You know that old saying about how you can't judge a book by its cover? Halt and Catch Fire seems hellbent on puncturing the proverb; it's a show that's always taken pride in how it communicates about its characters through their appearances. Tonight's episode — "The Way In" — is a case in point: Success story Gordon Clark suits up and shaves to show he's enjoying his current victory-lap life. Former silicon-prairie gunslinger Joe MacMillan dresses casual in a plain white tee to signify his simple new outlook. And, more subtly and perhaps most importantly, punk coder extraordinaire Cameron Howe is letting her chopped-off, bleached-blonde hair grow long and dark. The founder of Mutiny is, literally and figuratively, putting down roots.
This latest rock-solid installment is striking for doubling down on the stability of its leading ladies. That may be an odd thing to say when Cameron threatens to fire her partner/resident voice of reason Donna after a company-wide meltdown — and then has a panic attack that only the abrasive Tom Rendon can rescue her from. But think about it: The dynamic duo of Clark and Howe are building an pre-Internet powerhouse from the ground up, and all their arguments stem from how seriously they're taking it. It's the men who find themselves locked out of where they want to go, forced to devise workarounds to get back in.
Take Gordon, for example. Finally freed from the pressures of his Cardiff gig, he's becoming more geekily eccentric and endearing by the day. (Donna jokingly calls him "the Code Warrior," and the name fits.) When he isn't puttering around the garage quoting Superman: The Movie to contextualize the user-mapping program he's developing for Mutiny on spec, he's channeling the Man of Steel to put the moves on his wife. "I'll wear the cape!" he tells her, promising to be the sexual Clark Kent to her Lois Lane. "Glasses on! You like it with the glasses!" Is it adorable? Is it kinky? It's both! And looks pretty damn handsome now, too.
But in romantic terms, it's all for naught. The Clarks have a real connection to each other; look at the comfortably conspiratorial way they discuss their dinner date with Joe and his fiancée, Sara, mutually freaking out over the invite and comparing notes about the new couple. But the two times we see Gordon attempt to initiate intimacy, his wife gently but firmly rebuffs him, since their schedules simply don't allow for it. It's no coincidence that after one such demurral, the harried househusband surreptitiously slips his floppy into Donna's disc drive, loading up the program that accidentally eats Mutiny alive. He's having fun with his total financial and career freedom, but he's also floundering without some higher purpose. Sex and work are classic ways to try filling that void.
Surprisingly, it's Gordon, not Joe, who devises a coping technique that winds up wreaking havoc. The once-mighty MacMillan has been toiling away in the data-entry department of Jacob Wheeler's oil conglomerate, yet it's not the drudgery that bothers him — it's all the cool shit he could be doing with the 411 instead. Every spreadsheet he sees is full of useful information that the company's failing to collect by merely plugging numbers into a database. Like Gordon and his attempt to track down all of Mutiny's freeloading-and-otherwise users, Joe just wants to make use of what's out there already.
Jacob has other plans. When his son-in-law-to-be comes to him with the idea of merging departments, Wheeler greenlights it instantly…but insists that MacMillan himself run it, fire all his coworkers, and start from scratch. The Old Joe wouldn't have thought twice at offloading that out-of-touch crew, but the New Joe — the guy trying to make a life with a woman who puts up with none of his self-mythologizing bullshit — reacts as if struck in the face.
At first it seems like he'll go through with the request anyway. But a brainstorm in the company's mainframe room, an oasis of clean blue and white colors contrasted against the grungy greens and browns of the basement, gives him a way out of returning to the egg-breaking omelet-making ways of his past — "a way in" to something new. The computers, he realizes, run during office hours only. What could a guy like him do with a long, uninterrupted megacomputing? With any luck he won't need to fire anyone to find out.
But the real odd man out here is John Bosworth. No Cardiff, no prison, no Mutiny, no marriage — he's truly footloose and fancy free now, yet all he wants is a way back in. His lovely flight-attendant wife booty-calls him at a motel then drops him the moment he indicates a desire for a more lasting reconnection. She even begs him not to attend the wedding of his son, from whom he's been estranged since at least the events of the show's first season.
Yet Bosworth can't resist, and fortunately for him, neither can his kid; the groom-to-be graciously buries the hatchet, though he can't quite convince the old man to show up. Instead, Boz gives him his beloved old car, saved from the repo men by Cardiff's corporate lawyer in an act that shows just how much people still like this guy. He ends the episode riding back home on a bus, an echo of the imagery surrounding a similarly adrift Don Draper in Mad Men's final episodes. We've said for ages that Halt would be a better series if it treated John as a main character capable of driving his own storylines, and this seals the deal. But any one of the show's characters can keep our interest now, and really, that's the breakthrough we've been waiting for.
Previously: Play On