Sunday 27 November 2022

Halt and Catch Fire

When I graduated from Berkeley in '75 with a degree in computer science, nobody batted an eye. That's probably because back then, coders were like secretaries and engineers, meaning little solder soldiers on the assembly lines, were kind of invisible. And we're used to that.
But somewhere along the line, these jobs became important. And don't get me wrong, I'm happy to hang out with "you guys" any time and eat good food, but I hope that by the time my daughters are my age that they don't have to have gatherings like this anymore to remind themselves that they're actually here. I've been in tech for 18 years.
I've won.
And I've lost.
I am a woman who voted her female partner out of her own company, the company she founded. I am a woman who lost a marriage to, among other things, this line of work. I can't sleep at night sometimes worrying if I'm seeing my kids enough or if I've been there enough for them or if it's already too late.
But I've done things.
That always comes with a price, but I did them.
One of the many things I've learned is that no matter what you do, somebody is around the next corner with a better version of it, and if that person is a man, it might not even be better. It just might get more attention. And sometimes, that person is you. The you that's never satisfied with what you just did because you're obsessed with whatever is next. The one constant is this. It's you, it's us. The project gets us to the people. Because it's people that got me where I am, people like Diane Gould. People like my husband and my first partner, Gordon Clark. People like my last and best partner, Cameron Howe. And for all the rest of you, I hope that tonight can be the beginning of something, something so that even if we see each other across the corporate battle lines one day, that you will know that I am rooting for you.
I can't help but not.
Because I am a partner by trade and a mother and a sister by design.
I am so proud to be on this journey with you.

The fact that the person giving this beautiful speech in the final episode of Halt and Catch Fire is Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) encompasses how this amazing show managed to turn into one of the best in recent history. Donna didn’t have much of a role to play in the first season, she was mostly confined to providing a stable background for Gordon (Scoot McNairy), she came in with her genius hardware skills to fix a problem, but she didn’t drive the show. But then, at some point after that first season, everything changed. Halt and Catch Fire completely reoriented from focusing on Gordon Clark’s and Joe MacMillan’s (Lee Pace) relationship – the reliable engineer who never goes that step further and the eternally driven inventor and futurist who is obsessed with what comes next – to telling the story of Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark. 

When Donna says she is a “mother and a sister by design”, and looks at all these women, who will still fight so hard for their place in the promised future in 2017, she is looking back at the last 10 years of her life. Gordon, Cameron and Joe built one of the first portable computers together, but they didn’t manage to come first. But then, Cameron and Donna built Mutiny – a sprawling monster, a beautiful, chaotic, creative place, in which Cameron’s creativity absolutely thrived. Part of why the first season isn’t as good as it could be is because the show hadn’t found its footing, and hadn’t really thought about who Cameron was yet – or maybe Cameron didn’t really know herself. This changes when she discovers her passion for developing games. I don’t think any of the technological advances that Halt and Catch Fire portrays throughout the 12 or so years it covers would be moving, or work at all, if they weren’t connected to who these characters are. Cameron thrives in a communal setting but is always torn between her need to be alone and her fear of loneliness. When Mutiny becomes one of the first social networks, she realises what she has in her hands – the first step towards an online community, based on shared interests – but the idea of monetising this new thing immediately messes up any working utopia, and eventually, her incredibly productive friendship with Donna. It takes Halt and Catch Fire a few seasons to get to the original sin, the central conflict that will drive everything until the end, but when it happens, it’s horrifying. It’s a friendship torn to pieces over a disagreement over the future of their company, and Donna ends up driving Cameron out of her own company. It’s unforgivable, and a greater, more traumatising break than any of the other separations that happen as the future reveals itself. When Donna and Gordon’s marriage ends, it seems like nothing more than the inevitable happening to two people who have grown apart emotionally and spiritually, while Donna and Cameron’s breakup resonates through every single scene that follows. 

Halt and Catch Fire’s characters are constantly thinking about the next step, are looking at technology as the driving force for the future, their trade is one of prediction, of envisioning just where all of this will go. This whole show is about the internet, but the only reason why this works, why it isn’t an empty shell of nostalgia, is because the creators are so eloquent in thinking about consequences, in how all of this is about community and individuals navigating a new space and building something that reflects them in some way. Halt and Catch Fire understands the internet, and its characters express themselves by technology rather than just fetishizing it as something that will make them money. Community matters. When Gordon and Joe fail to get there first by building a browser, they realise that the future is a search engine, but it’s Gordon’s young daughter Haley (Alana Cavanaugh) who builds a personalised surface for searching the internet, and all the weird subcultures that are emerging on it. After the end of Mutiny, the fourth season is a struggle between Haley, Gordon and Joe’s Comet, a homegrown, communal company with a personal touch, and Donna’s corporate behemoth. It’s a struggle between a girl categorising the internet by hand and a bunch of programmers building an algorithm to do the same, but without the heart. And it all comes to fruition when Joe realises that the point isn’t to make searching the internet quicker, but to satisfy people’s need for a community, for a home. 

And there’s so much more. There’s Cameron, now a well-known games developer, writing an obscure, unsellable game about finding a family and love that remains inaccessible to everyone except Donna, who plays all the way through and only in the end, when she alone finds the solution, realises what she lost when she sold their friendship. There’s the tiny moments when, in portraying Haley’s struggle with being gay (and having a crush on an unobtainable girl), the show hints at how essential the internet will one day be for gay kids who can’t find a community where they live. There’s Donna and Cameron, inevitably coming together again, because the magic that happens when both of them contribute their best work IS the future. 

And somewhere before the end, Halt and Catch Fire tells one of the most moving, relatable stories about grief, one that comes close to what Six Feet Under achieved with Nate’s death, and Buffy with The Body. In Goodwill, everyone comes together in Gordon’s house, after his death, to pack things up, and the next hour is a meditation on grief, anger, loss, on shared memories, on holding on to things or using traumatic moments as a tabula rasa for new beginning. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful, and entirely singular. 

And then it all ends with Donna’s speech, about women in tech, about doing it all, about the sacrifices of creating the future and the beauty of seeing it realised. Donna calls Cameron her “last and best” partner, and later on, looking upon what used to be Mutiny and Comet, they walk through what it would be like to do all of this again, a Phoenix, from beginning to end: The glory of creation, the constant struggle to stay ahead, the inevitable concessions, the conflict ensuing from differing goals. For a moment we think that this may be the conclusion: that these characters are locked into the circle of invention, that their personal relationships are defined by the marketization of their creations – but this isn’t where it ends. 

Because the central line in Donna’s speech is about the beauty of doing things, of seeing your own creations shaping the future. This exists, regardless of how having to make money of these inventions may mess that vision up at any point. It’s about creating something that is real – like Mutiny was real when they sent out their floppy disks and fielded phone calls about gamers stuck at some point, asking for clues. Like Comet was real when Hailey collected links to every single obscure homepage, dedicated to hobbies and obsessions, the entire world of human knowledge, coming together. Donna walks into a diner, and she sees something – she sees the future. It doesn’t really matter what it is precisely, because I don’t think it’s one technology in particular. It’s not just Wifi, or just portable music. It’s the realisation that every single aspect of her world will be utterly changed by technology, and that she wants to be part of that change, and that the best person to get there with is her best and final partner, Cameron Howe. Let Joe MacMillan teach humanities, and Boss (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish) enjoy their well-earned retirement: Donna and Cameron are going to build the future together.  

2014-2017, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, starring Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis, Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss, Annabeth Gish, Alana Cavanaugh, Morgan Hinkleman.

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