It’s ironic that this season of Halt & Catch Fire has chosen the dawn of online gaming communities as a historical backdrop for its storylines. For one, consider how many of the episodes thusfar have focused on the ways in which the main characters remain isolated from one another, both in a literal sense (Joe and Gordon are removed from both the main action and their dreams) and in a more figurative fashion (Donna and Cameron find themselves being pulled in different ideological directions). “Play with Friends” works to physically push our characters closer together while simultaneously unearthing deep-seated issues that will block them from truly connecting with one another.
As per usual, the big emotional crux of the episode involves the tension between Donna and Cameron. After last week’s Sonaris disaster, morale at Mutiny is at an all-time low. In a blunt speech to troops, Donna and Cameron outline how, after losing several games and a good chunk of their subscribers, the company is now on financial life support. As a result, employees will need to temporarily forgo salaries in favor of shares in the company. Needless to say, this news is not treated with the greatest enthusiasm.
To Cameron’s surprise, Tom stands up and vocalizes his support of the proposition. Others quickly follow suit and soon we appear to have the makings of an “I Am Spartacus”-type scene. This potentially rousing moment, however, is quickly subverted when Yo-Yo announces that he can’t accept what could potentially be useless shares and quits. Given that Yo-Yo was a holdover character (one of the few) from Season One, such a departure is an effective gut punch. And while it will be a bummer to not have his goofy presence around the Mutiny house anymore (at least for the foreseeable future), his resignation does make the blow feel harder than if the writers had simply selected a few random characters who we had no emotional investment with.
This exodus only serves to further chip away at the growing divide between the company’s lead women. That being said, the real instigating issue concerns Mutiny’s use of chat rooms. Namely, Donna has become quite enamored with the concept, having watched the community quickly grow from a few select rooms to more than a dozen on various niche subjects. Likewise, in one of the series’ few big winks to modern culture, she’s shocked to discover that people even come into chat rooms “just to complain.” Whatever the reason, there are real-life communities being formed that help retain subscribers with minimal effort needed from the company. Cameron, on the other hand, sees these rooms as a security risk, particularly in the wake of Sonaris, and votes for shutting them down.
Here, Halt plays up an interesting dynamic that not a lot of shows bother to try: a situation where two opposing characters are supported by equally valid lines of reasoning. Sure, someone like Aaron Sorkin goes to this well again and again in his own TV shows, but these conflicts usually resolve themselves in a rather pat fashion, with one character taking the moral high ground and magically having everything turn out fine. That’s not the case here. While, from both a technical and historical perspective, Donna is in the right, Cameron’s position also makes perfect sense based on context. Unlike its audience, Halt’s characters don’t have the benefit of knowing the future, thus they can only base decisions on their present-day situations. After having the company nearly collapse from a security breach, Cameron’s reluctance to having an open door into their system is very understandable. Moreover, what’s especially hurtful to Donna is how “professional” she is about stating her case.
Donna’s commitment to the chat room idea is further reinforced by a charming scene where Bosworth goes door-to-door to lure subscribers back, only to find himself face-to-face with a mother who has forbidden her teenage son from going online, believing it has stunted his social growth. Bosworth goes on to explain how her son is actually building his own communion with dozens of other like-minded individuals—people he can relate to on a deeper level than the sports-obsessed boys at school. Of course, the mother’s fear that her son will trade real-life interactions for online ones has great merit to it, but that’s a discussion for further down the line.
In any case, Donna’s insistence on the chat room leads Cameron to give it a whirl. Unfortunately, during a private chat with Tom, she ends up accidentally broadcasting a nasty bit about Gordon and how he “trapped” Donna with their kids to every other Mutiny computer. A furious Donna, having already been hit by what she believes to be the flu, confronts a mortified Cameron and warns her to never speak ill of her children again. This encounter happens at the worst moment as, directly after, the two are forced to stand together with the rest of the Mutiny crew for a photo shoot. This ultimately proves to be a much needed tension valve, as one of the drunken employees ends up diving into the shot wearing nothing but an undershirt and briefs.
From here, Mutiny’s frathouse mentality leads to one of the hour’s best sequences—Cameron ends up joining the crew’s drunken, late-night Nerf gun battle. Set to the Ex Hex’s “Don’t Wanna Lose,” the battle is edited like a combination of an early Darren Aronofsky film and Doom, with the camera alternating between chestcam shots and “gun perspective” set-ups. The sequence ends with Cameron being locked in the closet with Tom. After some flirty banter, the two realize that this is exactly the kind of game Mutiny needs—one in which users can play and interact friends as opposed to a computer.
Inversely, as Cameron and Donna drift further apart, Joe and Gordon grow closer together. After his pitch to lease Westgroup’s mainframe out to third-party businesses is met with utter indifference from his higher-up, Joe decides to push forward with the idea anyway and recruits Gordon (who knows the system like the back of his hand) to configure the system for outside dial-in access. Gordon is naturally reluctant to jump into bed with Joe again (“crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”) but goes against his common sense once his wife inadvertently reminds him of the pride and energy he felt when he was designing the Giant.
Gordon’s spider sense continues to ring after he learns that the two are effectively breaking into the building and performing this task under-the-table, but he chugs on regardless. This results in him collapsing in the middle of the computer room, his body no doubt still a mess from sustained cocaine usage. Despite Gordon’s insistence that he merely “tripped,” Joe senses that something more is amiss. Right now, it’s too early to tell how Gordon’s habits will complicate his renewed relationship with Joe, but such a conflict would definitely help highlight whether or not Joe has truly changed. In some ways, he’s already exploiting Gordon to get what he wants, but the million-dollar question is whether he’s willing to ignore Gordon’s issues at the expense of pushing forward with his latest scheme?
The episode subsequently concludes with a pair of new complications—one minor and one major. First, after their flirtatious encounter in the closet, Cameron and Tom end up finally acting on their feelings and sharing a refreshingly awkward first kiss. Meanwhile, Donna’s episode-long sickness is revealed to be a result of a pregnancy. Granted, this twist does unfortunately fall into the familiar camp of “women are never sick unless they’re dying or pregnant,” but it’s an intriguing wrinkle nonetheless. Certainly, Gordon and Donna are now in a position where they can afford to have another child, but Donna’s dismayed reaction to the pregnancy test seems to indicate something much deeper than financial matters.
“Playing with Friends” marks a nice one-two punch with last week’s “The Way In,” setting up ways in which the core group of characters can once again interact, as well as winding up new conflicts that will inevitably come to an explosive head by season’s end. Moreover, the episode finds Halt further cementing its second year renaissance and diving deeper into the compelling world it has created. Have to say— in the wake of Mad Men’s demise, it’s nice to still have a reason to tune into AMC on Sunday night.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.