Scoot McNairy (AMC)

That the second season of Halt And Catch Fire continues to be very much a do-over, a conscious reshuffling of season one’s ill-fitting parts, is signaled by a single, effectively jarring scene midway through “New Coke.” Joe MacMillan, having accepted an ill-defined job offer from new girlfriend Sara’s imperious oil baron father Jacob (always-welcome new cast member James Cromwell), squares his shoulders under his power suit on his first day of work, setting his face with signature Joe MacMillan arrogance as he rides the elevator to the newest workplace in which he will work his charismatic magic. But when the elevator doors open, the accompanying Joe MacMillan theme music suddenly cuts out and Joe, primed for combat, stands confused in a crappy basement filled with boxes of forms to be entered into computers, and a shlubby coworker—his new boss—who smilingly lectures him on keeping the bathroom clean.

Pace is great in the scene, his gradual, horrified realization of his situation offering him the opportunity to register as Joe’s mind works through from bemusement, to veiled anger, and then to cagy acceptance. This season has set Joe adrift, both in the character’s life and from the main narrative, and it’s freeing up Pace to bring some welcome colors to Joe MacMillan—even as “New Coke” reintroduces hints of the return of the old, manipulative, “master of the universe” Joe.

Broke after being stiffed by Nathan Cardiff and, as Cromwell’s Jacob asserts, unemployable because of the little fact that he left his last two high-profile corporate gigs by throwing destructive tantrums on his way out the door (forget that truckload of burning computers, Joe’s exit from IBM purportedly caused millions in damages, remember), this Joe is more pliant, accepting Jacob’s offer (even though he imagines it an executive, rather than data entry one), talking himself into the idea of working in the oil rather than computer industry, and even asking Aleksa Palladino’s Sara to marry him. Joe’s on his own show—isolated from the rest of the main characters for now, he’s left to work the old Joe MacMillan magnetism on his new father-in-law-to-be, playing along for now in the face of Jacob’s clear insult with this lowly job. Halt And Catch Fire isn’t a subtle show—Joe’s initial objection to working for Jacob is that “oil’s all about digging in the past,” and Joe, of course, is all about the future—but seeing Pace relight some of Joe’s old fire in the face of his reduced circumstances is undeniably fun.

Also entertaining this week is imagining how Joe’s adventures in the oil business (where he talks of how computer technology will soon be invaluable) will link up with what has become Halt’s main story this season, the raggedy little game company called Mutiny. There’s an energy boost this season in the focus on Mutiny over Cardiff, certainly. The prominence of Cameron and Donna, the boisterous chaos of Cameron’s doomed rental house with its contingent of arrested adolescent computer geeks, and the excitement of the rapidly evolving technology and ideas therein are all providing a propulsive, unpredictable narrative thrust that hearkens back to what was so promising about Joe and Gordon’s initial attempts to uncover IBM’s secrets. Discovery, innovation—those are at the heart of what Halt And Catch Fire’s setting and subject matter are built for, dramatically. Weaving those twin drives into and around the characters and situations has been what the show has only intermittently accomplished—but when it has, the results have been thrilling.

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Unfortunately, Halt And Catch Fire hasn’t the surety of writing to find a unity of story and character, too often getting lost in a snarl of melodrama, or, as tonight, just plain poor construction, especially when it comes to Bosworth. Hired right outside the prison gates by Cameron to come in and whip Mutiny’s slobby troops (and herself) into shape, Bosworth spends all of tonight’s episode being stung by the programmers’ juvenile hazing pranks and moping around, before telling Cameron, “I just need some time to work some stuff out. Get my head straight,” and walking away. Toby Huss is outstanding through all of this—as ever, his connection with Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron is delicately touching. (Here, he coaxes out the fact that her name is actually Catherine, and that Cameron was her dad’s name, which she took on after he was killed in Vietnam.) And there’s no issue with the idea that Bosworth would need some time to adjust to his new circumstances, but it’s just dramatically awkward to introduce him with the fanfare of last week’s final scene (and his playful, Willy Wonka fake out entering Mutiny tonight), only to have him wander off by the end of the episode. (That, and the fact that the nerds’ pranks—Lev’s callous reading of his prison letter to Cameron notwithstanding—are clearly innocuous, goofball stuff. It’s clear from Yo-Yo’s bear hug at the start of the episode that the programmers like their former boss and want him to be one of the gang.) Bosworth will be back, no doubt, but his graceless exit here is too manufactured, and the reason for it too contrived.

Meanwhile, Mutiny’s sparking innovation attracts two other characters this week—one old, one new. The new guy is Mark O’Brien’s Tom Rendon, a Mutiny customer and computer programmer who hacks into the company’s games—signing his name—in order to lure Cameron into giving him a job. It’s a promising introduction, with the brilliant (he actually improves on Cameron’s prize game Parallax) but manipulative Tom worming his way into Mutiny by exploiting the company’s phone lines. Even as Donna and Cameron’s attempts at attaining success through the normal channels are stonewalled (a supercilious bank manager turns them down for a loan, partly under the most sexist pretext possible), their new pathways into the world allow someone potentially valuable in through the backdoor. (“Well, did you guys leave a backdoor?,” Cameron helpfully accuses August Emerson’s Lev and Cooper Andrews’ Yo-Yo at one point.) Naturally, someone who enters in such a devious way is possible trouble as well, with O’Brien (Hannibal’s animal-suited serial killer Randall Tier) ably lending Tom a shifty cockiness.

Cameron’s decision to hire rather than sue Tom brings the Donna/Cameron conflict into the open again, as well, with Cameron’s rash decision-making forcing Donna into the authoritarian role she doesn’t want. Like the Bosworth conflict, this storyline remains too-broadly drawn, but Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis are are good team, here injecting some personality into their showdown over management style. Davis’ sheepish little grimace when Donna sees through Cameron’s ruse of asking permission to hire Tom—she’s already done it—is a nice, natural moment. The same goes for their comic timing before the bank meeting, where each worries that she’s dressed all wrong—Bishé and Davis are finding a genuine rhythm together (and passing the Bechdel Test in nearly every scene doing so).

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Gordon, meanwhile, has his own ideas about how to improve Mutiny. After his initial, cocaine-fueled brainstorming session in his garage full of shiny new computer equipment comes to nothing, Gordon plugs into Mutiny and starts feverishly playing Tank Battle, only to discover a flaw that makes one-on-one games unfairly balanced. (“Even when I cheated, the results were random!,” he upbraids Lev and Yo-Yo after storming into Mutiny while Donna’s away.)

Introduced this week at the doctor’s office, assuring the doc that his constant nosebleeds are just a leftover effect of a brief flirtation with cocaine (“I’m not one of those people who gets addicted to stuff easily. I promise you that,” he reassures the skeptical physician, closing with an unhelpful sniff), Gordon seems headed for disaster. The first time we ever saw the guy was when Donna was bailing him out of the drunk tank. Now, equally frustrated, but for different reasons, Gordon’s restlessness has him careening around his garage, the Mutiny offices, and his home (where his hapless friend Stan is nearly arrested after a coked-up Gordon irresponsibly dispatches him to pick up the kids—who barely know him—from school). Gordon, with loads of cash but no ideas, is just as desperate for someone to provide him with direction as was broke Gordon when Joe roped him in—and he finds his focus here, manically latching onto the idea of fixing Mutiny’s game code and applying his skills to improving his wife’s new business. Scoot McNairy has always found the right note of petulance in Gordon’s yearning—he’s got dreams but not inspiration. “It’s not just sprinkling fairy dust on what someone else created,” says Cameron to Tom’s tinkering with Parallax, and the accusation no doubt will apply to Gordon as he becomes further obsessed with horning in on Mutiny. It’s a solid setup for Halt And Catch Fire’s next chapter, although the ending tonight—Gordon staring at his coke vial before tossing it in the trash and burrowing deeper into messing with Mutiny—is the sort of on-the-nose writing (see the title of tonight’s episode) that keeps the show from making as big a leap in this second season as it’s attempting.

Stray observations

  • Jacob Wheeler claims responsibility for the Cuyahoga River’s legendary flammability in his younger days.
  • James Cromwell’s a versatile actor, but sometimes, as here, you hire Cromwell to do a Cromwell. Jacob Weeler’s another in his line of soft-spoken, seemingly decent authority figures with a hidden asshole side—he’s torturing Joe (and Sara) here because Sara’s previous ex swindled him out of millions. That being said, watching Cromwell and Pace square off in the weeks to come will undoubtedly be entertaining.
  • Although not mentioned in the episode, New Coke (the beverage) did come out in 1985.
  • Sara, continuing the Joe as/looking for aliens imagery from last week: “But when you said you were waiting for contact…I didn’t think you meant my father.”
  • According to the smug bank manager, in 1985, only 10 per cent of Americans has a computer, and only 15 per cent of those had modems.
  • To keep his screwup with the kids secret from Donna, Gordon is now providing Mutiny with all the pizza they can eat.
  • Some of the Mutiny guys (Lev at least) are living at Cameron’s house. That is not a tidy bathroom, I’m guessing.
  • “Go home.” “But this is where I live.” “Then go some place I can’t see you for a long time, okay?”
  • As invigorating as it is to have the show focus on Donna and Cameron this season, it’s worth noting that their company’s weaknesses are pointed out and corrected by two men in this episode.
  • Which is especially odd, considering Cameron’s status as unparalleled coder up until this point. Here, she’s being paired up more as Joe’s counterpart, in that she’s the big idea person, but needs others to supply technical knowhow she lacks.
  • Donna’s launched her “chat only, no game” proto-Facebook. The only user signs off immediately, but it’s a start.
  • In response to all your, let’s call it constructive criticism, about my lack of technical computer knowledge—introducing the stuff Dennis doesn’t understand about computers corner! This week: From Tom: “spaghetti code,” “anti-aliasing,” “page-flipping,” and “dithering.” From Gordon: “Time stamp the input from each individual modem and at the end of each complete token pass, then put in the correct time sequence before you execute them.” I’m as sure they both know what they’re talking about as I am that I’m able to review Halt And Catch Fire while not.

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