"Your whole thing? It attracts people, but it won't keep them around. Authenticity is what inspires people. If you wanna lead people, you have to show them who you really are. Otherwise, you're just a thousand-dollar suit with nothing inside. No one gives a shit."—Cameron Howe
Well, never let it be said that Halt and Catch Fire is incapable of diagnosing its own illness.
In this little post-coitus-interruptus smackdown of her boss and fuck-buddy Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe neatly summarizes the problem with both the leading man and the show in general. True to what they say in certain rooms, admitting it is the first step. And though it's too soon to say for certain – inconsistent shows are usually likely to stay that way – it could well be that tonight's clever, compassionate, frequently lovely episode "Landfall" is where both Joe and Halt and Catch Fire begin their road to recovery.
Let's begin with Joe: It's easy to blame the show's writers for the character's been-there-done-that vibe, but actor Lee Pace has to come clean as well. Up until now, he's seemed content to waft through the role like a living embodiment of one of Christian Bale's flat-affect American Psycho voiceovers, his wide face and dark eyes an uncommunicative mask. Compare him to his fellow performer Toby Huss, who's dug into his character John Bosworth's body language and verbal tics with intelligence and tenacity. When "Boz"'s employees rally behind him, or when Cameron overcomes her antisocial personality and genuinely enjoy his company, Huss' performance has given us ample understanding of why. In delivering Joe's opening pillow talk — seemingly assembled from deleted Dark Knight scenes in which Heath Ledger's Joker comes up with more bullshit answers to "You wanna know how I got these scars?" — Pace just serves up more of the same slick sociopathy he's delivered from the jump.
But at the very end of tonight's episode, Joe finally comes to Cameron with the truth. Yes, it's genuinely heartbreaking to think about a little boy trusting his mom, and his mom literally letting him fall — though it's the ensuing revelation of two years lying broken in a hospital bed that elevates the story from potentially being written off as melodrama. But it's Pace finally making an interesting move that sticks with you: After he finishes the story, you realize he's breathing heavy, as if winded by the effort to tell the truth about his own damage. If you've ever unknotted a personal trauma for someone you care about, this reaction will ring true. Cameron was right: authenticity inspires.
Perhaps it's perverse, then, to claim the show itself got real in the very episode where it laid on the artifice the thickest. After all, one of its standout sequences was a dream, and the other was an unexpected visual-effects hurricane freakout that would look at home in Game of Thrones' Westeros. But both Gordon's nightmare about a flower growing in his precious circuitry and his real-world run-in with the storm gave heft and flair to his same-old struggles with work, family, and white-collar frustration.
They were surprising and funny, for starters. The sight of a man in glasses staring at the tiny flower amid all the electronics recalled similar moments of tiny untameable elements driving the obsessive Walter White entertainingly batshit in Breaking Bad; meanwhile, the escalating fury of the weather and the soundtrack alike hilariously highlighted the absurdity Gordon's standoff with the Cabbage Patch Kid display window. The latter was almost Sopranos-esque in how it turned the stuff of suburban life into the stuff of quixotic vision quests.
And they were simply beautiful to look at, too. Who needs Gordon's umpteenth harried conversation with Donna when we can watch him grasping for a flower growing just out of reach? Who needs another shot of Joe in his underwear silhouetted against his window when you can watch for several seemingly endless seconds as Gordon steps into the middle of the street to see the full electric-gray majesty of nature at its most malevolent? Even as good as Joe's revelation wound up being, doesn't the wordless sight of a father, dolls clutched in his arm, coming face to face with an electrocuted corpse communicate just as much about the frailty of family? Don't forget how Gordon's dream ended: His finger touched the machine's innards, and he electrocuted himself awake.
There are certainly moments in which "Landfall" laid it on too thick. Halt still scores cheap points on Cameron's behalf by having her predict the future of personal computing with uncanny insight – easy to do if you're a writer (in this case, Zack Whedon) and it's 2014. Her sexual peccadilloes remain dully mercenary and predictable as well. Elsewhere, watching Joe imitate a billboard emblazoned with the phrase "Be the Mystery," or strike Scott Stapp/Backstreet Boys poses in the rain, was a little much. But the latter, at least, was tied to a strong sequence demonstrating his instant rapport with Gordon and Donna's kids. You can read that sweetly and say "See? He's not so bad" — or you can remember The Sopranos' lesson about sociopaths' weak spot for kids, and realize there's no better audience for a practiced liar than the credulous minds of children.
For the most part, though, "Landfall" was 42 minutes of solid, sometimes surprising, sometimes striking television, growing like that flower in Halt and Catch Fire's heretofore sterile circuitry. Let it grow.
Previously: Who's Your Daddy?