In its third episode, Halt And Catch Fire continues to coarsen. No, I’m not talking about Lee Pace’s Joe and his pre-credits tasteful butt shot, or t-shirted programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) cavorting chastely with some friendly punks in a hotel room, or even Joe’s late-episode big twist. As Halt And Catch Fire has gone on, the pilot’s promisingly tingly sense of discovery has ossified into a rotely rigid melodrama where underwritten characters make overwritten speeches in service of a plot following a predictable track at a deadly pace. No matter how many deep, dark secrets and would-be shocking actions mystery man Joe MacMillan deploys to rattle the formula, Halt And Catch Fire’s promise is very quickly slipping away.
While the pilot suggested that the triumvirate of slick, enigmatic salesman Joe, stunted family man designer Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and street-smart programmer Cameron was being drawn into Joe’s elaborate scheme to steal IBM’s proprietary PC workings for some uniquely shadowy purpose, each of them is now firmly entrenched in a rut. Operating largely in isolation from each other in the episode, each character’s story plods along according to predetermined blueprints. While Joe’s untold backstory continues to spit out its secrets at a steady rate, his initially inscrutable motivations in bending Cardiff Electric to his will are now disappointingly bland. IBM stole Cardiff’s customers, so Joe and the gang now have mere months to get a working, portable personal computer on store shelves to save the company. Cameron has to write the code from scratch so they don’t go to jail for stealing the IBM BIOS. Gordon has to design the hardware for a portable machine that only weighs an unthinkable 15 pounds. And Joe has to work with Cardiff boss John (Toby Huss) to find financing to keep the company afloat. They attack these problems throughout “High Plains Hardware” with deadeningly dogged predictability.
Gordon opens the episode staring at a dying bird in his yard on the way to work, then he has to fire most of the people at Cardiff, and get the remaining engineers to come up with a seemingly impossible machine. When his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) comes up with a good idea to solve one problem, he allows himself to be talked out of trying it by a coworker, then fires the coworker because he’s rediscovered his confidence. And then Donna has to kill the still-dying bird because Gordon can’t bring himself to do it. It’s symbolism from a screenwriting class, and while the Gordon/Donna marriage continues to show flashes of interest—Gordon’s response to Donna’s idea is warmly egalitarian—their story remains mostly dead air. (Especially when we see Donna’s conflict with her boss/former high school chum—that is not a subplot with a lot of promise.) McNairy continues to suggest Gordon’s barely suppressed panic in his performance, and that can be affecting, but the complexity of his suburban desperation suggested in the pilot is rapidly slipping into cliché.
Cameron, too, is slipping. Much has been made of how improbable a character she is (a pretty lady programmer!), but this Cameron’s real problem isn’t her gender but her authenticity. Like her bulging duffel bag, she’s crammed full of “quirky” details, but she doesn’t register as much more than a collection of writer’s conceits. That’s not a criticism of Davis, who continues to bring a sprightly energy and humor Halt And Catch Fire sorely needs, but an indictment of the writers, who haven’t given her much to play other than the quirks. Meant to express Cameron’s growing frustration at her programmer’s block this episode, Davis goes through the whole gamut of hackneyed mannerisms—take head in hands, grunt in exasperation, play with electric pencil sharpener, pace, scribble furiously (sometimes in lipstick)—and her expedition out to spend her first paycheck, where she meets those partying punks, only serves to underline how little she (or they) resemble anyone from Repo Man (released the same year the show takes place). Having a major female character in a show designed around another white male anti-hero is great and all, but Cameron continues to come across more as a male writer’s conception than a real person.
But the main casualty of the show’s broadening writing is Joe, who continues to get less interesting the more we see of him. The promise of the Joe from the pilot, whose supervillain-level machinations seemed to mask an inner life worth an entire season of television, is seeping away as his actions and lines grow more prosaic. Throughout “High Plains Hardware,” Joe and Toby Huss’ John take a series of meetings with potential investors where the conflict comes from how artlessly their roles are drawn. In each, the lack of coordination between the two is clumsily designed so that John can say the wrong thing so that Joe can express his displeasure in the most overt manner possible.
Lee Pace is rapidly losing a battle here—the impassive, inscrutable Joe of the pilot has become a scowling, glowering, tooth-sucking, speechifying cartoon of himself. When told by Cardiff’s head honcho that John is to be in charge of all financial decisions, Joe’s emphatic chin-jut and beetled brows are broad, but when socialite dragon lady Jean Smart asks why she shouldn’t own 80 percent of Cardiff’s proposed PC, Joe’s response is the sort of elaborately on-the-nose putdown that looks great on paper but grinds the scene to a halt onscreen. And Joe’s “shocking” act afterward—suddenly seizing Smart’s humiliated boy toy Travis for some illicit rough smooching—is merely a calculated plot device. When he returns to glower triumphantly at Smart, scuttling her offer, Pace’s arch smirking is like something out of a Restoration drama. Is Joe gay? Is Joe bisexual? No—Joe MacMillan is an impeccably kitted-out story engine, and Lee Pace is starting to look more and more desperate as he tries to ground the character in something like humanity.
- While it looks like he’s out for good, I enjoyed Will Greenberg’s laconically undermining Brian. As with his psychotic frat monster Stan Halen on Workaholics this season, his sawed-off McConaughey energy is reliably entertaining.
- Another episode, another montage of Cameron’s restless, punky antics set to punk music. She’s a punk, you see.
- The specifics of the technical challenge facing the Cardiff team would be more interesting if the show weren’t so determined to dumb them down. This week, Huss’ bossman asks Cameron the difference between GOTO and GOSUB!
- Cameron’s explanation to Joe, “It has to be like an address book that’s also like a map!” recalls the Futurama gag where they make fun of Star Trek’s habit of summarizing complicated scientific gobbledygook with oversimplified metaphors. (“Like putting too much air in a balloon!”)
- Joe’s tantrum of the week—kicking over an antiquated computer to get everyone’s attention.
- Next week: Cameron doesn’t back up her data!