The human resources file on this episode is gonna be a doozy, folks.
The good men and women of Cardiff Electronics are working overtime to create the fastest, most portable PC on the market. What does this entail? Project manager Joe MacMillan steals whiz-kid programmer Cameron Chase‘s back-up files, fries her computer, gives her a panic attack, and convinces her and everyone else that all the work is lost. Engineer Gordon Clark physically assaults Cameron in response. Joe, his boss John Bosworth, and a reporter from the Wall Street Quarterly repeatedly threaten each other (off the record) over the contents of the reporter’s eventual article. Cameron responds to being insulted by Gordon and his data-retrieval expert wife Donna by teaching their kids how to make a homemade flamethrower, breaking into their home, and preparing to trash the place. She’s interrupted only by her former coworker, Brian — who’s also broken into the house and is wielding a shotgun. Finally, Bosworth has Joe pulled over, beaten, and arrested by friendly cops to teach him a lesson.
When that Wall Street Quarterly reporter writes his eventual tell-all book Cardiff: The Little Computer Company That Could and the Sociopaths Responsible, this single day will require a whole chapter, and no one will believe it anyway.
And frankly, neither should we. The pointless and instantaneous hostility between the characters has been one of Halt and Catch Fire‘s biggest flaws since the pilot. In “Close to the Metal,” the show uses the company’s dire straits and high-stakes visit by the press as an excuse to ratchet that hostility up even higher. The question they don’t ask: Who cares?
Look at the first big meeting between Donna and Cameron, when the former gets brought in to clean up the latter’s (alleged) mess. Within seconds, they’re at each other’s throats – credentials are questioned, the b-word is lobbed, Cameron storms out, the whole nine. The thing is, we’ve never seen Cameron behave decently to anyone, with the possible exception of the gutterpunks she bought booze for. Even her brief stint as a babysitter for Donna and Clark’s kids ends abruptly with a little pyromania and B&E with intent to vandalize. Cameron’s apoplectically angry at everyone, all the time, which makes her arc just a flat line.
Joe’s floppy-disk switcheroo suffers from the same problem. Joe lied his way into Cardiff. He lied his way into ensuring Cameron and Gordon’s continued loyalty, to get IBM’s legal team to back down, and to dodge the involvement of company owner Nathan Cardiff‘s meddling investor Louise Lutherford. So now he’s lying again, to everyone who works for him, in front of a reporter, because all publicity is good publicity or something. Besides making little logical sense – if he knew he was gonna pull a rabbit out of his hat no matter what, why bother threatening the reporter about leaving? – it fails as a dramatic revelation. Huh, Joe made a bunch of shit up to get what he wanted? You don’t say! As a wise woman once said, Joe lies. We get it.
Then Bosworth uses police brutality to enforce workplace discipline. It’s genuinely unexpected, since Bosworth’s previously been the voice of reason within Cardiff. But that’s precisely what makes it work – Bosworth had previously behaved one way, and now, unlike Joe or Cameron, he’s revealing a new dimension. Yet it’s a testament to that character’s strength that it somehow seems in character, despite his previous qualms about playing fast and loose with the rules. To Bosworth, if the cops are doing it, that’s playing by the rules by definition.
Still, this level of apocalyptic dysfunction between the characters – again, this all happened in one day – is no more sustainable than, one would expect, having a shotgun-wielding grudge-holding disgruntled ex-employee for a neighbor would be. All we know about Cameron and Joe is that they’re insufferable, that Cameron will be impossible to work with and Joe will be impossible to trust. Why should we, the viewers, want to do either? So many of the great postmillennial TV dramas, from Mad Men to Battlestar Galactica to Deadwood, are workplace dramas in one way or another: Here’s a collection of people with different personalities and different backgrounds, all trying to meet their own goals as they exist in a community with its own collective goal. None of these shows were fully stocked with across-the-board pleasant characters. But their protagonists and antagonists were usually competent and consistent enough to be relied upon to get the job done, so that the moments of conflict were genuinely threatening, and their moments of cooperation genuinely satisfying. That’s a threshold that Halt and Catch Fire has yet to crack.
Previously: Party Crashers