Halt & Catch Fire Review: “10Broad36”

(Episode 2.06)

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<i>Halt & Catch Fire</i> Review: &#8220;10Broad36&#8221;

Reviewing Halt & Catch Fire’s first season was an exercise in frustration. Not because the series was frequently bad, mind you, but because its most promising, rich elements were often paired with storylines that were predictable at best, and dramatically inert at worst. It was akin to watching a beautiful flower blossom in a garden, only to have its growth stifled by adjacent weeds.

In some ways, “10Broad36” represents Season One in a nutshell. For roughly three-fourths of its runtime, the episode put forward some of the best material in the show’s history. The other fourth… well, that’s a whole other story.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first.

After learning his fatal diagnosis last week, Gordon takes an impromptu trip back home to California to stay with his wayward brother Henry (played by Kevin Rankin, AKA television’s most ubiquitous actor). Things take a turn for the narrative worse once Gordon happens upon Jules, one of his brother’s ex-flames from high school. At first the two bond over the usual innocuous small talk—children, old high school anecdotes, etc. This friendliness, however, soon morphs into simmering sexual tension after the two share a joint and Gordon begins expounding upon the “paths” he’s never taken. In a flash, the two are doing the nasty in the back of a truck like a couple of bored, small town teenagers.

Let’s dissect all the ways in which this development is problematic, shall we? On initial blush, Gordon and Jules’ flirtation parallels the fleeting dalliance that Donna had with her boss back in Season One. Whereas the latter never evolved beyond an illicit kiss, however, the former finds Gordon going all the way. On the other hand, much like the Donna/boss subplot, the incident puts forth a lazy melodramatic spin that’s simply not needed in a season already rife with struggling companies, unwanted pregnancies, complicated romantic relationships and a potential death notice.

To be fair, on paper, Gordon’s ill-advised decisions make some element of sense. He might be facing death, his wife’s been ignoring his pleas for a talk and, in the absence of a project, he’s adrift without a purpose. Unfortunately, what may work on the page just doesn’t translate here. This is not the fault of Scoot McNairy, who’s done a fantastic job at capturing Gordon’s blistering, goofy highs and devastating lows this season, but rather it involves an imbalance in characterization. Over the course of the second season, Donna has become a stronger, more assertive character who must fight against lack of resources and general sexism to see her dream fulfilled. Gordon, by contrast, has spent most of the season being rich and not knowing what to do. Even with his decline in health, his character has just not been placed in a sympathetic enough light to come back from this. Even his lighter moments, such as making a friend pick up his kids or working on the Westgroup mainframe, indicate times of majorly irresponsible behavior.

Moreover, this situation is not helped by the fact that this episode marks the first time we’ve meet either Henry and Jules. As such, we’re not given any real shading to them beyond a basic log line characterization (i.e. jealous, overlooked brother and fading high school beauty). The Gordon/Jules scenario even ends with her taking umbrage at Gordon’s emotional unloading regarding his sickness. Why she has issues with this and not the fact that he’s married with two children makes the whole encounter feel all the more contrived, with the Jules character feeling more like a plot point than the kind of three-dimensional character that Halt normally takes great pains to craft.

Capping off this whole miscalculated subplot is the fact that Gordon returns back to Henry’s house to find his brother furious about his liaison with Jules. This opens the floodgates and all the hidden subtext that has dotted the two’s conversation (i.e. Henry’s jealousy over Gordon’s life) comes to a head. In a show that’s done so well at distancing itself from the easy conflicts, this scene feels like something we’ve seen a dozens iterations of in other TV shows.

Moreover, as I indicated earlier, this subplot proves all the more egregious when paired with the rest of the episode, which signals Halt at the top of its game.

We begin with Joe in a desperate state. It’s been a week since Sara took off for Austin and all he can do is leave voice message after voice message, hoping that her silence is some kind of test to prove his loyalty. He then travels to Jacob Wheeler’s office and learns the mogul is looking to bump up Mutiny’s rental fee from three dollars to five, which would push them into major financial trouble. Joe argues that they need an innovative company like Mutiny as their pilot program. Jacob promptly tasks him with negotiating a new price.

Considering Joe spends the rest of the episode stepping back into his abrasive, Season One persona for the Mutiny negotiations, prefacing the main plotline with these sequences is a good decision, as it allows us a context for Joe’s behavior and overall goals, even if we don’t always understand exactly why he’s going about it this way. If nothing else, it definitely makes his negotiations with Donna and Cameron more intriguing.

It’s at one of these “negotiations” that Donna has a long overdue breakdown, complete with screaming and tears. This not only works as an incredibly effective means of twisting expectations (everyone is looking to the ever-volatile Cameron as the likely wild card), but it also gives Kerry Bishé a standout scene to play. Indeed, despite some stellar work from the rest of the cast, it’s Bishé who owns this episode. Right from the start, in a scene between Donna and her mom, we sense that something’s weighing heavy on her. When her mom presses her for information, Donna seemingly spits out that she had a miscarriage. This news colors her actions for the rest of the hour, especially after we learn the “real” reason behind her fragile state.

In any case, despite Donna’s obvious emotional woes, Joe sticks to his cold, negotiating persona. After proving that he’s willing to disengage their service if they do not engage with him, Joe offers them a chance to get their rate lowered to $3.50 provided they complete three directives. While two present no real issue, the third gives the team pause—Joe wants them to switch from Commodores 64 to UNIX’s new AT&T box. Both Donna and Cameron argue that this would require their team to relearn a new interface, thus costing valuable time. It’s here that Tom—having had an awkward mono-e-mono with Cameron’s previous lover—suggests that they merely fake a switchover since Joe wouldn’t have the technical wherewithal to spot the real difference.

What follows is a shining example of how Halt manages to make super-dated technology a compelling dramatic tool. In this case, it involves implementing the technology in an Oceans Eleven-esque con. You really don’t even need to know anything about the tech to find excitement in Cameron and the rest of Mutiny brainstorming how best to deceive Joe, taking all kinds of variables into account right down to recording a modem sound for realism. Their major coup, hands down, involves employing their broadband line to stand-in for the modem.

Unfortunately, the team’s attempts are all for naught as, after playing a few moves of online chess, Joe realizes their deception and admonishes the team for wasting his time. Upon returning to Jacob Wheeler, however, Joe uses the team’s creative use of broadband as proof that they are the kind of company that Westgroup wants to be associated with.

In the end, however, all this drama pales in comparison to the episodes other major plotline. After the chaos of UNIX-gate, an emotionally exhausted Donna readily admits the truth about her unborn child to Cameron—not that she had a miscarriage but that she’s planning to get an abortion. In one of the hour’s final, haunting moments, Donna returns from the clinic and receives a call from a frazzled Gordon (who’s moved to a hotel with their daughters in the wake of the fight with his brother). As her guilty husband lies with their girls, Donna hums a soft lullaby over the phone to her family. It’s an emotional gut punch so powerful, it almost makes you forget the stumbling block that was Gordon’s marital indiscretions.

First and foremost, I have to tip my hat to the Halt creative team for taking such a bold approach. Even in today’s mature TV landscape, abortion remains a hot button issue that most shows (with the recent exception of Friday Night Lights) choose not to tackle, especially when the abortion involves a main character. It’s somewhat appropriate that Donna (and by extension, the writers) throw out “miscarriage” as an initial excuse as that’s become the go-to, get-out-of-jail-free card for writers who want to introduce a dramatic pregnancy storyline but lack the conviction to go through with all the very real implications. In some ways, I saw the abortion twist coming, not because it was ostensibly telegraphed. but because one, Kerry Bishé’s anxious performance throughout the episode hinted at something much deeper and two, I readily believe the Halt writers are so much better than an “off-screen miscarriage” solution.

And there we have it. For 30 minutes, “10Broad36” put its itself forth as the best episode of the season and, for the remaining 15 minutes, it served as the worst episode of the season. With only four episodes left, it will be interesting to see how the tidal waves from each section reverberate throughout the rest of the show’s arcs. I can only hope the missteps demonstrated here are ultimately overshadowed by the time the season (and, more than likely, the series) comes to a close later this month.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.