'Halt and Catch Fire' Season Premiere Recap: Throne of Games

Let the gaming begin as AMC's dawn-of-the-computer-era drama returns with a vengeance

Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis in the Season Two premiere of AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire.' Credit: Annette Brown/AMC

Despite the best efforts of GamerGate to demonstrate otherwise, Internet communities formed around video games aren't always nightmarish pits of despair. Trying your hand at something new and unexpected in the company of fellow digital thrillseekers? Sounds like a good time, right? That's the idea behind Halt and Catch Fire's second season, a virtual reboot that begins with tonight's premiere episode: And so far, watching our core quartet of computer whizzes attempt to build an online world is as much fun for us as it is for their networked clientele.

For one thing, almost nobody screams at each other. Halt spent much of its first season dropping its protagonists into pointless peer-to-peer pissing contests and shouting matches. The idea was obviously to amp up the dramatic stakes; the result, however, repeatedly ground narrative progress and character growth to a you-know-what. Plus it had a knack for turning most of its heroes into unlikeable dicks — all the more unforgivable when your cast is well-stocked with nuanced actors like Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishé. Fortunately, this episode — title: "SETI" — is a comparative lovefest. With the exception of a reasonable argument between Cameron Howe and Donna Clark about the latter’s den-mother role at the new company they created to ride the coming Internet wave, everyone is suddenly capable of speaking politely, sincerely, and softly. You watch the show's core group together and understand why they’d associate, how they could build something special together. Take a look at Mad Men if you doubt how important that is.

Another major point in the premiere’s favor isn't a what, but a when: We rejoin the Cardiff crew almost two years after we left them, guaranteeing fresh and unfamiliar territory. The Season One finale ended with Gordon asking "What are we gonna do next?" By the time we see him again, he’s already done it, having orchestrated the sale of the company entirely offscreen. Our resident alpha dweeb has also picked up a heck of a coke habit, apparently; building a second machine — the "Giant Pro" — may have been "a lateral move," as he puts it, but switching from beer to yayo as your addiction of choice certainly isn't.

While we were out, Cameron and Donna built their startup into an exciting and respectable, if buggy, online-gaming company named Mutiny — one that anticipates the demand for chat rooms, IMs, and social networks. (All this in 1985!) Former master of the universe Joe MacMillan, meanwhile, appears to have settled semi-happily into a life of yuppie domesticity with his girlfriend, Sara. (Say hello to Aleksa Palladino, best known as the doomed spouse of Boardwalk Empire's Jimmy Darmody. What is it with this actress and emotionally remote romantic screen partners?) He spends cozy evenings around a fire with friends like a wintertime beer commercial; instead of fighting tooth and nail for his share of the Cardiff sale, he heads home and pops the question instead. Not that Joe is beyond backsliding, of course, but after a season that kept repetitively asking if he was capable of happiness or change, you're relieved to see the question answered so easily.

Across the board, Halt's great leap forward makes for a breezier, better show. Though the painstaking process of chronicling the group's personal-computer empire-building last season gave the show a sturdy core, it was also exhausting for the audience as well as the characters. Jumping ahead means skipping past the back-and-forths that bogged the series down just as surely as calling a ceasefire on the constant hostility does.

And it clears some space in the hard drive for much cooler stuff. There's some just-this-side-of-showy stylistics, like the opening sequence in which a hand-held camera follows Donna around the chaotic Mutiny office for minutes on end. There's a nifty metaphor for Cameron's "where you see a wall, I see a door" thinking in her customer-service call, where she coaches a gamer trapped in a room full of holograms to escape by simply walking right through them. There's a more playful sense of humor, from the goofy mid-Eighties commercial for the "Giant" to the sight of a coked-up Gordon reading William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer and muttering "What the hell??" with a bloody tissue up his nose. There may even be a new structure, since for all we know each season will focus on a brand-new aspect of the tech biz — like how The Wire handled Baltimore, but with joysticks.

The episode closes on Cameron taking a trip to the penitentiary to pick up John Bosworth, her old boss and unlikely friend, imprisoned after taking the rap for the young programmer's cybercrimes. It's a fitting note, and not just because it’s soundtracked by John Fogerty’s "The Old Man Down the Road" — itself the subject of a bizarre self-plagiarism lawsuit reminiscent of the Cardiff crew’s legal battles to control their own code last season. Brought to life by series MVP Toby Huss, Boz was the show's most endearing, least predictable player during its inaugural run. Halt 2.0 appears to have embraced that spirit with the same giggly ferocity of the pair's post-prison hug. Game on.