'Halt and Catch Fire' Recap: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Sex, drugs, and mental breakdowns lead to a catastrophic night for the Mutiny crew

Scoot McNairy, center, and Lee Pace in 'Halt and Catch Fire.' Credit: Quantrell Colbert/AMC

Joe MacMillan should have learned to trust his Silicon Alley spider-sense.

At first, the one-time wunderkind's obvious resentment of Jesse Evans — the young gun Jacob Wheeler hired as after MacMillan quit his job and ran off with the boss's daughter — feels like little more than FOMO. The new guy is basically Joe 2.0, an even smoother operator with bigger plans and a better track record for implementing them. So when Sara Wheeler teases her new husband about hating his replacement simply because he’s going to miss being a part of the action, we’re inclined to agree. "You're a force of nature," she reassures him. "You make the world what you want it to be. It'll happen in California, too." Knowing what we know, who could disagree?

It's only toward the end of "Limbo," tonight's harrowing Halt episode, that we learn we should have taken Joe's discomfort with his doppelganger at face value. The reason Jacob seemed so gracious about his son-in-law's abrupt resignation and Jesse felt so confident moving into his new gig was because the dark lord and his young apprentice had cooked up a scheme to steal Mutiny's network and subscriber base out from under them.

The discovery leaves Joe in the unenviable position of transitioning from chemically induced bliss to pure panic. Instead of fucking his bonnie bride amid his beloved mainframes while rolling on MDMA after a lengthy, lushly shot nightclub sequence, he's not only forced to sober up; the man has to reenter the enemy territory. Dressed head-to-toe in white like Don Johnson after an all-night Miami Vice cast party, MacMillan staggers into Mutiny HQ and desperately attempt to convince everyone that he had nothing to do with destroying their life's work. The result is the rare moment where no one's buying what our resident mover-and-shaker is selling.

It's hard to believe, given the swaggering alpha-male asshole we remember from Season One, but it's a crushingly sad moment. Here's a guy who really has become a better man…and it doesn't matter. Jacob's swindle is as convincing a copy of Joe's old tactics as his bogus new network is of Mutiny's proprietary code, so none of his former coworkers believe MacMillan is innocent for a second. That’s a tremendous demonstration of how hard it can be to break the mold you've made for yourself. It's always there to shape how others see you.

Gordon Clark is the flip side of Joe's predicament, the wrongful accuser rather than the wrongfully accused. In his mounting brain-damaged paranoia, he screws up sales for his build-to-order computer company, alienates the last two employees willing to weather his production schedule, and breaks into his old pal Stan's garage to accuse him of stealing his idea. He ends up getting led off to jail, darkly murmuring about how Donna did him wrong. The dismantling of the "guy in his garage" myth it seemed that Halt would be constructing is as quick as it is complete.

The bitch of it is that, cocaine binges aside, Gordon's story at the start of this season seemed potentially so much happier than that of his old frienemy. MacMillan flamed out of Cardiff, got shut out of its lucrative buyout, and had a damaged reputation that would have made it impossible for him to get work anywhere else; Sara's love was really the only thing he had going for him. By comparison, Clark had guided Cardiff to a soft landing with respectable (if not groundbreaking) computers, earned a ton of money, and was set to enjoy early retirement. Shit happens, of course, but Scoot McNairy plays Gordon's geeky enthusiasm so well that it's doubly heartbreaking to watch it happen to him, no matter how sketchy his behavior has gotten.

The real victims, of course, are Donna and Cameron, the dynamic duo who have been this season's true main characters. Cam had spent Mutiny's big user cookout alternately cringing over and hiding from the fanbase she helped build. But by the end of the night, she had come to accept two lovely facts of life she'd previously treated as obstacles. First, a user's hard-luck story convinced her that the community wing of the company has eclipsed games as the company’s product of choice. Second, her boyfriend Tom's disarming professions of love and loyalty despite whatever fights they have — and knowing Cameron, there will be plenty — got her to embrace their relationship in the most romantic scene of the season. To achieve this double-barreled blast of enlightenment only to be kneecapped by professional power plays makes it that much worse.

Previously: The Art of Selling Out