First things first: "FUD," the title of the second episode of Halt and Catch Fire, stands for "Fear, uncertainty, and doubt." (Apologies if the "FU" had you expecting something raunchy.) It's the acronym infamously wielded by another acronym, IBM, to crush its would-be competitors by spooking their opponents' potential clients back in the Seventies and Eighties. And that unholy trinity is exactly what the company uses against Cardiff Electronics, when it drops its legal challenge to IBM refugee Joe MacMillan's upstart personal-computer "division" in favor of hitting Cardiff right where it mortally wounds — in the pocketbook.
Coincidentally, "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" are precisely what this deft second episode does a lot to remove about AMC's new would-be hit series. Halt's first proper installment plays in many ways like a response video to the pilot: It does to the pilot's hackneyed presentation of alpha-male antihero tropes what Joe apparently did to IBM's data center before he disappeared — damage, and lots of it. And just like IBM, who cashed in on an insurance windfall after Joe's top-secret rampage, the series emerges from the rubble better off.
This time, we watch Joe reap what he's sown. The smirking, swaggering arrogance that made him so grating in the pilot turns out to be just that – grating (and, we find out, unearned) arrogance. He's so fixated on his grand vision of a new era in personal computing, so focused on coercing and cajoling his underlings and accomplices into playing ball, that he completely misses the totally obvious tools of retaliation at his former employer's disposal. We later learn from IBM's chief goon that he's not just overconfident; he may be actually crazy. Hell, the best line in his pep talk, the bit about putting a ding in the universe, is stolen from Steve Jobs. "You were just pretending," his mousy engineer Gordon Clark marvels. "You're like one of those guys who goes out and reads The Catcher in the Rye too many times and then decides to shoot a Beatle — only in this story, I'm the Beatle." This is the show stomping all over its own lead character's sophistry and sociopathy, and it's glorious to watch.
The most unexpectedly compelling character, however, remains Joe's opposite number, the beleaguered bossman John Bosworth. A lifetime of experience with drawling, balding good ol' boys in bad suits has trained us to see him as a villain with no vision, an antagonist and obstacle to the more appealingly reckless creativity of Joe & co. Refreshingly, Halt's writers and actor Toby Huss make Bosworth the show's most sympathetic figure. He hates lying to IBM not because he's afraid he'll get caught, but because it's wrong, and he knows he'll have a hard time facing himself afterwards. And he's not just looking out for number one – he's genuinely upset that so many people at Cardiff are at risk because of Joe's shenanigans.
In fact, IBM's raid on Cardiff's clients is presented primarily as a series of mounting humiliations for Bosworth, from his failed attempts to chat up his buddy at the racquet club (him in awkward tennis whites, his associate fully suited) to his literal begging on the phone for the guy not to take his business elsewhere. Yet Bosworth's still able to put his dismay and discomfort aside and sell Joe's new leadership to the company's rank and file, knowing that sales job is required if the scheme is to work. Huss's quiet "Yup" as Joe thanks Bosworth for the introduction was the hour's most subtly troubling bit of acting.
Subtlety's still not the show's strong suit, mind you. The camera work can be quite thoughtful – the entire IBM legal-team sequence, for example, seemed to be told through geometric shapes on the screen, from the big rectangular lights and tables to the spreading phalanx of suits as they disperse in the parking lot to the slashing lines of the venetian blinds as our heroes watch them depart. The character work? Not so much. Unnecessarily shouty and strident, Halt exists in that Hollywood world where all business and creative success is echoed by aggression on the part of the successful.
That aggression is often sexual, though thankfully not violently so. From Gordon propping his wife Donna up on the kitchen counter after his big day to Cameron alternating insults and come-ons as she spars with Joe, you're left wondering if people here ever fuck because it's a fun way to express affection, or if it's always just a way to celebrate a touchdown and/or psych out an opponent. The subplot in which Gordon first lies, then comes clean about Cameron's gender to Donna is far more interesting and effective in establishing both intimacy and shifting power dynamics between the couple.
Throughout the hour, the constant, zero-to-60 escalation of personal hostility between the protagonists is the show's least convincing, most annoying trait. Until the climactic parking-lot confrontation: Here, Joe and Gordon physically tussle like they're in the middle of Mean Streets' consciously un-glamorous billiard-parlor brawl. Joe reveals a torso full of scars and delivers a shirtless sob story about getting bullied damn near to death by jocks as a kid. Then he finally sells his compatriots on their shared mission in a way they'll buy: "We're all unreasonable people, and progress depends on our changing the world to fit us, not the other way around." That's a compelling, convincing brand of messianic megalomania, not least because it just might be true.
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But Joe's still a salesman, scars or no. The story he spins for Cameron and Gordon is exactly what he told the stereo salesman he was looking for: a pitch that would solve the problems he'd failed to anticipate. The tearful tale of getting chased off the roof by bullies brings bullied Gordon back into the fold; the brass balls it took to make it up landed brass-balled Cameron. And after this exponentially better episode, now we're sold.
Previously: Abort, Retry, Fail?