A home for my thoughts.

Halt and Catch Fire Essays + 2/22/22

Season 1 Episode 5

An analysis of Halt and Catch Fire S1:E5. A lot of dads in this episode.

In each of the episodes, the pieces have been coming together for the Cardiff PC project. In recent episodes, the team has struggled with how to fit the electronic guts in the constrained case, selecting a processor and (of course) writing the BIOS. This episode, Adventure, more of the computer comes together: the BIOS is booted for the first time and the weight of the device is pushed down by selecting LCD display technology. You would almost forget all this is happening because it serves as a subtle skeleton upon which all the human drama continues. I have been in technology professionally for over 20 years. The drama behind the Cardiff PC rings true. Every piece of hardware and software we use is infused with thousands of hours of planning sessions, late nights, arguments and shortcuts. We just rarely get to watch a TV show about them.

In every episode, I keep an eye out for a theme. Most of the time, the theme is fairly obvious, and it brings all the story components together. This week's theme was "things we learned from our father" but it really felt more like a challenge to incorporate as many of the character's dads into a storyline than a theme that resulted in some elevation of the narrative. From a writer's perspective, it felt ham-fisted to have Donna, Joe and Cameron's dads all be plot points in the show. While they did all tell us a little more about the characters, it felt bizarre to do it all at once. Beyond the simple fact that fathers were abound in every scene, the episode was a fairly straightforward middle-season script.

Despite the no-frills script, I really enjoyed this episode. Structurally, the story arc around the LCD display was well thought out and convincingly executed. If you imagine yourself as a writer for a moment, consider what sort of script you would write if you started from the point of "the team selects LCDs to keep the weight of the laptop low". Where would you go with this? Perhaps a storyline about all the hassle of finding a prototype LCD screen to integrate, or maybe a drama regarding Joe wanting LCD but Cameron and Gordon pushing back with time & cost constraints. There are a lot of ways to have written this episode but the selected narrative was elegant: Donna's father knows an LCD manufacturer, Gordon goes to them for a contract, Gordon subsequently screws up the contract and potentially his relationship with his father-in-law and Donna, Gordon sacrifices his dignity to restore the contract, the Cardiff PC can move forward with a lightweight display. It all played out well.

What didn't play out well was Cameron's whole storyline. Frankly, Cameron is portrayed as a horrible employee and the worst kind of person to have on a team. Unwilling to take direction, make minimum contributions to team coordination, purposefully disrespectful' it is a long list. I have worked with people who only had one of the listed attributes and was profoundly relieved when they went elsewhere. Cameron's work persona is toxic and, thanks to Steve Jobs, what outsiders think the startup developer is like. This isn't a realistic depiction. Asshole geniuses are so profoundly disruptive and undesirable that there are entire books dedicated to rooting them out and firing them. Cameron has shown her sensitive and empathetic side to many characters in this season. We know it exists. I think the writers error'd in making her key personality trait be toxicity.

The writer's also continued to be unsure what to do with John Bosworth. Last episode, we see Bos take the reins and assert dominance over Joe by setting corrupt cops out to rough up the East Coaster. Within fifteen minutes of this episode's start, we then flip back to Bos helpless in a sales meeting. Joe saves the day and resumes his position as 'running this thing'. I've seen this show a few times, I know where Bos goes: he deserves a better origin story- a little more complexity.

The seasons of this show are short and we are now past the half-way mark. So far, a deeper analysis of the first season has revealed both deeper complexities and nuances than I had realized-but also many narrative faults and dead-ends. Both the most uplifting and most confusing episodes are coming soon and I look forward to watching them with fresh eyes.