Halt & Catch Fire: “High Plains Hardware” (Episode 1.03)

TV Reviews
Halt & Catch Fire: “High Plains Hardware” (Episode 1.03)

Can Halt & Catch Fire just be about Gordon and Donna?

Three episodes in, and the couple has become the one likeable and dynamic relationship on a show that feels as if it’s quickly slipping away from its initial promise. At the beginning, I feared Donna would be little more than a nag, and it’s been great to witness how she has become, in many ways, Gordon’s equal—even offering him ideas on a new motherboard design this time around. Granted, it doesn’t end up working out by episode’s end, but it’s a nice gesture nonetheless.

To be clear, it’s not as though this relationship is enough to save the show, but it does help to emotionally anchor the tech-heavy world in a way that other plotlines do not. Indeed, one thing I have to give this installment credit for is its refusal to shy away from the harsh realities of Gordon’s choices. As “High Plains Hardware” opens, Gordon is forced to fire close to 45 Cardiff Electronics employees, a task that causes him no shortage of existential angst. And though the whole subplot is far from subtle, the way Scott McNairy plays Gordon’s internalized sadness and stress is effective in its own small way.

In other words, with Gordon and Donna, I see relatable human characters dealing with significant conflict.

A shame those Joe scenes keep getting in the way. Certainly, if Joe was being set up as a series Big Bad, that’d be one thing. Instead, the creative team still seems determined to add to the mystique, trying to make him the intriguing antihero. This comes to head in the latter half of the installment when, after thoroughly chastising a potential socialite investor for her aggressive negotiating tactics, he proceeds to follow her trophy boy-toy into an empty room and have a quick sexual tryst with him. Whether Joe is authentically bisexua,l or this is merely an extension of another manipulative scheme, I’m not sure. And, frankly, I don’t care.

In the two entries since the pilot, Joe has become less of a character and more of a cartoonish version of a certain post-2000s cable drama protagonist. To again reference Mad Men, he’s less Don Draper and more Pete Campbell, the young upstart who wants so desperately to be Don Draper despite his utter lack of tact and charm. But while Pete’s oversized ambitions are played for laughs in that show, Halt & Catch Fire seems to think we should find some merit in Joe’s atrocious behavior.

Cameron, meanwhile, doesn’t look to be making much headway either—literally and figuratively. Much of the episode finds the character pacing around her makeshift workplace and stressing out about the code she needs to be writing. The latter half has her paling around with a group of punks, only to again be drawn back into the stress of her oversized task. The problem with putting Cameron in this position early on is that we’ve gotten no sense of her true personality. She was only barely a presence in the pilot and, by throwing her immediately into a high-stress position, we’re not afforded the chance to know anything beyond the heightened version of her that the show presents. By episode’s end, her panic has led her to jump into bed with Joe once again. In her limited run so far, actress Mackenzie Davis has brought a vibrant energy and enthusiasm to the character that could have been employed to good measure in another show. Here, however, it feels as though she’s being let down by the characterization, and forced to portray various eccentricities as opposed to authentic character beats.

“High Plains Hardware” does little more than exacerbate the problems that were highlighted by last week’s “FUD.” It’s somewhat appropriate that the episode bookends its story with Gordon and Donna trying to decide what to do with an injured bird that has fallen in their yard. Much like that poor bird, Halt & Catch Fire feels like a show that’s hit a rough patch and is struggling to fly again. Only time will tell whether it will succeed or, like said bird in the show’s final seconds, it will be cut down. And, yes, that parallel was thoroughly lazy but, to be fair, so was the show’s obvious bird symbolism.

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

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