they’re both off center, and you can’t help but wish that one of them would hang up the phone and join them in person.
It starts out with an incredibly tender moment: Joe staying on the line when Cameron falls asleep. Their conversation covers a wide range of topics: websites that translate your name into Hawaiian; whether or not they believe in God or at least something more (Joe does, Cameron isn’t so sure); what the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is about; whether or not they want families. While it starts out somewhat awkwardly, they both become comfortable together and move around their homes with their phones as they do other things. As EW’s Jeff Jensen points out in his season 4 review, the conversation is a metaphor for the evolution of online communication. Their phones are attached to their hands for the entire day, except for when they go to the bathroom, and they grow increasingly vulnerable with each other as it goes on.
Joe is on the line when Cameron’s boss shows up at her apartment to tell her they’re postponing her game indefinitely. It’s a heartbreaking moment for Cameron who believes in her vision so much. But Joe’s there and he helps her come up with her statement that’s going out in a press release.
“He’s a parasite,” says Joe about Cameron’s boss. “You create. You make something out of nothing and I have always been in awe of that.”
This conversation ends up keeping Joe at home, which means he isn’t at work when everything goes to hell. I don’t exactly understand what the crisis is, but the important thing is what happens in the middle of all of this: making a connection with Gordon’s introverted daughter Haley. Haley comes to the office because she was caught skipping school, and Gordon puts her to work on inputting Joe’s website Post-its into a spreadsheet. While doing that task, she creates a basic website comprised of sites she likes, surprising Gordon with her technology skills and, hopefully, confirming that Joe might be onto something.
Meanwhile, a new partner joins Donna’s venture capitalist firm, which pisses her off because he criticizes some of the decisions she makes with regards to the web. She’s very excited about Rover trying to index the Internet and she puts her Howard-educated assistant Tonya in charge of the project. Well, Trip, this douchy new partner wants to bring a consultant in to oversee this project that he’s not sure is worth it anyway. To avoid having to work with someone she doesn’t know or respect, Donna recruits Bosworth to come in and work with the team.
As the episode ends, Joe shows up at Cameron’s apartment, and the next morning we see them getting breakfast at The Waffle House. Something old is beginning again, which raises the question: Can they make it work again?