"What's the point of playing a game if the outcome is random?" This is the question bedeviling Gordon Clark throughout much of "New Coke," tonight's brisk and breezy Halt and Catch Fire episode. As addicted to his wife Donna's Tank Battle game as he is to cocaine, he's spent hours jockeying his keyboard, only to discover that a code glitch occasionally blocks an opening shot — allowing one's opponent to win. Given his troubled history in the computer business, Gordon knows that sometimes shooting first doesn’t matter; this time, by god, he's going to get it right, even if he has to bribe the Mutiny boys with a month of free pizza to do it.
This sense of playfulness with a purpose runs through the entire hour. Case in point: The Boz is back. Toby Huss returns as John Bosworth, the Cardiff exec who took the rap in a hacking case in order to protect Cameron Howe, the young woman he'd come to see as a surrogate daughter. When he shows up for his first day on the job at Mutiny, Bosworth wins over his unconventional colleagues by exaggerating the brutality of his prison experience for laughs — the equivalent of Gordon's "one more game!" mania. He's tough on the outside, and eggshell fragile on the inside
But the initial warm welcome doesn't last. Soon, the much younger freaks and geeks are pulling pranks involving dropped soap and, in a truly cringeworthy scene, stealing his sweet jailhouse letters to read aloud in an atrocious cornpone accent. "Am I good in the eyes of God?" he writes. "I don't care." Whatever personal peace he'd managed to find behind bars vanishes in the haze of his colleagues' hazing.
This leads to the episode's loveliest scene: Bosworth and Cameron hanging out in the backyard after hours, drinking and shooting the shit in the gorgeous glow of the houselights. We discover her real name is Catherine when John notes she'd signed one of her letters that way. “Cameron was my dad's name," she says. "I started using it after he died.” Before then, she'd written letters to her father, too, signing them with her birth name; she tries to play off her telltale "Catherine" in her correspondence as a force of habit, but it's clear her connection to Boz runs deep. It makes his departure from the company that much tougher to take. "I just need some time to work some stuff out," he tells her. "Get my head straight." His smile is so sad that you really, really want him to succeed.
While Bosworth halts, a new character catches fire: Tom Rendon, a surprisingly preppy hacker played by Mark O'Brien with bad-guy-in-an-Eighties-teen-movie charm. When Donna and Cameron confront him for rewriting their code so that multiple users could play using a single phone line (and creating a massive bandwidth drain), the cocky newcomer quickly tries to win them over — well, Cameron anyway; clean-cut maybe-sociopaths are kind of her thing. There’s something subtly hilarious about his introduction — ambushed by the Mutineers while unloading groceries from his car. But he takes it all in stride, tossing tech jargon and snappy repartee back at them. Like his loaf of French bread, the man's got this job in the bag.
As such, Rendon may well take the place of Joe MacMillan as the show's resident alpha male — the latter has gone beta and, for now at least, shows no desire to go back. In need of cash, he takes a job with his fiancee Sara's oil-magnate father Jacob, played by veteran older-intimidating-guy James Cromwell. Noting his future son-in-law's abysmal track record, he gives him a chance to start at the bottom and work his way up, burying him in a sub-basement data-entry department. But when MacMillan's jaw drops, it's in bemusement, not outrage; he seems to realize that this is a purgatory he deserves. "We can just let this breathe a sec," he tells Sara when she suggests he cut bait or complain to her father — a far cry from the impulsive-to-a-fault guy who staged a coup at Cardiff in a matter of days.
But the funniest thing about this episode: It was genuinely funny. Halt 2.0 appears to have included a serious humor upgrade, a welcome development given the clenched-jaw tension of Season One. There are great little visual gags, like Gordon using SEXYBEARD as his Mutiny username. There are lol-worthy throwaway one-liners, as when a Mutiny's code monkey crams all the free pizza he can eat into his face while saying "I don't even want this anymore!" Even the music gets in on the act: When Joe shows up for his first day at work, the one-time wunderkind's stylish synthpop soundtrack cuts out the second he sets foot in his dingy new digs. It's a perfect sonic spit-take, and a sign that the show's sophomore evolution away from self-seriousness may be the best way to get people to take it seriously.
Previously: Throne of Games