After the taut doubleheader of “So It Goes” and “Signal to Noise,” “Miscellaneous” forces the characters to press pause for a moment, to collect themselves before forging ahead. While its only flashback comes at the start, as Cam (Mackenzie Davis) and Tom (Mark O’Brien) confront the end of their marriage, much of the action is reflective in nature, full of reveries, reminiscences, regrets: the aural vortex of the dripping faucet, which sends Cam spinning back in time; Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) description of Joe (Lee Pace) as a man who pushes people, with reference to Cardiff and Westgroup; Donna’s (Kerry Bishé) touching toast at that team-building dinner, her eyes cast long ago and far away. “Miscellaneous” is set in our own past, of course—though I came of age later than Haley (Susanna Skaggs) and Joanie (Kathryn Newton), I remember similar excursions into dial-up porn—but in a sense it’s “set” in the characters’, too. Each interaction, as Cam says of Joe, resembles a “minefield,” full of long-buried bombs just waiting to go off.
I love the honeyed, hazy light of the pair’s morning routine, for instance, as nostalgic as a photograph unearthed from the basement, and the way their needling recalls, in gentler terms, their fraught relationship in Season One. (“You’re like if somebody gave Howard Hughes a copy of Siddhartha.”) It’s subtle, and yet the implication is clear: To grow older is to live amid the detritus of our former lives, the people we broke and who broke us, those we thought we’d forgotten and those we thought we never could, and whether this suffuses us with its warm glow or covers us in shadow is where the rubber of aging meets the road. Can we learn our way through the minefield, as Cam and Joe now hope to do? Or must we walk again and again into the blast radius of our bitterness, as Donna does in “Miscellaneous” on more than one occasion?
I fear I’m getting too serious about this—even at 30, I find my minefield packed tight with unexploded ordinance—so before I dig further into “Miscellaneous,” let me just say that I adore Haley, too. I love the way Joe calls her their “11 o’clock” as though she’s a heavy hitter in Silicon Valley, and I love Skaggs’ winsome delivery of “I’m crushing your head.” I love the orange soda and Necco wafers she sets on the table like a cup of coffee and a fountain pen. I love, maybe most of all, her guileless enthusiasm for Comet, leaping out of bed at midnight with that matter-of-fact statement: “Well, we have work to do.”
Come to think of it, this is not mere miscellany. As Gordon suggests to Cam during their late-night tête-à-tête, the past’s seduction is simple: It was before. Before the project failed or the marriage dissolved, before the fight that ruined the friendship or the romance that broke your heart. Before you spent most of your time worrying about time, “worrying about wasting it on the wrong project, or the wrong person,” because you had all the time in the world. Despite their dust-up over Comet and Rover, Gordon and Donna agree on one thing: Their children are proof that there’s no stopping time’s passage, that the time to act is now. For Gordon, this means working on Comet with Haley, a form of bonding Cam wishes she’d had; for Donna, it’s more wistful, and as yet unformed.
The disastrous dinner she throws for Rover finds Donna unmoored—stung by her exchange with Cam at the conference, in which she’s described as “parasitic,” stung further by Diane’s (Annabeth Gish) suggestion that she’s looking for someone to hold her hand as she works her way up the corporate ladder. (There’s something very Peggy-and-Joan about their exchange; it has the same competitive edge.) That Donna’s “lighter touch” turns out to be a cudgel, with awkward jokes and whiskey shots, isn’t particularly surprising; this is still Bad Bitch Donna, of the Richie Sambora jibes and testy board meetings and imperious attitude, though it’s becoming clearer and clearer that this stems from insecurity, not confidence. What is surprising is what comes next, after she inadvertently exposes her colleague’s pregnancy: A sudden softening, a glimpse of the woman underneath the slick demeanor of the season premiere, into which Bishé shifts so seamlessly that it caught me off guard. (Let me say it outright: This is one of the best performances on television.) ”’Before you know it, they’ll be grown,’” she says, relating wisdom from a man she met at Radio Shack while pregnant with Joanie. ”’You kiss that baby every chance you get.’ Well, he was right.” When she breaks off to glance at her daughter, tears welling up in her eyes, Halt and Catch Fire performs the medium’s particular magic: The emotional weight of Donna’s toast stems as much from the past as it does the present, run through with the accumulated detail of more than three seasons spent getting to know her as a businesswoman, mother, wife.
If the truck running over Cam’s box (and the relief on her face) suggests another approach—the same one Joe promises Gordon, speaking of blank canvases and new beginnings as Lodestar is sold off—her decision to cast off the detritus of her former lives, and literally so, in fact echoes Donna’s sage advice. With a few exceptions—our families, our friends, our urge to create—it’s all miscellany: the negative review, the mortifying faux pas, the venture that goes south, and much more besides. To collect oneself, after all, is to recover from humiliation, anger, failure, surprise, to regain one’s composure in the face of life’s countless indignities. Doing so demands knowing that self, knowing what matters, and relinquishing—or learning to co-exist with—the rest. That’s how you get through the minefield: You put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.