An episode that works best in spite of most of what’s come before, “The 214s” is like a visitor from a more assured show. One of the biggest flaws of Halt And Catch Fire is its inability to build its characters from one episode to the next—the show has felt disjointed, its narrative and characters lurching ahead and simply failing to cohere. To deploy a computer metaphor, the show is a kludge, cobbled together from big character moments and twists that edge more often into melodrama. Such things aren’t absent from “The 214s,” but the writing of the episode itself (credited to Dahvi Waller and Zack Whedon) builds up a nice momentum that sweeps on by the show’s built-in shortcomings.
Essentially, “The 214s” is a “getting the band back together” episode, and a pretty good one. Preparing for the big COMDEX computer expo, where the unveiling of the Cardiff Giant portable PC will make or break everyone’s fortunes, the Cardiff crew is stunned when CEO John Bosworth (Toby Huss) is hauled off in handcuffs. Huss’ character has been as inconsistent as everyone else on the show, but the actor has gradually brought more colors to the good old boy exec. And tonight, Huss makes Bosworth’s journey especially affecting—he gets one of Halt’s signature big speeches, but damned if he doesn’t make it land. Introduced as a bullying sap to Joe MacMillan’s manipulations, Bosworth has become improbably sympathetic, especially in his fatherly relationship with Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron. Again, the show hasn’t done a good job tracing the evolution of Bosworth from the Philistine who kept blowing meetings and had his cop buddies kick the shit out of Joe, to the selfless idealist who embezzled money from the company (with, as it’s revealed, Cameron’s hacker help) to support the PC project, but Huss makes Bosworth’s inspirational speech to Cameron work nonetheless. Quietly, Huss has become Halt’s stealth tragic hero.
Of course, Halt And Catch Fire already has three protagonists, and this episode finally gets them all in the same room, seemingly for the first time in weeks. Scoot McNairy’s Gordon spotlights that fact when he tracks down Cameron (somehow) at an arcade and apologizes for how he’s treated her—often, the three main characters have existed in isolation from each other, and tonight’s interaction, with Cameron and Gordon spending a drunken night swapping stories in Joe’s deserted apartment, is the first time they’ve spoken meaningfully in the series. It’s as engaging as either has been in a long time, and, again, it’s an aberration. A welcome one, but still.
Joe ends up on his own for much of the episode, fleeing (after dramatically breaking his symbolic baseball bat over his knee) to confront his IBM executive father (John Getz). From the start, Lee Pace’s Joe has been the repository of Halt’s most florid dramatic and narrative excesses. Pace has often looked stranded by the role, and the show with him. Introduced as Halt’s driving force, his enigmatic agenda the show’s underlying raison d’être, Joe has increasingly been revealed as less than meets the eye. That’s never more clear than tonight, when his confrontation with his father reveals not only that his most recent explanation of his mysterious past (and those dramatic scars) is exactly what he told Cameron it was, but also that his big plan the entire time has been little more than an act of overly explicable adolescent acting-out. I realize that the show isn’t necessarily expecting us to agree with Joe Sr.’s interpretation of Joe’s actions in infiltrating a small computer company and bringing it to the brink of complete financial disaster, but Pace’s performance here does nothing but prop up his dad’s point of view. Like guest star D.B. Woodside last week, Joe Sr. calls Joe on his self-congratulatory grandstanding so effectively that it points up just how shaky a foundation the show stands on. Joe Sr. has been built up as the repressive force that’s driven Joe to embark upon an idealistic quest to, I guess, copy other people’s work and rush an IBM clone PC to market, but in his expository speech about why he had Joe’s mother committed and hid her madness from his son, he sounds less like the Emperor trying to win Joe back to the dark side and more like a patient father willing to give his destructive, petulant son another chance.
And yet, the episode works. Gordon and Cameron’s thawing bull session is funny and genuine. (Especially Gordon’s Gift Of The Magi engagement story.) No one wants more of the abortive adultery story between Donna and her boss, but Kerry Bishé’s conflict over leaving Gordon or following him into one more obsessive dream plays out with a nice little twist as she packs her bags and decides to accompany him to COMDEX. Gordon, beard and hair trimmed and natty in preparation for the expo, actually shows some agency (and a sense of humor) as he takes a more active role in his part of the Cardiff Giant, showing some serious street smarts in keeping the prototype away from the raiding cops. And if, once again, his big speech appealing to Joe to reject his dad’s offer to rejoin IBM (“You’ll go back on everything you stand for!”) elicits confusion over what, exactly Joe is supposed to stand for, at least McNairy makes the moment play.
So in the end, there’s Joe (having sold his Porsche to pay their way), Gordon, Cameron, and Donna piling into the Clark family station wagon, heading to COMDEX to sell their shared dream. If you hadn’t watched the series to this point, that would seem inspiring indeed.
- In her brief appearances, Annette O’Toole continues to create a particularly precise portrait of a Texas mom, equal measures steely and unconditionally supportive.
- Since Toby Huss would seem to be on his way out, here’s his valedictory speech: “You want this machine to stand out from every other computer on the floor, you gotta stop talking about the machine and you gotta start talking about the people who made it. They bled for this. The future’s comin’ whether we like it or not, but it ain’t written anywhere that it includes any of us. Getting there ain’t free—there’s a cost. The people that put up the money like to take the credit, but the credit belongs to the people who built it. [To Cameron.] The machine is the future. Make them see that.”
- I continue to be tickled by Will Greenberg’s McConaughey-esque neighbor, this week exacting his passive-aggressive vengeance on Gordon by insinuating to Donna that he knows what she’s been up to with her boring boss.
- “Your mother wasn’t a dreamer—she was lost. A real dreamer makes something out of nothing and that only happens with hard work!” Joe Sr., making more sense than the show thinks he does.
- “It may come as a shock to you, Joe but you’re not the center of the universe.” Again, I think the show would like us to sympathize more with Joe Jr. than Joe Sr. here.
- Still with the yelling: “You only destroy things! You’ve never created anything!” “I created both of you!”
- So, earlier, Cardiff’s bossman (played by Graham Beckel) told Bosworth to shut down the PC project as soon as it ran out of money, even though the PC project was the only hope Cardiff had of staying in business. And now he shuts down the PC project and has Bosworth arrested for keeping the PC project going, even though doing those things dooms Cardiff to closure. I’m asking—what am I missing here?
- Also, the historical Cardiff Giant was an infamous fraud. That is not an inspiring name for this computer.