“Guys I know there was a big fight tonight but #HaltAndCatchFire had competing websites,” series co-creator Christopher Cantwell wrote on Twitter recently, and though “Miscellaneous” held far more interest for me than two sweaty men swinging at each other, I see his point: In Halt and Catch Fire, the drama is delicate, at least on its face; the closest this season’s come to outright pugilism is Donna (Kerry Bishé) growling at Bos (Toby Huss) and Tanya (Sasha Morfaw), “This is 101 bullshit. Do better. The both of you.” (Or maybe Cam versus the Airstream. Now that’s a TKO.) Still, the appearance of effortlessness often requires real muscle. I can name few series, for instance, with the chops to turn a mother and her daughter working at competing firms into anything other than a continuous shouting match—and yet Donna and Haley (the increasingly indispensable Susanna Skaggs) grapple with the consequences stiffly, sweetly, their now-twinned narrative never following the straightest path. In this, “Tonya and Nancy” indeed recalls figure skating, a sport in which the work of grace is more important, if less forthright, than the bluster of boxing, and in which leaps of pure power — Harding’s unforgettable triple axel — are expected to come down on one foot.
There’s an echo of Mad Men in the episode’s treatment of Kerrigan v. Harding: As with the earlier series’ depiction of the moon landing, Halt and Catch Fire casts its characters’ faces in the TV’s hearth-like glow, a form of connection the nascent Internet is poised to deepen, or sever, depending on who you ask. And just as touching the face of God inflects Peggy Olson’s Burger Chef pitch—perhaps the finest sequence in the finest hour of the finest TV series ever made—the two skaters’ rivalry echoes the bruising competition to come between Comet and Rover, especially now that Cam (Mackenzie Davis) has undermined the former by giving the latter a surreptitious leg up. “Are you Team Tonya or Team Nancy?” Katie Herman (Anna Chlumsky), Comet’s new “chief ontologist,” asks Cam significantly when she comes in from the cold, and it’s clear that Cam is not in fact sure exactly which team she’s on.
As it happens, “Tonya and Nancy” is a fair blend of the two women’s styles, forceful in some stretches and demure in others, with a heavy dash of Scott Hamilton’s humorous flair; I found both Haley’s “porn alert” (“Following company protocol, I’m stepping away from the machine”) and Katie’s fast-talking, encyclopedic description of metal music’s various shades utterly charming. (There’s no truer line in the episode than “We need more Haleys.”) It has Harding’s speed, passing over the months that elapse between Cam’s own “land grab” and Katie’s hiring with aplomb, and Kerrigan’s elegance, centering Donna in the frame as Bos and Tanya battle over selling Rover for a song. In each case, of course, there’s hidden work at hand: The ability to move through time in this way, like the willingness to focus on a main character’s flaws, are products of practice, muscle memory built up through years of training so it fades into the background when everyone’s watching. Halt and Catch Fire is not a series of “small plays,” but of “big swings,” and yet it’s so finely crafted you can never see the exertion.
If “Tonya and Nancy” is a transitional episode, establishing tension that has yet to pay off, it’s nonetheless a successful one, not least because it avoids the appearance of trying too hard. There’s an airiness here—in the indexing competition at Comet and the shaving-cream pie Haley tosses in Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) face; in Donna’s admission that Haley’s kicking her ass and her delight at the golden surfboard—that buoys the hour despite the clouds building on the horizon, a feat of balance as impressive as a spiral sequence that switches the blade’s edge. It’s not just the rain, the mud, the shitstorm of Cam’s losing fight with the trailer, but the implication that Bos is desperate to sell Rover to AOL because he’s still not out of debt; it’s not just Cam’s impulse to improve Rover’s code, but Joe’s (Lee Pace) rant before the darkness outside his apartment’s wide window. The brilliant image that closes “Tonya and Nancy,” the camera homing in on Cam as Joe’s complaint fills the background, is akin to the tumble that ruins the routine—not for Halt and Catch Fire, but for the characters themselves. Spinning and spinning in the race to corner the search engine market, none seem to notice their precarious position in relation to each other, and whether or not you agree with Joe’s “whole approach,” that sharp cut to black says where we’re headed without needing the key word at all: “The human touch, it’s completely and totally—”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.