The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

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From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

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Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

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Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage, and Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to interact with the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but it truly surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad for the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Keats’ death mask (behind glass, as seen in my reflection).
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is like a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.

Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

During WWII, Allied secret agents were tested to their limits. The best way to foster empathy for the hardships they faced is to undergo them yourself – just ask the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.

By Serena Ypelaar

The only people who know what World War II was really like are the ones who lived through it. Army, navy, air force, nurses, medical corps, civilians … and spies. Everyone living between 1939 and 1945 had a diverse experience of one of the largest global conflicts in history, and for someone like myself, that experience is nearly unfathomable.

Nearly.

We have historical records and witness testimony to illustrate the war to those of us who hadn’t yet been born or were too young to remember anything. The mass genocide of Jewish people and the horrors suffered at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis have left lasting scars. But the Allies defeated the Axis powers in 1945, restoring peace.

A few of the contestants on Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits. From left: instructor Nicky Moffat, Samy Ali, Debbey Clitheroe, Alastair Stanley, and Magda Thomas. Photo: Polygon

At the heart of the war effort was Britain, who dispatched secret agents from Allied countries throughout occupied Europe to bring down enemy forces and top-ranking Nazi officials. In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton created the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage organization. SOE agents faced countless tests and challenges both in training and in the field, challenges we can scarce imagine – until last year, when the Netflix/BBC miniseries Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits premiered.

A unique reality show, Churchill’s Secret Agents focuses not on interpersonal drama, backstabbing, or creative skill, but rather, on suitability to become an SOE operative as per the 1940s standards. Supervised by Nicky Moffat, the British army’s highest ranking woman before her resignation in 2012, Lt. Col. Adrian Weale, commanding officer, and Mike Rennie, military psychologist, the show is essentially a training simulation for the 14 recruits hoping to be selected as SOE agents. As an exercise in empathy, it’s incredibly effective – it offers not only the recruits, but the audience, with fascinating (and sometimes shocking) insights into the life of an SOE spy. I’ve watched the five-episode series three times already; I loved seeing how each recruit navigates each test, and who excels at what.

SOE Historian Rod Bailey consults on the show.
Photo: Popsugar

The show is diversely cast, which in this case is historically authentic. The SOE recruited both men and women from various walks of life to blend in behind enemy lines. Their main concerns were talent and aptitude. On the show, the new recruits include Rohini Bajaj, a doctor; 21-year-old maths graduate Alastair Stanley; Polish-born translator Madga Thomas; ex-military Rob Copsey, who lost his leg serving in Rwanda, grandmother and drama teacher Debbey Clitheroe; paralegal Will Beresford-Davies, and research scientist Lizzie Jeffreys, among others of varying professions, cultural backgrounds, and ages.

Recruits Rohini Bajaj, Rob Copsey, Lizzie Jeffreys, and Will Beresford-Davies. Photo: The Guardian

The series seems to offer the best of both worlds, too – each training exercise is contextualized with documentary-style footage including narration about the SOE’s impact on the war effort, specific missions that succeeded and failed, and prominent agents who were later recognized for their service.

Reality shows can be an invaluable method of historical interpretation; what better way to understand history than to see it recreated, and even more importantly, to interact with it? As a spectator, I fortunately don’t have to scale a mountainside in the pouring rain, but I can still appreciate the emotional and physical strength needed as I watch the recruits attempt it. For the contestants themselves, their understanding is even more immersive, as they literally have to participate in the testing process and challenges.

Recruits receive training (and are later tested) on hand to hand combat, firearms and explosives, stealth, disguise, interrogation, lockpicking, physical tasks such as scaling walls/cliffs and crawling under barbed wire, and Morse code/transmission.

The first of five episodes is shown here. You can stream the show on Netflix or watch the entire series on YouTube.

It’s hard to pin down the best part of the show, as I’ve already outlined its benefits for historical appreciation. However, I think Churchill’s Secret Agents‘ biggest strength lies in its emotional impact. If you’ve read The Mindful Rambler enough, you’ll know that I’m a big crier, but suffice it to say that this overview of the Resistance and the efforts of those who fought against injustice had me welling up. Not only that, but the fact that these modern-day people of varying backgrounds could complete the rigorous training pretty much floored me. It made me realize that we can exceed our limits if we resolve to, and we can do what’s necessary to fight for good, even if it’s difficult.

I don’t know if I could really navigate such difficult training on such a short timeline – but I like to think that if it was needed, I would try my hardest.