Lee Pace (AMC)

In its undeniably improved second season, Halt And Catch Fire remains a collection of parts rather than a unified whole. In “10Broad36,” most of those parts are effective on their own, but, like the cobbled-together machine the Mutiny gang tries to sneak past Joe tonight, there’s an air of potentially promising new pieces being fitted into an old shell.

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The war has always been between Halt’s desire to delve meaningfully into the tech aspects of the 1980s computer revolution and its melodramatic aspirations toward prestige drama. At times, each has been successful, but the show’s attempts to wed subject and theme have often been derailed by its clear initial desire to create the new AMC antihero. Season two’s do-over has been the show’s attempt at a course correction, with the Mutiny storyline trying more directly to make Cameron and Donna’s efforts at creative expression through technology the focus the show only found at the end of last season when, not coincidentally, it became a story about people using technology to express their creativity. Then Joe threw his tantrum and set a truckload of computers on fire, reasserting that the whole antihero thing is harder to escape than it looks.

Joe MacMillan—the old Joe MacMillan—is front and center again this week, a development not as odious as it could have been, but still a lingering influence of the past that impedes the possibilities of the Mutiny story. For all the excitement garnered by having Cameron and Donna take center stage this season, there’s been a lot of undercutting of their authority, with Tom, Bosworth, Gordon (although he fucks up as usual), and now Joe pointing out all the ways that these two women could be doing things better. Tonight, it’s Joe’s turn, as he parlays Jacob Wheeler’s ultimatum that Westgroup start charging Mutiny a more compitetive rate for its time on the Westgroup mainframe into an opportunity to force Mutiny into making changes he wants in their business and online model. And the thing is—Joe’s right. Mutiny’s reliance on Commodore computers will ultimately doom it, their unwillingness to branch out onto a more versatile operating system will doom it, plus, their homepage is boring—all things that Joe sees but that the show’s nominal protagonists this season cannot.

That all being said, Joe’s confrontations with Cameron and Donna—together and individually—are compelling. Plus, Joe has the most human moment of the entire series tonight—talking to the absent Sara’s answering machine, he notes the telltale signs that she’s been in their apartment when he’s been out (an empty bottle, missing clothes) and muses, “I feel like you want me to see these things.” It’s one of the few quiet little touches Lee Pace has been given, and it’s affectingly humanizing. So when Joe—sent on his mission by James Cromwell’s Wheeler—strides into Mutiny with his customary sunglasses and rolled-sleeves jacket and starts playing Joe MacMillan hardball with Cameron and Donna, there’s an intriguing undercurrent of uncertainty as to his motives.

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Watching Pace do the full Joe MacMillan is never not entertaining—he finds the true heart of a specific 1980s asshole in such moments—but his machinations are exterior to the Mutiny story, which is what’s so promising about this season in the first place. Like Donna and Cameron’s wacky stolen computer caper earlier in the season, it’s like the creators (this episode is credited to series writer Jamie Pachino) don’t trust the story of a tiny, upstart internet company fronted by two strong women discovering technological advances to keep our attention. Joe the manipulator is a ghost from the past, tossing out obstacles in the path of a story I’d like to see more of—or see explored from the inside more completely.

Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis (AMC)

Still, Donna’s confrontations with Joe—refusing to knuckle under at Mutiny and then acceding to Joe’s demands in the sterile, sinister Westgroup mainframe room—are killers. The first, with Donna countering Joe’s smug swagger (“Five dollars is the ante for this table”) sees Kerry Bishé do what she’s done so feelingly all season, framing Mutiny’s mission in personal terms. “All you own is time on a network. What entitles you to have an opinion of anything we do here?” she demands. “This is real to us!” In the second, trapped by Joe’s move in unplugging Mutiny and stuck in that whirring computer room, she plays at cagey contrition, giving ground while waiting out Joe’s speech, the camera menacingly closing in on her while we watch her mind working out the angles. This is largely Bishé’s episode, with her playing Donna’s very bad day with astounding subtlety of feeling. Bishé has taken over as Halt And Catch Fire’s main attraction, and, tonight, she brings a heartbreakingly contained quality to Donna’s mounting grief, one that serves to land the episode’s big reveal about her pregnancy and her final scene on the phone with her daughters with an emotional wallop.

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Donna—introduced baking pie for her busy husband, if you recall—has become a formidable and nuanced character, her yearning to make something out of Mutiny an expression of the dreams she’s buried for so long being Gordon’s helpmate. Her best moment in season one is the quiet interlude in the family garage where she plays a solitary tune on the keyboard of the ill-fated Symphonic machine she and Gordon had made, and abandoned. Here, introduced telling her mother that she’d lost her unplanned baby, there’s the intimation that her pregnancy storyline was just a melodramatic contrivance. When it’s revealed that she has chosen to get an abortion, her face in the side mirror of Cameron’s truck on the way to Planned Parenthood says otherwise—Bishé expresses a lot in that unreadable, silent look, but her choice here says even more about the fact that Donna isn’t prepared to be put back in her box as Gordon’s wife, or even Cameron’s sidekick.

As for Gordon, his visit to see his brother Henry (an always welcome Kevin Rankin) continues his role as the show’s resident screwup, immediately cheating on Donna with an obliging former schoolmate Jules (The Astronaut Wives Club’s Erin Cummings), getting kicked out of his brother’s house, and being unable to sing his terrified girls to sleep like Donna does. Scoot McNairy is fine as ever, but his storyline here—laden with his medical condition and generous helpings of stoner talk with Jules by the shores of a lake, suffers in comparison to Donna’s. Gordon’s actions are understandable enough, I suppose—especially considering the convenient mitigating factors of the weed and his diagnosed mental issues, but it doesn’t make them especially interesting. The whole detour to his brothers’ house—teased feelingly during their phone call last episode—is something of a dramatic red herring, a “you can’t go home again” lesson in clumsy shorthand. His brother turns out to be a drunk, their bonding is cut short, and Henry’s meltdown over Gordon’s actions is too sudden. Gordon’s position as Halt And Catch Fire also-ran allows McNairy to bring out the pathos in Gordon’s increasing irrelevance, but, like Joe’s machinations, Gordon’s tale keeps diverging from what’s truly interesting.

Apart from Donna’s story tonight, the antics at Mutiny are the episode’s chief attraction, as the geeks decide to rig up an ingenious (if unsuccessful) con job to prove to Joe that they’ve converted their operating system to Joe’s preference, the AT&T-based Unix. (Please feel free to debate the relative merits in the comments.) At its best, the Mutiny house has been the place where the show has found the aforementioned unity of character drama, time, and place. Tonight, racing to beat the clock and sweating out Joe’s examination of their ruse, Donna and Cameron (assisted ably by the ingenuous enthusiasm of Mark O’Brien’s Tom and August Emerson’s Lev) generate sparks of the sort of creative problem-solving and chutzpah that made the COMDEX storyline from season one so compelling. It’s in the actors’ faces—the thrill of discovery and lateral thinking bringing the tech talk alive as everyone pulls together to work the problem. There’s a delight in what they’re doing that’s infectious here—something Halt And Catch Fire should cultivate.

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Stray observations

  • Mackenzie Davis, too, is solid tonight, even if Cameron continues to lag behind Donna as a character—for a computer genius, she remains as competent as the plot dictates this season. Davis is at her best here in the computer shell game scene—she’s always especially good when Cameron gets excited about new discoveries. Plus, Cameron’s choice to follow Donna into the clinic was nicely understated.
  • Toby Huss’ Bosworth doesn’t get much to do tonight, although, as ever, his wisdom is spot-on, calling Cameron out for belittling Donna for her outburst at Joe (“On the rag?” Really, Cameron?), and asking why Mutiny just doesn’t make the switch to Unix rather than going to all the trouble of pretending they have. Sure, there are benefits to both plans, but Bosworth rightly suggests that Cameron isn’t going for the switch out of something other than business acumen.
  • Joe decides to get Wheeler to acquire Mutiny after the ingenuity of their attempt to trick him—which includes using their illegal HBO-stealing coaxial cable to form a primitive version of broadband.
  • As much as he screws everything up tonight, lost Gordon can still be pretty affecting. “Donna doesn’t know. Her work’s taking off and it’s driving her. Like mine used to. She’s energized. She’d drop everything to take care of me and I can’t do that to her.”
  • Hey, it’s 1985: The Mutineers were stealing HBO to catch a glimpse of Nastassja Kinski naked in Cat People.
  • The Mutineers are also aware of Cameron and Tom’s relationship, Lev outing them publicly this week with some Porky’s-style shenanigans.
  • Joe’s endgame in all of this? Who knows—he’s either trying to help Cameron’s company succeed, or trying to help himself succeed, or trying to win Sara back by impressing her with his success, or working through some more hidden past trauma. Welcome to Joe MacMillan world.
  • Joe reacts to being tricked by smashing the Mutiny mockup computer to pieces. At least he’s consistent.

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