There's no surer sign that a show is doing something very right than when even its most plot-heavy episodes leave you thinking not about what happened, but how it happened. Sure, you can recount where Mad Men's final episode left all its leading players — but the real magic lies in the way Don Draper's climactic breakdown and breakthrough is presented. (You're craving a Coke right...about...now.) Game of Thrones' Season Five finale similarly stranded nearly all its major characters in the direst of straits, but weeks later it's the sound of the crowd surrounding Cersei Lannister's walk of shame that sticks in your mind.
This is the enviable position in which Halt and Catch Fire finds itself with the latest installment in its season-long hot streak: "10BROAD36." It's an episode that bursting with big story beats: the Mutiny crew found out about Cameron and Tom's romance; Donna hid both her pregnancy and abortion from her husband Gordon, who was busy cheating on her half a continent away; and Joe MacMillan used his "simple" plan to provide server space to Cam's company as an entry point for taking it over entirely. (Bad Joe is back!) But it's how these characters interacted, and how everything was shot and staged, that made for a fantastic hour of television.
Take Joe's down-low takeover attempt. In many ways, what he's doing to the Mutineers is the same thing he did to Cardiff Electric last year: getting his foot in the door so he can knock down the building from the inside. But instead of a by-the-numbers alpha-male smackdown, the event is depicted in a series of scenes that get us where we need to go in memorable and unexpected ways.
They start with Joe alone in the apartment his fiancée Sara recently vacated. Not entirely, though — a telltale beer bottle on the counter and a few missing items from her closet show that she drops by when MacMillan's not around, leaving traces of her presence like an emotional poltergeist. "I feel like you want me to see these things, to notice," he tells her answering machine. "I call…and you don't pick up." As with his later angry insistence to Cameron that he's not the "bad-guy bait-and-switch artist" she's made him out to be, it's clear these feelings are real. But it's also obvious that his desperation is what drives him to make Mutiny a sort of dowry payment to Sara's skeptical father.
The power play is presaged by his initial appearance inside Mutiny HQ, in which his size and sunglasses marking him as a kind of corporate Terminator. He plays hardball against the women who run the company, resulting in a full-fledged freakout by Donna: "All you own is time on a network!" she yells. "This is real to us." Initially furious at her partner's outburst, Cameron is brought around by the ever-observant John Bosworth — witnessing the explosion, he tells her, "was like looking in a damn mirror." Both exchanges pointed out unspoken truths: MacMillan is too broken to see how he hurts people, and Cameron's too arrogant to notice her own bad behavior indicates inner turmoil.
The trio patch things up in uniquely jerryrigged way. First, Donna travels to Joe's sterile server room, begging forgiveness. Then she and Cameron join forces with the coder monkeys to craft a fake computer, one made to look like it meets his specs on an accelerated timetable. This hoax blows up when Joe dismantles the machine, screaming at Cam that both she and he are better than this. But the catastrophe cements not only the bond between Mutiny's creators, as Donna entrusts her partner to accompany her to Planned Parenthood — it also involves a level of technical know-how so impressive that encourages Joe's old boss/father-in-law Jacob to acquire the company. That's some serious narrative engineering.
By comparison, you could see Gordon Clark's sordid storyline coming from a mile away — yet even this predictable plot took a few unexpected left turns. The tale of a husband turning to an outside source for sexual healing is a familiar one, and the show largely went about this business as straightforwardly and simplistically as possible. But that doesn't account for long, languid tracking shot towards Gordon and his old friend Jules Duffy, sitting around stoned in the bed of his brother's pickup truck, by the end, you've crawled right in there with them, immersed in their marijuana-induced intimacy.
What's more, the encounter only took place because the show deliberately dodged a different clichéd confrontation. It appeared to be building to a painful reunion between Gordon and his auto-mechanic dad, presumably with the usual blue-collar/white-collar, father/son dynamics; instead, talk turned to his brother Henry's alcoholism, which the episode had hidden in plain sight. That's a level of misdirection a good deal more clever than what Cameron and company did to try and dupe Joe. And it's further evidence that when it comes to prestige drama, Halt and Catch Fire is now operating at a state-of-the-art level.
Previously: Brain Drain