Sunday, May 31, 2015

REVIEW: 'Halt and Catch Fire' - Cameron and Donna Do Their Best to Keep Mutiny Operational and Successful in 'SETI'

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire - Episode 2.01 "SETI"

Mutiny, Cameron and Donna's fledgling gaming company, finds itself at a crossroads, while Joe and Gordon are reunited in the wake of Cardiff's sale.

Halt and Catch Fire sure did create a mess for itself in its first season finale. Yes, that episode gave this season a much stronger direction in Cameron and Donna joining forces to enter the burgeoning online gaming business. But it also featured Joe at his absolute worst as a character, with several narrative choices revolving around the Giant needing to be addressed in this first episode back. Fortunately, the show needing to bring closure to the story of last season didn't detract too much from all of the premiere's great moments.

In fact, this episode as a whole is a much more confident version of the show than it was for the majority of last season. There's a strong sense of fun in several key moments in the premiere. That was something basically unheard of in the first season as it was so hellbent on changing the world of personal computers simply by copying an IBM computer. Certain characters and relationships felt complicated solely for the sake of creating story and stakes for the overall narrative. Now, things are happening more seamlessly - and that's entirely because Cameron and Donna running a company out of a normal house is much more satisfying to watch than Joe and Gordon trying to copy greatness when the audience knew the Macintosh was just around the corner.

The opening minutes of "SETI" are just phenomenal to look at. It shows Donna showing up for her job at the Mutiny house and how chaotic that entire environment is even a year after being founded. The company is overloading their system. The wiring is getting more tricky. The games are lagging. Shortcuts are being taken in order to ensure the system stays up and running. It's frustrating and chaotic. Plus, it's shown entirely in a one-shot take - a directing choice that is becoming increasingly popular on these kinds of cable shows (True Detective, Daredevil, Looking, etc). It's wonderful because of that ambition. It establishes this environment and the importance it will have for the characters this season. Donna and Cameron spend so much of their time in this premiere trying to keep their business afloat while holding to their values on management styles. This opening one-shot sequence helps showcase the physical space where so many characters will be spending so much of their time this season. It is a confined house. It's in a residential neighborhood. Space is tight. Donna walks in and out of the same room several times as she's trying to survey the various crises of the day. Cameron apparently has her office. The camera slowly pans into that room as she stands in stark contrast to what is happening in just the other room over.

In fact, that's great symbolism for the tension within the Donna-Cameron dynamic right now. They both respect each other as characters and vital members of this business. Cameron has the vision while Donna has the practical and hardware experience. And yet, they have differing opinions on how to grow their business. Mutiny has been successful so far. But they only have a small community of users and are already struggling with finding enough space, wiring and energy to maintain the system. It's admirable that Cameron wants to create a working environment that feels like a familial community with no boss. And yet, that's not always possible because of the realities of trying to take this business to the next level. Donna doesn't want to be the preverbal mother figure. She doesn't want to be the person looking out for the best interests of the company and her co-workers at all times. She is disgusted by how they maintain their home. And yet, she still comes to the job because it is something she is passionate about. She's been forced into this managerial position even though she didn't ask for it. Someone has to be worried about the cable company, the bills and the concern for the other people of the neighborhood around this house.

That leads to a terrific moment of bonding between Donna and Cameron. After getting ripped off for counterfeit equipment, they track down the fence to try and get their money back. What actually occurs is the two of them hilariously stealing his keys and taking the actual equipment (which is also brand new) from his van. It's a fantastic sequence that shows just how well these two characters can work together. They both have to make compromises in order to run this company. However, they are capable of having fun together and understanding where the other person is coming from with their various concerns about the business. That makes this entire story worth it and entertaining so early into the season. It's because Donna and Cameron work as characters with their own individual agency as well as desires for the company.

It is a tad distracting when the premiere cuts away from whatever is happening with Mutiny. That's where the focus needs to be. But the action has to cut away to Joe and Gordon and what they are up to because they remain important characters as well. They are brought together once again when Nathan Cardiff decides to sell off the company. Cardiff has found some success with the Giant and its successor the Giant Pro in the last year. Gordon is proud of the work he has accomplished as the head of this computer division. However, it's also a bittersweet feeling for him with this chapter of his life closing. He's adrift a little bit throughout the premiere - which often makes his story less exciting than the fantastic things happening elsewhere. Sure, he is able to bond with his girls some more over just how rich they are and what they could afford to buy. And yet, he feels like a character without a purpose right now. That will work for a little bit. But it's not a character arc that can realistically be sustained over the course of an entire season.

Meanwhile, Joe needed to undergo some character rehab in order to remain a part of the show. He was such a sociopathic diva throughout the first season. The mystery of Joe was never a very compelling facet of the narrative. And yet, his incessant need to be the man in charge and the one who the whole world revolves around was just a bad decision for the main protagonist of the story. Joe does move to the fringes of the narrative in order to make way for Mutiny. And yet, there also needed to be an explanation of where he is in his life right now. He appears to have a stable and simple life with a new woman, Sara (new series regular Aleksa Palladino). Her entire purpose appears to be forgiving him for all the horrible things he did to Gordon, Donna, Cameron and Bosworth last year. And yet, his brief interactions with Gordon as they await their cash for the selling of Cardiff does more to repair the damage of last season than what Sara presents for the future. In those scenes, Gordon has a right to be angry at Joe. However, both are very contemplative. They both worked passionately and tirelessly for this product and company - only for it to be sold and for them to get a check. This could very well be the last time they interact with each other. It probably won't because there's still an entire season of story left to tell. But their interactions are so much more intriguing than Joe proposing to Sara after not getting any money and then playing with Cameron as a new Mutiny user. I have no idea where Joe goes from here but it is apparent that the show is intent on making a change within him this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "SETI" was written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Juan José Campanella.
  • It is now March 1985 - 20 months after the Giant's showing at Comdex and a year after the founding of Mutiny.
  • There's symmetry between the flashback scene of Joe not having enough time to play a game and connect with Cameron and the later reveal that they are anonymously playing against each other. It's still very frustrating that the show is pushing the Joe-Cameron dynamic so hard. Their relationship never worked for me. So, this twist only bugs me more.
  • So, Bosworth embezzled a ton of money in order to keep Cardiff and the Giant afloat only to serve just one year in prison? That seems weird. Though now he is out and able to further develop that bond with Cameron (which definitely needs more shading to work fully in their moments so far).
  • Of course, Yo-Yo would be a fan of backgammon.