Tuesday, August 23, 2016

REVIEW: 'Halt and Catch Fire' - Donna and Cameron Search for Mutiny's Next Big Service in 'Valley of the Heart's Delight'

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire - Episode 3.01 "Valley of the Heart's Delight" & 3.02 "One Way or Another"

Donna and Cameron explore their options to expand beyond chat. Gordon settles in at Mutiny. Joe launches his latest product. Cameron and Donna have a hard time finding venture capital. Joe hires a key coder.

Mutiny decided to take a huge creative risk at the end of last season by moving to Silicon Valley from Texas. Everyone at the company decided to uproot their entire lives in the hopes of this company striking big. Donna and Gordon were able to finally come together as a family. They did so fully knowing that Gordon's health is deteriorating. But for the first time in awhile, they were on the same page again. Meanwhile, the push for excellence in her business forced Cameron to push Tom away. She got Bos back in the move to California but lost her one semblance of a personal life in Tom. Everyone had to decide to go all in on Mutiny. They've moved to California to grow and take advantage of the resources of the industry there. They grew as much as they could in Texas. They needed to make this move for the benefit of the company. But that can come at great personal cost. The company has settled in at their new environment. The interface has changed. New hires have come aboard. But the show is still fundamentally about Donna and Cameron struggling to make this a successful business. A premise that only continues to grow in the third season.

Despite all of the improvements, Mutiny still has the feeling of it coming all apart in a matter of moments. Gordon and Donna are literally trying to fix a product in time to impress a respected reporter at the top of the premiere. Bos is forced to sing karaoke just in order for them to fix the problem. That shows that the infrastructure of this business is still chaotic and messy. Mutiny is still able to come out on top though. Gordon and Donna fix the problem and Mutiny is able to fully celebrate its independence day as its own company. It's the end of a chapter in Mutiny's life. But now, the next stage is beginning and it's much more difficult and fragile than the last. These opening episodes do such a strong job in framing the characters in this new environment. Everyone is still searching for a place to be alone with their thoughts. They are incapable of doing so because everywhere is so crowded and chaotic. The Mutiny employees are still the fun-loving, carefree guys they were last season. They get the work done. But they aren't the ones coming up with original thoughts to improve the company. Those voices are struggling to craft their ideas because they can't think. So many characters are struggling to find their place in this world and that truly is captivating to watch.

Chat continues to be so successful for Mutiny. Donna and Cameron have completely changed the entire interface just for the messaging to be the chief focus. Games are totally gone. Cameron has accepted that the business needed to evolve in order to survive. She saw how meaningful the chat rooms became and is now fully on board with that service. But now, Donna and Cameron are realizing it's not a completely original concept. They aren't the only company doing it. Mutiny has just passed 100,000 subscribers but it's still struggling to retain those people for as long as possible. Donna and Cameron need to find something to take the company to the next level. Something that will help distinguish Mutiny as a leader in the marketplace. Something that will make their product viable to the capitalists who can finance such an expansion. Donna and Cameron settle on an exchange service. They see people using chats to trade products. It's further fostering a community. The brains of the operation have the foresight to believe this could be a strong idea. They struggle with knowing if it's the right idea for them. This idea needs to work. Otherwise, everything they've risked by coming to California will be for nothing. They need to have confidence with this expansion. If they don't, it won't work.

This entire discussion only comes about because Cameron uses the chat room to find a computer part. It's a service that she actually uses in reality. It's no longer just a virtual connection between two people. She meets a guy in the outside world and plans on trading goods. However, this connection also shows the tenuous line Mutiny is currently walking. The private chats aren't as secure as the users have been led to believe. The user agreement says that Mutiny doesn't look at these conversations. But they are. There is a hole in Cameron's coding that allows this hack to occur. Anyone with the knowledge can get into any private chat. That's huge. It starts a whole conversation about privacy and security that become thematic elements in other stories as well. At first, Cameron doesn't want to hear anything about her precious and sacred code having a flaw in it. New hire Ryan isn't well-articulate with what the problem actually is. So, Donna and Cameron don't take him very seriously. Cameron ultimately gives him a raise but that doesn't do anything to uplift him and make him feel like a valuable member of this workforce. He feels just as isolated as so many of the main characters do right now. He's a bit perplexing too. It's unclear just how big a role he will play this season and whether or not that is a good thing.

Ryan serves as a re-introduction into Joe in this new world. Joe has changed as a character in every season. In the beginning, he was the guy labeled as the visionary in the core group. He could see what was coming and wanted to capitalize on the future. His efforts haven't worked out on so many occasions - in both his professional and personal lives. And yet, he has now found success. He was able to steal Gordon's program to create the gold standard product for cyber-security. He has now made his fortune. He has become the tech mogul who audiences listen to with bated breath. His ideas are no longer being laughed out of the room. He now has the stature and influence to have meaning in this world. He can change the whole landscape of this industry in one presentation. It's a key character shift for him. One that also solidifies him as the villain of his story. That has always been the case. Once the show stopped seeing him as a hero or misunderstood genius, the narrative got so much better. He is now this enigmatic man who is able to pull people into his orbit for his own benefit. He's a captivating presence who can get people to do just about anything. Gordon is no longer under his spell. He's suing Joe as a personal vendetta for what he did to him last season. But Ryan is now falling under Joe's control. It's intoxicating. He wants to do and say the right thing in front of Joe. It doesn't seem to work. But Ryan's connection to Mutiny does seem to be enough to pique Joe's interest. He asks for a favor before Ryan leaves. The audience doesn't know what it is. But it's such a crushing blow when Ryan leaves by proclaiming to Gordon he's going to work for Joe MacMillan.

That's a concern Donna and Cameron should be worried about in the immediate future. And yet, it's not defining their lives right now. Instead, they are worried about getting the money they need to fulfill their expansion ideas. They have a solid idea and pitch. They go into meetings with much more confidence and unity than they did last season. They are a team who compliment each other very well. However, they are still pitching to the same types of people: men who refuse to take their company seriously just because they are women. At one point, they will only get a fraction of their funding goal if they sleep with a potential investor and his executive. It's a horrifying moment of blatant sexism. Donna and Cameron thought they had finally succeeded. But all it took was that one moment for their dreams to come crashing down once again. It's heartbreaking to see them struggle in this way. It's also not surprising that the group who ultimately decides to fund them boasts a female executive. Donna forms a personal connection to Diane Gould because their daughters go to the same school. She shoots down Mutiny's plan immediately because of another company with the same idea that Cameron and Donna didn't know about. That's the only reason too. It took the personal connection and the exploitation of a children's birthday party for that information to come to light. In the end, it could be very beneficial to Mutiny moving forward. Mutiny has the infrastructure to implement these ideas to a solid user base. Their competition has 18 months of work already done but almost no users to deliver their service to. A merger will satisfy all of these problems and create an even better company moving forward. It's a tantalizing reveal at the end of the premiere. It suggests that even bigger changes are coming for Mutiny this season. And yet, Donna and Cameron are still in charge of things and doing a kickass job too.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Valley of the Heart's Delight" was written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Daisy von Scherier.
  • "One Way or Another" was written by Michael Saltzman and directed by Kimberly Peirce.
  • In keeping with the claustrophobic nature of the Mutiny office space, the server room is literally in danger of collapsing in on itself. All it takes is some of the employees to goof off in a big way for the entire ceiling to come crashing down.
  • Gordon is still struggling to find his place within Mutiny. He's helped with the engineering side of things. He's helped get the server up and running. But now, that project is largely over. He's searching for new purpose. He seemingly finds it by becoming more of a mentor figure to the coders.
  • Gordon's lawsuit against Joe will probably be a significant story this season. In depositions, Joe offers Gordon up to 70% of the company with the one condition that he has to come run it with him. But Gordon hates Joe so much that he turns that down.
  • Plus, Gordon's health is still failing. That was sometimes a weird story last season. It went off on a couple of strange tangents. Now, Donna is aware of it and able to help him manage the symptoms. But he's still experiencing quite a few of them throughout these opening episodes.
  • There seems to be an increased focus on the Clark children here. That could be really troubling. They've been important in the past but the show shouldn't just start giving them their own stories as well. Yes, they're growing up and changing. The move to California was going to affect them somehow. But hopefully, they don't take up too much focus this season.
  • Cameron is just living with the entire Clark family now. If those boundaries weren't close before, they certainly are now. Plus, she's having a pretty big influence on the children as well.
  • Bos is now a grandfather. And yet, he's very awkward whenever the subject is brought up. Joe somehow knows about it which is very unnerving. Plus, Bos doesn't even know the child's name. It takes a game of phone tag with his son to learn more of the details.
  • As soon as Annabeth Gish appeared on the screen, it was clear that she would be playing more than just another school parent. So, it wasn't surprising that she was in the tech industry too. It's just a good thing the season didn't take too long with that reveal.
  • Best scene of the premiere: Donna in the bathroom after making a deal with Diane and kicking a bathroom stall door open despite it being in use.