'Halt And Catch Fire' Recap: 'Up Helly Aa'
It’s all about the show. Comdex, the biggest technology industry convention of the year, isn’t about the newest computer models or the future of computer science. It’s all about the parties and the flashy presentations. The Cardiff Electric team understands that as they head to Comdex, all packed into a compact car, full of hopes that all the grief The Giant project has given them will finally pay off. With Donna, the unsung hero of The Giant, at the wheel, Joe, Gordon, and Cameron try to figure out the best possible presentation for their stolen prototype. The burning remnants of Cardiff Electric are behind them and Las Vegas is offering a future for them. But only if their image is perfect.
The team has only 11k in cash and a tarnished reputation to their names. Cardiff Electric’s problems have made their way to Vegas. The company accounts are closed, so the team loses their Vegas hotel room. Without a room on the strip, they’re nobodies. Image is everything and being away from the center of things is as bad as being invisible.
Their solution, although it comes from Gordon, is very Joe-like. They decided to scam a room from their peers. Two scruffy, unkempt programmers try to sell their multiple-format printer, that’s sold as a perfect way to print off greeting cards from home, are told by Joe, disguised as an IBM bigwig, that IBM has a similar prototype coming up soon that will be faster and cheaper. He offers to take their hotel suite off their hands, as well as the fancy shrimp spread they had planned. It seems as if things are falling into place for the Cardiff Electric team, a bit too easily.
That’s the biggest problem with the episode. Joe, Gordon, and Cameron start in such a bad position that success should be a bigger struggle. They get a room in no time. Cameron figures out how to make their bad spot on the convention floor a good thing by spray painting a wall with a viral-type message about The Giant. Even when The Giant demo is unready for presentation, Joe figures out a way to hype up the party crowd without having to show more than the husk of the computer. For thirty minutes of the episode, things go too swimmingly, without so much as a hint of suspense.
However, Donna and the team discover Donna’s former boss, Hunt, has an eerily similar project, named The Slingshot, ready on the show floor. The Giant project started when Joe and Gordon plagiarized code from IBM’s computers, so it’s only fitting that The Giant may die because of their own stolen ideas. As nearly anybody with eyeballs guessed, Hunt was not after Donna, but rather was slathering her with praise for information. The Clarks’ neighbor/fired Cardiff employee has teamed up with Hunt to create a near replica of The Giant. All it’s missing is the its soul.
But apparently that doesn’t matter to Gordon. The one thing that sets The Giant apart from every other computer isn’t its compactness or inexpensive cost. The real unique part of The Giant is the code that Cameron created, set with a personality, which is so unlike every other computer on the market in the early 80s. The interactive part of The Giant is the true selling point, but Gordon is so frazzled by The Slingshot’s existence that he nukes that part of it in order to make the system faster and $100 cheaper. When Joe takes Gordon’s side, it’s a bigger betrayal than anything he could have done in their love life. The Giant’s personality was Cameron’s major contribution to the project and the one part she wants to fight for, but money and safety takes precedence.
Part of the reason Joe is easily persuaded to kill the best part of The Giant is due to his interactions with Hunt. Joe threatens a law suit, but it’s almost as hopeless as when IBM tried it earlier this season. Except IBM had an army of lawyers and Cardiff Electric is near bankruptcy. Hunt offers to buy The Giant for $2 million, but what he’s really saying is that he wants to buy out every dream Joe had riding on this project.
Meanwhile the Clark marriage has hit the doomsday button. When Donna sees that Hunt has used her for the sake of The Slingshot, she attacks him in a room full of computer industry professionals. Gordon asks her if they had an affair, but it’s worse than that. Even though they only kissed, it really marked the realization that Donna couldn’t be satisfied with an empty shell of a man as her husband. She admits that she kissed him first and felt better than she had in years. Gordon is, as he admits, “a part-time alcoholic and part-time father.” Nowhere does he mention his status as a husband, mostly because he never puts the effort in. As Donna says, “Like you didn’t choose The Giant over me every second of every day.”
At their presentation at the show floor, the agitated crowd points out that The Giant has nothing unique about it. They’re impressed with Donna’s contribution of the chips on both sides of the motherboard, of which Gordon gives full credit. The rest of the presentation seems like more of the same that they saw with The Slingshot. This is where Joe comes in. Gordon and Cameron were always quick to point out that he’s all flash and no computer savvy, but he’s the perfect salesman. He turns their concerns about uniqueness into a sales pitch about a computer that will work better and faster than the rest, for less money.
The presentation works. Within minutes, they have an interested investor and the answer to all their troubles. But then Joe goes to a presentation of an early Macintosh computer and finds himself completely devastated. It has everything that he just stripped from his project. “Are you okay man?” a peer asks him. All he can say, as if he’s just had a religious experience, is, “It speaks.”
• It’s hard to believe that they can’t find a hotel room on the Vegas strip. Even in the 80s there were plenty of hotels that one or two conventions wouldn’t book the entire town.
• A porn convention is next door and is always booked at the same time as Comdex every year. Joe uses this fact to his advantage in order to get people not to care that The Giant doesn’t work yet. Verdict: nerds are easily manipulated.
• Gordon finally acknowledges that Donna saved the project a dozen times. He asks if she would have wanted to join the team. “No. But it would have been nice if you asked.”
• Joe: “I can’t get over the new touch screen.” Gordon: “It’s a fad. Guaranteed.” More proof that Gordon could never be a visionary.
• Hunt: “Victory goes not to the swift or the strong. But the little guy who strikes first.”
• Joe to Hunt: “You’re a pawn shop hack selling my dream in a mask.”
• Hunt: “By the time you get in front of the jury, we’ll be on our third generation… The opportunity presented itself. Are you telling me you’d do different?”
• Joe: “What are you asking for? It’s a machine. It’s not your friend. It’s your employee.”