Kerry Bishé, Mackenzie Davis (Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC)

Yerba Buena is an old name for San Francisco, something Joe MacMillan and Ryan talk about tonight while Joe looks over the city from his balcony. Ryan, in response to Joe’s musing about how many times the city has burned and been rebuilt, is energized by the thought, enthusing, “Look, that’s what makes the city so great. You can screw up, you can fail, and so what. You get another chance.” Joe, in full contemplative mode, sees it differently, musing, “I can’t decide if it’s beautiful or horrifying.”

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In “Yerba Buena,” everyone’s still stuck between the desire for security and the thrill of discovery. The episode, written by Halt And Catch Fire first-timer Mark Lafferty, is filled with imagery of forts, castles, keeps. Joe and Ryan, mapping the ARPANET network, stumble across the possibilities of getting in on the ground floor of NSFNET instead, a then-tiny academic network that would become one of the foundations of the modern internet. Excitedly ripping out Ryan’s carefully constructed string art map to just leave the NSFNET connections, Joe spins a vision of the country as made up of isolated “fortresses, closed off from the world,” and envisions himself as Mikhail Gorbachev, and their theoretical new network as his Glasnost. After moodily confessing earlier “I’m not sure I’ve got another next in me,” Joe is reenergized. “We are going to pave a road between them,” Joe says, that old, messianic gleam in his eyes once again.

Cameron, on the other hand, views Mutiny as a necessary fortress, a place she’s built brick-by-brick where she can feel safe, and at home. As she did when Mutiny acquired Swap Meet, Cameron resists Donna’s desire to switch Mutiny’s lucrative barter economy to an even more promising purchasing hub. Before she leaves on a trip back to Texas with Bos, Cameron tells Donna, “Mutiny is a castle. You and I built it. Then we gave a little piece to Diane, and a little piece to freaking Doug and Craig. Making deals with credit card companies is lowering the drawbridge.”

As a viewer (and a writer) it’s always a mixed blessing when a show gets heavily metaphorical. The critic likes to feel clever for pulling the parallels out and admires the craftsmanship, even if the fact that the brickwork is so visible is distracting. But “Yerba Buena” is carried along so satisfyingly on the backs of a handful of outstanding, affecting performances that it worked on me.

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Cameron and Bos’ Independence Day trip back to their old lives comes laden with unspoken pain. Bos sees his grandson for the first time, but finds his son unwilling to subscribe to Bos’ revisionist version of himself as a father. Angry that Bos has built the baby’s new crib for him while he was out late for work, John Jr. lets out a lifetime of resentment, snapping, “You can rewrite your history to impress your 15-year-old boss, but you don’t fool me.” Meanwhile, Cameron goes to her mother’s house, but never enters. Instead, she climbs up to the roof where, behind a brick marked with “Mutiny was here 84-85,” she finds her old, half-full flask and sits drinking with her legs dangling off the edge while the 4th of July fireworks bloom in the sky behind her.

The relationship between these two characters has always been Halt’s most affecting, and when, the next day, it explodes, the rift is deeply upsetting. Stalling in Bos’ car while her mother makes good on her promise to sell all Cameron’s father’s old stuff (including his prized motorcycle), Cameron responds to Bos’ tough love attempt to spur her to action with shocking anger. “That’s yours. Go get it,” urges Bos, trying to push Cameron out the door, and Cameron responds by slapping at his body and finally snapping, “Listen, you might think you’re my father, but you’re not.” Someone buys the bike and rides off. Cameron gets out and walks down the street. Bos drives past her and doesn’t stop. It’s all heartbreaking.

Gordon and Donna’s weekend, too, starts out with promise and ends in estrangement and pain. Deciding to ditch their big no-kids camping trip in favor of twice-in-one-day sex and cuddling while smoking a joint (the “yerba buena”?), the Clarks are as loose and sexy as they’ve ever been. (And funny. When Gordon hints that their home vacation would be a perfect time for Donna to break out her sexy negligee, Donna chirps excitedly, “I am changing into sweatpants!”) Dancing happily to The Clash’s “Train In Vain” just as the lyrics “I can’t be happy without you around” makes their romantic time-out feel like a permanent fix to all their problems, it’s as sweet a moment as the two have had all season. Of course, “Train In Vain”’s lyrics belie its infectious tune, the song being about being lost when the one you love inexplicably leaves. There are other hints—Gordon’s clumsy tabletop lovemaking gesture breaks some things, their steaks burn while they make love. And when Donna, stoned and sated and happy in bed, confesses that she’d never liked camping, she doesn’t notice how her admission is devastating to Gordon. His face crumbles in the dark—as he imagines the foundation of their relationship has suddenly done—and the next morning he affects a chipper coolness, blowing off their plans for a romantic brunch before heading off to play with his ham radio. Seeking connection—but not with Donna.

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When Cameron returns—days late—from Texas to find that Donna’s gone ahead with Craig and Doug’s cumbersome credit card plan, it looks like that relationship is going to crumble too. Instead, what we get is one of the most heartfelt and honest conversations Cameron and Donna have ever had. I’ve said that, this season, the hard-won trust and friendship between these two women has been sidelined by plot to a disappointing degree. But here, Cameron and Donna have it out, and it’s outstanding. After revealing that she’d spent the last few days with old flame Tom (a returning and welcome Mark O’Brien) coming up with a much more streamlined and profitable way to process payments (while bypassing credit card companies entirely), Cam expresses again what Mutiny truly means for her.

Earlier, Donna jokes to Gordon, “You wouldn’t think somebody so punk would be so conservative about business,” but, for Cameron, Mutiny is safety, accomplishment, self-worth. She and Donna built for themselves a fortress in a world that’s often hostile and unfulfilling and belittling. The first time we saw Cameron unpack her duffel bag of meager possessions, there was a teddy bear in there, and tonight, we see the secret hiding place she used for escape. As they argue about Cameron’s immaturity at Mutiny, Donna accuses her of needing to “sprinkle her fairy dust” over every aspect of the business, and all the castle metaphors come together. In the castle they’ve built, Cameron and Donna are walled in, but they’re also the queens.

Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé are astoundingly good here, reestablishing their bond in an exchange as honest and moving as any Halt’s ever had. “Sometimes I need to crawl into a hole just to find my head,” admits Cameron, before telling her friend “[Tom] said that you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. And it’s true.” Last season, Halt And Catch Fire found its heart in this friendship, and, here, it rediscovers it. When Cameron tries to end on a handshake, Donna pulls her in for a hug. It’s perfect.

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At least it would be if Donna’s lie about Diane ordering them to fire the Swap Meet guys weren’t hanging over everything. The followup scene, with Cameron calling Diane and realizing Donna has been making unilateral decisions more than once wastes no time in blowing things up. (And while a show about Donna and Cameron working together without contrivances like this isn’t the show I’m reviewing, it’s always annoying when a roadblock could be avoided by a simple conversation.) Still, Davis’ reaction here is fascinating, as she hides in her darkened room—into the hole that is her top bunk, curled up (like a baby in a crib) and hugging herself for comfort (and not Donna, as she had earlier). And then she pulls a ring from her pocket and stares at it, finally smiling at it as if it were another magic escape. Questions and metaphors abound, Davis’ face suggesting all manner of possible interpretations.

Stray observations

  • In the other big subplot tonight, Joe has an AIDS scare. Following up on his hastily-reintroduced bisexuality this season, it’s abrupt, but Lee Pace handles the twists with consummate skill. The scene where the soundtrack swells as he listens to his test results on the phone, then walks unsteadily out to his balcony before bursting into relieved laughter is like an acting exercise, but one that Pace pulls off with aplomb.
  • Manish Dayal’s Ryan still hasn’t established himself as a character beyond being continually baffled by Joe to the point of jittery babbling. But at least tonight he gets to come right out and blurt, “I don’t even know if you like me!” in the face of Joe’s enigmatic remove.
  • Their exchange directly after that is a step in the right direction. “You’re not going crazy, Ryan, you’re hungry. Look, I’ve had a tough week. Will you join me for dinner?” “Okay. Okay, I’ll come to dinner with you. It sounds nice.”
  • “There’s seriously a game called Xenophobe?” “Yeah, but you’re only being intolerant of aliens, so it’s okay.”
  • “Hey, stupid Gordon, your stupid turn.” She only gets about a line every other episode, but Jona Xiao’s Julie makes ’em count.
  • Bos, on why he and Cameron should get to the airport early: “The guards give me shit about the rods in my tailbone.”
  • Even though she throws in with their plan initially, Donna’s response to Craig and Doug’s pestering is delightfully dismissive. “My answer’s the same as it was an hour ago. Take a knee, or whatever.”
  • In full metaphor-plucking mode. Joe sees one of his “Are You Safe?” billboards half-dismantled at the start of the episode.
  • Also: Cam and Bos drive past a sign announcing the next town: Rockwall.

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