Sometimes acting is enough.
Entering the back half of its season, Halt And Catch Fire is awash in structural and creative problems. The guarded promise of its first episode quickly unraveled as the series’ writing and characterization thudded into place with plodding regularity. I’ve used the word “prosaic” more than once in reviewing the show and I’ll use it again here—from the pilot’s intermittent evocativeness, the show quickly settled into a rut of over-explaining every interaction, highlighting every motivation. All text, no subtext.
That trend continues unabated in “Landfall,” which also tosses a hurricane (1983’s Hurricane Alicia as it happens) into an ongoing plot that could be better served by buckling down and dealing with the already underdeveloped characters it’s got. Joe and Gordon had a blowup last week, so this week Gordon says, “I’m sorry how things have been” and invites Joe to dinner. Joe and Cameron sort-of break up because Joe isn’t able or willing to abandon his incessant lying and posturing, so Cameron accuses him of being an empty suit—just before we see a montage of Joe choosing his next-day wardrobe from his Patrick Bateman-esque closet and refashioning himself after the male model on a looming billboard. Joe reasserts his authority over Gordon by staring him down and spewing the mouthful, “I can do anything I want and you will do everything I say because that’s how this relationship works.” Because that’s how their relationship works.
One of the show’s main failings is how this on-the-nose storytelling saps the excitement from what should be the show’s most unique feature—the sense of time and place. While Halt continues to look good—the grainy, muted color palette captures a world wavering on the border between analog and digital—the show continues to present its technical elements from the outside. The tech side of Halt simply isn’t authentic. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I know nothing about computers, but the characters don’t speak as if they know any more than I do. Their intuitive leaps are writerly conceits, not the convincing thought processes of people on the inside of their particular creative process. Last episode, Gordon thought of adding an LCD screen to Cardiff’s computer because he looked at the screen on his watch. Here, Cameron gets excited about the computer having a personality because she spies the raggedy stuffed critter her father made her because it, too, has a personality. And later, Joe comes over to Cameron’s idea of incorporating a user-friendly interface to their computer because he sees how Gordon’s kids have named the flashlights he presented as “hurricane zappers.” For all the (I’m certain) meticulously researched period and technical detail, none of these characters speak as if they’re actually living in that world.
And yet, “Landfall” sort of works.
Written by Zack Whedon, the script unmoors Gordon, Cameron, and even Joe from their predictable ruts. It gives each of the actors behind them an opportunity to do something that, while not necessarily fixing or even addressing the various and multiple ongoing weaknesses inherent in their characters, offers each a separate showcase. And Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, and Lee Pace (along with supporting players Toby Huss and Kerry Bishé) take their opportunities and craft something affecting out of them. “Landfall” uses the hurricane at its center as a cul-de-sac from the main story, and the actors use the chance to bust out and act, as Cameron says, “like flesh and blood.”
Gordon forgets to pick up a promised Cabbage Patch Doll for his daughters and finds his night consumed with the parental nightmare of trying to procure the hottest toy in the land, all while dealing with Cameron’s new, seemingly impractical brainstorm at work—and, oh yeah, a hurricane. It’s a detour, but it ties in to Gordon’s continued struggle to maintain work and family balance, and it gives McNairy free rein to play Gordon’s sweaty, emasculated desperation with touching gravity. (The embarrassed air quote he puts around the phrase “Cabbage Patch Doll” is pitch-perfect for every parent in a similar situation.) Sure, it’s a cheap ploy to have Gordon’s increasingly maniacal quest end up with him finding a dead, electrocuted body in the street—and, as usual, Halt’s symbolism (Gordon began his day with an image of nature that shocked him!) should come with neon signage—but McNairy nails the moment anyway.
Cameron, too, gets a rewardingly quiet time out. After retaliating against Gordon for spilling the beans about her affair with Joe, she’s summoned to Bosworth’s office for an after-hours drink, and the scene plays out in refreshingly unexpected fashion. Toby Huss’ Bosworth remains something of a cornpone cliché (tonight’s down-home phrase: “the time comes when you’ve gotta grab your balls and jump”), but Huss and Davis play well together here, with the expected drunken pass instead turning out to be a very lived-in moment where Bosworth warns his “lady programmer” that people hope she’ll fail because of how talented she is, and because of the future her forward-thinking represents. (I think of the as-yet unexplained fact that Bosworth seems to be living in his office, and the longing look he gave to a picture of his daughters.) And while Cameron’s explanation of why she got into computers in the first place is presented with signature Halt And Catch Fire factualness, Davis sells it well. Cameron/Bosworth is a relationship I could stand to see more of going forward.
As for Joe, his trip to Gordon’s house, where he’s forced to interact with Donna and her daughters in Gordon’s Cabbage Patch-questing absence, gives Lee Pace, too, a chance to show some new colors. Forced out of his comfort zone among clinging children and a woman thoroughly unimpressed by the Joe MacMillan magic, Joe becomes playful, funny, and, well, almost human for a while, making a blanket fort, assuaging the girls’ fears about the storm, and actually seeming to listen when Donna (constitutionally immune to Joe’s charms) backs her husband’s objections to Cameron’s plan to rejigger the near-completed computer to incorporate her proto-Siri interface. Whedon’s script succumbs to the aforementioned literalness when Joe takes the girls’ flashlights out into the raging storm and has—wait for it—a lightning strike of an idea, but Joe looks good getting his hair mussed.
Next week, it appears the plot will kick back in, with Gordon mad at Joe and Cameron’s plans to undo all he’s done in pursuit of Cameron’s dream of a “computer with a soul” and—sigh—Donna being tempted into an affair with her boss. But for this week at least, Halt And Catch Fire took some time to allow its (undeniably talented) cast a chance to make us care about their characters. As Cameron explains to Joe at the beginning, “Your whole thing, it attracts people but it won’t keep them around. Authenticity is what keeps people around.” That’s a lesson the series could take to heart.
- It may seem a gimmick to make Joe more likable, but, as a tall guy myself, I can confirm that little kids will sometimes just inexplicably hug your leg. Kids are weird.
- A refreshingly subtle layer to Joe’s interaction with the kids—the things he comes up with to entertain them also get them out of his hair for a while.
- It appears that hirsute programmer Yo-Yo has a crush on Cameron (he made her the personalized version of Adventure that helped spur her inspiration for the personalized computer interface). It’d be a shame if that becomes his defining characteristic. His matter-of-fact, dogged exasperation at Cameron’s conflicting orders (“Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it”) is more interesting, since he’s then relating to her like a peer, not a love interest.
- Huss’ Bosworth unexpectedly calling Cameron “Cam” got to me.
- Okay, Halt And Catch Fire—no one wants to see the Donna/Donna’s boss flirtation subplot any more. I know it’s in the preview for next week’s episode that the whole thing is supposed to come to a head on that business trip, but maybe there are some alternate takes you could plug in instead. (Maybe more Yo-Yo!) There is simply nothing in Donna’s character to this point that remotely suggests she would be amenable to an affair. Quit it.
- And while we’re at it, Donna’s far too smart to start spilling the trade secrets of the huge, lucrative innovation she helped Gordon introduce into the new computer. To her boss. Who works at a competing computer company. C’mon.
- Plus, as strikingly as the sequence is shot (by episode director Larysa Kondracki), there’s no way the sensible, protective Donna would be as charmed as she appears by a guy trying to reassure her daughters by rolling around in the mud in the middle of a hurricane. Kerry Bishé’s Donna has grown on me, but the show keeps undercutting her with nonsensical actions.
- “Joe MacMillan’s an asshole!” See, that’s the Donna I’m talking about.
- Joe’s John Cusack-ian rain-soaked appearance at Cameron’s door is an appropriately 1980s movie denouement.
- We finally find out the secret behind Joe’s scars (or do we?!), and it’s—fine. Pace plays the revelation (his mom was a free-spirited druggie who let him fall off a roof) poignantly, but it’s another step toward making the pilot’s mysterious Joe ordinary. Maybe he’ll be back to his Joker-like shifting backstory next week.