Within the first few scenes of its second season, it became readily apparent that Halt & Catch Fire had evolved into a much cleaner, more impactful series. And while this season has not been without its occasional missteps (i.e. Gordon’s California indiscretions) even these supposed bumps have been in service of a greater arc (i.e. Gordon’s gradual psychological collapse). “Kali” serves as the ultimate culmination of many of the series’ budding plotlines, delivering the show’s best episode to date and one of 2015’s absolute best hours.
As the episode opens, Mutiny is in dire straits. With Community gone, Cameron devises a last ditch effort to save the company by selling off its most recent game, Extract & Defend, to a company for cartridge development. Eventually, after a string of cold calls, and some sweet-talking from Bosworth, Mutiny lands a meeting with a company that agrees to pony up $50,000 to develop Extract & Defend into a game (I thought I saw a Nintendo controller somewhere there, so I’m assuming that’s where it’s going). Mutiny is, for all intents and purposes, saved.
The company’s salvation, however, appears to come at a great cost to Cameron’s own happiness. In the process of righting the ship, she all but disconnects herself from Tom, saying that the main reason they’re in this situation was because she lost focus and allowed herself to become complacent. Besides being blatantly self-delusional, this evaluation is further undermined by the events of the episode, which clearly show how Mutiny was a team effort. After all, it was Bosworth’s aforementioned slick business savvy that convinced the head honchos about the advantages of boasting an American-made game. Later, Cameron realizes the only reason she even got the meeting in the first place was because Tom used his connections to secure it. What’s more, even Cameron’s admittedly badass “victory” against Joe carries seriously questionable connotations.
So, let’s talk about that “victory” for the moment. The event comes about as a bait-and-switch. In what marks their first encounter since Joe’s ill-advised, drug-fueled visit to the Mutiny house following the WestNet reveal, Cameron initially comes across as unusually sympathetic. She believes that Joe had nothing to do with the WestNet debacle and even goes so far as to try and seduce him. Joe rightfully rebukes her advances. She promptly departs but not before giving him a floppy disc containing what Mutiny’s interface would have been. Joe inserts the disc into the Westgroup computer and admires Cameron’s handiwork, in particular the sentimental note that she embedded in the design.
Touched by this gesture, during a stockholders meeting for the launch of WestNet, Joe makes a brief detour in his introductory speech to pay homage to Cameron’s work. She, he concedes, was the true innovator. Unfortunately, his ex’s olive branch turns out to be something quite poisonous. No sooner has Joe wrapped up his speech than the WestNet demonstration begins malfunctioning. As a cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” blares over the soundtrack, Joe suddenly realizes that the disc Cameron gave him effectively corrupted the system, thus demolishing any potential happy ending for him. In what makes for a beautiful filmmaking flourish, the chaos of the stockholders meeting is juxtaposed with serene images of Cameron taking a blanket out onto the green grass and laying out in the sun, content with the chaos she’s just inflicted on her former lover.
Though Joe and Cameron may reach the end of the hour on very different levels of success, both are connected in how they eventually lose their support system. After the catastrophic meeting, Sara turns on Joe, branding him a failure who has masqueraded himself as a lost visionary. It’s a brutal scene to watch, made all the more gut wrenching by Joe’s reverting to his cold persona. Meanwhile, Cameron’s successful revenge ploy soon reveals itself to be a hollow victory, as Bosworth announces his resignation from the company and an emotionally bruised Tom departs the Mutiny headquarters.
In the wake of all this drama, it can be easy to overlook Gordon’s Seinfeld-from-hell subplot involving his attempt to locate his car in a parking garage. To be fair, on initial glance, it does seem like a fairly tame and unrelated story in the broad scheme of things. And yet, this storyline ends up reflecting not only Gordon’s internal angst, but the issues pertaining to each and every character. Here, Gordon’s aimless wandering not only illustrates his psychologically chaotic mindset, but could also easily apply to Donna’s attempt to reconcile career and family, Joe’s conflicted sense of loyalty and Cameron’s youthful confusion. At this point, the only regular cast member who truly seems to know what he wants is Bosworth, who leaves the company to be with his family. Is Gordon’s storyline the most subtle way to highlight these conflicts? No. But it’s a thematically sound one that ends up perfectly complementing the plotlines surrounding it.
As a penultimate episode, “Kali” effectively serves as the climax of the season—and, boy, what a turn it is. After eight episodes of being the underdog perpetually in danger of being squashed, Mutiny appears to have come out on top. In doing so, however, their leader has basically destroyed the. It’s a proverbial fountain of rich drama and perfectly highlights how a show about people in the ‘80s writing code on their primitive computers can still carry all the emotional wallop of a high-concept story about a suburban dad selling meth or a sociopathic gangster who enters therapy. It’s all in the execution and, in one fell swoop, the Halt creative team has delivered a masterpiece of an episode. I, for one, cannot wait to see how it all ends.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.