Here we are at the penultimate episode of Halt and Catch Fire with no clue about whether the show will be renewed. I've been enjoying it thus far (if I wasn't I probably wouldn't still be watching it or writing these posts), but how I feel about it getting canceled or renewed entirely depends on what happens in the final episode. Right now, there are a lot of balls up in the air. Will this season be a story of triumph or failure? Is the show about the rise and fall of Cardiff Electric? The early days of Cameron Howe? Or the origin story of a superteam made up of Joe, Gordon, Cameron and Donna? The show has gone through an extensive metamorphosis over nine episodes. At first it seemed to be about building an IBM clone, then it was about building something really personal, then it was about building something really personal and revolutionary and now, everyone's just trying to survive to fight another day. For all the blows dealt out to the characters over the previous eight episodes, they've always managed to rise to the challenge. But now that the team's arrived at COMDEX, the hits just keep coming and every single one of them is not just a punch to the gut, but a dagger that will leave our protagonists bleeding out.
The episode starts with a road trip fro Dallas to Vegas, a trip that Google Maps tells me is about 1,200 miles and 18 hours long. During this trip Gordon and Donna continue to reminiscence about the good old days of COMDEX (which as I pointed out last post, were no more than four years ago) and Joe writes his talking points while crammed in the backseat with their precious Giant. At no point does it occur to anyone that all of their arrangements were made on a busted credit card.
When they get to the hotel, they find that both their suite and prime booth space have been given away, and no amount of bribery on Joe's part will fix this problem. However, Gordon's +2 trade show experience along with Joe's +20 deception yields a solution that is all too familiar at this point: steal someone else's shit.
There's a pair of brothers that Gordon remembers who have an absolutely awful presentation, and he isn't kidding. If you've watched Saturday Night Live the past few seasons, you're probably familiar with its "Porn Star" sketch:
It was sort of like that, but two awkward engineer-types talking about a printer. That prints stationery.
Joe and Gordon manage to convince these guys that a) Joe still works for IBM and b) IBM is making a much better printer that will make theirs look like ass. So the guys pretty much fold like a house of cards, ceding their suite and its amazing shrimp tower to "IBM."
Meanwhile, Cameron is left in charge of setting up the booth, and after a hiatus of a few episodes her riot grrl aesthetic returns with some spray paint and chains to set up a booth whose only purpose is to lure people to their (stolen) suite.
And it totally works! People show up and get drunk, but there's just one problem: the Giant won't turn on. The crowd gets restless, and Joe drags the device out anyway, but instead of a moment where he tries to turn it on and it magically works, he uses his +30 deception skill yet again encourage people to get drunker and fool around with the porn stars that have magically appeared in the room.
The next day they're ready to exhibit in the hall, and the walk there is a total showcase of "OMG this is COMDEX '83 DO YOU NOT REALIZE THIS SHOW IS SET IN 1983." Cameron says "Windows was cool," to which Donna responds, "It was crawling with bugs." Oh, burn.
The even worse burn comes when they see a crowd gathered around another booth, showing off a computer called the Slingshot. Which looks exactly like the Giant. And is faster. And cheaper. And being sold by Gordon's next door neighbor (the one he fired) and Donna's ex-boyfriend (the one who quit). Donna completely wails on the guy, but that's not going to solve their problem. Their product was stolen, and they don't really have the time or money to fight it out in court.
So instead Gordon does what he wanted to do in the first place, and rips out the heart of the Giant, the thing that made it special: the query-based OS designed by Cameron. The computer is more competitive in the race to the bottom, but Cameron wants no part of it and walks out, much to Joe's dismay. Cameron's departure does realign the relationships back to ground zero, though, with Joe and Gordon presenting a united front at COMDEX the next day and doing a damn good job of selling the product. Things might actually be looking up for Cardiff, and they might live to fight another day.
All that come crashing down in the last minute of the episode, unfortunately. As Joe is walking through the hotel he drops by another suite party, the crowd thick in the corner of the room. Joe parts the crowd to take a look, and there it is:
"It speaks," Joe says. Cardiff is boned.
We saw this coming, but it's like watching a horror movie, where you can shout at the screen "don't go in there" all you like but no matter what we, the audience say or think, whether the babysitter stays in the living room or goes upstairs to check on the kids, she is inevitably dead.
Or not. Over nine episodes this show has been about the characters meeting impossible challenges and succeeding despite the odds, so there's always the chance that Joe or Gordon or Cameron will pull something out of their non-existent hats. But there's also the chance this isn't really a story about building an IBM clone, or succeeding in the tech world, but about the human flotsam and jetsam left on the side of the road. HBO's Silicon Valley is a show about success; perhaps Halt and Catch Fire is meant to be a show about failure.