“Infiltrator”* is an apt title, as Halt And Catch Fire’s fifth episode sees unwanted elements creeping into both the characters’ lives and the narrative of the show itself. While season two has been an undeniable improvement, with the Mutiny storyline providing a more compelling and straightforward motor than whatever the show decided Joe’s agenda was in season one, the specter of the show’s past reliance on melodrama and contrivance isn’t gone. Here, those elements come sneaking back in, pulling focus from the emphasis on character (especially Donna and Cameron), and sapping a measure of excitement with the intrusion of past weaknesses.

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For one thing, we find out that the cause of Gordon’s health problems (shaking hands, mood swings, bloody noses) are the result of chronic toxic encephalopathy, according to his doctor, who plugged Gordon into one of those fancy new MRI machines. Gordon’s story all season has been one big setup for a fall—Gordon’s newfound wealth and enthusiasm for new, seemingly doomed-to-fail projects (tonight he enthuses to an indulgent Donna about a made-to-order computer business) has been painful to watch in its inevitability. It’s not that Gordon’s especially foolish, or foolhardy—it’s that he’s destined to fail. Gordon’s quest for inspiration is lovely in its way, but it’s not far-seeing enough, needing someone else’s vision to take his limited skills further than he can take them on his own. Left to his own devices with nearly a million dollars and nothing but freedom, it was only a matter of time until he lost everything—still, his diagnosis here is especially crushing, his condition caused as it apparently is by the very thing he’s good at. All those countless hours tinkering and building—first his own, doomed machine Symphonic, then Joe’s IBM knockoff—it snuck into his blood, infiltrated his mind.

Walking into a crowded disco after being unable to tell Donna, he shouts in stunned, brutal truthfulness to an obliging and uncomprehending blonde, “I have brain damage. I think I’m dying.” Seeing a vision of Donna in place of the woman (Gordon reveals he and Donna used to dance all the time before their kids were born), he can only stand, looking poleaxed, talking to someone who isn’t there. Scoot McNairy’s great here. From the first, he’s brought a heartbreaking yearning to Gordon, who always feels like he’s trapped, but can’t function now that he’s free.

Joe infiltrates the episode tonight, too, and while he’s not a crippling disease exactly, his influence does neither Cameron nor her storyline any favors, reintroducing a dynamic the show would be better rid of. There’s a runner about The Terminator (released on VHS in April of 1985) through the episode tonight—Tom and Cameron make adorable plans (in pillow talk Schwarzenegger accents) to watch the movie together, and the Mutiny guys (I’m just going to keep trying to make “Mutineers” happen) watching it at episode’s end—and the parallels to Joe aren’t subtle. All season, Joe’s otherworldly nature has been a running theme. He and Sara met at an observatory searching for extraterrestrial life, Donna earlier in the season referred to him as a mannequin, and, tonight, Lev reveals that the programmers at Cardiff secretly called him “Admiral Eyebrows,” all part of the show’s continuing depiction of Joe as other. (Gordon also says that people see Joe as a “reptilian son of a bitch.”) That need for Joe to be Halt’s magnetic, mysterious antihero led to most of the excesses of the first season, and, with the revelation to Cameron and Donna that he’s the one who’s been illegally leasing them time on Westgroup’s mainframe tonight, that unfortunate influence resurfaces.

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Part of Joe’s “otherness,” it has to be said, comes from Lee Pace himself. A colleague offhandedly described Pace’s “terrifying handsomeness” recently, a phrase that sums up a lot of what’s wrong with Joe MacMillan as a character. Not that Pace isn’t a handsome guy, or a good actor—he’s both. However, there’s a heightened quality to both his look and his manner that makes him ideal for larger-than-life figures, but that, here, makes Joe’s every line feel off. (Apart from his intergalactic tyrants and elf kings, that quality served him exceptionally well as the center of Bryan Fuller’s stylized fantasy Pushing Daisies, where Pace played a character whose exceptional abilities literally prevented him from engaging in the human contact he most desired.) This season, Pace has been allowed to show some different colors as Joe, dressed down and a bit humbler. But, even in his first scene tonight, there’s something too-practiced about how he’s dressed, his ripped, sleeveless t-shirt sitting on him like a costume rather than something Joe MacMillan would wear. (The same went for his plain undershirt when Donna and Gordon came to dinner—Joe MacMillan in a t-shirt is Joe MacMillan trying to pass for normal.)

When Joe finally confronts Jacob Wheeler with what he’s done, the old Joe still has the same patter down cold, telling Wheeler, “This could be the moment when Westgroup stops digging in the past and starts building the future. All you have to do—is nothing.” Except this Joe, as effective as he is in convincing his future father-in-law to go along with his scheme, is less magnetic than he used to be. As fine an actor as Pace is, Halt And Catch Fire has improved this season in direct proportion to how much it’s removed Joe from its center.

Aleksa Palladino, Lee Pace (AMC)

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Like Gordon’s health crisis, Joe’s computer crisis feels external to what’s made this season—in fits and starts—so exciting. Mutiny, for all the occasionally forced shenanigans therein, is where the heart of the show is at now, and that’s a good thing. Cameron’s vision of a workplace focused on nothing but innovation and creativity is as fruitful for the show as it is for her army of computer geeks. Like the communal house in Silicon Valley, Mutiny tosses inspiration, anarchy, techno-speak, and character development together in one concentrated location and then flips the switch. That milieu has done wonders for Cameron, Donna, and Bosworth as characters, allowing Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Toby Huss to graduate from underdeveloped support to layered, complex leads. When Joe’s machinations suck them back in, you can practically see all three characters shrink.

So Cameron has to go back to going catatonic whenever Joe is mentioned. (Davis does do a good job maintaining Cameron’s brittle composure in her meeting with Joe and James Cromwell’s Wheeler.) Bosworth—on a date with that attractive mom (Jennifer Irwin) he charmed last episode—spends most of his screen time embarrassed when his credit card is declined. (He, too, has a nice moment later, ruefully congratulating Donna on the secret pregnancy he sees she’s clearly conflicted about.) And Donna spends most of the episode blithely hanging up on Gordon, too busy to intuit the awful truth he’s trying to hide from her. (Donna’s best moment tonight—drinking a sneaky morning beer out of her smiley face mug.)

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Halt And Catch Fire found a better story engine this year. Cameron and Donna’s attempts to make Mutiny both an innovative force in the computer industry and a vehicle for their individual dreams raised the show, and their characters, up a level (or a full grade, if you want to look at it that way). “Infiltrator” attempts to pull it back to a past the show had, rightly, moved beyond.

*Author’s note: “Infiltrator” is what AMC shipped this episode as to critics, it’s what IMDb and other places listed it as right up until broadcast, and it’s what I reviewed it as. Changing an episode’s title (a more thematically appropriate one) after I’ve already written and published my review? Not cool, AMC. Not cool at all.

Stray observations

  • Cameron on Joe’s reemergence: “I just feel like we’re part of some plan that he has.” Go with that instinct, Cameron.
  • Joe’s reintroduction also throws light on how well-suited Cameron and Tom are as a couple. Again tonight, their philosophical differences about gaming come off as the natural and healthy debate of two like-minded people who respect each other and are also completely hot for each other—pretty much the ideal basis for a relationship.
  • While I’m loving Huss’ “wise uncle Bosworth” role this season, his confrontation with Cameron over cutting off delinquent Mutiny user Chet gives him something different to play, which is a good thing. Although, like the credit card subplot, their argument over him buying her a new office chair trucks in too-blunt storytelling.
  • Cameron, after finding out about Joe, flatly says to Donna, “Thank you for your honesty. If you don’t mind I’d like a few moments to myself.” Then the screaming begins.
  • This week in Community: Donna invents private chat rooms and online dating. And Lev is using them to flirt with a guy! Bosworth, doing the best he can to cope with Lev’s news in 1985 Texas, stammers, “Oh hell, I got a cousin…”
  • Davis is great all through her uncomfortable mission to Westgroup, winning over Wheeler with her smarts and her confidence, and not giving in to Joe’s attempts at reconciliation whatsoever. Her loaded “We’ll have to make that happen” to Sara’s offer to have dinner is especially fine.
  • Annette O’Toole returns as Donna’s smilingly steely mother, here plying her granddaughters with an imported Nintendo machine, and wordlessly informing Gordon that, yes, she and her husband do, in fact, expect to be paid back for all the money they poured into Symphonic. Poor Gordon, sharing laughs and drinks with his mother-in-law, forgot for a moment that his in-laws have never liked him.
  • Oh, and Sara dumps Joe. While it’s understandable that she feels she can’t trust him, Aleksa Palladino’s Sara continues to be a very dull and contradictory character.
  • “It’s a community. It’s my community, and we don’t kick people out.”

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