Lee Pace is Joe MacMillan

Everyone’s out to prove something to a father figure in “Adventure.” Scoot McNairy’s Gordon slinks back to his rich father-in-law for an introduction to the catalog maven’s Japanese connections. Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron meets Joe’s domineering father at Joe’s apartment and looks for the approval she’s not getting from Joe, at least until she susses out exactly where Joe gets his manipulative streak from. And Joe himself uses his father’s presence to drive him on in this week’s Joe Macmillan gamesmanship, even as he avoids the man. Like much of Halt And Catch Fire (see the motif of putting wounded animals out of their misery last episode), “Adventure” remains prosaically programmatic about its symbolism and its storytelling. Which isn’t to say that “Adventure” is a mess. In fact, it’s the best episode since the pilot, its uncluttered narrative allowing the protagonists some space to breathe.

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Too often, Gordon’s been sidelined into a reactive role, given little more to do than stand agog at Joe’s latest manipulation. Here, at least, he’s allowed to be the squirmy fuck-up he was first presented as, his desperate overreaching causing him to get drunk and offend the Japanese manufacturers he and Joe are dining with in order to procure their LCD screen technology for Cardiff’s embryonic PC. First seen in the pilot cooling his heels in the drunk tank, Gordon’s position as the show’s tortured everyman, pining in deepening depression about the time he almost created something worthwhile, has slipped into second (or third) banana status. Here, McNairy gives poor Gordon back some agency, even if he doesn’t know what to do with it. The show is still far more invested in mystery man Joe’s scheming, but at least Gordon’s plight as a stunted dreamer makes an impression in “Adventure,” for the first time in a while.

Cameron, too, emerges a bit from the writer’s conceits she’s hemmed in by (girl programmer, girl punk, girl) with the welcome arrival of fellow tech nerds Yoyo and Lev. Played engagingly by Cooper Andrews and August Emerson, respectively, these guys are readily typed as well (Yoyo eats Easy Cheese right from the can!), but at least they convincingly speak the same language as Cameron, injecting the show with some geeky energy as they bond over the early text-based game that gives the episode its name. Like Cameron, they’re smart, know what they’re talking about, and chafe under petty corporate authority. Plus, they appear to accept Cameron “the girl programmer” as one of them by virtue of her abilities without making undue fuss about her gender. For Cameron, who pulls a late-episode coup and appoints herself head of the programmers by sheer force of will and the lesson (“You say something with the right authority, you generally get what you want”) learned from Joe’s father, the development provides her with a more stable, believable home on the show. As with Gordon, the episode finally takes some time to reestablish Cameron’s character, presenting her as someone other than another of Joe’s playing pieces.

As for Joe himself, the show continues to revel in his position as mysterious manipulator while at the same time being too eager to demystify him. This week: Joe’s father comes to town! The pilot intimated how huge Joe’s father loomed in Joe’s psyche with a baseball bat and the note, “Swing for the fences, son.” Then we learned that Joe’s father was a bigwig at IBM and that Joe had abandoned his job there. Now we learn that Joe’s father (John Getz) works at IBM and once gave Joe a baseball bat inscribed with the notion that Joe should swing for the fences. (Learned when Joe, Sr. helpfully tells Cameron, “I bought this bat for him.”) Thanks, show—we got there. Lee Pace continues to play each scene in isolation, simply because his character isn’t a character but a carefully selected series of speeches and poses. When he interrupts Gordon’s celebratory drink with the engineers to embarrass Gordon over seemingly screwing up the Japanese deal, there’s no logic to the act. Joe the cool, unflappable manipulator becomes Joe the petty, gloating bully just so that Gordon can reveal that Gordon had fixed the problem by groveling to his father-in-law already. It advances the plot (and sets up Joe’s “awesome guy” outburst smashing a sacrificial Japanese car at the company picnic at episode’s end), but it does so at the expense of giving Joe a consistent persona. Pace still has the charisma—his face when peeping around the corner at his impatiently waiting father is enigmatically affecting—but his character, for all the deep, dark secrets the show keeps teasing, remains a collection of parts.

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Structurally, “Adventure” continues to signal its plot developments in neon lights. When Gordon’s stuck trying to solve the problem of the Cardiff computer’s screen weight, he looks at his digital watch and remembers that LCD screens exist. Cameron’s intuitive leap, only keeping the programmers who cheated to win the computer game because “To play an honest game you have to be good at solving puzzles, but to cheat you have to be great at solving code,” is too neatly contrived to play as genuine insight. (It’s like Aaron Sorkin at his worst.) The one unexpectedly imaginative touch is seeing Joe’s father (stood up for a second time) stomping angrily past the Japanese executives that Joe has just impressed with his story about respecting your father. Not overstressed, it’s the sort of subtle effect the show could use more of.

Halt And Catch Fire is turning out like Joe—hyping up its audience for a long con but ultimately both too inconsistent and manufactured to pull it off.

Stray observations:

  • As much as I like Toby Huss’ performance, Bosworth continues to be just all over the place. Last week he had his cop buddies beat the crap out of Joe in order to show Joe who’s really the boss. This week, he demonstrates who’s really boss by, once again, not being prepared at a presentation and needing Joe to bail him out.
  • That being said, the payoff to the gag where he rounds up all of the new programmers so they can help him get unstuck in the computer game they’re all secretly playing is the most satisfying laugh of the series so far.
  • Annette O’Toole still isn’t given much to do, but I did love her little enthusiastic “Woo!”
  • Cameron drops the names of female computer pioneers Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, which is a nice touch. The character would know those names intimately—and be pissed that her male colleagues don’t.
  • Poor, doomed supervisor—fired just when he gets his Greatest American Hero poster hung up.
  • Kerry Bishé’s Donna, seemingly primed to take a more active role after saving Cardiff’s bacon last episode, gets swatted back in what seems a deliberate manner this time as she reacts to Gordon’s panicky phone call about the future of the company by saying, “I’ve got pies in the oven” and hanging up on him.
  • And how many of you want more of Donna’s relationship with her boss at Texas Instruments? Anyone? 

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