Donna (Kerry Bishé) tends to her suspicions about Rover’s new algorithm as one might a sapling: She waters it with memories of her conversation with Cecil (Cristian Gonzalez) and the “innocent” questions she poses to Bos (Toby Huss), protects it from the harsh weather of the team’s urge to grow, nurses and prunes it until she can pluck its first fruit. The moment in “Nowhere Man” that best captures this process comes as Cecil and Bos catch on to her purpose, around a conference table at the Silicon Valley VC. She circles the room confidently in that bright scarlet blazer, laying trip wire for later as she moves toward the door—and then, in one of the series’ subtle coups, the camera settles on Bos. It’s no more than a moment or two, his face stiff with the effort of appearing calm, and yet it’s the sort of detail that Halt and Catch Fire relies on: the bit of smart blocking and the gentle pause that creates a cat-and-mouse game from a nuts-and-bolts conversation.
I mention it because it’s a sterling sequence, and Donna’s demands for the truth in fact structure the episode—even if, as Gordon (Scoot McNairy) points out, the blame for Bos’ heart attack is not hers alone. But more than this, the scene achieves the feat of all great TV series, the sentiment Joe (Lee Pace) expresses when describing his work: “It was never about where it ended up,” he explains to Gordon, remembering their long nights in that Texas garage. “It was about how it felt.” The success or failure of Rover or Comet is immaterial here, except insofar as it shapes the characters’ emotions: The latter may cease to grow if it doesn’t change, but Gordon resists Joe’s restlessness because he’s smitten with Katie (Anna Chlumsky, too winsome for words), and any upheaval at Comet threatens to muck it all up; the former may crush the competition, but for Donna it’s poisoned because Cam (Mackenzie Davis) wrote the code. This is the problem when your work is your life, when who you are and what you do start to seem like questions with the same answer: How it feels becomes dependent on the next idea, the next project, the next product or play, and the right now, where we live, fades into the background.
Welcome to the future: Is it the one you imagined? Hoped for? Dreaded? Feared? Is signing divorce papers in an Airstream the outcome you wanted when you slept with your ex? Is inviting the woman from work to hang out with your daughters and ask after your health what you foresaw the first time you kissed? Is confronting the friend with whom you fell out what you predicted when you destroyed the relationship? Is the work you made, the life you built, the same as the one you dreamed of, and was “how it felt” a function of the dreaming or the doing? Welcome to the future: a place that never appears the way we remember it, because when it was still the future it did not yet exist.
This is the sorrow of Halt and Catch Fire’s long time span—the inevitable gulf that emerges as we grow older, the space between who we are and who we thought we’d be—but it is also central to the series’ belief, echoing Gordon (and Mad Men), that this is all there is. Bos’ collapse in the restaurant, after his argument with Donna, doesn’t erase the personal histories that set the characters on edge—Donna’s feud with Cameron, or Cameron’s failed marriage; Gordon’s illness, Joe’s discontent, Bos’ debts—but it does offer a sense of perspective, which shines through the tension in the hospital waiting room, not to mention its reflective aftermath. Consider the culmination of Donna’s suspicion: the flicker of malice in her eyes as she wonders, sipping her drink, “what compels a person to cheat so brazenly”; her cruel accusation that Bos has been hiding behind Diane’s skirt; her realization, so swift to cloud her expression, that Cam created the algorithm on which Rover depends. And yet, after she returns home and rings up her ex-husband, it’s clear that she regrets the way she acted—against the specter of a longtime friend’s death, both his subterfuge and her mean-spiritedness suddenly feel small.
Not where it ended up, but how it felt: Joe’s description of that long-ago yearning comes close to describing “Nowhere Man,” its keen understanding that projecting the future, in life as in work, is no more than a fool’s errand. It may even explain why Gordon abandons the quest to find a pattern in his symptoms, or why Donna stops tending her grudge to try Cameron’s game. In the stunning montage that caps off the episode, both characters relinquish the need to plan, to predict, to control the uncontrollable, and instead turn to their instincts for guidance. The notebooks go up in flames; the avatar ascends to a higher plane; the present moment, the moment of decision, really is all there is, and there’s a certain comfort in knowing it. Welcome to the future: a place we don’t recognize from memories or dreams, and yet manage to navigate anyway.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.