Saturday, August 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'Halt and Catch Fire' - The Move Into the 1990s Provides Even More Change in 'So It Goes' & 'Signal to Noise'

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire - Episodes 4.01 "So It Goes" and 4.02 "Signal to Noise"

Gordon enjoys success while Joe works to keep their web project afloat. Cameron extends a business trip. Donna launches a new venture. Joe and Cameron talk on the phone. Donna promotes her assistant. Gordon's business buckles under pressure from a large competitor.

For four years now, Halt and Catch Fire has done such a phenomenal job in depicting what it means to work in the world of technology. Yes, the story itself takes place in the 1980s and 90s but the lives of the main characters still feel relevant in today's world. They are always striving for change and reinvention. Alliances and rivalries form and dissipate in a short amount of time. Sometimes it's good to work for a startup idea. Sometimes it's good to work for a big company. Sometimes the creative partnerships one builds lifts an idea up to a legitimate and game-changing business. And sometimes the business can destroy personal friendships. It's a cruel and harsh industry. The show has had such a fascination with how technology has affected humanity as a society. It has brought us closer together. There are boundless ways for us to connect. But it has also isolated us and pushed us further apart. It's rapidly changing and not everyone is well-equipped to handle it. The characters who seemed like geniuses in the first season of the show are now out-of-touch with the world. Meanwhile, others have adapted to the changing times and can become whatever the business needs them to be. The fluidity of this show has kept it entertaining and compelling to watch. Every twist that it pulls somehow feels earned despite how unlikely it would have seemed seasons ago. That's the power of change in this business. It has worn these characters down. The relationships have changed. The people have changed. And now, they are exploring a new frontier in the world of technology once more in the final season of the show.

The third season already ended with a time jump to the early 1990s. It was a massive push forward to bring the focus on the dawn of the Internet. The thing that Joe long teased at the start of the series has now finally arrived. The creation of the world wide web has the potential to bring thousands of people together with endless possibilities. Donna had the idea to form a web browser and bring everyone back together because their skills and experiences were all necessary to make this a successful and profitable business for all of them. Except she was soon pushed out. It was once again a story about Joe, Cameron and Gordon coming together in order to change the world. It was the show circling back to its original premise where the three of them tried to rip off the IBM computer. But now, they have each grown so much as individuals. There was a time when Joe was the most despicable man on this show. He ripped off ideas and made huge profits off of them. He's had epic highs and crushing lows. But then again, everyone has followed that trajectory. Everyone on this show has succeeded in one way or another. They've tasted that success. But none of their businesses have gone the distance. They couldn't keep them sustainable over long periods of time. And yet, there still is the promise of creating something exciting and new that will change the world forever. They each want to be the one to discover that massive innovation.

"So It Goes" has a stunning opening sequence that shows how far technology has actually come in the 21st century. It's technology the characters of this show could never dream off. It's a sequence that plays as a one-shot. The director is just moving the camera around fluidly to capture stories in multiple locations without utilizing any cuts. But the sequence is also moving forward in time. It shows the highs and lows that come from Joe, Gordon and Cameron teaming for this new business. They are creating a web browser. And yet, Joe and Gordon are left all alone because Cameron returns to Japan to be with Tom. She is choosing to be with him. She's not letting what happened with Joe change the happiness she is feeling. She's working remotely on the project. But that creates such a disconnect between the trio. They aren't able to succeed because they aren't working together. Joe is in the basement obsessing over how quickly the internet is growing. He's literally writing down all of the websites on post-it notes. It seems crazy to think about now but he's doing his best to categorize the internet and all of its potential uses. Meanwhile, Gordon is upstairs running a business. He is building it from the ground up. He has taken the ideas the others have had and put them into fruition. It's because of his efforts that there is actually a business that can earn a profit. But this sequence reminds us of the wariness of time. So when the story picks up in the time the show is set in this season, Joe and Gordon haven't revolutionized the world. They are actually just one of many competing businesses just trying to stay afloat in this crazy and uncertain world.

And elsewhere, Donna has partnered with Diane at her investment firm. She's now the woman funding projects. She's telling people yes or no on how much money their startups will receive. She's very calculating and confident in this new job. But the rest of the office fears her as well. She's up to date on all of the changes happening in the industry. She knows that Mosaic has live photos. That's technology that none of her projects are anywhere close to developing. She will sit down and listen to people beg for more money and still smile while denying it to him. It's a startling change for the character. And yet, it still makes sense. She has formed an even deeper bond with Diane. That was apparent last season as well. They see the world and the potential growth in this business similarly. But Donna isn't afraid to steal ideas knowing that she has the pipeline to actually make it a reality. She has a competing web browser as well. Knowing that it's bound to fail sooner or later, she is actively looking for forward-thinking projects. Her interest is piqued when she hears Gordon complaining about Joe's latest idea to have a website directory for all the other websites out there. To Gordon, it's Joe thinking outside the box when his expertise is needed elsewhere to control the business. To Donna though, it's her opportunity to change the industry. She doesn't even have to pitch it to the development team. She lets them get there on their own and is incredibly supportive when they do. She guides them to the solution and plays it off as their genius at work. It's chilling to watch while also setting up a grand conflict in the future.

And Cameron doesn't stay in Japan for long. Sure, it's three years in the show's timeline. But to the audience, she is back stateside shortly thereafter testing her new game. It's not getting the response she wants either. She has found success as a game designer over the past few years. She's trying to branch out her body of work to appeal to gamers who want a more immersive gaming experience. It's an idea that will catch on eventually. But right now, she's frustrated that no one else can see her vision. She doesn't barge into rooms screaming at people for not getting it though. She's still sticking to her beliefs that the gamers will be more satisfied when they figure things out on their own. But that ultimately costs her this job as well. And more importantly, her marriage is essentially over too. She and Tom were always fascinating characters who worked well together. But there was also a quiet yearning that developed over the years that the two couldn't fill for one another. Cameron said things because she wanted to believe and experience them. But that just wasn't the case. She believed she wanted a family with Tom. But she was eventually relieved when their attempts to make a baby came up empty. She's adrift in her life and that's when she returns to Joe and Gordon's worlds. At first, it seems like her mere presence is enough to stir up visceral reactions and emotions from her former friends and partners. But in actually communicating with them, things do mend and reveal a path forward.

Gordon and Cameron start off well only for things to sour while the opposite is true of her dynamic with Joe. Cameron still loves Gordon and his family. She has problems with Donna because of the way things went with Mutiny. But she's proud to celebrate Gordon's birthday and to be back on the couch playing games with him. And yet, he also blames her for twisting Joe up into a knot and forcing him to question everything that their business represents. Gordon needs Joe focused on the task at hand. And Joe just can't do that with Cameron around. To Gordon, that does make Cameron cruel. Joe is furious with her as well. But a simple conversation between them changes that. It's such a profound thing to watch two people on the phone talking with each other for an entire episode. But that's what makes "Signal to Noise" so compelling and fascinating. The two are as close as they've been in years and they aren't even in the same room together. They can talk openly about what their lives have been and what they dream of becoming one day. It's a rewarding experience because of the shared histories between the characters. They've loved and hated each other with a passion. They've been so toxic in the past. They are still that way now too. Gordon is facing a major crisis at work and Joe is completely missing. He has no awareness of what's going on at work and doesn't care at all. He would rather just stay at home and talk with Cameron. She feels the same way. It's still crushing when her game is shelved for the foreseeable future. And yet, the future still seems hopeful for the two of them because they are back in each other's lives. They don't know what professional opportunities will come next. But they are back to being friends who can honestly talk with each other. That's rewarding in its own way.

Some more thoughts:
  • "So It Goes" was written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers and directed by Juan José Campanella.
  • "Signal to Noise" was written by Mark Lafferty and directed by Meera Menon.
  • Bos has now retired. He is no longer working for anyone's company. Also, he and Diane are still together though things seem a little more tense between them. And more importantly, he comes to Gordon asking for money after a bad investment. Gordon doesn't want to get in the middle of it and it's such a devastating moment because of the personal history involved.
  • Donna feels completely confident in her new responsibilities. She is able to get things done. And yet, she's still facing off with an arrogant new guy who is questioning her approach to the latest web project. His concerns lead her to hire Bos as a new manager for the project despite already offering the job to her newly promoted assistant.
  • Gordon and Donna's kids are teenagers now. Joanie is a handful because she says she doesn't want to go to college and she's always getting into trouble. Meanwhile, Haley has become more introverted. She doesn't know how to express herself to the world until it all comes rushing out in a very ugly cry. But Haley and Gordon may soon bond over coding. 
  • Gordon celebrates his 40th birthday with an epic party. The Blue Man Group performs and he gets pulled up on the stage and becomes a human paintbrush. It's all wildly over-the-top while also doing a strong job at revealing just how well the business is doing. It's still scrambling to survive. But it has enough money to make for a truly unforgettable party.
  • Cameron and Donna do have an awkward interaction with each other. It still pains me that they are no longer friends. The destruction of their friendship felt real and significant. Time hasn't softened their feelings at all. They are now completely on their paths with their own agendas. They are only destined to connect when Gordon is involved.