Scoot McNairy (Image: AMC)

If its third season premiere suggested that Halt And Catch Fire had its Joe MacMillan addiction under control, the second episode, “One Way Or Another” looks like a major relapse. We first see Joe, reflected in Ryan’s mirrored shades, surfing the San Francisco waves while ’80s-appropriate cool-guy synths thrum on the soundtrack. And that image of Joe the Cool Guy looms over the episode. At this point in Halt And Catch Fire’s history, there are those who still find Joe MacMillan’s often inscrutable machinations the heart of the series, but for the rest of us, that story engine sounds increasingly tinny. Now, after a premiere that suggested a more parallel track for Joe’s Silicon Valley adventure, he once again insinuates himself into the lives of the gang at Mutiny, a narrative choice that’s worrisome for the show going forward.

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Toby Huss, Scoot McNairy (Image: AMC)

At this point there should be a shorthand for the following sentiments about Halt And Catch Fire: Lee Pace is an excellent actor stuck playing a caricature. Halt And Catch Fire is better when it’s about Donna and Cameron (and Gordon, to a lesser extent) navigating their way through the 1980s computer boom than when it’s about Joe MacMillan pulling everyone’s strings. Halt And Catch Fire has a Joe MacMillan addiction it would be well rid of.

Joe’s arc last season allowed Lee Pace to bring some new colors to Joe. As mesmerizing as it was initially to wonder what makes Joe tick, Joe’s bag of tricks soon revealed itself to be, like Joe, a lot emptier. Last year he was humbled, and his attempts at being human, well, humanized him. Cameron’s final, thoroughly understandable betrayal of Joe’s plan to re-establish himself as a tech giant was such an effective gut-punch because, for all his wonted manipulations during the course of that season, there was something of a real person there. Joe, Pace, and the show benefitted. And, if the final scene of season two saw Joe—Gordon’s prototype anti-virus software in hand—looking out over the California skyline with his old, Patrick Bateman gleam in his eye, that was a reasonable enough outcome at least.

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But, in “One Way Or Another,” we’re right back to season one Joe, and it’s not a good sign, at least on the evidence of what we see here. If season two was Halt rebooting in order to improve, this episode suggests season three is rebooting to bring back Joe the master manipulator of season one. He’s got a new Gordon in the person of Manish Dayal’s Ryan—another ambitious but frustrated tech geek all-too-susceptible to Joe’s messianic vibes. A.V. Club colleague Phil Dyess-Nugent tweeted recently about Joe/Lee Pace’s propensity for “swooping in.” And this episode is all about the swooping.

Joe swoops into Gordon’s contentious deposition about the ownership of the Sonaris program. Brushing off both his own and Gordon’s attorneys, he humiliates Gordon by upping the percentage of MacMillan Utility he’ll hand over to his former friend—if Gordon will agree to work with him again. Joe swoops in to steal the disgruntled Ryan away from Mutiny, pulling his second imperious phone call move of the young season by aping John Houseman’s Paper Chase “look at the people around you” speech—and then commanding Ryan to twist the knife in Gordon’s back one more time before he walks out. (Honestly, the whole phone call stunt is so archly villainous that I kept half-expecting Joe to reveal he’d planted a bomb at Mutiny.)

These big Joe moments are always intended as showstoppers. To the extent that they are, they’re Lee Pace’s more than Joe’s. (See above, re: Lee Pace.) But, as last season proved, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon don’t need Joe’s external machinations to be interesting, and the episode’s refocus on Joe steals sharpness from the Mutiny storyline.

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Cameron and Donna’s quest to find an investor to back their new member-to-member trading idea sees Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis continuing to make their “brain trust” both endearing and deeply entertaining. By this point, Cameron and Donna are a formidable team. They can pitch to the big boys (like Doug Savant’s unctuous CEO tonight) with consummate ease, but still do a silent little jig huddled around their speaker phone when it seems like their hard work has finally paid off. (Donna’s unfortunate decision to kick open an occupied ladies room stall in celebration later is equally funny.) They’re not perfect. Cameron, camping out with the Clarks and playing cool big sister to rebellious daughter Joanie, can’t completely curb her need to chafe under Donna’s more responsible impulses.

But what makes Donna and Cameron so compelling at this point is their collective chutzpah. They are equally aware both of their skills and vision and of how much of their continued success depends on taking big chances they’re not sure they can pull off. Davis and Bishé are great at taking turns—one keeping up the patter (as when Savant’s dinner meeting turns into a sleazy bait-and-switch), and the other watchfully keeping an eye out for pitfalls. (Davis has a great, glassy-eyed glare when she sees things are going south.) It’s the live-wire energy of two people who know that, as Ryan puts it to Joe, “a train is coming… and I don’t want to get left behind.” Great ideas are fine, but timing and boldness are key. As Donna says, “We don’t want to be Betamax.”

When their pitch to Annabeth Gish’s Diane (coincidentally head of a company they head to for last-ditch funding) is turned down because another company’s already been doing what they’re proposing, Donna and Cameron—as they have with Mutiny all along—adjust on the fly. Cameron maneuvers it so Diane will bring her daughter (the one Donna’s daughter Joanie fought in the premiere) to Joanie’s birthday party, then Donna comes up with a proposal to simply buy out the smaller company that got to the market first, trumping Diane’s objections, saying, “It’s not a million to fight a war, it’s a few hundred thousand to win it.”

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Watching Donna and Cameron team up to keep Mutiny afloat is consistently exhilarating, especially seeing how their teamwork is so necessary in the (then and now) sexist tech world of Silicon Valley. A lot was rightly made of the fact that Halt features two strong women running their own entrepreneurial enterprise last season, but it’s one thing to present that fact and another thing to sell it. Halt sells it because Bishé and Davis sell it (with an able assist from Toby Huss’ loyal, no-bullshit Bosworth). These are two, by now, well-rounded and formidable characters, and when Cameron gripes, in response to Bosworth’s analogy about investors asking them to dance, “God, I love how even the metaphors in this business are sexist,” the sentiment emerges through the characters’ experience. These are three driven people—two of them women—talking shop and working through problems in pursuit of their shared goal, and it’s as rare as it is compelling. When Donna muses about Diane’s initial rejection, saying, “So much for sisters doing it for themselves,” Cameron digs deeper into the reasons. So does Halt And Catch Fire.

Gordon, on the other hand, spends all of “One Way Or Another,” as ever, letting his life be dictated by Joe MacMillan. Whether he’s cockily strutting around the Mutiny offices with a bag of Doritos, assuring everyone his lawsuit will soon make him millions, or pursuing Ryan with thoughts of teaming up to implement Ryan’s innovations, or being cowed by Joe in that deposition, or, finally, being crushed at Ryan’s defection, Gordon remains dependent on Joe’s reflected glory. Scoot McNairy has refined poor Gordon’s doomed ambitions to a lacerating edge by now, and watching him crumble at Joe’s final, thoroughly unnecessary vengeance is to watch a man’s already weakened heart take one more blow. (In keeping with last episode’s revelation that he and Donna score his physical episodes, Gordon writes this one in his day planner as a 6. It looks more like a 9.) From the start, Gordon’s functioned as Halt’s tragic hero—the dreamer without the necessary piece to ever truly succeed—and McNairy keeps finding ways to make Gordon’s repeated humiliations terribly affecting. Finding a way to incorporate Joe MacMillan’s latest gambit into this season so effectively is Halt And Catch Fire’s biggest challenge.

Stray observations

  • Savant’s CEO is believably duplicitous, but his underling’s exit pronouncement to Donna, “Nobody wears that shade of lipstick unless they have come to play,” comes off as too calculatedly dickish. Still, it’s gratifying to see Cameron fighting to hold Donna back from attacking the little creep.
  • Bosworth: “What do you want me to say? Look, the fact that you two are women I’m sure doesn’t help matters.” Donna: “I think I liked it better when you were lying to us.”
  • Not sure yet what role Ryan is going to play in the coming Mutiny/MacMillan Utility war, but Manish Dayal is working an intriguing angle on the “socially inept genius” character. He’s eccentric without being charming—something that almost gets his block knocked off by shitkicker-at-heart Bosworth.
  • “I know what it’s like to be the smartest guy in the room, and I know it’s a waste of time trying to prove it.” Gordon’s not wrong, but any time he starts to make a case for himself, I steel myself for the inevitable crash.
  • Cameron: “Oh wait, the mom with the girl Joanie beat up?” Diane: “I heard it was more of a draw.”
  • Gordon initially does pretty well in the deposition. To Joe’s lawyer: “Did you just make that up or is that a real thing?”
  • And Joe imagines interrupting the deposition will keep Gordon from completing his evaluation of him as “a selfish, self-loathing, self-serving piece of shit.” Joe is incorrect.

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