“Rules Of Honorable Play” is the template for a good midseason episode. It advances all the characters’ stories in energetic, promising ways, is packed with fun sequences and evocative little character beats, and reveals what direction a number of stories are going to go in, at least for a while. Sure, there are a few clunky missteps along the way, but you can’t say this season of Halt And Catch Fire isn’t driving with purpose.
Joe’s storyline here is the most problematic, even as it allows Lee Pace to tell off a stereotypically homophobic asshole. Back in season one, I was critical of how Joe’s bisexuality (you remember Joe’s bisexual, right?) was utilized as a “shocking” reveal of how Joe is willing to do anything to realize his plans. Here, it’s reintroduced hardly any more meaningfully. At an ostentatiously lavish charity function, Joe’s shown leaning moderately close to a handsome younger man—and then spends the rest of the party chatting up the also-attending Ken Diebold, Diane and Bos while holding up a finger to tell his date to hold on a sec. Joe’s sexuality was a plot device the first time and it’s one here, as the MacMillan Utility investor who’s come to Joe’s office to scold Joe for letting his underage son do coke at one of Joe’s parties goes off on all those San Francisco “faggots” and hopes they all catch “that special flu that’s going around.”
While it’s gratifying to hear Lee Pace wrap his impeccable diction around his business-damaging takedown of the creep, this development is abrupt. Joe MacMillan’s always been what Halt needs him to be for plot’s sake, and this episode, he’s willing to put his best interests aside because he won’t stand for a bigot being a bigot in his office. That, and he’s developed some new plan for Ryan to examine the military’s ARPANET packet-switching network in order to make up for the “37 percent” loss MacMillan Utilities is going to take because the bigot was their government contact. “Map it and help me figure out what’s next,” says Joe to Ryan, perhaps promising that this storyline will find a bit more direction than it’s shown so far.
Gordon’s story in the episode is both harrowing and hopeful, as the episode begins with him a bumbling wreck. He burns his hands on his microwaved Danish, spills his coffee, and dutifully writes down the mounting number and severity of his physical ailments (now his vision seems to be going). Gordon looks over the eternally squabbling geeks under his supervision—the Mutiny gang and the newly acquired Swap Meet techies are not meshing at all—and looks and feels completely ineffectual. Attempting to break up the latest petty and annoying argument (one of the new guys won’t stop doing a robot voice, for one), he takes an accidental sock in the ear from Jona Xiao’s Judy before sinking onto the couch back home and sucking roundly at the NES Duck Hunt, thanks to his hand tremors.
But Gordon’s most admirable attribute is his fitful ingenuity and, taking a cue from Cameron’s joke about taking the coders out back and shooting them, he undertakes some ingenious team-building by leading the fractious doofuses in a rousing (and destructive) round of laser tag. (He gets himself banned from the game while bowling over enemy and scenery alike in a suicide charge set to Billy Joel’s mawkishly rousing “Goodnight Saigon.”) It’s a quick patch on a simmering problem, but that’s what makes Gordon’s doomed heroism so endearing in general. Like his worsening condition, the problems at Mutiny are beyond his ability to control or fix. But sitting with Bosworth at the arcade snack bar, knocking back a few beers, and noting in his medical journal that his nausea is at bay (he scores it a “0”), Gordon relishes the little victory he’s been able to carve out. The episode ends with he and Cameron playing some Duck Hunt together, palling around in a way they’ve never done before, and it’s, again, a sweet, funny time out in a journey whose outcome is very much in doubt.
Cameron’s story is most central tonight, her road to that silly little respite with Gordon fraught with all manner of stresses. The Swap Meet guys (Joe Massingill’s Doug and Joe Dinicol’s Craig) are combatively baffled that Cameron won’t upgrade the original Mutiny code to their C++ format. Chief investor Diane is pressuring Donna to bring Cameron in line so their venture doesn’t fall apart. And, to top it all off, Cameron gets a terse phone call (addressed to “Catherine”) from her stepfather telling her that he and Cam’s mother are going to retire to Florida and sell all of her beloved late father’s old things. Mackenzie Davis is great throughout “Rules Of Honorable Play.” From her righteous fury at Doug’s sexist abuse (he’s only saved from a beating because Cameron charges him with her headphones still plugged in), to her unspoken heartbreak that her mother couldn’t be bothered to tell her the news herself, to her late night heart-to-heart (over Bos’ Wild Turkey) with the more reasonable Craig, where she confesses that she’s hanging onto her original code because, as she explains, “It’s the only piece left that I wrote by myself.” Davis does wonders with her face—realizations, be they good or bad, register in Cameron’s expressions with complete, naked honesty.
Donna’s been sidelined more this season than last, shunted from her more hands-on role in Mutiny’s development to caretaker and problem solver. (For Gordon, for Cameron, for Diane.) Kerry Bishé leapt to de facto main character for me last season, her emergence as an independent innovator and leader truly the heart of the series. This year, she’s putting out fires. When she sees that Cameron only missed a big problem-solving meeting with Diane and the Swap Meet guys because she fell asleep at her desk tonight, she gives the sort of forgiving, supportive look that made Cameron describe her recently as “the nicest woman in the world.” But the old Donna’s not gone.
Spurred on to emulate Diane’s take-charge example, she, somewhat shockingly, lies and tells Cameron that Diane vetoed Cam’s plan to simply fire Doug and Craig and do everything herself. Cameron’s taken aback, but doesn’t suspect her friend and colleague, at least until Donna’s overly solicitous offer to let Cameron stay in the Clark home as long as she wants twigs her to the idea that something may be up. “Can I ask you a question,” she asks Gordon, “when did you know you were losing Cardiff?”
This conflict, too, might seem contrived, except that the cracks have been laid in to the Donna-Cameron relationship from the start. Cameron, as she confesses to Craig, doesn’t play well with others. “I’m proud of this place,” she tells him while they look over the empty office, “But back then it was this secret. It was all mine.” And Donna’s worked hard and sacrificed a lot to make Mutiny what it is. Her move tonight isn’t direct, but it’s the nicest woman in the world’s best guess at how to keep from being shunted back into her caregiver role. These two are heading for a conflict, but the roots of that conflict make sense.
- Another storyline clipping along nicely is John Bosworth’s. His growing flirtation with Annabeth Gish’s Diane is interesting not only because Toby Huss and Gish have such good chemistry, but because the characters are both battle-hardened, capable people. They’r circling each other knowingly and somewhat wearily, which makes their growing attraction no less sexy.
- Plus, Huss brings so much lived-in self-awareness to Bos’ role as Mutiny’s fixer that the character can—as we saw last season—carry much of a scene, or an episode, on his own. Joe may chide him tonight for “playing up the Texas thing,” but Bos knows what’s required of him. When Gordon asks Bos to tell the bear joke he’s been delivering throughout the episode, Bos responds, “That thing’s outta gas.”
- It doesn’t hurt that Bos addresses Joe with the same mocking phrase I’ve been known to use: “Joe MacMillan, man of mystery.”
- Bos snaps an annoyed “No!” to the coders badgering him to join the laser tag right after Gordon marvels how, at Cardiff, “everybody was scared shitless of you.”
- Donna, on Bos: “Nobody calls him John.” Diane: “I do.”
- Like the dart gun battle in season two, the laser gun scene is the sort of goofy sequence (complete with perhaps too-goofy Wilhelm scream) that Halt And Catch Fire deploys when things are seeming too grim.
- Doug, sarcastically: “I get it, you’re that good.” Cameron: “Yeah—aren’t you?”
- Cameron: “Do you want to see something cool?” Craig: “Is it a dead body?” Cameron: “Only if Doug’s still here.” I know she wanted to fire him, but I’m on board with a possible Cameron-Craig partnership.
- In case you missed it, A.V. Clubbers John Teti and Erik Adams did a very funny and informative live Facebook video talking about last week’s episode. Hilarious, those two. Go check it out and maybe they’ll do some more.
- And because Cameron’s near-beatdown of “arrogant fratboy” Doug is expertly scored to Elvis Costello’s “Beyond Belief,” here’s Elvis and the Attractions blowing the doors off of it live. You’re welcome. (I may have been waiting for Elvis to show up on Halt And Catch Fire.)