So let’s talk about “off the ledge.”
As with many pilots, last week’s series premiere or Halt And Catch Fire did a lot of foundation-building, laying out the show’s characters and premise with an assured hand. Sure, it felt a little calculated at times, but the episode ended on a promisingly enigmatic note, with mysterious, charismatic Joe MacMillan having flawlessly engineered a plan whose nebulous outlines suggested that creator Christopher Cantwell was operating from a solid blueprint. I wondered then if the show could sustain an entire season’s worth of drama, considering that the sole driving force seemed to be the uncovering of Joe’s secrets—to keep up the ubiquitous comparison, the pilot was like a Mad Men only really interested in the Dick Whitman storyline—but it was still a solidly compelling beginning.
But if the second episode “FUD” is any indication of where Halt And Catch Fire is headed, the pilot’s air of coldly programmed assurance was a matter of letting Joe’s mystery suggest a deeper well of substance than is truly there. When the show starts revealing what Joe’s been hiding, that blueprint starts to look a lot less impressive. Even when the episode tries to reestablish Joe’s mystery at the end, the damage has been done by a script that’s simultaneously hyperbolic and prosaic, ending up with a climactic parking lot showdown that is simply jaw-dropping in its silliness.
The episode begins with Joe, Gordon, Cameron, and everyone else at Cardiff Electric sticking to the well-rehearsed script and sending the army of IBM lawyers huffing and puffing in defeat. As seen in the pilot, Joe has engineered things so well that, as long as they maintain the fiction that he and Gordon didn’t illegally unlock the secrets of the IBM BIOS and that Cameron’s been hired to engineer a Cardiff PC from scratch, then there’s nothing IBM can do. Fair enough—while the legal machinations involved aren’t fundamentally interesting, the results are entertaining, especially when Gordon and Cameron are forbidden from being in the same room with each other, leaving Cameron to draw dicks on the face of the poor napping lawyer assigned to watch her work in isolation. Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron continues to liven up her scenes—she’s the person most willing to call Joe on his manipulations, and she’s good at it. Which is nice, although, like most of the characters in this second episode, Cameron’s motivations thud to ground under the weight of mundanity.
Cameron’s a wounded rebel, so she shoplifts and keeps a butterfly knife and a ragdoll in her duffel bag. Gordon hides the fact that Cameron’s a woman from his wife Donna so we can have a dull subplot about Donna finding out. (Thankfully, her displeasure appears to stem from professional rather than sexual jealousy.) And Joe—the damage done to his character may be irreparable.
From the outset, the biggest fear I had about the show was whether there was enough to Joe’s backstory to drive an entire season of television. (Even then, I couldn’t see a way to continue this series beyond its initial ten episode run.) The pilot set up Joe’s elaborate scheme as a mystery to be unlocked, but the inherent entertainment value of that setup also put a ceiling on the show’s potential. Simply put, it was a gimmick. Gimmicks are fine, but they are what they are—even if the big reveal turns out to be a clever and surprising one, the show ends there. And while the cast is doing workmanlike diligence in bringing shades to their underdrawn characters, this is Joe’s show. When Joe finally plays his hand, even if it’s a satisfyingly surprising and successful one, Halt And Catch Fire will end with it. And that’s the best case scenario—on tonight’s evidence, Joe’s (and the show’s) secrets are a lot less interesting.
Lee Pace is in the unenviable position of playing a character both over- and inconsistently written. In the first episode, his slick, manicured precision worked to build up Joe MacMillan’s position as the sort of morally ambiguous antihero modern prestige dramas are being built around. In the last scene of the pilot, Pace’s closeup as the IBM legal team swarmed the Cardiff offices spoke of an unseen anguish underlying all the machinations. In “FUD,” Joe MacMillan starts explaining things, and that evocative uncertainty devolves into a series of tantrums and speechifying that leaves Pace stranded. Even when the final scene sets out to re-mystify him, the violence done to Joe’s character remains.
Take the scene where Joe, continuing the charade that Cardiff had planned for him to spearhead the company’s new PC division, gives a rousing, inspirational speech to the assembled workers. As Gordon notes afterward, it’s manipulative (and liberally cribbed from Steve Jobs), but its effectiveness on the workers relies on a call to an egalitarian, idealistic future for technology that’s clearly intended to be indicative of what Joe actually feels. It’s the same with his presentation to Cameron and Gordon at the start of the episode, where his BIG IDEA (“2X faster, ½ the price”) is presented both as a tool of manipulation and exactly what he’s really after. While the final scene tonight is designed to make Joe a mysterious, morally questionable bad boy again, it can’t undo what’s been done. The show wants Joe MacMillan to be a cipher, but it can’t stop explaining him.
In the pilot, Joe’s seeming infallibility kept him interesting. “FUD” immediately deconstructs viewers’ expectations by having Joe utterly baffled when IBM (in the world of the show, the exemplar of petty capitalist dickishness) retaliates against Joe’s legal end run by stealing Cardiff Electric’s biggest clients, essentially dooming them to closure inside of two months. Scoot McNairy’s Gordon speaks to the our ingrained desire to see our TV antiheroes triumph when he pleads, “Tell me you have a plan Joe!” Whatever self-referential cleverness there might be in such a setup is undermined, however, by the way the episode handles Joe’s response. First, as in the pilot, he has a tantrum, trashing first Cameron’s basement work area when he thinks she’s defected to IBM, and then a failing stereo store, where he has one of those ostentatious epiphanies TV characters are always being given. And then it’s time for his big scene, a would-be showstopper that’s so miscalculated as to cast Halt And Catch Fire’s dramatic viability in question.
It’s not Pace’s fault—the guy’s a good actor, and he’s working with what he’s given. But as the big scene goes on, it piles on the histrionics, improbabilities, and shocking reveals in such number and scope as to make me believe I was watching a television show have a nervous breakdown. Zooming into the company parking lot where Gordon and Cameron are having a dully furious confrontation, Joe opens with his next big idea to save to company by producing the first portable PC, pronouncing the words “handles!” and “portability!” with giggle-inducing portentousness. Then, after taunting Gordon’s manhood in not sharing his enthusiasm, Joe and Gordon wrestle until Joe’s shirt is ripped open exactly as shirts are dramatically ripped open in movies and TV and nowhere else, revealing—a chest covered with horrible scars. The backstory Joe gives—about being a science-loving kid bullied off a roof by some jocks—is floridly implausible enough, but when Pace tearfully appeals to each of them that, because they and they alone “are all unreasonable people, and progress depends on changing the world to fit us and not the other way around,” the whole scene comes off as so contrived as to strain credulity.
Some may argue that Joe’s ultimately successful gambit to keep Cameron and Gordon on board with his goal to build their own PC and save the company was, indeed, contrived (as Cameron points out to Joe once she realizes his facts don’t add up.) But, like with his earlier speeches in the episode, Joe both means and doesn’t mean exactly what he’s saying. Halt And Catch Fire wants to have its antihero both ways, and, in only its second episode, it’s crippled him.
- Okay, computer types—Cameron’s whiteboard. Is there anything to what was written there, or is it as big a heap of gibberish as it looked to the likes of me?
- This week’s strategy to explain to the audience a basic computer fact that the characters would never have to explain to each other—a dumb secretary who doesn’t know what a BIOS is! (I mean, I don’t know what a BIOS is, but the execution remains clunky as hell.)
- Toby Huss’ executive gets the biggest laugh of the episode, following up a furious telephone rant at a traitorous customer with the deadpan, “Carl’s a ‘no.’”
- In trying to imagine what Joe’s backstory could be from the clues dropped in the pilot, I thought one of the least promising would be if his father (referenced by the inscription “Swing for the fences, son” on his baseball bat) were somehow involved with IBM. Guess what?
- When the IBM executive comes to Joe’s apartment, his sneering pronouncement, “Lets see what happens when they find out…what you really are” fails to kick-start Joe’s mystery back to life.
- On the same visit, we find out that Joe did two million dollars in damages on his way out of IBM? Now that’s a tantrum.
- Joe’s obsession with balls continues. After describing their proposed computer as something “no one else has the balls to make” last week, Joe accused Gordon’s wife of having his balls “in a box.” Not to mention that poor lawyer with balls on his face.