The best episode Halt And Catch Fire has done, “The Way In” points the way forward for a show too often in its own way. Exciting, tight, and focused, the episode, credited to writer Jason Cahill, clarifies the characters’ places in the show’s narrative and redirects them in ways that make sense. Coupled with the cast’s uniformly excellent turns here, the confidence evident in nearly every aspect of “The Way In” solidifies the promise shown by the first two episodes of the season that Halt And Catch Fire has a better idea both of what it wants to say, and how it wants to say it.

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Take Bosworth’s story tonight. While his reintroduction into (and immediate exit from) the series last episode wasn’t the smoothest, the way the show split him off from the main narrative last week yields a story as affecting as anything the show’s attempted, one whose smart, ambitious storytelling is of a piece with the rest of the episode. If John Bosworth’s quest for redemption seems a separate show from Halt And Catch Fire at the moment, it’s a show I could watch for an entire season.

Toby Huss’ Bosworth quickly transcended his introduction last year as the hard-assed obstacle to Joe MacMillan’s new ideas, the actor bringing a clear-eyed but thoroughly affecting soulfulness to his affection for Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron. Seeing her ideas, and not Joe’s, as the future of Cardiff Electric (and simply the future), and projecting the fatherly feelings cut adrift at the implied dissolution of his family onto her, Huss nonetheless kept Bosworth’s sentimentality feelingly walled in, even as the trusted company lifer did the unthinkable and broke the law to fund her project. Tonight, we see him reconnect with his actual family, and, in line with how Bosworth has been presented thus far, it’s satisfying because of how little Huss reaches for effect, and how Cahill’s script similarly doesn’t over-explain.

From the first time we see him, reclaiming his beloved muscle car from the home of the former employee who’d kept it hidden from both his ex-wife and the feds, Huss’ Bosworth keeps us guessing, incorrectly. Driving down the road happily singing along to “Rock Island Line” on his way to an assignation at a cheap motel with a bra-clad blonde, we’re led to think that Bosworth’s stated intent to “get his head straight” has taken the form of a dissolute dive into unfettered freedom. But the woman, we learn, is his ex-wife, who still loves him but isn’t interested in taking him back, except for these warm-hearted couplings. And then, when she warns him off coming to some event in Galveston, we’re left to imagine Bosworth making a reckless scene, only to watch him wait patiently in his car outside of his grown son’s rehearsal dinner until the boy slides into the passenger seat, where Bosworth reads the wedding toast he’s carefully prepared. Like all of Bosworth’s tale tonight, there’s a patience and a delicacy to the storytelling here which, on a show too often prone to oversimplification of both both plot and character, is extraordinary. In Bosworth’s hesitant reading of the toast, we hear the echoes of his letters to Cameron—not accustomed to expressing emotion, Bosworth stumbles, Huss movingly trying not to break, until his son steps in to take the letter, letting his dad off the hook by explaining how he can’t wait to read it to his bride. And when, later, we see that his purpose all along was to leave the car behind for the boy while he sleeps contentedly on a bus back to Dallas, it all comes together with the satisfying click of a well-constructed short story. Again, Bosworth’s on his own show, but if this is what he has to do before returning to set Mutiny right, then the trip was well worth it.

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And Mutiny certainly needs his help. “The Way In” brings every implied conflict about how the fledgling game company is being run to a head tonight, and the show (again, I credit Cahill’s script) manages to makes each twist and revelation both natural to the characters, and satisfyingly surprising. Like with Bosworth’s story, tonight’s crisis at Mutiny credits viewers’ ability to keep up—even as it continually zigzags around our expectations.

Mutiny (AMC)

When the sexist bank manager told Cameron about his kid’s dissatisfaction with her online game Parallax last episode, we were predisposed to think him just a jerk, but Cameron’s been treading water both creatively and managerially this season, and “The Way In” lets her have it. Throughout the episode, Mackenzie Davis frays as Cameron is faced with one ugly truth after another, until, confronted with a seemingly business-crippling catastrophe, she’s left shaking and pacing in a thoroughly unnerving panic attack. The fact that she’s talked down, with admirable empathy and competence, by Mark O’Brien’s Tom, serves the dramatic purpose of bringing the two closer together, while simultaneously subverting the unpromising path Tom’s behavior earlier in the episode seemed to be setting him on. When Tom scoffed at Cameron’s uninspired new chapter for Parallax, his character looked dead. Just another one-dimensional new guy in the Mutiny house, his role: snotty asshole. Here, however, his way of bringing Cameron out of her despair is to remind her of why he hacked into Mutiny in the first place—his love and respect for what she’d created. O’Brien’s great here, his connection to Cameron through her game (“It was like The Wizard of Oz, but it was better because you were in inside. It was like it was real”) both bringing necessary depth to the guy and reminding us that he, like Cameron, isn’t very good with people.

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Mackenzie Davis (AMC)

The crisis that causes Cameron’s panic, too, is sprung with both exciting suddenness and dramatic weight, as it’s revealed that all Gordon’s manic tinkering, trying to “map the system” has run roughshod through Mutiny’s programming, not only deleting most of their games (“We just lost chess!”), but also infecting their users’ systems as well. When Cooper Andrews’ Yo-Yo tells Cameron that someone has hacked into the system, the first thought is that Tom’s done something rash after his petulant tantrum earlier, or perhaps that someone, like Tom, has snuck inside of Mutiny, but with a more nefarious agenda. When Donna and Gordon finally arrive (on their way back from a dinner with Joe McMillan, no less), and it’s revealed that it’s Gordon’s program that’s gutting Mutiny, it’s the sort of fiendishly-crafted shock that knocks you off balance, especially as the show doesn’t ease up, with the buried resentments among Cameron, Donna, and Gordon (with the ghost of Joe thrown in there as well) all pouring out right there on the doorstep.

Kerry Bishé (AMC)

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Gordon’s horror at what he’s accidentally done quickly turns to anger at Cameron’s high-handed insults (“You couldn’t just stay away and leave us to do our thing. Which you hate because it’s new and brave and you’re on the outside looking in, you sellout!”), since he knows that Mutiny only exists because Donna (and he) have been secretly paying all the bills. Donna’s guilt over not being there when Mutiny went down (and for not telling Cameron that she was meeting Joe) wars with anger and disappointment at her husband (“Go home, Gordon”), and the seemingly inescapable truth that both her job and her marriage have been operating on unsustainable illusions for a while now. Kerry Bishé, as ever, is just right, all Donna’s conflicting emotions tamped down under her inherent urge to find a fix. And Cameron’s bad day just hammers away at her again and again, every revelation worse than the last, until, staring at her computer screen and seeing the 300 Mutiny users earlier in the day have crashed to zero, finally has her eminently understandable breakdown. Everyone here is so good, and the construction of the episode supplies each development with such confidence, that “The Way In,” should its promise here be borne out, could signal Halt And Catch Fire’s ascension to the next level.

Stray observations

  • Joe’s part of “The Way In,” like Bosworth’s, exists largely on its own island for now. Unlike Bosworth’s, however, I’m content to have Joe stay there for the time being. It’s not that I want less Lee Pace on the show—indeed, allowing Pace to continue giving Joe some softer shades is doing good things for the character—it’s that the Mutiny plotline is so clearly where the show’s heart is at in the second season. The dinner party with Gordon and Donna has some nice, warm moments (like Joe and Gordon’s waiting room rapprochement in the season’s first episode, their balcony chat tonight shows how well Scoot McNairy and Pace work together), although it does admit some of the this-or-that characterization that’s part of Joe’s problem. As soon as Gordon arrives, Aleksa Palladino’s Sara calls Joe out for running down their life together in order to make himself seem important. One energizing element of the show’s second season has been that both Joe and the Mutiny gang (the Mutineers?) are underdogs. As we see in the final scene tonight, the old Joe MacMillan isn’t going to stay buried forever (now that he’s got 16 free hours a day on a corporate mainframe to manipulate), but his conflicts in the oil business (and with Sara, it must be said) are a lot less compelling than the main story nowadays, carrying with them the specter of much of what was wrong with season one.
  • James Cromwell’s Jacob, too, is like the ghost of Joe past, his snap judgement to fire everyone in the basement and promote Joe the sort of ruthless “big thinker” move old Joe would pull. I love Cromwell, but his dynamic with Joe is painted in broad strokes. (Joe has big plans. Jacob admires Joe’s gumption.)
  • As doomed as it was, Gordon and Donna’s easy, flirty wedded bliss tonight was pretty adorable. Gordon’s Superman run tonight was there to show his inflated ego, sure, but it also gave McNairy ample opportunity to be damned charming.
  • In his first scene, Gordon can’t get his soda can (Jolt!) open, so he stabs it with a screwdriver, causing it to spray everywhere. Symbolism!
  • I have seen dumber online games than Lev’s “Jiggles.”
  • Tom’s ideas for new games are based on a technical innovation, but no creative imagination. He cites Zaxxon, which I spent countless quarters on due to its rudimentary but groundbreaking 3-D action, even though the gameplay was as basic and boring as it got.
  • That argument between Tom and Cameron finds the sweet spot for balancing the exposition and the drama—couching the tech talk in a well-acted philosophical disagreement between characters.
  • Joe’s work printer can’t differentiate between ‘i’ and ‘l,’ which is sort of a handicap when working in the oil industry.
  • Cameron says Billy Joel has chops. Cameron?
  • Donna’s burn on Joe echoes much of the criticism of season one: “My fascination with tall dark mannequins with delusions of grandeur has dwindled.”
  • Cameron, to Gordon: “Your wife is doing things you couldn’t believe.”
  • Cameron and Donna’s partnership continues to be dealt with in refreshingly thoughtful ways tonight. While their central dilemma (Cameron’s the punky free-thinker, Donna’s the responsible one) remains basic, their ability to ignore their underlying issues gets stripped away here, Cameron’s resentment that Donna doesn’t live the Mutiny life like she does now forced to coexist with the stark fact that without Donna’s secret largesse, there’d be no Mutiny at all. In their final confrontation tonight, they achieve a new level of respect—even as they’re both still pissed. As two strong women in business together in their time and place, Donna and Cameron are doing something unique. So’s the show.

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