The dramas of TV's New Golden Age excel at presenting their characters with a choice of evils. Should Walter White attempt to take down a more powerful druglord, or turn his family's life upside down by fleeing? Should Daenerys Targaryen let the slaves she freed take vengeance against their former masters, or punish their payback attempts with still more violence? Should Don Draper sell out, or give up? For many shows, the central conflict involves a question with seemingly no right answers.
But what if there are no wrong answers? What if the choice is hard to make because the benefits of either option are too difficult to turn down? In the right hands, that's an even deeper dilemma — and "Working for the Clampdown," tonight's Halt and Catch Fire, proves this is a series with the tools and the talent to navigate this demanding kind of drama.
It's grimly fitting that Cameron Howe is the person who has to make the decision, since she wound up on the losing end of a similar situation last season. Back then, the cutting-edge interactive interface she'd designed for the Cardiff Giant personal computer set it apart from the pack, but also made the unit slower and costlier than its competitors. Gordon Clark and Joe MacMillan could have either saved the project by cutting Cam loose, or honored her genius at the risk of all their livelihoods. Fiction usually stacks the deck in favor of poetry over practicality, but Halt held fast to the idea that neither option was self-evidently superior — and was a smarter, more sophisticated show for it. Season Two has featured a few equally nuanced callbacks to the matter, namely with Gordon admitting that the Giant was a soulless machine and John Bosworth (accurately) telling Howe that dropping her OS was the best business move.
This time around, it's not a computer at stake, but an entire company. Recognizing that Cameron's fledgling internet outfit boasts both a brilliant staff and near-limitless growth potential, Joe and his future father-in-law Jacob Wheeler offer to buy Mutiny outright. Taking the deal means not just a massive influx of cash and increase in reach, but also a chance for the Mutineers to make some actual money. This turns out to be crucial to Cam's boyfriend Tom Rendon in particular: He grew up dirt poor alongside his kind blue-collar mother, and is at the brink of destitution even now. (That's the secret he's been hiding behind his preppy exterior all this time.)
But the alternative is equally appealing. As the name makes clear, true independence is Mutiny's raison d'etre — especially since Cameron, who's been burned by Joe's business tactics before. Ironically, it's Joe himself who makes this case to her, when he learns of a plan to shutter the company's games division. "Don't sell," he warns her, after spending the entire episode convincing her otherwise. "You'll make a ton of money, the company will be a juggernaut, but your vision will be corrupted and lost." Wheeler's can enable Mutiny to do great work — but it won't be her work, guided by her intellect and instincts alone.
So Cameron chooses one of two "right things to do," revealing her decision in a gob-smacking shot down the center of a chaotic office that arranges the Mutineers like diorama figures. It's a victory for her, obviously. It's also a big win for Joe, who willingly sacrificed professional success for personal growth by quitting his job and eloping with Sara Wheeler, whom he'd almost lost. But it's a tremendous blow to Tom and his mother, who needed the money; to Boz, whose loyalty to Howe is unshakeable; to the substantial faction of employees who wanted more of a say in the fate of their company; and most of all to Donna Clark, who fears that her brain-damaged husband Gordon will grow more unstable by the day. This kind of genuine moral ambiguity is much more satisfying than the usual antiheroic murk that prestige TV loves to wallow in.
It's also fueled by powerhouse performances from start to finish. Scoot MacNairy portrays Gordon suffering a frightening memory lapse right in the middle of a big valedictory speech with heartbreaking vulnerability, nailing his transition from conviction to confusion. Toby Huss works wonders when his John Bosworth meets an even bigger, better salesman in Jacob; his eyes beam, but his mouth opens and shuts like snake tonguing the air to determine if he's predator or prey. And not since Timothy Olyphant's Sheriff Seth Bullock on Deadwood has anyone on TV blended blind fury with wet-eyed vulnerability as well as Mackenzie Davis' punk programmer. Halt and Catch Fire is dynamite. Throw it at anyone who'll listen.
Previously: Building the Perfect Beast