You can watch Halt and Catch Fire for its unique Silicon Prairie setting, its throwback Eighties-style signifiers, its quartet of attractive and compelling lead performers, or its insight into the mindset that birthed the computer industries as we know them. Or, as of tonight's episode "Play With Friends," you can tune in just to geek out over the Dutch angles.
Directed by Boys Don’t Cry's Kimberly Peirce, this week’s Halt made extensive and ostentatious use of canted frames, handheld cameras, and most memorably a GoPro-filmed dart-gun battle. These immersive techniques made for a constructive contrast with the clean-machine opening titles. The credits and their accompanying theme music portray technology’s advance as orderly, antiseptic, and unstoppable; meanwhile, the camera work conveys just how haphazard, shaky, and human things really are beneath the surface.
Speaking of being human — hoo boy, do Cameron Howe and Tom Rendon have sexual chemistry to burn. Mark O’Brien has been dynamite in the role from the start, equally convincing as an arrogant hacker and an overworked, underpaid kid trying to make ends meet. He brings that same easy naturalism to his scenes with Mackenzie Davis, making their characters' physical and romantic connection so convincing you feel like you're watching a perfect-for-each-other couple make out at a party for the very first time.
The hour-long buildup to their first kiss is killer, too. First Cameron reprimands him for showing up late and half-asleep. Next, she goes out of her way not to make him feel embarrassed when she discovers him working a supermarket night shift to pay the bills. Then they share a platonic moment in a closet during the dart-gun war, and brainstorm the idea for multiplayer online gaming as a sort of sublimated seven-minutes-in-heaven. Finally, in the middle of cleaning up Mutiny's beercan-strewn backyard, they stop for a giggly hookup that's clumsy with passion and excitement. It's super sexy stuff, and not an item of clothing is shed.
As good as the Tom/Cameron material is, you can point to pretty much any pairing and find stuff that's just as strong. The latter's relationship with her business partner Donna Clark continues to ace the Bechdel test; these two characters give the show an opportunity to explore a host of workplace issues (the cost of innovation, the need to establish respect), all though the lens of two women who admire each other's abilities. So what if they disagree over how best to implement them for the greater good?
Gordon's presence in his wife's life provides a window into a different sort of partnership, that of spouses who work hard at staying connected but still sometimes fail. (Their scene together in the bathroom, where a dispirited Donna is hiding in the tub after a long day, feels lived-in and real.) Cameron, meanwhile, is maintaining a mentor/patron relationship with her friend John Bosworth, back from his head-clearing road trip and working to right the good ship Mutiny free of charge; the way he hides a shit-eating grin when he sells a teen client's mom on paying to reconnect him is a joy to behold.
Even longtime sparring partners Gordon and Joe MacMillan get together in a rewarding way. When MacMillan recruits his former coworker to set up third-party network use at his future father-in-law's company, he neglects to mention he's doing this off-the-books, after hours, and undercover. Last season this might have led to a showy shouting match, but this time around Gordon greets it with a simple, weary "Unbelievable!" and some old-married-couple bickering; then they simply get down to business. He knew going in what Joe was capable of, so a little "That's another fine mess you've gotten us into" Laurel-and-Hardy vibe is both appropriate and sufficient. It's much more interesting to watch these two work within the constraints of each other's limitations than it is to see them try to smash through them.
"Play With Friends" provided plenty of portents for the future, if you want 'em: Chatrooms are booming, business is not. Donna's pregnant, Gordon’s sick, Joe’s probably committing a felony, and Cameron and Tom are hot and heavy. (One last thing about that: Having the two of them come up with a major innovation in gaming together while they fall for each other is pretty great shorthand for the sincerity of their infatuation.) The show constantly has its eyes toward the future, which is fine — but who cares when it's this entertaining to play around in the present?
Previously: Back-Door Men