Halt and Catch Fire Review: Joe Ruins and Also Saves the Day

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Joe pulls off his most elaborate deception yet on the Cardiff Electric team.

Last week, we saw more of some of the show’s supporting cast with Donna and John, and this week we got to see a lot more of Donna in action as she’s called in to solve a crisis at Cardiff. If you’ll remember, Donna’s also the one who gave Gordon the idea that made their PC’s motherboard work… not that she’s gotten any credit for it so far. Joe also rose to new heights of asshole by sleeping with an investor’s boyfriend — spoiler alert, it’s doubtful anyone actually slept — in order to sink what he felt was an unfavorable business deal.

So what will Joe destroy in this episode? Actually, basically everything. The entirety of episode 4 is drama designed by Joe — more so than the entire show’s drama is designed by Joe — calculated to get Cardiff some attention. Also on display is rampant sexism and lots of unnecessary shouting — because, remember, kids, this is a high-stakes drama! Someone could get fired if things go wrong! The entertainment values here are pretty good — the drama is convincing right up until it’s unraveled — but the parade of people giving Cameron and Donna shit is just exhausting to watch. Cant any of these people be nice to one another for an hour-long stretch? It just reinforces the fact that most of the show’s characters are jerks and you don’t want to see them succeed so much as you want to see them get beaten into the dirt… which also happens this episode. So there’s that.

If you haven’t caught this week’s episode, you can watch it online at AMC’s website — or tune in to AMC on Sunday at 10/9c to catch the latest live. Now, let’s dive into the sexist mire of this episode.

Yhe halls of Cardiff Electric are abuzz because their PC in progress has cleared an important hurdle: the Doherty threshold. This means the machine responds to commands quickly enough that a user’s attention won’t stray from their screen while the system takes time to process a command — or, more precisely, that you’re glued to your screen. “Once assembled, it will not only be faster than all the other PCs on the market, it will also be addictive,” Joe says gleefully. And Joe is nearly manic during the first half of the episode, seemingly high on his own success. I originally thought this was the first sign of genuine good cheer we’d seen from Joe this season… but considering how the episode ended, ithe happiness — and his subsequent unhappiness — could have all been an act.

Kicking off his orchestrated drama, Joe grabs the blue binder that contains their reverse-engineered IBM BIOS and throws it in a trash can, douses it in lighter fluid, and tosses in a match. (Apparently fire alarms weren’t very good in the 80s, because this isn’t a problem.) Watching on television, the viewer knows that because the BIOS code has been burned, we’re going to need it later in the episode but none of the players in Joe’s little drama see it that way, responding with excitement to his little show.

With the setup a success, Joe moves on to the next stage of his plan, bothering one of the secretaries to get Cameron out of the office. The goal, Joe says, is to get Cameron to take a shower and also to get the janitorial staff in Cameron’s filthy office while she’s not there to send them away. There’s going to be a journalist in the office today, and it’s important they give the right impression — though, of course, Joe sends someone else to manage this because he knows he’d wind up walking away with a black eye.

Unfortunately, while Cameron’s out, the janitor’s plugged the vacuum cleaner into the same socket as her computer, causing a power surge — all of Cameron’s work is gone and when she returns to her desk with freshly-washed hair, she goes into meltdown mode. Cameron shouts at the janitor for supposedly ruining her work while Gordon shouts at — and, before Joe pulls him away — looks like he’s going to hit Cameron because her backup disks are ruined.

Cameron’s gone from being angry with everyone around her to being near tears that a project she didn’t even seem interested in a few weeks ago might have crashed and burned. It’s more emotional depth than we’ve seen from her before, but the characterization is a bit puzzling. And it gets even more puzzling, later, when it’s let slip that Gordon’s called her white trash and she looks genuinely hurt. On one hand, it’s baffling that she should act this way around everyone and expect any other reaction… and on the other, it seems like lazy character writing to make one of the show’s two leading ladies to be the cliche tough on the outside, soft on the inside character.

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What Cameron’s character — cliched or not — does give us is a very interesting contrast with Gordon’s wife Donna. Donna is calm and collected, a mother of two with an engineering degree who’s getting by in a world where she’s surrounded by men… and takes plenty of flack for it, from her husband and everyone else. The neighbor describes her as “Nose-in-the air Donna with her whole career woman act,” while her boss puts her on probation for turning in subpar work — perhaps in part because she’s putting in hours on Gordon’s PC project while holding down her own job and looking after their two kids… all of which she does with poise, never acting like any of it phases her.

Still, when Gordon forgets to pick up their daughters because Donna has to work, Gordon tries to explain that his job is more important — he’s not just testing calculators. Gordon realizes he’s overstepped as soon as he’s said it, but Donna cuts him off — his world wouldn’t be possible without her making a steady paycheck and looking after the kids. Considering how much Donna does not only to keep their home life stable, but also to help with the Cardiff PC project, Gordon comes off as a little ungrateful… and even more ungrateful when he asks Donna to come to Cardiff and help them recover the lost data.

But once they arrive, Joe doesn’t want her there, and has a whole conversation about it with Gordon while Donna’s in the room without directly addressing her. (Donna does provide some mostly-unacknowledged color commentary, which is a bit of silver lining to this frustrating scene.) Joe finally relents as Gordon stresses Donna’s expertise, saying that she’s their best and their only option — but Joe won’t allow her to use her own name around the reporter, since she works for Texas Instruments. Though with the deadlines she keeps missing to help Gordon, that might not be for long…

Donna finds Cameron in a darkened office and asks her some questions about her code and her backups. She’s trying to help, and she’s sympathetic… at least up to a point. But Cameron is as prickly as she ever is, lashing out with, “Who are you anyway? Somebody’s mother? Do you have any clue what it’s like to work close to the metal? Do you have any idea what I’ve lost?” But Donna is basically a professional at taking shit from people, and she handles Cameron more calmly — and with fewer threats of violence — than either Gordon or Joe have. Still, she doesn’t mince words. “Sally Ride just went to space and here’s you screwing up at work and lashing out like a child at the people trying to help you. You slept with the boss to get here and now I know why you had to.”

Donna comes up with a plan to reconstruct the data, impressing the all-male engineering team who had no idea what to do next. She even manages to get Gordon to admit that she’s smarter than he is… though only in select company. When Donna does succeed — witnessed our reporter pal — Gordon introduces her as Susan Fairchild, one of their debuggers, and Joe goes on to ask the engineering team how they came up with the plan to save the day. In modern internet parlance, I think you’d call that a slap in the face.

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But as everyone else walks off and leaves Donna to her own devices, she grows curious about Cameron’s damaged backup disks and starts looking into them… which leads her to Joe. The backup disks weren’t Cameron’s backups at all and she accuses Joe of fabricating the entire crisis. He plugged in the vacuum and stole Cameron’s disks to create a crisis that he could then solve, ensuring that the journalist would write a story about the company. In his eyes, it’s been a big success… despite the chaos he’s caused and Cameron’s episode-long mental breakdown. “She’ll get over it,” Joe says. “Plus she’s learned to be more careful.” (Which is spot on, since the episode closes on Cameron stacking her backup disks with tremendous reverence.)

It’s a dirtbag move, but we wouldn’t expect any more sympathy — or any less manipulation — from Joe at this point.

However, Joe does get his just deserts this episode… though we’re certainly left wondering why. As the drama of the day winds down, Joe’s pulled over by the cops for speeding. When he reaches for his ID, the cops think he’s reaching for a weapon and pull him out of the car, at which point they accuse him of hitting them, push him to the ground, and go at him with night sticks. Ow.

John — who may be the closest thing Joe has to a friend, simply because he needs Joe to make this PC project work — comes and picks up Joe from the police, and seems unsurprised to find Joe in rough shape. Could he have arranged this? Or perhaps Lulu, whose lover he stole? Or maybe it’s Nathan Cardiff, getting back at Joe for sinking his business deal with Lulu, even if neither he nor John seem to have quite figured out what Joe did to do it. The problem with figuring out who did it is, really, there are too many people who have good reason to wish Joe harm. And as much as he deserves the bad things that come to him, he’s a sad sight limping away from the police station while clutching his ribs. You almost — almost — feel sorry for him.

Curse you Lee Pace and your inherent likability!

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