Kerry Bishé (AMC)

The most encouraging thing about “SETI,” the second season premiere of Halt And Catch Fire, is its clear intention to start over. The show’s first season didn’t find a groove until far too late, the Cardiff team’s sweaty rush to bring their PC, the Giant, to market in time for an important expo lending the last few episodes a focus that the rest of the season lacked, centered as it too often was on Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan as charismatic man of mystery.

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The decision to bring the wobbly series back for a second season was a surprise—not only because of the low ratings, or critical indifference (from me, for one), but also because the season finale sure looked like creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers were putting the show to bed. In the wake of the team’s pyrrhic victory at COMDEX—having ripped out what made their machine unique to ensure functionality—Mackenzie Davis’ punk programmer Cameron and Kerry Bishé’s sensible Donna left the stifling Cardiff to form their own company, called Mutiny. Gordon, elevated to Cardiff management, presided over board meetings about the unexceptional but profitable Giant with rueful resignation. And Joe—in a mini-Fountainhead act of defiance at Cardiff’s supposed betrayal of creative integrity, turned the show’s title from subtext to text, burning down the company’s first shipment of Giants before running off into the woods to search for his estranged, free spirit mother and/or a clarification of just what his character was supposed to represent. More than the average season finale, it all looked like Cantwell and Rogers tying up their first network series as best they could before AMC turned off the lights.

So “SETI”’s first scene, a flashback to the brief window when Joe and Cameron were cozily playing house, serves as Halt’s goodbye to a lot of what didn’t work the first time out. Not that there isn’t an element of sadness in the quick realization that we’re not seeing Joe and Cameron back together, being adorable and playing video games, but, as Joe leaves the house, places his cool-guy sunglasses firmly in place, and strides off in his accustomed Patrick Bateman style, the implication that we’re watching season one Joe depart as well is most welcome. Especially once the shot segues to one of the house 20 months later (introducing a showy but energetic extended tracking shot from director Juan José Campanella), with Cameron’s rental having been thoroughly transformed into the anarchic Mutiny game company headquarters.

The choice to introduce the season through Cameron and Donna’s eyes is a smart one. They (and one other person we’ll get to later) were the characters who most successfully broke free of their initial blueprints, their grudging respect for each others’ talents—and their bond in the face of the computer world’s disrespect of talented women—emerged with an engaging subtlety much of the first season lacked. Donna’s decision to jump ship and join up with Cameron’s typically nebulous business plan felt not just like a contrived “girl power” moment, but a natural payoff to each character’s story. So this energetic opening shot—scored to “Whisper To A Scream (Birds Fly)” by Icicle Works—functions as an exciting continuation of their dynamic, Donna’s harried whirl of problem-solving and problem-discovery (clearly a daily ritual) serving to set up Mutiny—and her inevitable conflict with Cameron.

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The revelation that Mutiny’s ascendance means Cardiff’s demise is another signpost that the show is clearing the decks. Despite Gordon’s explanation to a reporter that Cardiff isn’t shutting down, exactly (it’s been bought out by “an overseas corporation”), the company is finished, leaving Gordon to collect a six-figure check on the way out the door. It’s a rather smooth transition to the season, with the plodding, family-owned Texas computer company ceding to Cameron and Donna’s emphasis on gaming and—despite it not having a name—the internet. (“They’re paying five bucks an hour just to talk about what they’re doing on spring break?,” muses Donna about Mutiny’s customers, and you can practically see the light bulb pop over her head.)

For Gordon and Joe—the ones who transformed, and ultimately doomed, Cardiff—the future is both less clear, and more dramatically worrisome, since their dynamic is rooted in so much of what was wrong with season one.

Gordon—the family man with frustrated dreams, and Joe—the visionary with shaky ethics—were Halt And Catch Fire’s new AMC antiheroes. Except that their partnership faltered under the weight of the creators need to make Joe the larger-than-life manipulator driving the action. Lee Pace has an otherworldly quality as an actor, one that suited the conception of Joe as enigmatic outsider. But that Joe was so frontloaded with mystery clashed with the show’s increasingly nuts-and-bolts story about the personal computer revolution. The incessant Mad Men comparisons have been beaten to death (again, by me, for one), but it was obvious that Joe was “the next Don Draper” in conception, a preconception that often left Pace struggling to ground Joe’s contradictory actions in some sort of coherent characterization, and that threw Halt And Catch Fire perpetually off balance. “SETI” sees Joe—and the show—attempting to settle Joe down, a change doomed to fail on both fronts.

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First seen jogging through the forest—slick suits traded for sweatsuit—this Joe has emerged from his vision quest, his overweening ambition traded for comfy cookouts and constant reassurances from new love interest Sara (Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino). First seen twining her arms comfortingly around Joe from behind, Sara is presented essentially as Joe’s stability. (Before we know who she is, her embrace could be confused with that of the mother Joe was seeking.) Sure, there are some awkward nods toward filling in her character (“As you know, it’s been a hard year,” she addresses some friends by way of exposition), but, in Joe’s constant faraway looks and shifting eyes, it’s clear that Sara and stability are just the things Joe will toss away in pursuit of the next big idea.

Once he heads back to Dallas to cash out, only to be humiliated by the ever-blustery Nathan Cardiff (“You destroyed lives…for a doorstop of a computer with a fancy screen and no legacy!,” he booms between barnyard euphemisms), Joe’s eyes start to gleam again. Leaving his torn-up check on the table, Joe’s rebuke to Nathan is of a piece with his messianic speeches of last season. “Something’s coming, and it’s gonna be big, and it won’t include this place, and it certainly won’t include you,” Joe says, his need to be right paralleled by the show’s need for Joe to make right-sounding speeches.

Gordon, too, is reverting to old patterns, even with his newfound wealth. His inferiority complex ever at war with his aspirations, the newly flush Gordon is natty, clean-shaven, and restless to “get back in the garage,” and create something besides the Giant’s successful but derivative successor, the Giant Pro (whose period-accurate, garish commercial we see at the start of the episode). For all his justified anger at Joe’s manipulations, Gordon longs for someone like Joe to lead him, and when he and Joe share a quiet moment before being summoned to collect their Cardiff checks, their relationship subtly reasserts itself, Gordon’s resentment softening to sheepishness at what their dream became on his watch. “That last machine was a lateral move, less inspired,” he concedes, while Joe offers a conciliatory, “The Pro wasn’t that bad.” (Scoot McNairy’s 1985 Gordon resembles Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr, the actor’s slightly cockeyed boyishness here making Gordon look more vulnerable than ever.) For all Gordon’s hazy plans about getting his hands dirty again, ”SETI” lays the foundation for Joe to, once again, take Gordon’s restless energy on a voyage into whatever Joe MacMillan scheme is cooking behind Pace’s hooded eyes. Their reunion is touching in spite of all that, with each edging toward the other by sheepish increments—while the Joe/Gordon dynamic was all over the place last season, this fresh start gives hope of something richer.

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There’s a lot to appreciate in the boldness of this setup, the show’s course correction mirroring the way its story needs to run, historically—home computers to the internet, hardware to communication. But Halt And Catch Fire can’t completely change what it is. There’s still a gracelessness to the writing that suggests the show will not become the new, big prestige drama AMC finds itself without for the first time in nearly a decade. That opening tracking shot ably shows that Donna’s dream of working in a place of independent creativity has devolved into her playing mother to a houseful of irresponsible coders. There’s no need for her to say “I don’t want to be the mom here! I do that at home. I came here to do what I love.” When Gordon is feeling both passed over and inadequate, the bar he’s in is showing F. Murray Abraham winning his Oscar for Amadeus, so naturally the bartender has to say he’s never heard of Salieri, and Gordon has to reply, “That’s the whole point, he’s not Mozart.” Sarah and Joe reveal their backstory to a group of people they know well in a way that friends don’t ever do, unless exposition is required. The same goes for Gordon’s TV appearance, which spells out the Cardiff news in as perfunctory a manner as can be imagined outside of a George Lucas opening crawl. And as fun as it is to see Donna and Cameron have wacky computer-stealing adventures (“Do you still want my number?” Donna squeals gleefully at the creep whose double-cross they’ve just triple-crossed watches them drive away), the conception of Cameron as “all ideas, no practical thinking” makes the problems at Mutiny one-dimensionally silly. (Stolen computers! Extension cords to the neighbors’ house!)

That being said, Mutiny’s problems are the impetus to the episode’s most welcome surprise, the return of Toby Huss’ John Bosworth. Jailed last season for embezzling money to keep the Giant project afloat, he’s greeted at the end of the episode here by a beaming Cameron, their embrace inducing an irresistible flood of excitement and warmth. Huss turned Bosworth’s journey from clichéd functionary hardass to Cameron’s friend and benefactor into something deeply human last year, his pragmatism not softening so much as recognizing the troubled young programmer’s promise as a harbinger of what’s coming. Sure, the music cue here (John Fogerty’s “The Old Man Is Down The Road”) is a little on the nose, but Huss’ return bodes well for the show’s new direction. If the end of last season gained momentum by being an “underdog against the clock” tale, then the beginning of this one hits the ground running as a promising “get the band back together” story.

Stray observations:

  • Lev and Yo-Yo are back! Just as they provided some much-needed levity to the end of last season, the slobby programmer odd couple is a perfect Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for Mutiny.
  • At that earlier cookout, Joe says his plans include starting his own company in a little place in California called Silicon Valley.
  • Joe’s final malediction to Cardiff is effective in its simplicity. “You stay healthy, Nathan.”
  • His own backstory is less pithy: “At the time I thought I was unhappy with the project, but in the end I found out that I was unhappy with myself.”
  • Joe apparently did find his mother (her observatory is where he met up with journalist Sarah), but, apart from the fact that she’s looking for alien life (the SETI, of “SETI”), that storyline is in the background for now.
  • Sarah’s tale of meeting Joe at the SETI project continues to mythologize him: “I was waiting for contact and Joe walked in the door.”
  • Cameron would rather give Mutiny customers game hints over the phone than, say, making sure their illegal operation doesn’t overload the neighborhood’s power grid.
  • Oh, Gordon has a coke problem, complete with ominous nosebleeds. (Which may explain his hyper-competence playing househusband while Donna rushes off to Mutiny.)
  • Gordon’s reading Neuromancer. Because of the internet.
  • Campanella’s direction is solid, but those are a lot of Dutch angles.
  • As ever, the show’s 80’s markers are a mixed bag— “They just got Dig Dug 2 at the arcade!”—but its music selections continue to be largely on-target. On a purely selfish level, ”SETI” scores points for introducing HĂĽsker DĂĽ to a few new viewers.

  • Welcome back Halties! (That’s what we’re called, right? That caught on?) I’ll be your reviewer for the second season, and I’ll be watching one episode at a time like the rest of you. Reviewer’s preference, plus it gives me an excuse if any predictions turn out just super wrong.

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