“Just when I feel I’ve got my arms around it, I can’t see it any more.”
An episode of television that seems misassembled can still come together with a resonant crash. “Nowhere Man” tumbles through its developing plotlines with an unaccustomed gracelessness (at least by this point in Halt And Catch Fire’s once-spotty narrative history), a place-setting episode that signals the season’s coming conflicts with by-the-instructions obviousness. Joe shows signs of the Old Joe’s return, as Rover’s sudden leap ahead (thanks to Cameron’s secret algorithmic assistance) sees him acting pissy both with Cameron and Gordon. Cameron’s decision to help out Bos (and thereby Donna) has put her on an inevitable collision course with Joe, Donna, and Gordon (everyone, really), leaving her edgy and distant with the unaware Joe as he rants to her about the peril he spots coming for Comet. Gordon—comfortably now canoodling with adorable goofball and Comet’s organizational brain Katie—has retreated to his default position of standing pat, brushing off Joe’s concerns about the future of their company by citing Comet’s moderate successes, and breezing past both a seriously inappropriate office outburst from Joe (about his relationship with Katie), and Katie’s concerns about what being outed as an employee sleeping with her boss means for her workplace standing. (Comet’s cool hangout environment is going to need an HR department, and soon.)
But there’s this moment.
Halt And Catch Fire can land an ending (as well as a credits sequence) with aplomb, and the closing cross-cutting between Donna and Gordon overcomes not only the episode’s tonal and storytelling hiccups, but also any appearance of straining for effect. Gordon, after bailing on a date night at the roller derby with Katie and the girls because his condition has left him too exhausted, pulls out the shockingly huge collection of his health diaries, and burns them in his fireplace. He’d retreated there—with his Walkman playing a tape he’s made of him repeating positive reinforcement to himself—while Katie bonds with Joanie. (Haley, clearly uncomfortable from Joe’s office outburst about her father’s sex life with Katie, excuses herself as soon as possible.) Gordon had confided in the curious Katie that, despite all his efforts to map the occurrence of his episodes, no pattern had emerged. (Even with spreadsheets, charts, and all the data he can muster.) So he burns the journals, his consoling words to Joe earlier echoing in the crackling flames. (“Most of us in the human race, we don’t get to know what’s next. We just feel shit as it’s thrown at us.”)
At the same time, Donna is playing Pilgrim. After a wrenching, disastrous dinner where she lays into the increasingly desperate Bos about Cameron’s (still-hidden) involvement in improving Rover, Bos keels over. At the hospital, Donna susses out that the distraught Cameron is the one behind Rover’s conceptual advance, her warring guilt over Bos’ heart attack and fury at Cameron butting into her life and career sending her to the comforts of a bottle of wine and a late-night phone call to ex-husband Gordon. Ostensibly about Haley’s forgotten textbook, her call quickly becomes a confession (“I said some awful things. You weren’t there, you don’t know.”), followed by Gordon’s revelation about Bos’ money troubles, and his own role in Bos’ agitation in not loaning him money. Again, the way that the plot pieces clunk into place during this phone conversation parallel others in the episode. (Joe’s inappropriately loud exclamation “From where I stand it looks like you don’t care what happens to this company as long as you get to keep screwing the chief ontologist!,” emerges in one big, prosaic mouthful.) But Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé, as ever, inhabit their now-exes’ interaction with such complicated intimacy that they ride right over the contrivance.
And Donna’s side of the conversation is bathed in the light from the computer screen where, earlier, Joanie had been frustratedly playing Cameron’s Atari-abandoned new game. About a lone female explorer wandering through a barren world littered with seemingly insoluble puzzles (that often send the player right back to the beginning), Pilgrim’s failure is portrayed as sadly inevitable in a world where Mortal Kombat and its bloody, button-mashing ilk rule the land. “I thought that reviewer was just being an asshole,” says Joanie, referencing Pilgrim’s fate at the hands of Electronic Gaming Monthly, “But it’s like she doesn’t want anyone to actually win.” Donna, beset by conflicting emotions after a truly shitty day, starts absently playing the game. And solves the puzzle.
Cameron’s truest expression of herself has always been through her work, with both Space Bike and Pilgrim’s lone female heroines similarly engaged in an open-ended quest for... something. Solving problems excites Cameron, and she can’t fathom how others’ don’t always share her attraction to the challenge of exploration. Coming clean to Joe on their drive home from the hospital, Cameron apologizes, explaining that, in addition to her love for Bos, she tinkered with Rover’s stagnant search algorithm because, as she says, “Part of me just wanted to see if I could do it.” Donna and Cameron’s relationship, once so liberating and collaborative, lies in ruins, a situation Donna’s waiting room discovery of Cameron’s involvement in this make-or-break project only exacerbates. But their partnership was liberating, for both of them, just as all the show’s various permutations of alliances and collaborations have been in their own way. And so Donna solves Cameron’s puzzle.
Stuck at the same smothering point that’s been killing the game, Donna comes at the puzzle in a way that sees it disassemble, the broken shards floating together in the air in front of the game’s lone character. And Donna has her climb the pieces, scaling their seemingly disparate, chaotic fragments like a ladder. As metaphors go, it’s lovely, a visual representation of Cameron’s view of the world, and her own place in it. Her relationship with Donna is in pieces. Gordon and Donna’s as well. Bos, lying in a hospital bed while doctors figure out how much damage his heart has taken, is on the verge of losing his connection to everyone, professionally and personally. And Joe and Cameron’s rekindled love affair was threatening to splinter even before Cameron’s roadside confession of how her torn allegiances to him, Gordon, and Bos may have doomed Comet.
Cameron, introduced as a rootless lost soul, imagined, in the aftermath of Pilgrim’s failure, that an Airstream trailer and remote parcel of land represented an ending. A goal. But, as we see tonight, her refuge is more like one of Gordon’s signature retreats, masquerading as achievement. When ex Tom unexpectedly stops by to get her to sign some final paperwork, she greets him with an improvised, raised cudgel, imagining an intruder, a threat. (Sure, she’s reading Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, which is going to unsettle a woman alone in the woods.) And her relationship with Joe continues to fray under their bifurcated living situation, with Joe balking at spending another night in the trailer. “I can’t stand up in the damn thing!,” he asserts, understandably, although his belittling follow-up complaint, “I’ve been really understanding to you, beyond patient,” squanders whatever high ground he might have had. But Cameron, who spent a disastrous night dealing with a broken trailer and a mudslide in her underwear recently, knows in her heart that she’s fooling herself, too. The idyllic fantasy is built on shaky ground.
So is Donna’s. She draws out her knowledge of an outside hand in Rover’s improvement in order to torture both Bos and poor programmer Cecil, whose sweaty attempts to bluff are thwarted once Donna announces that he’ll have to explain the specs to the company’s legal team. “The person who wrote this is on another level,” exclaims Cecil to Bos, leaving Bos to beg (and edge perilously close to blackmailing) the shocked Cameron to help him out again. Donna’s dinnertime fight with Bos gets, as she correctly tells Gordon, very ugly, as she tells Bos she would have fired him if not for Diane. (Bos, returning fire, claims that Donna’s been “hiding behind Diane’s skirt” for just as long, right before he collapses.) Her team, already suspicious of her parallel webcrawler idea to that of her ex-husband, has been further split with dissent over Donna’s manipulations, her own family is her main competitor, and she sits, finally, alone, drinking and playing the complex, obscure game her former partner and best friend had been forced to abandon.
But their connection, it’s implied, is what allows Donna to solve the puzzle seemingly no one else could, eventually climbing the broken pieces of the game up into the sky. There, she sees Cameron’s avatar emerge in a pristine, peaceful clearing, where gentle snow falls on a solitary cabin that glows from within with a welcoming, glowing light. The characters in Halt And Catch Fire are all, in their own ways, brilliant enough to have everything. Joe, Cameron, Gordon, Bos, and Donna have all the pieces. That they can’t figure out how to use them in just the right way keeps breaking them.
- Anna Chlumsky remains a seamless addition to the series, her Dr. Katie Herman avoiding any over-idealization as Gordon’s projection of his “manic pixie geek girl” by sheer dint of inner life, and acting talent. Lazing on the couch for post-coital Chinese food and goofy Russian accent play, Chlumsky makes Katie Gordon’s perfect match. But she’s also taken aback later when he doesn’t recognize how slighting Joe’s outburst is. Plus, she’s clearly got an idea about mapping Gordon’s illness cooking.
- Katie, reading her misspelled fortune cookie: “An exciting Tim is coming your way.” Gordon: “Damn it!” Adorable.
- Gordon loves Sneakers, as Katie speculates, because it’s about “a motley crew of dude friends pulling capers with nothing more than nerdy technical skills and a dash of moxie.”
- Gordon has a song stuck in his head. Neither he or Katie (or this reviewer) can figure it out. Thoughts?
- Like some of the other plot developments tonight, Bos’ increasingly fidgety desperation comes on too abruptly. Toby Huss, as ever, makes the former top dog’s barely concealed humiliation at his circumstance deeply affecting, though.
- That both Donna (mockingly) and Diane (patronizingly) quote his wonted folksy banter back at him through the episode only deepens Bos’ self-loathing.
- Other awkward elements of the episode see Cameron cut off by a pair of abrupt ad breaks. Her confrontation with Tom is chopped off while she’s pouring them coffee, and her confession to Joe sees her declaration, “I love you” go unanswered, artificially.
- Tom and Cameron were never going to work with Joe MacMillan ever looming, but it’s nice to see Mark O’Brien again. Tom and Cameron’s shared amazement at the solution to the mystery of the noises emanating from their upstairs Tokyo neighbor’s apartment is a lovely, funny moment.
- As is Joe and Gordon’s conversation about the future of Comet, with Joe confessing about their long-ago first collaboration, “It was never about how where it ended up, it was about how it felt. When I saw it, I knew how it would feel to build something with you.”
- Same goes for Gordon’s advice in the face of Joe’s confusion: “This, right now, is all there is. Welcome to the future Joe MacMillan. I mean, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m sure glad to have you here.”
- Less so, although completely appropriate to Joe blurting out details of Gordon’s sex life in front of Haley, is Gordon’s warning, “I will rip off your head and shit down your throat,” should Joe do so again.
- After Donna asks why their boss would cheat at golf so brazenly, Diane explains, “A long life of being told that winning is your birthright.”
- While the sight of Gordon’s journals burning to the lyric “I’m on fire” might call attention to itself, that Donna’s in-game discovery coincides with the suddenly thunderous climactic break of PJ Harvey’s “Rid Of Me” is stirring enough to wash away any objection.