Halt & Catch Fire: “New Coke”

(Episode 2.02)

TV Reviews
Halt & Catch Fire: “New Coke”

Like any good title, “New Coke” works on different levels. On a surface level, it refers to Gordon’s unfortunate ongoing addiction to cocaine, which finds him making increasingly bad decisions this week. On a more macro scale, the title reflects each character’s defining, underlying goal—to find the “next big thing.” If last week’s “SETI” found most of our characters in the midst of a transition, “New Coke” finds them struggling to adapt to their subsequent new lives—all to varying degrees of success.

The most obvious example of this notion can be found in the arc of John Bosworth. At the Mutiny house, the team is shocked to discover that Cameron has taken it upon herself to hire Bosworth as the newest member of their company. Her idea is that, once he’s had time to acclimate, Bosworth’s CEO experience will help manage workflow. Donna correctly points out that Bosworth knows zilch about computers and will more than likely just be in the way. Indeed, it doesn’t take long for Bosworth to realize he’s become the old coot in a roomful of young and irreverent frat boys.

Having been almost entirely absent during the course of the premiere, Toby Huss’ presence in this episode is a nice shake in the status quo. His opening scene alone, wherein he jokingly walks into the Mutiny house pretending to have been brutalized and needing the assistance of a can, marks one of the major comedic highlights of the episode. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, his wordless expressions upon realizing how out of place he is in this environment really makes you feel for the guy and how much he’s truly lost. The most heartbreaking moment of this entry, however, comes when one of the Mutiny guys intercepts a letter that an incarcerated Bosworth wrote to Cameron and begins reading it aloud to the others while mimicking Bosworth’s Texas drawl. It quickly becomes apparent that the letter is of a super personal nature, revealing Bosworth’s sense of regret about his family. The team members quickly try to shut this gag down but not before Bosworth enters the room, having heard the whole thing, and makes the embarrassed employee finish reading. It’s a painful, awkward situation and proves to be the breaking point for Bosworth who, after a heart-to-heart with Cameron, expresses his need to head out on his own for a bit.

Mutiny’s problems are further exasperated when Donna and Cameron attempt to secure financing from a VC only to have the male representative treat their gender as a stumbling block. After asking if they “have or want” children, the man clarifies that he “needs to know that [they’re] fully committed, even over biological imperatives.” The situation is an unfortunate reminder that, in spite of their unmistakable skills, the two do work in an industry that sees their sex first and their ideas second. That being said, the scene also finds some humor in the fact that neither character knows how to dress for the occasion, with Donna worrying that she’s overloaded on the business attire and Cameron believing she’s embarrassing herself by wearing jeans with holes.

Donna and Cameron’s lone reprieve, ironically, comes in the form of what initially seems to be yet another obstacle. Upon discovering a plagiarized version of Parallax, one of the company’s flagship games, the duo confront its author, a white-collar worker named Tom Rendon. Though furious about his actions, Cameron also can’t help but be impressed by the man’s skills, as he found a way to effortlessly improve Parallax’s graphics. Tom further proves his resourcefulness when he manages to hack into Mutiny’s code and designs a way to have multiple users get in through a single account, thus overloading the system and causing delays in the games (as Yo-Yo puts it, this is akin to someone buying one movie ticket and then sneaking his friends in). Taking a page out of Sun Tzu, Cameron decides that Tom’s knowledge could be valuable and brings him into the fold. Though frustrated once again to be left out of a hiring decision, Donna allows this with the caveat that she will take off if anymore decisions are made behind her back.

Back at the Clarke household, Gordon, desperate for some sense of purpose, busts out his old computer, sniffs a line of cocaine and begins frantically playing a game of Tank Battle, one of Mutiny’s games. Between the drugs and his own obsessive nature, Gordon becomes fixated on a delay in the game. He goes so far as to invite an old Cardiff friend over to test the game with him and, when he’s unable to get a hold of Donna, runs out to bring up this issue with the Mutiny crew in person, thus leaving his friend to pick up his kids at school. Predictably, he later gets a frantic phone call from school officials who believe that his friend was trying to kidnap the children. Gordon’s storyline here is resounding proof that, even after you get what you want, you can still find yourself in a rut.

Speaking of ruts, any Halt fans who longed to see Joe knocked down a few pegs are probably taking great delight at his current lot in life. As the episode opens, Joe is seen speaking with his girlfriend’s father/oil tycoon Jacob Wheeler (a perfectly cast James Cromwell). In a conversation dripping with metaphor, Joe discusses his reluctance to work in oil (it’s “digging up the past”) and reiterates his passion for technological innovation (i.e. looking towards the future). Jacob nevertheless offers Joe a job at his company. Joe doesn’t want to be a charity case, but Jacob assures him this won’t be that.

No sooner has Joe arrived at Wheeler’s building than he realizes Jacob was very true to his word. After orientation, he finds himself being sent to the basement floor and discovers that his “job” will be in data entry, with a supervisor that looks and acts as though he could have been a supporting character in Office Space. Considering Joe’s Steve Jobs-esque power complex last season, being saddled with such an unsexy, mind-numbing position is no doubt a blow to his ego. When he tells Sara, she believes that Joe is serving as a whipping boy for her ex-husband Peter, who coerced Jacob into several investments that ended up costing him millions. Joe, however, takes a different approach—he believes this is a test meant to prove that he can, to paraphrase Jacob, take his lumps and make something of himself.

In an episode where everyone else’s storyline intersects in some way, Joe’s subplot is the lone outlier, as he remains isolated from the rest of the main characters—this is fitting, as his actions last year effectively turned him into a pariah. And certainly Joe accepting the position and agreeing to work hard is further evidence that he is legitimately trying to grow as a person. After all, it’s not hard to imagine first season Joe instantly throwing a fit upon learning about his job and storming up to Jacob’s office to demand something more upper-level.

“New Coke” continues on the themes of reinvention from the premiere, throwing out more curveballs and complications in the process. Moreover, with a good chunk of the background info having been dumped on us last week, this episode allows the characters to explore their new obsessions, the Mutiny crew with perfecting their shaky business, Gordon with finding a new project to fill his now empty life and Joe with clawing his way back to the top. Overall, the episode is prime evidence that Halt’s premiere was no fluke and it’s creative direction is true and clear.

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

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