Too much anxiety in last night’s Halt and Catch Fire. Watching Gordon Clarke self-destruct in front of his two daughters was difficult to watch and hard to stomach. Instead of the usual downward spiral Clarke takes in every episode so far, this time he starts at rock bottom, right where the last episode left him. Becoming more and more manic as the episode progressed, we see him losing control of himself and his life as the pressure of the PC development and his responsibilities as a father weigh on him. In early testing of the near-complete portable IBM clone, it fails on every level. Previously celebrated as a success, The CPU’s response time has regressed to a standard level and has gone beyond the Doherty Threshold (the level of response time that’s considered to be successful in keeping a user engaged with their PC). While that was predictable and even mentioned as something that would happen when they got closer to rendering the final version of the machine, they also failed to run IBM’s spreadsheet program, Lotus, on their new PC.
Already frustrated with the never-ending roadblocks, Clarke goes on the defensive when MacMillan brings in a new designer to conceptualize a housing unit for the PC. Clarke doubts everything about the prospective designer’s vision and method without any hesitation. His professional and personal insecurities are out in the open as he continues to battle any progress MacMillan is attempting. At home the stakes are higher as his wife Donna leaves him alone with their two daughters to attend a business meeting in another town. This is where the anxiety set in. With all the extremes displayed by the characters in each episode, I was well within my rights to worry about the safety of the Clarke children. It went exactly as expected, which disappointed me. I thought for a moment that the writers might surprise us with the troubled father and engineer climbing out of his hole to become a good caretaker, but instead we are left with Clarke literally digging an even deeper one. Unlike Don Draper, who can sometimes surprise us with his nuanced parental guidance, Gordon Clarke’s alcoholism makes that aspect of his behavior somewhat predictable. While drinking didn’t play into this episode directly, the idea of an addict hitting rock bottom did. Would Clarke finally have his moment of sobriety and realize that he is responsible for the well-being of his two children; that his behavior would effect them for the rest of their lives? Nope. Not even close. Instead we get a full-on mental breakdown that leaves the Clarke house in shambles and their family’s future uncertain.
While Clarke’s arc is uneasy to watch, his character is used to build the mythology of the series as we saw in last week’s Cabbage Patch adventure. This week we are given another clue in what could be in store for Cardiff Electric. In what would be Clarke’s fucked-up version of a bedtime story, he tell his daughters the story of the giant man once found buried in the ground. On October 16, 1869, well diggers unearth a 10ft ‘petrified’ man in the backyard of a tobacco farmer named William C. Newell on his property in Cardiff, New York. Initially thought to be real, the ‘petrified man’ became one of the most significant hoaxes in American history. Newell took his show on the road and charged people to look at the amazing and “real” giant man. The exhibit drew thousands of spectators and was widely covered by the press, leading to an interest by a salesman and entrepreneur named P.T Barnum.
Failing to purchase the exhibition from Newell for a staggering $50,000 (close to a million with today’s inflation), Barnum commissioned his own Giant Man and successfully sold the show to a wide audience. In the fray of competition and legal battles between Newell and Barnum, both of their “Giant Man” amusements were revealed as a hoax to the world. This is eerily similar to the mythology of the Cabbage Patch Dolls explored in last week’s episode and continues to foreshadow an impending doom for Cardiff Electric. Gordon Clarke’s demise could very well be telling us the story of Cardiff Electric’s eventual downfall at the hands of the showman and master of deception, Joe Macmillan: Cardfiff’s version of P.T Barnum.
MacMillan’s character has grown to a more manageable level in terms of his behavior. He’s less manipulative and more personable to the rest of the characters on the show, and has even seemed to find a common ground with his-once managerial rival, John Bosworth. While the owner of the company condemns Bosworth for becoming brainwashed by MacMillan and letting the PC project fly out of control and over-budget, I think that Bosworth has actually found faith in the vision MacMillan has been preaching. The now-friendly duo actually works better for the show, because it provides some much needed levity for a series where every character is constantly at odds with each other. In this episode, they are searching for a designer to complete the overall design of the PC and are finding it difficult to procure one. This is when we meet Simon, who we learn is an old lover of Joe MacMillan.
The revelation that he was once in a homosexual relationship is forcibly downplayed. This is a mistake by the writers. It’s 1983, and unfortunately in the business world and society in general, MacMillan’s sexual orientation matters. A lot. Even today, the sexual orientation of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is questioned and discussed in the media. We learn that Simon and Joe were in a somewhat serious relationship almost a decade before and that their shared history was the main reason Simon agreed to visit Cardiff to potentially take on the project. I couldn’t help consider the stigma and the rise of AIDS among homosexual men in the early eighties. We already know that MacMillan has had impulsive and unprotected sex with both Howe and the husband of a potential investor in a previous episode, which leads me to think that his behavior will eventually come at a very high price. Especially since an “illness” of Simon’s is referenced in passing.
The final moments of the episode heavily symbolizes the path that the team of Cardiff is taking. We see Gordon Clarke being discovered by his frantic wife digging himself a hole (grave?) looking for the ‘Giant Man.’ Is Cardiff’s visionary PC just a farce? Will it eventually be seen as a fraud and lead to the ultimate downfall of all the people involved? As far as we know, the flaws of Howe, MacMillan and the Clarkes have already sent the project and the company into an uncontrollable downward spiral and will eventually lead to some or all of their demises.