"They All Laughed," croons John Bosworth (Toby Huss) imitating Frank Sinatra as a way to entertain online game company Mutiny's employees and magazine profiler while Donna (Kerry Bishe) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) try to fix a bug. Donna, Gordon and Mutiny founder Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) have moved to Silicon Valley (along with Cameron's loyal backer Bosworth), ready to get in on the early tech boom. Things are looking good from the outset, with a healthy gaming and chat community on Mutiny, but they're not on solid ground yet, and Bosworth/Frank's question of "Who's got the last laugh now?" might be, like their celebration of their "Independence Day," might be a bit premature.
When "Halt and Catch Fire" debuted on AMC two years ago, it showed promise but played a bit too much like "Mad Men in the '80s," complete with a Byronic Don Draper figure (Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan) running the show in a way that made his business partners and superiors nervous. As the first season continued, it slowly found a more interesting group dynamic between onetime flame and genius coder Cameron and Donna , wife to Joe's put-upon business partner Gordon and a computer genius in her own right. Joe turned out to be a false idol (if a magnetic one), and throughout season 2, the series posited that teamwork and cooperation made for a more functional, often more inspired way of working in the tech world. But that doesn't make it easy, and the first two episodes of season 3, "Valley of the Heart's Delight" and "One Way or Another," show just how rough it can be.
The profile is negative, predicting that Mutiny will shutter within a year. Cameron and Donna are looking for VCs to further fund Mutiny and having a bit of trouble. Gordon's still ailing from toxic encephalopathy (major brain damage, visual problems and memory loss due to exposure to lead solder) and suing Joe MacMillan for stealing the antivirus program Gordon gave him at the end of last season and making a fortune from it. He's also feeling boxed out by the brain trust (as Bosworth calls them) of Cameron and Donna, not helped by Cameron living with Gordon, Donna and their two daughters, or by the coders denigrating his contributions as being purely monetary.
Gordon and Donna have had their own troubles following his affair late last season, and though they've patched over some of their differences, they're still dealing with the fallout of their move from Texas to California, and their eldest daughter, Joni, has responded poorly, starting a fight in school with another girl. The girl's mother, Diane (Annabeth Gish), is understanding, but Diane's casual mention of her divorce clearly hits both of them, and Joni's still upset by the move and the constant earthquakes. "The whole house was shaking," she might well be saying about her family situation. Gordon tries, but he's not a naturally reassuring person, and his chin up sentiment, "We're gonna be OK...I promise" isn't reflected in his eyes.
The first episode splits a fair amount of time between Donna and Cameron realizing there's a fair amount of money to be made by adding the online trading (rare comic books, bootleg concerts, you name it) that happens in their chat rooms to their business as a way to keep it alive for more than a year; Bosworth dealing with the distance between California and Texas, where his grandson was just born; and Gordon, dealing with his marginalization and his deep bitterness over Joe stealing his idea. Smoking pot with the coders and complaining about the $10 million Joe earned off of his software, he haers one describe Joe as "too stupid to come up with one of his own ideas." He rebukes that: "Don't you underestimate him. That's when he's most dangerous." He describes Joe as a drug, a man who treats you like the most important person in the world before cutting your throat.
Cam, Donna and Bosworth have all had that experience with Joe, but only one of them has an interaction with their former friend when Bosworth gets a congratulations on being a grandfather in a brief phone call. Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer plays the scene casually, ending Bosworth's conversation with Gordon about "the braintrust" by staying on Gordon, taking in his decreased relevance and leaving before the camera moves back to Bosworth realizing who's on the other end of the line. In the span of a few seconds, Bosworth shifts from calm center to stiff, discomfited man who remembers his old wounds.
Somewhere else in the city, Joe's giving a speech about how his antivirus company markets fear. "Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? What's going to happen to us? Are we safe?" Joe's now sporting a beard, horn-rimmed glasses and casual, spiffy dress, clearly modeling himself after Steve Jobs (von Scherler Mayer frames him like Michael Fassbender in last year's film), and like Jobs, he's a grand architect who sometimes minimizes or crowds out his collaborators. He promises a grand vision, but there's always strings attached. He'll sell his software to companies for a pretty penny, but he promises to give it to the public for free. It's a good deal, and Ryan (Manish Dayal), a Mutiny coder with a special interest in security, buys into it. But as Joe looks into the camera, promising freedom and free stuff, the crown drowns out his words while we look into his eyes. Nothing's ever what it seems with this guy, and it's a matter of waiting to see how he's going to stab us in the back.
Once our typical genius antihero, Joe is now close to an outright villain, one who Ryan wants to get in with. After being ignored by Cameron and Donna in the first episode when he brought up security concerns, he's looking to get in with Joe MacMillan, first casing several beaches to find him surfing (Joe's not impressed), then making several days' worth of appointments at his office until he agrees to see him. Again, Joe doesn't seem impressed, telling Ryan that he's bored by the antivirus technology that fascinates the younger man, leaning in and judging his every word. "What makes you think I know what I'm looking for?" Ryan lionizes him, dismissing Gordon as "nothing," saying that he's just as good and he knows something's coming. "Something big, like a train. All I want to do is jump on board." No dice: his three minutes are up.
In the meantime, Gordon has taken an interest in Ryan's proposals, encouraging him to develop it while he deals with his own lawsuit against Joe. Gordon shows up to a deposition where he's grilled by Joe's lawyers, framed in a way that forces us to watch both his body and how he's on the television, which shows how he's being taped. Gordon leans forward, tense, claiming that he didn't know whether Joe came to him last as a business partner or as a friend. "He does things for one reason and one reason only..." he says as Joe walks in, interrupting, gliding into a chair and looking as carefree as Gordon looks tense, asking him to finish the thought. "Because he's a selfish, self-loathing, self-serving piece of s---." Joe offers him a 50% stake in the company, then ups the offer, provided that Gordon agrees to drop what he's doing and work with him. "I don't want to work with you, Joe." But Joe seems more sure of his answer: "I think we now know what this lawsuit is really about." Gordon has no control over his life and very little of what he's actually built to his name. Even after cutting ties to Joe MacMillan, he's not independent of him.
More interesting still is the episode's handling of Cameron and Donna taking their online trading idea to different VCs, something that hasn't gone over well. In the opening scene, they're framed awkwardly standing as they pitch, framed as bookends to the two men thinking over their idea. It's a great pitch, but the power dynamic is in the center, something director Kimberly Peirce (of "Boys Don't Cry" fame) communicates by using every cut to show the men centered and balanced as the women are on the margins, ready to get pushed out at any point. Still, they get a call some time after setting up a dinner, giving them cause to celebrate by silently dancing and cheering while on speakerphone.
Again, their celebration is premature: they wait patiently during the dinner for their offer, only to get the bad news: they're getting a fraction of the $1.4 million they need, they're condescendingly being told they'll do "less with more," and, finally, they might get a better number after they enjoy the meal and "see how this meeting goes" (translation: "sleep with us"). Donna practically does a double take as they leave, being told that "you wouldn't wear that shade of lipstick if you didn't come to play." By their next meeting, Donna's wiping her lipstick off before it even starts, just in case. Good news: Diane, the super-understanding mother to the other girl in the fight with Joni, is one of the partners in the deal. Bad news: they're still being turned down, though not, as Cameron suspects, because of the sexism of Diane's business partner (though he is sexist, Diane assures them), but rather because another company is already capitalizing on the burgeoning online trading business. "You were losing a battle you didn't even know you were fighting."
A few developments close out the episode: Donna and Cameron look into the business, find that their technology is better than their userbase, and pitch again to Diane, suggesting that she help them buy the other company (it works). Gordon, increasingly frustrated, sees how Cameron is getting closer to both Donna and Joni and how she used the latter to get to Diane (she paid Joni to invite Diane's daughter, whom Joni hates, entirely to talk business with her mom); and Joe, with no Gordon to turn to, invites Ryan on board, stipulating that he tell Gordon right before he leaves Mutiny. Early in the premiere, when Gordon has a brief episode with his illness, he tells Donna that it didn't rate higher than a 2 or a 3 on the intensity scale. Bleary-eyed, the light beating down on him, he has another, which he writes down as a "6." He's in trouble, and Mutiny may be with him.
-"Halt and Catch Fire" remains one of the most visually interesting shows on TV, with a grainier look that evokes the '80s and contrasts the sleeker television of today and an emphasis on frames within frames to isolate its characters. There's also a mobility to the camera that's both unshowy and impressive, with slight shifts to show changes in dynamics.
-Gordon looks so small in those final moments. I expect things are going to get increasingly desperate for him.
-Bosworth loves the RoboButler toy that he gets Joni for her birthday, never mind that it's a piece of junk. He's got a sense of humor about it as the kids laugh at it after it breaks. "You laughin' at my butler? Get outta here!"
-The female friendships on this show are great, whether Cameron's reassuring Donna as she wipes off her lipstick for the second meeting that she looks great or she's goofing around with Joni. "[My parents] still think of me as little." Close up on Cameron, a mischievous smile on her face: "They don't see you throw back whiskey and smoke a cigar like I do."
-The physical comedy that comes with Cameron and Donna celebrating when a deal goes well is pretty great, especially when Donna kicks a stall in the women's bathroom only to find someone in there. She's apologetic, but still pretty thrilled.
-Welcome to "Halt and Catch Fire" recaps. Nobody's watching this show, but I think it's something special, simultaneously a great workplace drama, a great show about friendship, and a series that gets to the heart of the technological advances that were in its infancy in the '80s and has taken over the world now.