Halt & Catch Fire’s penultimate first season episode finds the show finally coming into its own as a dramatic series. After many stumbles in the early going, the AMC program appears to have located its greatest strengths and crafted an installment that highlights these aspects. Like “Landfall,” much of what makes “Up Helly Aa” great is that it takes the characters out of their usual environment. While the introspective “Landfall” employed a storm to initiate character growth and reflection, “Up Helly Aa” uses the Vegas-set COMDEX conference as a catalyst for drama. And although certain elements leading up to this (primarily, the Joe/Cameron relationship and the rough patches in the Gordon/Donna marriage) have felt more than a little rough in their development, the ultimate result is (debatably) worth the missteps.
The episode begins with our heroes arriving in Vegas only to learn that their hotel room has been given away due to Bosworth’s recent arrest. Once it becomes clear Joe’s smooth-talk will be of no use here, Gordon swings into action. He sets his sights on a pair of programmers that he knows for a fact will be peddling a less-than-stellar product. Using a tag-team dynamic, Joe and Gordon first denigrate the duo’s presentation and leave them wanting to cut their losses and run. Joe then “graciously” offers to buy their suite from them. With their living situation taken care of, the Cardiff team then throws a rocking demonstration party in their room.
Right off the bat, the episode bellows forth with a manic enthusiasm that is often lost in its typically dour, cerebral milieu. The show’s killer soundtrack helps with that, boasting such classics as “Blister in the Sun,” “Psycho Killer” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” along with great underrated numbers like Flock of Seagull’s “Space Age Love Song.” Though the creative team must have blown their music budget on the tracks, it was well worth the investment. With its vibrant energy, this first part really reflects the characters’ excitement at being in Vegas. Of particular note is a montage—set to “Blister in the Sun”— wherein Cameron employs her punk-rock aesthetic (including spray cans) to advertise the team’s demonstration party. This only makes what comes next all the harder to watch.
When the group is walking the conference floor they stumble into a pitch by none other than Donna’s former boss Hunt, and Gordon and Donna’s neighbor (who has been shooting daggers at the couple ever since his firing from Cardiff in the early episodes). The two have developed their own cheap, knock-off version of The Giant, which they have dubbed “Slingshot.” While it doesn’t have nearly the level of sophistication that the team’s product has, nor its interactive software, it’s both cheaper and faster, which is enough to sink them. Donna’s visceral reaction to this leads her to confess to Gordon about the kiss. This leads to a brutal fight that finds the couple’s long-restrained feelings bursting to the surface. Besides being a great dramatic beat, this fight also illustrates how well the writers have laid the groundwork for these characters, as I can perfectly understand both perspectives.
Though I had been highly vocal against the Donna/Hunt flirtation, this episode manages to get good mileage out of what I initially thought to be a lazy stock storyline. Not only do Donna’s actions lead to the expected conflict with Gordon, but—in some way—her actions might have inadvertently caused The Giant to lose its edge. Overall, it’s a great example of the show seeding beats in previous episodes only to fully unveil the consequences later.
With their future looking dour, Gordon decides—to quote 30 Rock—to dive further into the crevasse and remove Cameron’s interactive software. The result is a much faster PC, albeit one that lacks what made it unique in the first place. Cameron is, understandably, miffed and storms out. In the presentation the next day, Joe hesitates all for a split second before launching into a cold diatribe about uniqueness vs. practicality. They’re no longer selling innovation; now, they’re just selling an improved model. The one silver lining to this heartbreaking presentation comes when Gordon, when asked who came up with the motherboard’s layout, points to his wife as the architect.
A computer retailer swiftly approaches Joe and offers a hefty sum for the chance to sell their invention. It’s a victory, albeit a hollow one. The subsequent scene finds the Cardiff members sitting around a quiet, sparse. Here, the empty space marks a significant contrast to the raucous, exuberant party we’d seen before. Whereas before they had dreams and excitement, all they have now is a compromised vision and warm champagne.
The final twisting of the knife, however, comes when Joe notices a group of conference attendees all packing into a single suite. He enters and finds himself in an almost religious setting, complete with candles and hushed tones. He then lays his eyes on the center of their worship: a spotless, white PC with a familiar looking apple logo on the front. One attendee turns the computer on and it greets them with a vocal welcome. The episode ends on Joe’s face—a mix of dumbstruck fascination and horror. The future has arrived.
As the prelude to the season (or—in worst case scenario— series) finale, “Up Helly Aa” does a phenomenal job of paying off the seemingly divergent plotlines that felt like they were weighing down the show previously. Upon initially viewing the pilot for Halt & Catch Fire, I saw both great possibilities and potential downfalls. As the season lumbered forward and began falling into bad habits in the pursuit of being a “prestige cable show,” I begin to suspect that it would never wrench its way out. This latter half of the season, however, I am happy to say that I have been proven wrong. It’s a shame it had to come this late in the season, but better late than never, I suppose?
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.