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Sometimes, an episode’s biggest virtue is what it doesn’t do. “And She Was” sets up several situations that seem headed for predictable outcomes (not to say disastrous ones) and swerves away just when you think things are going to go off the rails. Coming after the bittersweet poetics of last week’s episode, “And She Was” announces itself prosaically, too—before Halt And Catch Fire (and episode writer Angelina Burnett) reminds us that, when it comes to a big, final swerve, Halt can pull off an ending with the best of them.

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Cameron’s journey last week ended enigmatically. Heartbroken over Donna’s betrayal, she pulled out what looked like a wedding ring, and smiled in her bed in the dark. Tonight we find out that, yes, she married Tom, via the necessarily prosaic words on a computer chat. Mackenzie Davis’ expressive face gets a workout, as Cameron silently processes first panic at the thought that Tom’s mother will want to talk to her (very funny), and then a lower-anxiety pensiveness at the thought of what her decision to marry Tom means, leaving the poor guy to ask if she’s still there. (One dramatic side-benefit to old-school computer chats—that big, blinking cursor looks like an impatiently tapping finger.) Last episode was so bold in how it handled Cameron’s highs and lows that here, it seems like backtracking, as Cameron and Donna continue to freeze each other out at work. As I said last week, creating conflict by having two characters withhold information from each other isn’t especially satisfying. But Davis makes the dramatic irony at the Mutiny board meeting—where she announces that she’s fired the Swap Meet guys after all—crackle with life. Davis tilts her head in mock confusion as Donna repeats her lie that Diane ordered Mutiny to keep the guys on, and her “Hm, should be fun” when Diane shows up to talk to them leaves Donna flustered, just as Cameron had intended.

Halt And Catch Fire found its heart in the Donna-Cameron relationship, which is why this manufactured conflict is so unsatisfying. But the episode draws out our desire to see a repeat of the powerfully touching scene between the two last week to such a skillful extent that it becomes almost cruel. Offered a weekend at her luxurious vineyard home to fix their problems by the perceptive Diane, Donna ends up there alone, apart from an unannounced visit from Diane’s college-age daughter and her Berkeley friends. Cameron, instead of going, stays home (Donna’s home) with Gordon and the kids, where she and Gordon hilariously hog the Nintendo in a marathon attempt to beat Super Mario Bros. (God damn those water levels.) Donna, taking some proffered ’shrooms from the hunky Mutiny fan who’s been making eyes at her, seems poised to do something stupid. And so do Gordon and Cameron, who, in their juvenile bonding, have come to enjoy the no-frills, uncomplicated pleasure of each others’ company.

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Thankfully, the episode merely dangles dumb ideas in front of us before going off in a pair of quietly wrenching directions that are more true to the characters, and far more satisfying. Gordon, after a full day of glazed-eyed Mario, pitches forward onto the Clarks’ television, destroying it as he passes out. Cameron sees through his “low blood sugar” lie, and Gordon tells her about his condition. (“So you’re dying?!,” blurts Cameron with an abruptness that’s oddly touching in its genuine concern for her former enemy.) When Gordon explains the complicated prognosis for his future, the two do the only sensible thing, purchasing a massive projection TV so they can finish the game. Scoot McNairy and Mackenzie Davis have developed such a singular, strange little connection as Gordon and Cameron—it’s like they’re the only ones who both recognize how fun the hands-on side of all this business is. When Gordon shows Cameron his ham radio, she’s entranced. (“I didn’t know what you were up to in here,” Cam teases, “But this is really cool.”) Gordon’s wry acceptance of his increasing irrelevance in Mutiny (and perhaps his marriage) sees him confiding in Cameron concerning Joe’s theft of his program, and of Joe’s massive offer of 70 per cent of MacMillan Utility—but only if Gordon will come work with him again. “I built a couple machines no one will remember and a piece of code everyone thinks is Joe’s,” says Gordon. When Cameron leaves to go out, Gordon—and we—assume she’s going to meet up with Donna. She’s not.

Donna, serenely trailing barefoot over Diane’s picture-perfect estate, winds up on the lawn, stroking the grass (like you do). When a pair of boots appears beside her in frame, we assume its hunky houseguest, but it’s Cameron, proclaiming earnestly, “I don’t like this. I don’t like feeling this way.” Like last time, both women express, with aching honesty, how much they mean to each other. Donna plaintive “Cameron is the genius, Donna’s the mom” vies with Cameron’s heartfelt, “How many times do you need to hear that I can’t do this without you?” in giving us exactly the rapprochement we need.

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It’s all a lie, of course. You can feel it coming throughout, the feeling that this is both dramatically redundant of last week and too perfect. As the camera slowly creeps in a circle to reveal Donna lying alone on the grass, it’s expected and deeply sad all the same. Fixes aren’t that easy. (The fact that Peter Gabriel’s haunting “Mercy Street” plays throughout the scene is just the capper on how emotionally bereft the reveal leaves Donna.) In her reverie, Donna conjured her best friend, asked for and received forgiveness, and still spoke her mind about her dissatisfactions in their partnership. Like Cameron last week, she’s left lying alone, wishing things were very different. It’s almost too painful.

When Donna comes home to a huge new TV and her duties as mom (her first act— scolding her daughter for drinking too many juice boxes), Cameron’s gone. Unexpectedly moving out in the night, she later contacts Gordon, having taken the day off from Mutiny to build her own ham radio. It’s Gordon she tells about her marriage, her face childlike in hopeful embarrassment, and she waits, as she had with Tom on the computer screen, for the person on the other end to tell her… something.

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Earlier, Cameron had gone to Joe—who’s been working with Ryan on their NSFNET deal without his board’s approval—and demanded that Joe give Gordon credit for Citadel. Not-quite apologizing for having betrayed him at the end of last season, Cameron says, with signature directness, “Don’t take it out on Gordon. He needs this. Joe, do right by him. Give him credit for what he built.” Here, too, the episode feints toward regression. Joe, seeing Cameron waiting for him in his empty hallway, leans in around her to wordlessly unlock the door. He opens some champagne, taunting her with the wedding ring on her finger and, again leaning in too close, seductively lectures that her presence here at 1:30 in the morning isn’t to talk about Gordon. Lee Pace drops his voice into that Joe MacMillan truth teller mode and attempts to deconstruct Cameron’s marriage with one metaphor, intoning, “You were happy for a moment and you thought the person standing closest to you was the source.” Then Cameron leans in—too close—to Joe, and repeats, “You need to give Gordon credit,” before walking out.

Joe is called on his self-aggrandizing guru’s style once again the next day, when Matthew Lillard’s Ken reveals both that the MacMillan Utility board has scuttled his secret NSFNET deal, and that Joe has been stripped of all power in his own company. Suggesting Joe stay on as a figurehead, “like Buddah on the goodman mountain, dispensing pearls of nonsense to the tech press,” the boorish Ken echoes a lot of criticisms (certainly from me) about the character of Joe MacMillan. But is season three Joe any different?

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After poaching Ryan from Mutiny, Joe has played the same sorts of head games he did with Gordon and Cameron, keeping the brilliant programmer off guard and, to Joe’s mind, testing him to draw out his full potential. In building a mainframe (that now appears destined to never be used) with his new protégée, there’s certainly some of that—Joe sends Ryan to his personal tailor for a makeover, and is constantly fixing Ryan with disapproving stares while they work. But there’s a loneliness in this latest, most successful Joe, sitting as he is atop his skyscraper, that suggests the show is moving to, once again, find a way to bring its former protagonist back to earth. Applying himself to learn to code and, here, wanting to burrow back in to work after getting the call seemingly greenlighting his newest project, this Joe at least looks to have a more ground-level approach to his schemes.

Still, his big move tonight, interrupting yet another deposition from Gordon’s lawyer to proclaim into the video camera, “I stole it. I, Joe MacMillan, stole the code to the security software from Gordon Clark. Everything this company is built on is his,” is still a shocker. Penned in by Ken’s revelation that—in deference to Joe’s past destructive acts—the company has a “Joe MacMillan clause” that will take everything should Joe, say, “run a firehose into the bullpen,” Joe blows things up legally instead. What this means for Joe, for Gordon, for Mutiny, for MacMillan Utility—it’s all wide open. What Joe’s motivations are—same deal. That’s how you pull off a surprise ending.

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Stray observations

  • Joe and Ryan build the mainframe in a montage set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full Of Bourbon,” whose lyrics capture the recklessness of the endeavor—but don’t bode well for its success.
  • Bos, still smarting from Cameron’s harsh words last week, takes himself to the opera, where he runs into Diane. As ever, Toby Huss and Annabeth Gish make their knowingly adult flirtation deeply sexy, which makes the obvious disappointment they feel after a quickie in Bos’ car later so sad.
  • “You ever try to be the bigger man in this business, but the universe just gives you a shit sandwich for your efforts?”
  • There’s a 20 million dollar buyout offer from CompuServe, widening the rift between Cameron and Donna, with Cameron accusing Donna and Diane of “chopping my company up into pieces so you can ring a bell on Wall Street.”
  • Donna is very drawn to Diane’s lavish yet cozy lifestyle, even as she notices the prescriptions for Valium and Dexedrine on her night table.
  • Bos, telling Diane about his son: “I wanted to be able to tell him I did things that mattered. Now all I’ve got’s stories nobody cares about.”
  • Diane’s daughter, after hearing a college story that ends with Donna running across campus naked: “I hope you broke up with him.” Donna: “I married him, actually.”
  • Cameron, after Gordon tells her the scope of Joe’s offer: “Souls don’t come cheap.”
  • Considering Donna’s condition when she has her dream about Cameron, the song that gives the episode its title might be a little on-the-nose, although the fact that we never actually hear the song in the episode makes it work like an barely audible echo under the scene.

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