'Halt and Catch Fire' Recap: Brain Drain

Health scares and dark secrets demonstrate why AMC's drama keeps getting better

Scoot McNairy in 'Halt and Catch Fire.' Credit: Richard DuCree/AMC

Gordon Clark is dying. Or not. (There's a lot of that going around tonight.) The truth is that we don't know the long-term prognosis for his chronic toxic encephalopathy, the chemical solvent–induced brain-damage condition with which he was diagnosed. We've just seen the symptoms — his depression and exhaustion, his jittery movements, his flip-of-the-switch personality shifts and hole-digging backyard meltdowns. But whether or not the disorder is a terminal one, the damage is done. His mental problems aren't glitches, they're a system failure. To a man of the mind like Gordon, that's death by another name.

Leading a review of "Infiltrator," tonight's typically terrific episode of Halt and Catch Fire, with Gordon's broken brain makes it sound like a huge downer. Which it was, at times! Watching Gordon sleepwalk through the revelers at a local nightclub, have a rare moment of connection with his mother-in-law soured by money talk, or completely fail to connect with his wife Donna — who's having a crisis of her own via an unplanned pregnancy — felt like a series of slaps to the face.

But this is the show's strength now: It's got such a command of its characters and situations that it can switch from sad to giddy without breaking a sweat. Gordon's grim physical state is only half the story; the other half in the very funny way he handled Donna's discovery that he's outsourced Mutiny's servers to his old nemesis. "The person I've been dealing with over there is Joe," he squeaks out. "Joe who?" she demands, dreading the answer. Her husband's response is to sheepishly grimace and become a human shrug emoji.

He handles the man himself in an equally entertaining way when MacMillan threatens to boot Mutiny off the servers rather than make their backroom deal legit. "You're not the reptilian son of a bitch everyone says you are. You're a changed man," he barks, practically willing this new improved Joe 2.0 into existence. (Not to mention playfully calling attention to the show's own strategy for its former asshole alpha-male this season.) And it works. A story like this inevitably involves some wallowing in failure, but it can just as easily show people tap-dancing right past it.

That's kind of John Bosworth's deal this week. You assume he'd take the new relationship between his surrogate daughter figure Cameron Howe and her hotshot new employee Tom Rendon poorly — not out of any reverse-Oedipal impulse, just a misguided attempt to play parent. Sure enough, he starts micromanaging things more around the office, from replacing beat-up office chairs to banning the Internet's first troll from the service. But in a heart to heart he has with Donna after Howe lets him have it, he reveals that he thinks she's with child; he wasn't meddling with her social life, he was genuinely trying to make things easier. It's a clever fake-out that emphasizes Boz's likability and unpredictability, some of the show's great strengths since day one. (See also his hilarious reaction to discovering game designer Lev is gay: ". . . I got a cousin . . . good!")

Halt's got many strengths besides its characters, of course; its period pop-culture reference game has rarely if ever been as on point as it was tonight. Cameron and Tom's rental of The Terminator, for example, takes on any number of roles within the narrative. Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice gives them funny accents to flirt in. Renting the video provides Tom with a convenient excuse for one of his many sudden "I gotta go"s, which seems to suggest a secret at home. The film's totally-Eighties nightclub-massacre scene is beautifully recreated in Gordon's own visit to the local hotspot, with a zonked-out computer engineer substituting for the gun-toting cyborg. The Mutiny crew watches the scene featuring the famous line "And it will not stop, ever, until you are dead," which echoes Clark's understanding of his disease. And the first-person shooter the company wants to develop will, in all likelihood, owe a lot to the visceral violence and implacable antagonists of James Cameron's classic.

Ditto the just-imported Nintendo Entertainment System that Gordon's kids can't wait to play. Like the Macintosh that appeared at the end of last season like one of 2001's monoliths, the NES will create a massive cultural explosion that Cameron and company will have to deal with. The children's prophetically passionate response shows how important the characters' family lives can be to their professional ones, if only they pay attention. The bemused way Donna's mother describes the game they're playing ("A bunch of little men fighting turtles") illustrates how easy it is to ignore a Super Mario Bros–sized forest for the trees. It also indicates the weird alchemy required to create a world that gamers will want to immerse themselves in again and again, which is Cameron's current quest for her theoretical online multiplayer game. Maybe it's a coincidence that so many shots in this episode showed characters as small figures against big backgrounds, Mario-style — but if so it's a coincidence that counts.

Previously: Trapped in the Closet