Season 1, Episode 4
Close to the Metal
As Cameron nears completion of the BIOS, a crisis threatens the project's future and requires all hands on deck to save the machine.
Halt and Catch Fire returns to AMC in 2016.
"The future is expensive," Joe tells Bosworth. He tries to walk John through the engineers' progress, promising that they'll have a prototype ready for COMDEX in November, but Bosworth isn't impressed. So Joe switches tactics; he condescends with mock-understanding of Bosworth's limited technical know-how.
Before Bosworth can react, he's told Nathan Cardiff is waiting for him on the phone."396 milliseconds!" one of the engineers exclaims. Joe and the other hardware boys excitedly gather around the simulator. Once the speed is confirmed, Joe races into Gordon's office to deliver the news: Cameron's BIOS is predicted to hit the Doherty Threshold. Joe then relays the news to Cameron. She grins with confidence—she knew it would be fast. She also mentions that she'll be done coding the BIOS in two days.
Joe holds a team meeting to announce the milestone, explaining that a computer response time below 400 milliseconds is perceived as instantaneous. This means their PC will be faster and more addictive. He then reveals that a Wall Street Quarterly reporter is coming to Cardiff to write a story about the growing buzz around their machine. To mark their achievement, he takes the IBM BIOS binder that he compiled with Gordon and lights it on fire. As everyone cheers, Bosworth watches Joe from beyond the flames. The two men make challenging eye contact—the internal power struggle between them is on.
The next morning, before the Wall Street Quarterly reporter has arrived at Cardiff, Donna juggles nearly every morning task while getting ready for work, during which she reminds Gordon that he needs to pick up the girls this afternoon; as she has to stay late and finish a report. He's forgotten, of course, but agrees to do it. He quickly leaves for the office. Meanwhile, Joe, nervous about the impending reporter visit, observes Cameron's messy workspace and her generally filthy appearance. He makes a plea to Debbie—maybe she can convince her to take a shower and put on a bra so the janitor can clean up her mess.
At Cardiff's ranch, Nathan tells Bosworth that Joe is gaining too much control. "Make clear who's working for who, or else we're both going to look like idiots," he warns. He then sends Bosworth away, dismissing him like one of his servants.
When reporter Ron Kane arrives at the office, he partakes in the donuts but remains unimpressed with Joe's PC spiel. "Doherty Threshold? I mean, come on. You know how many companies think they've hit that in testing phase?" he says derisively. Ron clearly does not want to be there, and admits he's only there as a favor to a mutual friend, but Joe makes a convincing case for him to stay. He agrees to stick around... but only for another 15 minutes.
Cameron returns to work cleaned up, but then discovers that all of her code has been lost due to a power surge created by the janitor's vacuum cleaner, which was plugged into her computer station. To make matters worse, Gordon and his team of engineers discover that she placed her backup disks next to her stereo speakers, which degaussed all the data—everything has been completely wiped out. The BIOS is gone. As things devolve into chaos and blame gets thrown around the room, Ron watches the horror show with renewed interest.
Gordon remembers that he has to pick up the girls at the last minute, and by the time he gets there, finds that Donna has already arrived. Donna yells at him for making her miss yet another work deadline. "Maybe the stakes are a little bit higher in my world," he argues, which infuriates her further. But he then reverses course, confessing to Donna that he actually needs her help at Cardiff.
Joe tries to triage the situation by pulling Ron aside and asking him to come back another day, but Ron is determined to stay and write about Cardiff in all its "gory glory." Joe realizes he has no choice—Ron's going to file a story on Cardiff regardless of how much access he has, and if Joe kicks him out now, the blurb will be just a few scathing words on the company's massive screw up. If Kane stays and they manage to recover the BIOS, at least there's a chance of him writing something good.
Joe storms into Gordon's office after seeing him return to work with Donna and the kids. "This is your data retrieval expert?" he scoffs. "She's the best chance we've got," Gordon insists. With no other alternative, Joe orders Donna not to tell Ron her real name or that she works for Texas Instruments.
Donna sets about the BIOS recovery process by first asking Cameron about her data backup methods. Cameron blows her off and disparages Donna's computer experience, calling her "somebody's mother." Donna fights back, pointing out that she has an engineering degree from Berkeley and is raising two young children. She insinuates that Cameron is herself an immature child who got to where she is by sleeping with the boss. Cameron storms up to the roof where she nearly has a panic attack from sheer exhaustion and fear that her career is over.
Using a stepper motor to retrieve the lost data bit by bit, Donna impresses the Cardiff engineers with her expertise. "I think she's smarter than you are," a Cardiff engineer tells Gordon. "I knew that the moment I met her," he replies, trying to win his way back into her good graces.
Cameron sits alone, desperate and lost on the roof. Joe brings her a sandwich, but she tells him to leave her alone.
Later, she comes downstairs and—seeing how everyone is burning the midnight oil to help correct her mistake—offers to babysit the Clark girls while Donna and Gordon work. Donna gives Cameron her bag in case the girls get hungry.
As Donna makes progress on retrieving the BIOS, Gordon recalls the time they made love in a college classroom, harkening back to their halcyon days. He apologizes for failing to pick up the girls. She turns towards him, and kisses him, today's marital problems mended for the moment.
Cameron plays with the girls, who tell her, "You're not crazy." They let slip that Gordon and Donna have called her "trash" at home. An already-vulnerable Cameron abruptly ends playtime, telling them to leave. She then takes Donna's wallet and keys out of her purse, and drives to the Clark residence. She enters the house holding a can of spray paint.
Ron asks Bosworth how he feels about letting "some IBM slickster" take over. Bosworth surprisingly sticks up for the computer his team has bullied him into building. Gordon interrupts them with news that they have retrieved the data.
Back at the Clark house, Cameron prepares to deface their home when Brian walks in with his shotgun, looking for an intruder. When he realizes it's Cameron, he trash-talks the Clarks and even encourages her to go through with the vandalism. "Like he and Joe-what's-his-face are ever going to create a PC to rival the big boys," Brian says. Cameron looks at the can in her hands, realizing she cares about the project Brian's disparaging.
The engineers sigh with relief as Donna finishes the data retrieval. Ron asks Donna for her name, wanting to quote her for his article. "This is Susan Fairchild," Gordon interrupts, then introduces himself as head engineer. Joe follows suit and tells Gordon to explain how they retrieved the data as Donna watches in silence from the sideline.
After the men leave, an exhausted Donna looks curiously at the degaussed backup disks. She peels off their labels to find older labels underneath—something's awry. The true story comes together in her mind. She goes to Joe's office and accuses him of engineering the BIOS crash. "Cameron's sloppy, but not that sloppy," Donna says. "She would've used clean disks to back up on." Joe admits that she's right, but doesn't seem troubled by being caught red-handed. "All of this for a little publicity?" Donna asks, in disbelief at his gall. "Don't underestimate it," Joe says, advising her to keep the scheme a secret from everyone, especially Cameron and Gordon.
After a long night at the office, the Clarks finally head out. In the parking lot, Cameron encounters Donna and apologies. Donna forgives her and even praises Cameron's code, saying it's "like a piece of music," but she doesn't mention what Joe did.
After his successful publicity stunt, Joe gets in his Porsche and drives home. On his way, however, he gets pulled over. Sheriff deputies drag him out of the car and begin beating him.
At home, Donna tells Gordon that Joe staged the crisis to get the reporter to write about them. "This is the man we've hitched our wagon to," she says. Gordon is shocked at first, but after a long silence, asks, "...did it work?" Donna is amazed at her husband's lack of anger and seeming endorsement of Joe's behavior. She goes to bed without another word.
Bosworth arrives at the police station, revealing that he's on a friendly first name basis with the officer who beat Joe. Joe realizes that Bosworth was behind the beating. After being uncuffed, Joe limps away past Bosworth, in severe pain.
The next morning, Hunt chastises Donna for making errors in her report. Explaining he can't keep covering for her, he puts Donna on probation.
Meanwhile, at Cardiff Electric, Joe shows up badly bruised. As he's getting coffee, Gordon walks up. Joe quietly remarks on the previous day's "close call." Gordon agrees that it was intense. He looks at Joe, playing his cards close as he says "If it hadn't been for Donna, who knows where we'd be."
In her improvised workspace, Cameron finally finishes the BIOS. She carefully backs up her code, placing the final disk in a slipcase. Then she finally unwraps the sandwich Joe brought her the previous day, and bites into it with satisfaction.