Over the course of Halt and Catch Fire‘s first five episodes, the show has driven home its basic ideas about its leads — Joe MacMillan is a visionary but also a play-to-win sociopath, Cameron Howe is a genius but also a self-destructive loose cannon, Gordon Clark has smarts and heart but is also a floundering fuck-up — with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But the on-screen use of an actual sledgehammer? Talk about symbolism, man.
Yet tonight’s episode, “Adventure,” contained a few moments where the hammer fell with slightly less force, and they were very welcome moments indeed. For the first time, Halt gave us the sense that maybe these people actually could work together, if they wanted to, and that maybe that partnership would be worth caring about.
Moments of cooperation and admiration are vital in workplace dramas, no matter how contentious things get. Breaking Bad‘s spectacular middle seasons would have failed if Walt, Jesse, Gus, and Mike had always been at each other’s throats without ever establishing the well-oiled machine that made their empire hum. Mad Men wouldn’t work if Peggy and Pete didn’t genuinely respect Don’s talent, or if Don didn’t overcome his selfishness to support his protégés. People make animated GIF sets out of the moments Don and Peggy have held hands for a reason, you know?
So if Halt winds up giving us more scenes in which its misfit triumvirate actually, you know, get along, it really could catch fire. Remember Gordon telling Joe “good call” for booking their dinner with the Japanese tech bigwigs at a steakhouse instead of a faux-Japanese joint, and Joe responding by telling Gordon “nice work” for setting up the dinner at the first place? Remember Cameron’s almost giddy admiration of new programmer Yo-Yo‘s ability to work around the office software, play her favorite videogame, and generally make her feel welcome? Remember the smiles on everyone’s faces at the picnic, from Cameron to Bosworth?
Of course, most of this was undone as swiftly and surely as Joe and company took down that car at the company picnic. Even though he’s fresh from the scene where Cameron impressed him by overthrowing her stick-in-the-mud new manager, Joe still decides to bigfoot Gordon’s celebration with his fellow engineers, and Gordon pays him back in kind. Why would anyone behave this way? The conflict feels forced, the drama phony.
The same is true at home as well as the office. It ‘s almost comical how swiftly the show is railroading Gordon and Donna‘s marriage, from the groan-inducing “save me a slice of your peach pie” phone call between Donna and her ex-boyfriend/boss to the creepy, psychological-thriller shot of Gordon peeping in on Donna as she plays classical music on her synthesizer in her nightgown. Even the way Gordon chafes against his in-laws, exceedingly well-cast though they may be (Annette O’Toole & Chris Mulkey!), has been done a billion times before. Worse, considering their supportive behavior toward him and his family, it’s got no basis in the story at hand, feeling instead like something the show’s doing just because that’s how harried working men are supposed to react around their successful fathers-in-law. (Between this and True Detective, can we please put a stop to this cliché?)
I mean, really: daddy issues? That’s what Halt turns to in order to explain everyone’s bad behavior? Gordon resents Donna’s dad. Joe resents his own, a suit-wearing cipher whose every line of dialogue was predictable the second you laid eyes on him. (If not before: Show of hands for everyone who didn’t assume Joe’s dad was an alpha-male prick.) And Cameron misses hers, killed in Vietnam – which I guess is supposed to explain her simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by a swaggering authority figure like Joe? It all feels like a storytelling catechism the writers memorized without thinking how it would work for the specific characters, environment, and storyline at hand. You can’t really blame artists for trading in tropes – these ideas become tropes for a reason, after all – but you can blame them when they trot them out and don’t do anything new with them.
It’s a bummer in part because Halt really is capable of more. Think back to the scene in which Cameron stages her coup against Steve, her boring new boss. Cameron had uploaded a game called Adventure to the company computers, and in that time-honored tradition of white-collar workers, most of the coders – and even, adorably, Bosworth – had stayed late to play. But there’s a part of the game that’s all but unbeatable unless you cheat, exploiting back doors in the code to escape. That might make you no fun to play against, Cameron explains to Joe, but it also mean’s you’re a thoughtful and creative coder who can work around problems instead of just slamming into them.
Which is exactly what Cameron had just done. Spending an evening with Joe’s awful dad revealed a back door in Joe‘s code – just as he’d done by tricking Bosworth into hiring him, he’d lied his way into promotions and power over and over again throughout his career, his dad tells Cameron. And voila, the way to ditch her supervisor and regain control of the coding becomes clear. If she makes a big show of overthrowing the guy – while in the process making a great point about coding and potentially saving the project a lot of money and man-hours — Joe will respect and reward that way more than if she’d simply kept her head down and followed orders. Just like the Adventure players, Cameron found herself in an inescapable cave and hacked her way out.
No one hammered this connection home. No one gave a little speech about it. No one shouted it at anyone else, or drunkenly blurted it out in a men’s room. The show just…let it happen, and trusted its viewers to suss it out. That’s a game worth playing.
Previously: Hostile Work Environment