If Season Two of Halt & Catch Fire has had anything approaching a general theme thus far, it involves the damage that stems from good intentions. That was the case last week when Cameron tried to implement a fossil-like Bosworth into her company and, between Gordon’s ill-advised “fix” for Mutiny’s issues and Joe’s suggestion for an improved data entry department, it’s certainly the case this week. Indeed, after two episodes of steadily establishing the status quo, “The Way In” finds many of Halt & Catch Fire’s buried conflicts rearing their head in a most dramatic fashion.
Continuing on from last week, Gordon—in a desperate bid to assert his relevance in a post-Cardiff world—decides to, unbeknownst to Donna, incorporate a new program into Mutiny’s software that would account for all the players in the network and prevent any ghosts from blocking up the system like they did last week. Unfortunately, the program ends up backfiring and effectively overriding Mutiny’s own software, causing them to lose major chunks of data in the process. The program effectively turns the Mutiny headquarters into the hospital from ER, with characters rushing about to save what they can. There’s a lot to be said for how hard it is to make characters working on computers feel dramatic, but this sequence—which accounts for a good third of the episode runtime—does manage to offer a nice counter-argument to this theory.
The data corruption comes at just the wrong moment for Cameron who already is finding her leadership abilities being questioned by new employee, Tom. In an incident that feels straight out of a TV writers’ room, Cameron begins the episode by gathering her employees together and taking pitches for potential new games, most of which sound sucky (one is a game called Jiggles involving Jell-O). It’s here that Cameron reiterates the importance of drawing the player into a new world. As an example, she hands out a new chapter of Parallax for a last polish. To her shock, Tom later dismisses her baby as a shameless rehash. His comments really get under Cameron’s skin and leave her at a loss for words—primarily because he’s kind of right.
It’s here that Halt demonstrates one of its more daring attributes: a willingness to have its central characters proven disastrously wrong. Certainly, the tendency in even the most unorthodox of TV programs is to have the main character be the best at what they do and always have the right answer (despite his multitude of character flaws, Don Draper was always hailed as the best advertising exec in the business). Halt takes glee in subverting this notion. Cameron may be a “strong female character” but that doesn’t mean her every decision is gospel. Indeed, another show would have likely categorized Tom’s insolent behavior as sacrilege, leading to a moment where Cameron would chew him out in a very Aaron Sorkin-esque manner. Instead, Tom’s actions prove to be a constructive challenge, rather than an obstacle. Moreover, despite his abrasive approach, a later scene where he helps to calm a panic-stricken Cameron by walking her through a Parallax level demonstrates that, beneath the too-cool-for-school exterior, he has the capacity for empathy.
As the nightmare rages on at Mutiny, however, Gordon and Donna remain blissfully unaware of the chaos, as they find themselves unexpectedly attending a couples date with Joe and Sara. It’s an invitation that they certainly didn’t expect and even spend the first few minutes of this storyline rewinding Joe’s voicemail invite in disbelief. Donna, for one, is not keen on the idea at first. “My interest in tall, dark mannequins with delusions of grandeur has dwindled,” she says, echoing critical sentiments that plagued the Joe character throughout the first season. Inevitably, morbid curiosity gets the better of them and soon they are spending the evening at Joe and Sara’s apartment. One of the funnier moments of the episode involves Gordon and Donna debating as to what kind of woman a person like Joe would settle down with—Gordon guesses “a perfume model” with “Daryl Hannah cheekbones” while Donna assumes he’d go with someone less challenging than Cameron, namely a “secretary, Joan Baez-type” with “kittens on the futon.”
The dinner ends up being a mixed affair, with Joe admitting that he received nothing from Cardiff. Whereas Gordon finds himself being drawn in by Joe’s newfound sense of vulnerability, Donna has her doubts and spends the car ride back questioning his motivations. The gulf between the two widens after Donna gets word of Mutiny’s shutdown and arrives at the house. Upon hearing about the situation, Gordon owns up to his fatal error. After being screamed at by Cameron, Gordon only worsens the situation by revealing that he and Donna have been using their own money to prevent the house from being condemned. If nothing else, this turn is an efficient way of balancing the scales between Cameron and Donna. After going behind Donna’s back to make several hirings last week, this apparent betrayal of trust now places the two women on equal footing.
Meanwhile, after the Joe plotline last week, the only character truly off in their own world this time around is Bosworth. After deciding to step away from Mutiny, Bos picks up his beloved vintage car from a friend and meets up with a woman who we later discover is his ex-wife. Though the two still share an unmistakable connection, she is looking to move on with her life. Due to his recent incarnation, she also suggests he abstain from attending their son’s upcoming wedding in Galveston. Bosworth decides on a bit of a compromise as he pulls up right near the reception but does not actually step into the venue. To his surprise, his son comes out to meet him and insists that he harbors no ill will and that he’d be perfectly welcome at the wedding. Ultimately, Bosworth declines, agreeing with his wife that having a felon on the front row would not benefit anyone. Before taking off, however, he reads his son the heartbreaking toast he was prepared to give. It’s here that he outlines and apologizes all the times he’d never been there for his child due to business obligations.
While it may not have any real bearing on the main storyline, this subplot has been a long time coming. Throughout the first season, we were given the briefest of hints as to the trouble in Bosworth’s home life, including him sleeping in the office and, later, the presence of divorce papers. Last week, of course, featured his confessional prison letter to Cameron where he bemoans the damage he’s done to his family. This installment effectively gives faces and names to these conflicts, thus coloring in Bosworth’s background and all he has lost. In a series filled to the brim with technical jargon, plotlines such as these help highlight the inherent human drama that pushes the story forward.
In this way, Bosworth finds himself in a similar position to Joe, who is also trying to rebuild his life, albeit at a much more accelerated rate. Throughout the course of the episode, Joe is dealing with a moral quandary. Having presented an idea to Jacob Wheeler about collapsing data entry with analytics in order to avoid leaking data, Wheeler gives him permissions to fire his colleagues and establish his own department from the ground up. Whereas Season One Joe would have had no concern for the feelings of others, the new, more enlightened Joe can’t quite bring himself to subjugate others’ livelihood for the sake of his own, especially because Gene is such an adorably clueless figure (he collects vintage percussion for God’s sake). And so, being the wannabe visionary he is, Joe develops another idea that apparently involves getting more mileage out of the office computers.
With “The Way In,” Halt goes a long way towards crystallizing its arcs for the season. No doubt Joe and Gordon’s reconnection at the dinner party will lead to them reuniting on whatever crazy new idea Joe has for the data entry computers. Meanwhile, Donna is now placed in the unenviable position where she is being pulled between an unstable business venture and an equally unstable spouse. Given that we know how history will shake out, Halt & Catch Fire is not a show that’s going to majorly pull the rug out from under its audience, but the drama lies in how these characters’ dreams will inevitably come into conflict with the tide of known history. Certainly, now that the characters are pursuing smaller, more niche pursuits there’s more of a capacity for surprise, which makes for an exciting path.
Plus, any episode that features both songs by 10CC and Johnny Cash is worth celebrating.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.