8.4

Halt & Catch Fire Review: “SETI”

(Episode 2.01)

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

Hello, my name is Mark Rozeman and I am a Halt & Catch Fire devotee.

This was not always the case. When the show first premiered, I was intrigued by the premise and found there to be plenty to like about the pilot episode. And yet, I quickly cooled on the show in part because of its deliberate pacing and (seemingly) underdeveloped characters.

Then, a funny thing happened. The show, as if sensing my hesitation, begin slowly subverting the archetypal characterizations that initially gave me cause for concern. Even Lee Pace’s Joe, who I had all but dismissed as being a blatant Don Draper wannabe, became a more nuanced character (if never fully a likable one) by season’s end. That’s not to say there weren’t also missteps in the latter half of the season (Donna’s wayward flirtation with her boss and Gordon’s rushed breakdown being prime examples), but the good definitely began to trump the bad. By the time the team headed to Vegas to present their innovative PC at COMDEX, the show had transformed into something I actually looked forward to watching. Then, just as quickly, the season concluded.

As a second-year premiere, “SETI” instantly makes good on the promises of Season One, establishing a definitive thesis statement about the show’s new direction in the process. From scene-to-scene, it becomes clear that the Halt creative team have learned their lessons from the previous year, distilling the best aspects of the series and putting them front-and-center. Moreover, the episode bursts with a livewire energy that’s a long way from the measured, meandering pacing that defined its initial episodes—though, in fairness, the stodgy feel of those episodes may very well have been reflecting the equally stodgy Cardiff offices that served as the show’s central setting.

The premiere begins with a flashback of happier times—Joe preps himself to go out for a job, but not before engaging in some lovey-dovey flirtations with Cameron. We then flashforward 20 months and the house has morphed into the headquarters of Mutiny, Donna and Cameron’s start-up gaming company. In what I can only describe as something that would happen if Aaron Sorkin wrote for Silicon Valley, we are thrown into this world via a distinctly Sorkin-esque long take that follows Donna and Cameron through their frathouse of a business as they attempt to juggle all the tasks inherent in their work day. It’s a glorious and thrilling method of introducing audiences into this new, madcap era.

What’s more, it’s great to see that Donna and Cameron’s complicated relationship has not been simplified into a “sisterhood against the machine” dynamic. Yes, both characters are females trying to succeed in a male-dominated environment, but they are still two vastly different people and these differences cause inevitable friction. Whereas Donna, despite her desire to no longer be the “mother figure,” finds herself as a designated task master, the more insulated, unorthodox Cameron appears to thrive on the chaos and, thus, skirt on her managerial duties.

In direct contrast to the series’ pilot episode, which focused almost exclusively on the antics of Joe and Gordon, the episode finds both female characters in the driving seat while the male characters have been figuratively neutered. As Donna rushes around to keep Mutiny afloat, Gordon must now face the concept of boredom after his company is sold and he steps down as CEO. We also learn that both he and his team leaned on cocaine as a means of getting their computer quota filled on time and quitting cold turkey is not something Gordon can do so easily.

Meanwhile, out in the woods, Joe is taking a cathartic jog. He subsequently arrives at a cozy home where we discover he’s now in a relationship with a freelance journalist named Sara Wheeler (Aleksa Palladino). In a surprising turn, he also appears to have turned over a new leaf. During a bonfire meeting with some of Sara’s friends, Joe references his previous life, expressing regret about the path it took him down and guilt over the way he treated everyone around him. One can understandably question Joe’s sincerity in a moment like this, but—given his arc in the second half of Season One—I’m more inclined to believe the admission is genuine.

Joe’s dressing down continues when he arrives back at the Cardiff offices to claim his share of the buy-out money. He barely has time to sit down before the elder Nathan Cardiff goes full-on Ned-Beatty-in-Network on him. Looking his most intimidating, Cardiff berates Joe for toying with his company, corrupting John Bosworth and setting ablaze the first shipment of the company’s PCs (as seen in the Season One finale). Given how controversial a character Joe was last season, Nathan almost seems to be serving as a stand-in for some of the critics who expressed frustration about Joe’s abrasive attitude and manipulative tendencies. In any case, Cardiff tears up Joe’s check and announces that he will get nothing. For his part, Joe suffers this abuse in silence, as though acknowledging that this treatment is deserved.

The visit is not a complete bust, however, as Joe ends up reconnecting with Gordon, who has also come to collect his money. Despite the palpable tension at play, the two manage to share a brief laugh before Gordon departs, thus paving the way for a future reconciliation. Keeping with this theme of reconnection, the episode concludes with Cameron driving to the local jail and picking up a recently released John Bosworth.

As a whole, the premiere consists of a series of impressive character moments mixed with instances of overt exposition dumps. Indeed, the only thing weighing the episode down is the sheer amount of awkward, expository dialogue required to catch viewers up on what’s been going on in the intervening year. That said, having seen several future episodes, I can confidently say that, while certainly a bit shoehorned in at times, all the background info does afford future installments the real estate to really dive into more dramatically rich material.

All in all, “SETI” finds Halt off to a dynamite start. It’s the equivalent of the show standing on a podium and declaring that, yes, it has become the program that its early adapters always wished it would be. I hesitate to call it a reboot, as the episode succeeds largely due to the groundwork laid out by the first season, but it’s nothing if not an ideal, perfectly calibrated upgrade.


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