As I file this recap, I’m sitting in an office about half a mile away from the MIT campus. MIT is held in high regard by many in the technology world, including—presumably—the protagonists in Halt and Catch Fire. Watching “You Are Not Safe” brought to mind Aaron Swartz, a notorious member of MIT’s extended community.
Like Ryan Ray—the precocious coder who served as an audience surrogate for Joe MacMillan’s Season 3 storyline—Swartz was a coding prodigy who rose through the ranks of information technology and communication with hard work and revolutionary ideas. Ray shared Swartz’s sharp intelligence and ambition, to a degree that challenged the copyright laws and drew attention from the FBI. In “You Are Not Safe”, Ray shared something more unfortunate with Swartz: a self-inflicted end after persecution from the feds.
Ray’s fate pulled me out of merely enjoying or appreciating the series for many reasons. Halt has unfolded in a prescient manner throughout its run, both in major character arcs (like Cameron and Donna’s creation of a proto-internet online community) and in its smallest details (the throwaway discussion about the pronunciation of the word “gif”). The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act had been made law by 1986—the year when this season of Halt was set—and Ray’s release of the MacMillan source code had been a direct violation of that law. Ray’s swift downfall, as well as the technology the feds used to case his computers, seemed closer to a contemporary reaction than one Ray would have experienced at that time. (Of course, the FBI has never found a reason for persecuting a person of color that they couldn’t blow out of proportion.)
Swartz’s death still looms large in Massachusetts history; his persecution by state DA Carmen Ortiz was rumored to be one of the reasons she didn’t pursue the nomination for Massachusetts Governor. Seeing a depiction of a character with many of his character traits meeting a similar demise can come off as a little too prescient, especially to New England viewers and to those active in online communities where Swartz’s research and work are discussed.
On a more social justice-based level, Ray’s suicide is painful because he was the only Halt and Catch Fire protagonist of color. While computer programming has a very White tint to it, women and people of color played a role in developing the internet. The series has accurately depicted the role of women in the development of the PC and the internet, but apart from a few supporting characters, the cast is not especially diverse. When AMC announced that Manish Dayal would join the cast, many fans looked forward to seeing a South Asian character as a major character in a show about the development of the internet. While Dayal had a strong start, Ryan Ray went from an ambitious foil for Cameron and Joe to an audience surrogate, and we were told things about him without actually seeing his character. I hesitate to say that Ryan was fridged, but his character and his abrupt death felt like a missed opportunity to depict the experience of a non-White person navigating the world of personal computing pre-internet.
If I could separate my knowledge of Aaron Swartz’s short life from the episode, I can say that the episode was well-written and well-paced, with credible performances from the main cast. If Halt Season 3 was about the challenges our protagonists experience in their professional and personal lives, it’s concluding with Joe, Cameron, and Donna facing painful professional and personal setbacks. As usual, the period setting is spot on (I want Cameron’s Plimsouls tee!), and a scene between Cameron and Joe showcases Mackenzie Davis and Lee Pace’s great chemistry without making me yell “NOOO CAMERON!” However, all the good writing, credible performances, and tight direction can’t distract from how close to home this episode hit.
Season 3 winds down tonight with a two-hour season finale: “NIM” and “NeXT”, the former of which is directed by the show’s creators. Good news for the fans, too: Halt will be returning for a final season in 2017.