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A resonant Halt And Catch Fire excels at both the highs and lows

Anna Chlumsky, Susanna Skaggs, Scoot McNairy, Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis (Photo: AMC)
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“I don’t think you’re a game designer, I think you’re a world builder.”

In a scene partway through “A Connection Is Made,” Joe and Bos have a sit-down and a talk that exemplifies how assuredly Halt And Catch Fire has found its narrative balance. Bos, calling for Cameron, gets Joe instead. There’s sheepishness from Bos (over him manipulating Cameron into helping Comet’s rival Rover with its search algorithm), and coldness from Joe (over the same). But then we cut to Joe in the convalescing Bos’ garage workshop, the two having a beer, and talking over their long and often antagonistic business history. Bos, explaining the financial mess that saw him putting Joe and Cameron’s relationship (and Joe’s newest company) in jeopardy, confesses, “I told myself it was pride, just stupid pride. But the truth is, I wanted to know I still mattered. Wanted to shake things up.” Joe deadpans that he doesn’t know what that’s like, and the two men laugh, before Joe offers a confession of his own.


“You know, the things that I’ve done, I don’t even know why I did them,” says Joe, continuing, “I just wanted. Everything. And I didn’t care what or who I had to go through to get it.” Bos, after a pause, deadpans back, “Yeah. That guy. He was a real asshole. I think I hired him once.” Toby Huss and Lee Pace are both terrific, partly because they manage to embody a warmly human little oasis of perspective and understanding that, could the series’ characters find and maintain it, would win them, as Joe said wistfully, “everything.”

Toby Huss, Lee Pace (Photo: AMC)

Gordon and Donna have a moment, too, but one that shows how the relationship among the fractured five-person team at the center of the show may be too broken for them to ever attain their goals. Donna, her leadership at work and her friendship with Diane both threatened by their separate realizations (about Bos, about Cameron) tonight, gets busted driving drunk. The first time we met Gordon on Halt And Catch Fire, it was in a Texas drunk tank, his own stifled soul seeing him do something drunkenly stupid enough that he had to be bailed out by his wife and young daughters. Now it’s Gordon’s turn, as he silently opens the passenger side door for his now ex-wife as she shuffles ashamedly out of the jail. The two sit in silence for a bit, and then Donna lies that she’d had only a few glasses of wine and sneers about cop quotas before she admits, via a hypothetical showdown between her younger and present selves, how dissatisfied she is with... everything. “You’re the same person that you always were,” Gordon says tenderly, “And I love that person.” Donna doesn’t respond, and doesn’t take up the hand that Gordon extends on the armrest between them.

“A Connection Is Made” is all about how even the most profound connections carry with them a web of complications. In the self-defeating cycle of love, friendship, and loyalty that these people have forged, focus is blurred, decisive action diverted. Gordon and Donna are, for their inability to make their marriage work, good, loving parents to Joanie and Haley. But tonight, their parental instincts fail them again and again, both with their actual kids, and with others to which they extend advice. Finding out that Haley’s time at Comet has put her in danger of flunking two classes, Gordon complains to Donna on the phone, “I don’t wanna be the bad guy.” Confronted by Diane with the fact that Donna’s aversion to dealing with Cameron has seen Donna avoid getting Cameron to sign a release about her secret work on Rover, Donna blurts, “That’s not fair!” in response to Diane telling Donna to hand over the project to their ambitious co-executive, Trip.

Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis (Photo: AMC)

At the same time, both parents excel elsewhere. Donna, pulling aside rebellious daughter Joanie (after offering the girl a beer while sarcastically asking how her first beer tastes), offers a story about the young Donna, a tall quarry swimming hole, and a heedless somersault over a cliff to tell her daughter, “Don’t ever stop yourself because you’re scared.” Meanwhile, Gordon, bluffing a stern talking-to in his office, shows off the collection of super-cool model rockets he’s bought for Haley’s birthday before succumbing to his daughter’s entreaty to blow off her school friends in favor of a traditional father-daughter launch outing. The ensuing party scene on Cameron’s plot of land, sees Gordon, Haley, Cameron, and Joe (and Katie, bonding with Haley nicely) as outright joyful as we’ve ever seen any of them, Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Seven Seas” the bright score to them running after their descending rockets without a care in the world.


Even there, though, Gordon is unwittingly contributing to Haley’s delinquency, and, when they have it out later over her grades, Haley storms out furious and heartbroken, leaving Gordon’s office window smeared in hurled milkshake. Similarly, Donna blows the bonding moment with Joanie when, after Donna skips out of work to play Pilgrim and get drunk following her fight with Diane, she tipsily soils her earlier advice to her daughter by repeating it, almost verbatim, while the knowing Joanie casts a disappointed eye on her mother’s wine glass. Similarly, we see Donna’s nurturing side sour when she, forcing the duplicitous Cecil out at Rover, first reaches out to soothe him by admitting earnestly, “I do know what it’s like to be a failure.” Then she coaches the trapped and defeated Cecil to “tell the truth” to his friends about why he’s resigning, while giving him the exact wording she wants him to use, and then remaining behind to make sure he uses her explanation in the phone call to the rest of the Rover team. The same goes for Gordon’s hostility to Joe where, while Gordon ineffectually tries to clean milkshake off his window and Joe tentatively tries to bring up the attraction he’d noticed between Haley and the cool waitress, Vanessa, at Haley’s preferred fast food spot, the clueless Gordon snaps, “Oh come on Joe. You don’t give a shit about her beyond what she can do for this company. You just want what’s best for you. That’s why you’re not a parent and you never will be.”

Susanna Skaggs, Anna Chlumsky (Photo: AMC)

As for Joe, we see that, while Gordon’s dismissal isn’t fair, it’s also not baseless. “Recognizing you’re an asshole is half the battle,” joshes Bos kindly during their garage talk—and Joe isn’t an asshole any more. Or at least he’s not the slickly manufactured manipulation machine type of asshole he was during the series’ rocky first season. We see him still get carried away pitching Comet company slogans to a sleepy Cameron in her trailer, but he also has loosened up enough to make one of Cameron’s microwaved “cheese eggs” for breakfast, and is capable of laughing at his own driven habits. And, recognizing that the enthusiastic Haley isn’t taking him to the iffy Hound Dogs for lunch because of the food, Joe appears to genuinely relate to the girl’s sweetly emerging sexuality in her voluble crush on the hip Vanessa. Joe’s bisexuality has mostly retreated as a plot point on the show, which is in keeping with Halt’s storytelling maturation. When Joe first made out with a man back in season one, it was so clearly intended as a “shocking” moment that it was less character development than stunt. Here, listening to internet savant Haley describe how people can truly be themselves online, Pace makes Joe’s silent, smiling understanding of what Haley’s trying to express affectionately eloquent.

It might be contradictory to call Halt And Catch Fire optimistic when its central theme continues to develop as “Love and success are antithetical.” But the series started out as a show about a high concept peopled by good actors playing half-developed types. Over its run, the show, while hardly abandoning its tech-centrism, has flipped its priorities, to everyone’s benefit. That Joe and Cameron now have different ideas about having children, or that Diane and Bos seem to be heading for a breakup in the wake of Bos’ confession of his disastrous business decisions is all the stuff of standard TV drama. Halt And Catch Fire has become a show where, while computers are the medium through which its characters pursue their dreams, those dreams carry a lot more weight on their own.


Stray observations

  • Cameron, on the receiving end of some more advice from Gordon (“You dream in code”), finds herself responding to an email from a stranger who’s made an elaborate fansite devoted to Cameron’s work. (“The Howe Of It All.”) The young woman who made it (Molly Ephraim) turns out to be the one who asked Cameron about Pilgrim’s release date at the tech conference earlier in the season. We don’t know much about her yet, but Cameron takes her up on an offer of funding, complete with a promise not to interfere with Cameron in any way. The last scene of the episode sees Cameron, a huge satellite dish mounted on the roof of the Airstream, smiling at the grinding dialup sound of her new computer equipment like she’s listening to the best music in the world.
  • Another touching moment about Gordon bailing out Donna comes when you reflect that he drove himself to the police station. The episode doesn’t reference the fact, but it does have a scene later reminding us how Gordon uses a driver all the time now.
  • It’s natural to feel bad for Cecil, but his angry response to Donna is unsettlingly aggressive in a way it likely wouldn’t have been with any witnesses. Or if Donna were a man.
  • Another of Donna’s good/bad arcs tonight is her pursuit Cecil’s replacement, Bobby Aaron (Banshee’s Chris Coy), which sees her lure him away from Microsoft—and then drunkenly sleep with him.
  • After telling her cartwheel story to Joanie, Donna—listening to the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane”—makes sure she’s alone before doing a silent cartwheel in her kitchen.
  • Aaron is won over largely because he, like Haley, used the internet—specifically Donna’s Community networking site—to connect with others. “It was a lifesaver,” he explains about taking the meeting even though he’d already committed to Microsoft, “I guess I just wanted to thank you.”
  • Painting his rocket with the name “El Gordo,” Cameron asks if Gordon knows what that means in Spanish. “Yeah, ‘handsome.’” “Exactly.”
  • Haley, messing with Katie at the rocket party: “We used to go all the time ’til my mom blew her hand off.”
  • “You wouldn’t even have a company if it weren’t for me!” Haley, making the professional and the personal combine and explode when Gordon tells her she can’t work at Comet until she brings her grades back up.
  • Haley’s glowing enthusiasm for the internet being a place for completely honest self-expression is achingly sad, considering what a cruel place it’s turned out to be, as a rule. (And the example of poor Mutiny coder Lev—victim of perhaps the internet’s first bait-and-switch gay-bashing is not something Haley would have know about.) Plus, when Joe polls the Comet workers about what the internet means to them, the answers are overwhelmingly “porn.”
  • Donna and Cameron almost have a moment. Cameron, after placidly signing over the rights to her work on Rover free of charge, asks Donna, “You okay?” Donna, walking back to her car, hesitates, Kerry Bishé making Donna’s unseen face crumple in her desperate, conflicted need for her former best friend before an arriving delivery truck interrupts, and the moment just disappears.

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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.