Kerry Bishé, Scoot McNairy (AMC)

Season two of Halt And Catch Fire has been largely about breaking free of Halt And Catch Fire season one. Cameron and Donna’s story, launching Mutiny and establishing themselves in their business (and as the show’s leads), has proceeded in fits and starts, as Joe and Gordon’s lingering stories and influence on the narrative have clung on, holding Cameron and Donna’s progress back. That’s not as much of a criticism as it sounds—Cameron and Donna’s exploration of the potential of the online world means taking leaps that are going to be resisted by others in the computer industry, and some people are going to resist being left behind. Like Joe and Gordon, whose roles this season have seen them flailing to retain their relevance in the world they set in motion.

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Gordon’s degenerating health is a development that’s stranded Scoot McNairy on his own lonely island all season, as heartbreaking as its been to watch him fritter away the seemingly inexhaustible wealth and opportunity he received when Cardiff was bought out. Poor Gordon’s also-ran fate just can’t be outrun, his skills and dreams no match for dumb luck and that one last missing piece in his character that will always prevent him from making it all work.

And Lee Pace’s Joe, while playing at being his old self, has been dancing as fast as he can. At their first meeting James Cromwell’s Jacob Wheeler called him essentially unemployable, and he wasn’t wrong. Don’t forget that Joe has left his last two companies in a shambles, literally, storming out of both IBM and Cardiff after not only manipulating his employers to suit his own vision, but also doing untold physical damage to their facilities—all because the real world wouldn’t conform to his conception of it. Finally this season, Joe realizes—even after clawing his way out of data entry in signature grand and devious fashion—that his big picture thinking doesn’t do anything but lay waste to everyone and everything around him.

Tonight, Gordon and Joe’s hold over the main story comes crashing down in devastating fashion for both of them, while Cameron and Donna—even faced with Mutiny’s most insurmountable-looking catastrophe yet—take over, for good. “Limbo” passes the torch with a gripping, consistently surprising and affecting hour of television that is Halt And Catch Fire’s most sure-handed episode ever. When Cameron, crouched on the floor at Mutiny after discovering that Westgroup has essentially stolen their company out from under them, is asked by the shaken Donna, “What are we going to do now?,” Cameron’s response is something akin to the famous Kubrick stare. For the first time all season (all series, really), this is, finally, Cameron’s time—and Westgroup is in big, big trouble.

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While Kerry Bishé’s Donna has become Halt And Catch Fire’s de facto protagonist this season (at least partly on the back of Bishé’s performance), Mackenzie Davis Cameron is the boss at Mutiny. Tonight, she continues to, finally, act like it, with Davis making Cameron’s lead-up to that final, determined stare a welcome and compelling one.

Last week, Cameron waffled about what to do with Westgroup’s offer before finally taking Joe’s sincere advice and telling her employees Mutiny’s not for sale. It was a solid moment, the second in two weeks now (including tonight) where the episode ends on Cameron doing something decisive, and, as a character, Cameron needed that. While Cameron and Donna’s ascension this season has been energizing, Cameron’s arc has been too cluttered up with easily explicable inner conflicts. Cameron’s jealous of Donna because Community is a bigger draw than Cameron’s games. Cameron is unwilling to take any sort of managerial control of Mutiny because to do so violates her vision of a company run on pure inspiration and freedom. Cameron holds back from her relationship with Tom because she’s never been in a healthy relationship and she’s afraid of getting hurt. It’s always enervating when a character’s problems—and their solutions—are too easy for the viewer to figure out, a weakness that’s made Cameron a less interesting character this season. “Limbo” elevates Cameron in our eyes by finally letting her confront and deal with those conflicts, one at at time. It’s like the show (Zack Whedon wrote tonight’s episode) recognized what was making Cameron less formidable than she should be and decided to, alongside Cameron herself, take care of business.

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At the company picnic for Mutiny’s motley band of subscribers (“You’re Donna Clark?,” exclaims one gracelessly, “Wow, I thought you’d be fat”), Cameron at first withdraws, as usual. When she sees that the overwhelming majority of Mutiny users present favor Community over her games, she withdraws further. When Tom is disappointed that she hasn’t come in costume as they’d tentatively agreed, she deflects him, too. But what happens over the course of the party takes Cameron out of the “emotionally stunted, hide your vulnerability” box she’s been in all season (longer, really) and sees her act, rather than react. When a young girl at the picnic (who looks not unlike a young Cameron) tearfully tells her how much meeting similarly isolated people on Community has changed her life, Cameron finds Donna and confesses:

I kept telling myself that Mutiny was about games. And I think that I knew that if I went outside today and saw what you had done then I wouldn’t be able to tell myself that anymore. And it turns out I was right. I wanted this place to be about exploration. I’m sorry I stood in your way. I’d like to be a part of it.

Similarly, when Mark O’Brien’s Tom calls her on her unwillingness to open up to him, or to engage with her guests, she first reacts by preemptively rejecting him, only to drop her guard (what a lovely, shy smile) as Tom tells her, “I’m not gonna break up with you, I’m just mad at you. I love you. Haven’t you ever had a disagreement with anybody before?”

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In both instances, Cameron is liberated through her willingness to break out of the self-indulgent (and sort of dull) emotional rut she’s been in, and act. It’s a welcome development for the character—seeing Cameron’s eyes spark with excitement in both these cases is exhilarating, especially when she and Donna immediately start, as a team, brainstorming about ways to use Cameron’s coding skills to make Community better. (She does retain one, last, unseen look of worry while she returns Tom’s embrace, but before then, Davis lets Cameron be as sweetly charmed and genuine as she’s ever been.) So when disaster strikes, her newfound confidence feels both natural and estimable.

That disaster comes in the form of some inevitable but still shocking corporate chicanery from Jacob Wheeler, who instructs Joe’s glad-handing replacement (a well-cast Skylar Astin) to essentially steal Mutiny out from under Cameron, rerouting every Mutiny customer to Westgroup’s new, nearly identical site Westnet. The reveal is chilling, with one of the Mutineers seen frozen from behind unable to speak at what he sees on his computer (it’s like a horror movie scene, actually), before the entire company swings into frantic action as they discover just how thoroughly they’ve been had.

Joe discovers Westgroup’s villainy at the same time, as he and Sara (back from a conveniently extended honeymoon cruise in Jacob’s prized ‘57 Bel Air), take Ecstasy and do some drug-aided truth-telling (and bisexual foursome smooching) at a disco, winding up having sex in Westgroup’s mainframe room. (“This place turns you on?,” asks Sara. “You have no idea,” returns Joe.) Their giggling tryst interrupted, Joe overhears his replacement unveil Westnet and heads immediately to Mutiny to explain—and beg Cameron to believe that it’s not his fault. Lee Pace makes Joe’s disarray all episode so affecting—continually told by Wheeler that his help is no longer needed, Joe’s desperate desire to not lose his place at the center of what he created registers on Pace’s face with a series of frozen smiles and pleading eyes.

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When he sees that his meddling with Mutiny looks to have doomed Cameron’s company, his horror is heartbreaking, as his stammering, sweaty attempts to plead his innocence to the furious Mutineers and Cameron runs in to a heedless wall of hatred and distrust. As physically unimposing as most of the Mutiny guys are, there’s a real sense of physical menace here, and Bosworth’s cold, “You need to leave. Now Joe” effectively relieves Joe of his position as Halt And Catch Fire’s central figure. What’s so tragic is that it happens just when Joe’s finally learned his lesson.

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Stray observations

  • Joe’s fall here is all the more painful because of the scene at the club, where he, high and emotional, confesses to Aleksa Palladino’s Sara, “I feel like there’s a lot of goodness in me, a lot of greatness, but I can’t get it out of me. I can’t give it to the world. I have ideas. I’m not an echo. But I can’t get them out into the world. No one can see the me—the real me. Can’t get it out of this [pounds chest]. It’s like a trap.” Like all drunk/stoned talk it’s as revealing as it is vaguely embarrassing, but Pace—outstanding all episode—finds the heartbreakingly needy, essentially childish core of Joe’s messianic behavior.
  • That being said, when Joe starts talking about virtual reality, saying “You could live your life there…The physical world is dead! A pathway is being built, a way out into a world of pure information, a shared consciousness!,” he sounds like someone in a David Cronenberg movie ranting about the New Flesh.
  • Sara continues to be as contradictory as ever, tonight stoking Joe’s ego (both before and after taking MDMA) with phrases like “You’re a force of nature, you make the world what you want it to be.” Except that Sara has been calling Joe on his conception of himself as being above regular people all season. Except when she hasn’t.
  • Poor Gordon, beset by guilty hallucinations of his tryst with Jules, is in freefall now. His illness exacerbating his ever-present feelings of inadequacy and mistrust, Gordon has become the agent of everyone’s possible destruction. While Gordon’s descent into paranoid dementia accelerates to menace mode with shocking abruptness this week—breaking into the hapless Stan’s (Randall Havens) house and stewing in the back of a police car in unsettling fury over Donna’s imagined treachery —Scoot McNairy makes Gordon’s deterioration as moving as it is deeply upsetting.
  • Yo-Yo’s back! Coming to the Mutiny picnic to support the recuperating Lev (August Emerson), Cooper Andrews’ Yo-Yo looks poised to join whatever move Cameron’s plotting next. Of course, he may have to wrestle Joshua Hoover’s Bodie for the right to be Lev’s burly Mutiny programmer buddy.
  • That’s Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” and Book Of Love’s “Boy” playing at the club Joe and Sara go to. Halt And Catch Fire hasn’t made the best use of period music, but these backed Joe’s story well.

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