Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. – Tom Thaves, 1982
Every prestige nighttime drama needs an antihero at its center. The Sopranos had Tony; Breaking Bad had Walter White; Mad Men, Don Draper. When Halt and Catch Fire premiered in 2014, many people assumed that smooth-talking idea man Joe MacMillan would be the marquee antihero through whom audiences would vicariously experience the glamorous, coke-dusted world of early personal computers. As the series has progressed, however, Cameron Howe has become the morally ambiguous protagonist through whom the audience should experience the show. In “Yerba Buena”, the fifth episode of this season, we see Cameron teeter between sympathetic vulnerability and abrasive attitudes as Mutiny starts to crumble and an opportunity to escape opens up.
In the previous episode, Cameron’s stepfather contacted her about her mother’s plans to move out of her childhood home. As “Yerba Buena” opens, Cameron and Bos are heading back to Texas to reconvene with family—Bos with his infant grandson and Cam with her mother. The duo shares a series of tense car rides, and the tension comes to a head when Bos drives her to her childhood home to reconnect with her mother during a yard sale. When Bos encourages Cameron to get out of the car and buy her father’s old motorcycle, Cam unloads on him in a painful, personal way before disappearing in a huff.
Many fans of the series have written Cameron off as unlikeable, citing what they see as her petulant temper tantrums. I wouldn’t be surprised if sexism plays a role in this analysis, as many of them probably turned a blind eye on Tony Soprano’s virulent racism or the role Walter White played in Jane Margolis’s death. Those series took place in stylized universes where audiences were unlikely to have firsthand experience, where Mutiny’s open office plan probably looks like the offices where internet commenters hate on Cameron. When I watch Cameron, I am very aware of her history with anxiety, and her jittery presence and jerking gestures look the way my anxiety attacks feel. Mackenzie Davis believably grounds Cameron, and her rangy physicality and intense eye contact reminds me of Claire Danes’ early onscreen appearances.
Meanwhile, on the other side of San Francisco, Ryan’s presentation of his findings on ARPAnet gets cut short when Joe receives a guest with a bit of history. If the prescience of the scenes at Mutiny strains credulity—you mean people argued about the pronunciation of gif in 1986?—Joe’s story arc reminds us of the tragedy that AIDS wreaked on queer men in the 80s. While we don’t know whether Joe was diagnosed with the “gay flu” that took out so many of his peers, the scene in which he gets a fateful phone call casts an interesting light on his subsequent scenes with Ryan. The scenes involving Joe still feel like they’re part of another series, but watching his metamorphosis from smug salesman to “psychopath” to digital Cassandra has been fascinating.
The return of Tom Rendon and a surprising final scene suggests a painful, if true-to-history, conclusion to the season. Tonight’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire, with the prescient title “And She Was”, should point the way to an interesting midpoint in the season.