It didn’t take long for Donna Clark to become the most interesting character on AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” which ended its first season Sunday.
Played by Kerry Bishe (fourth billed on the show), Donna is the wife of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), the brilliant creator of the Giant, the ironically named Cardiff Electric personal computer that fits in a briefcase. Donna is responsible for some of the engineering breakthroughs that make the Giant possible. She’s also the one who saved the day when Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), Gordon’s boss/partner orchestrated a meltdown that also nearly shattered Cardiff’s programming upstart, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).
The show is built around Gordon, Joe and Cameron’s complicated dynamic — Joe only knows how to sell, brilliantly, while Gordon and Cameron are the tech masterminds. That would cleanly pit Gordon and Cameron against Joe, if not for the fact that Joe and Cameron are in love.
They’re all dreamers, but Cameron, young and yet to face defeat, dreams biggest. Gordon is the most pragmatic, because his last attempt to build a computer nearly ruined him and Donna. Joe serves as a mediator between dreamer and pragmatist, since he’s a blend of both.
Many men who fail to do what they want in life blame their wives: Imagine what I could do if I didn’t work a dead-end job to support her and the kids.
But that’s an especially difficult delusion to build against Donna. She very quickly came around to the idea of the Giant, and even helped build it. She’s as gifted as Gordon, if not more gifted.
On Sunday, she was rewarded: She and Gordon finally had enough money for her to quit her job at Texas Instruments, where her failed “emotional affair” with her former boss enabled him to steal the Giant’s secrets and build a knockoff. That knockoff, born of the affair, forces Joe and Gordon to scale down the Giant. They did it by removing the soulful operating system that Cameron created to give the Giant life.
Quitting should be a triumph, but the happiness fades: Donna has little to do now except snack and wait for Gordon.
Asked at a Giant party what she does for a living, she has nothing to say except nothing. Riding home in their new Porsche, they get carjacked — which feels a little forced, writing-wise, but it is a nice Porsche.
Joe, meanwhile, sets a truckload of Giants on fire, knowing the machine is watered-down version of his and Cameron’s dream. While his response is destructive, Cameron’s is again creative: She starts a new company, Mutiny, which anticipates the eventual widespread use of the internet with a plan to connect computers by phone lines. She hires away Cardiff’s developers.
Donna, meanwhile, sits at home, nursing a broken arm from the theft.
“You can’t just sit here and stew,” says Gordon, inviting her to join Cardiff as lead engineer. When she passes, he tells her to go work wherever she wants.
“Go wherever your heart takes you,” he says. “I’m gonna support you no matter what.”
So she joins Mutiny.
Meanwhile, Gordon is left with his pragmatism. He sits in a dark room listening to the Giant reviews pour in, including one that calls his dream machine “a strong contender in no-frills computer accommodation.”
Does it make sense that Donna would join a company founded by Cameron, a woman who abandoned her husband’s? In one sense, she’s within her rights: She made the Giant what it is today, and Gordon couldn’t be more in her debt. But she also owes something of a debt to Cameron, since she indirectly killed the operating system. Joining Cameron’s new company may be karmically right, but it also feels like a passive-aggressive strike on Gordon.
Then again: Cardiff and Mutiny aren’t quite rivals — The internet isn’t even on Cardiff’s screen.
What the Cardiff-Mutiny split means for the show is that the complicated dynamic is simplified: Now it’s men vs. women, old vs. new. The women and their developers are united, communal — there’s no boss as Mutiny, Cameron explains.
While the women of Mutiny aspire to connect people, the Cardiff men are split. Joe heads to the woods, apparently in search of his mother. The season ends with him heading toward an observatory to stargaze, which is what he was doing with his mentally unstable mom when he fell from their rooftop as a child.
Creativity and pain go hand-in-hand on “Halt and Catch Fire,” but Cameron and Donna’s partnership suggests another way.