Halt and Catch Fire has so far failed at delivering us the TV drama about the rise of the personal computer that we deserve. In episode four last night, we see a small glimmer of hope, as the one character who might be Cardiff Electric's saving grace has also become the show's lone redeeming quality. How meta!
Warning: obvious spoilers ahead.
"Close to the Metal" opens with 22-year Cardiff vet John Bosworth and the slick new guy Joe MacMillan immediately butting heads. No shock that John, who's spent a career at Cardiff selling ham radios, diodes, and mainframe software, is doubting Joe's vision for the future. Hell no, John doesn't think this young buck can make a computer that weighs less than 15 pounds, has two floppy disk drives, and an integrated keyboard and monitor. It's just not possible, nor is it financially viable, what does he think this is, 1992?!
What John doesn't realize is that Cardiff engineers have hit the Doherty Threshold, which, as Joe explains, means when you ask your computer to do something, it responds in less than half a second. Meaning, it will keep people glued to this newfangled machine they're building, because it can actually do things relatively quickly.
Anyway, in this episode we see the emergence of fire as a motif. We definitely should have seen that coming, because fire is in the title of the show and because that's about how cornball most of what we've been getting is. After Joe addresses the company explaining the Doherty Threshold milestone, he grabs the IBM manual and lights it on fire, saying (wait for it) "now that's what I call cookin' the books." Cooking, because fire, and books, because manual, and terrible, because wow.
Because Cardiff is really rolling on this computer project, the Wall Street Quarterly decides to dispatch reporter Ron Caine down to Dallas to write them up. Joe tries to ready the office to put its best foot forward, part of which means enlisting Debbie, the poor dummy secretary with the put-on of a Texas accent, to make Cameron, the female programmer who is mostly around for sex, look more womanly.
You want more motifs? How about OLD versus NEW. Cut to a ranch (old) where John is meeting with the (old) owner Nathan Cardiff, who basically threatens him to keep things in check over at Cardiff, because his life depends on it. During the conversation, Nathan oversees some hands tending to a sick and dying (old) horse. Eventually the rancher directs the hands to just shoot the thing and put it out of its misery. The metaphor is about as subtle as most Georgia O'Keefe paintings.
Now it's back to Cardiff, where the reporter has arrived, only to tell Joe that no one's going to want to read about a computer company because it's boring. Which, why did he go, then? Cameron, who is looking more than a little rough around the edges after long nights of programming and listening to Black Flag and crushing orange sodas, has lost all of her work thanks to a power surge when the janitor plugged in a vacuum on the same power strip. All her code is gone, and there aren't any back ups. Caine of course reporter sees a massive blowout and learns that basically, Cardiff's project might have already failed. Later on, you learn that the whole thing was a set-up at the hand of the ever-so-manipuative Joe, who created a problem he knew was fixable, in order to create drama and give Caine a good and interesting story to write.
Caine assures Joe that now definitely he will be writing about Cardiff, aka Icarus, who "flew too close to the sun" only to burn up in the shadow of behemoth IBM. Again with the fire thing.
Everyone and everything is melting down (fire!), until Donna comes to the rescue. If you remember, Donna doesn't even work at Cardiff, but her husband, the bumbling Gordon, does. Despite forgetting to pick up his children from work and strapping Donna with them yet again, Gordon begs her to help. And it becomes very clear that Donna and only Donna is the one who's going to save their asses. So she arrives at Cardiff, daughters in tow, and begins to assess the situation. She's appraising Cameron's work methods—how she writes code, how often she backs up, etc., and Cameron accuses her of trying to mother her, which, at first seems like a weird place to go but later it becomes apparent that Donna really just mothers every character in this show, necessarily so. Cameron is also in about DEFCON 3 in terms of holding it together, which she is fully not doing.
Donna works through the night to retrieve the majority of Cameron's code, somehow. But when the reporter asks the name of the talented woman who saved the day, Gordo bursts in and gives a fake name—Susan Fairchild—so as not to get them into any trouble, considering it was a Texas Instruments employee (Donna) that fixed their problem. Cardiff has already been in legal trouble with IBM, so they can't get in trouble again. Also, Gordon, c'mon man! You have this hot smart wife who solves problems. Learn to give credit where credit is due.
Which actually brings up the point that Donna is becoming the sole compelling reason to watch the show. While the other characters are uniformly detestable, hollow, and stereotypical, she's starting to gain a little bit of depth. You see her as having some compassion for Cameron, in spite of calling Cameron out for sleeping with her boss, and criticizing her lack of organization. At the end of the episode, when Donna has finished working her magic, she tells Cameron that her code is "like a piece of music." This episode really laid the groundwork for Donna to end up working for Cardiff eventually. Cardiff needs her. The computer project will not succeed without her.
The kicker here, however, is that after Donna and Gordon (but mostly Donna) spent an entire night retrieving Cameron's code, we find out that Joe set up the whole situation in the first place. He was the one that unplugged the machine, and he set it up to create drama, and gave Caine a reason to write up Cardiff's underdog PC project. You can't help but feel a bit pandered to when you figure this out. Because in a way, of course Joe would pull a stunt like that. He had everyone up in arms, over something he knew was fixable. He even had his own backups, just in case it wasn't He's the asshole, after all.
Although, once again we get in this weird zone where the writers try to humanize Joe via violence. He gets pulled over by state troopers for no reason on his way home, and they beat his ass to a pulp. You know all along he has been set up—most likely by ol' John, who bails him out of jail. Joe, you have to learn your place or there will be consequences, buddy. Not really sure the point of this part of the story, but again, we feel the tectonic plates of old school and new school grinding up against one another.
Anyhow, the episode closes out with Cameron back at Cardiff, backing her code up, and eating a sandwich, both of which demonstrates that she is taking Donna's sage advice. The message we get here is that not only does Cardiff need Donna, but the show needs Donna. She's the only character who seems to see the different layers to things. She sees that Cameron is talented, but young and in need of guidance. She sees that Gordon is a shitty father, but that he's brilliant, and at the very least trying. She sees Joe for Joe, and she knows not to trust him. Donna is the only character on Halt and Catch Fire that actually has layers. By this standard, she is busting through the rigid stereotypes this show has ascribed its women to. She's a mother, and she's an engineer. She's smart, and she's compassionate. She has a lot of potential. But to pin the hopes of a floundering show on one character is a lot to ask.
Update: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the Doherty Threshold was not a real thing. That was incorrect. Here's the Doherty Threshold, listed on the IBM website, as described by author Walter J. Doherty in 1982. As shown in this episode of Halt and Catch Fire, it is when a computer has a response time of less than half a second:
When a computer and its users interact at a pace that ensures that neither has to wait on the other, productivity soars, the cost of the work done on the computer tumbles, employees get more satisfaction from their work, and its quality tends to improve. Few online computer systems are this well balanced; few executives are aware that such a balance is economically and technically feasible. In fact, at one time it was thought that a relatively slow response, up to two seconds, was acceptable because the person was thinking about the next task. Research on rapid response time now indicates that this earlier theory is not borne out by the facts: productivity increases in more than direct proportion to a decrease in response time.