After a nine month wait, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” returned last night (Sunday, May 31). Bringing to mind the cinematic feel and quality of story telling we’re used to getting from AMC, “Halt” season 2 reminded me of the rare magic that occurs when a film’s sequel is an even greater accomplishment than the original. While AMC’s lineup, such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” often delivered a box office level production on the Sundays of its original run, make no mistake that “Halt and Catch Fire” is the next “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers “Halt” is simply its own, unique entity. “Halt and Catch Fire” is Halt and Catch Fire. With season two, we reestablish the high level of production, writing, and acting; we’re given the next chapter and the premiere establishes “Halt” as something more mutinous! Once again, those of us watching at What’cha Reading are “still on fire!”
*Spoilers for “SETI”are contained within.*
“SETI” – aired 5/31/2015 (5 stars)
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
Written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is getting ready for work. Long gone are the days of his ritualistic beginnings to his morning. He’s not in his empty, glass-like prison of an apartment; he’s getting dressed in a far more basic looking bedroom. Joe puts on his tie, fixes his hair, and heads out of the room with a Clash poster hanging on the wall. Where is Joe? When we last left off, he was heading through hill country on his way to Fisk Observatory as some sort of stargazer. He had just burnt down the inaugural truck containing the first shipment of the Cardiff Giant and, in many ways, burnt all his bridges with those at Cardiff, including his love, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).
It’s 1983 and Hurricane Alicia walloped Texas last week. We immediately understand the opening of “SETI” takes place right after episode 1.06 “Landfall” and sometime around episode 1.07 “Giant” of last season. He heads out to the living room and Cameron is busy playing a video game. A racing game. (Looks like Atari Indy 500 – Chuck, Editor Monkey) They play together and we get to see a side of their relationship that we never really saw last season. Cameron and Joe appear to be happy together, in love, and very much a couple. A few found this scene to be disconcerting, but in many respects, it’s almost as if we’re being reminded and reintroduced to a theme only to say goodbye to it. It works as Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis’s chemistry comes across in an even stronger way than last season and gets us hoping that maybe we’ll get to see them back together for this season. They snuggle momentarily on the couch as they play a round together before Joe heads off to work, referencing COMDEX. He kisses her on the head to distract Cameron, and she loses the current round. She tells him playfully that he cheated, but he tells her it was “victory.” Joe then gets ready to leave and we see he’s slowly slipping back into the Joe MacMillan of last season – the Patrick Bateman version – he tells Cameron not to play all day, smiles, then leaves the house. It looks like this might be the last time we see Joe and Cameron together in this capacity.
20 months later and it’s now March of 1985. Same house, but new faces. Director Juan Jose Campanella directs the following five minutes or so to a dizzying and frenetic degree of madness. The Mutiny House is more like a frat campus of sorts, filled with network issues, a Stormtrooper action figure in the microwave, and problems with their game, Parallax. We see familiar faces such as Yo-Yo (Cooper Andrews) and Lev (August Emerson) and meet a few new faces such as the Russian Coder, Arki (Gabriel Manak). We also meet the female mannequin doll named Annabelle for the first time (she’s the one in the bikini and helmet) and get our second reference to The Clash as a poster hangs on one of the walls. Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe), playing mother to a new set of “kindergartners” advises Cameron to take their network offline for a few hours, but before they can, Yo-Yo blows the power for the house. Welcome to Mutiny.
Catching up with Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), he’s now the President of Cardiff Electric. In an interview on DFW Moneyline, we learn that since the release of the Giant, they released the Giant Pro. Despite the success, Nathan Cardiff (Graham Beckel) has decided to sell his family’s company to a larger overseas company, leaving Gordon with nothing to do but count his shares. Scoot McNairy continues to play Gordon as an uncertain man unsure of himself or the future life is taking him in. Despite a smidgen of confidence (he’s planning on starting up his own business – an investment firm in his garage), we get the feeling he has no idea what to do with himself. But he is clean shaven, well groomed, and has a nice new pair of glasses. The future does look promising for the once “misunderstood genius.”
“Past is past. Tomorrow is tomorrow.”
We see a man running through the woods of Austin, Texas. It’s Joe! He comes into his new home and he washes his face. He just ran 10 miles and we see a healthier, happier Joe than before. This is where we meet season two’s new character, Sara Wheeler played by Aleksa Palladino. There’s an authenticity to their relationship as we see a connection in Sara and Joe that we never fully saw in him and Cameron until the opening of “SETI.” That’s not to sidestep his moment with her near the end of “Landfall”, but we already see a connection in Sara and Joe that establishes their year together since his destructive exit from Cardiff Electric. He gets a call from an attorney at Cardiff Electric notifying that he is to return to Dallas the next day to pick up his check containing his share of the company. He’s relieved of this conclusion to his time with Cardiff Electric, but it leaves him feeling unsettled and insecure over having to return to the place (and faces) that brought out such a darkness in him. “You earned this, you deserve it. Don’t doubt that.” Sara reassures him while we see him stress over having to return. We also get our first look at the understanding Sara has of Joe as she comes across as a sponsor/mother to that of an addict of sorts. Her reassuring words are almost there to bring him back down and keep his devils at bay. Her love and comfort brings a momentary peace to Joe and he refocuses on his accomplishment of a 10 mile run.
Later on, Sara and Joe have an outdoor party with some of her friends. She tells them of how she knew Joe from when they were in school. They’d argue over a rhetoric course, which we’re told Joe was wrong in most of the time. They lost touch over the years and after a bad year for Sara (we aren’t told yet, but fans will know it revolves around her ex-husband scheming after her father’s money), she went to Fisk Observatory to write about their SETI program. We surmise she’s a writer, but once again, fans will know she’s a freelance journalist. Sara tells her friends that while she “was searching the skies, waiting for contact” Joe arrived. The theme of searching for extraterrestrial life (SETI) and Joe as an outsider/alien come through with the plot development and while certain naysayers may feel the idea is contrived, I believe it works beautifully. The idea that season two will explore the relationship of Sara and Joe and Joe reemerging in everyone’s lives ties well into the idea of searching for life and connection. Christopher Cantwell has said season two is about “the dawn of the internet, the arrival of online connection.” and we see two lost figures desperately looking for connection in each other. There’s an authenticity to it that works and would make Cameron proud.
Joe, when asked what he does, gives them a clearly rehearsed/ pat answer that he used to work for IBM and then moved into personal computing. He doesn’t tell Sara’s friends of any details about his past, nor that he currently is unemployed but does say “I needed to reevaluate. At the time, I thought I was unhappy with the project, but in hindsight I realized I was just unhappy with myself. So I guess that’s what I’ve been working on.” Lee Pace’s delivery of “I was unhappy with the project, but in hindsight I realized I was unhappy with myself” seems incredibly forced, as it should be. Again, we get this sense of Sara being his guru of sorts and a life-coach helping him address what didn’t work in his life that led him to this moment. Joe explains that he’s thinking of starting his own company in Silicon Valley, moving from Silicon Prairie with his collected share, and suggesting that him and Sara are in sync with her belief that “the past is the past, but tomorrow is tomorrow.”
While we see Joe on a road to atonement of sorts, looking to leave the past in the past, we return to Gordon at Cardiff. While cleaning out his office, he reflects over an ad for the Giant Pro. It reads “Be A Giant At The Office” and Gordon immediately thinks of his short-lived time as president. While the workers remove the furniture, Gordon opens his desk drawer and we see a small vile of cocaine. He mulls it over and then quickly places it in his pocket. It appears as if Gordon may have a drug problem. Soon our thoughts are confirmed as he speaks with Stan at a dive bar. Stan, one of the engineers from season one, assures Gordon that everyone will be alright with Cardiff closing. We learn that Larry is headed to Tandy at Ed will be working at EDS. During their conversation, Stan brings up a story of them working in the kill room and of Gordon being convinced someone was playing the song “Dreamweaver.” We hear a story filled with mindless antics that concern Gordon heading out into the parking lot and soon removing a tile, crawling up into the ceiling and looking for where the music was coming from. Gordon listens to the story, clueless with no recall, because as Stan figures, they were “coked out of their minds.” Okay, so we know that Gordon has nursed a cocaine habit and his erratic behavior from season one now has a clearer explanation.
- For those that may be interested, according to Christopher C. Rogers “The bar is named The Landing. The best dive bar in Dallas/The Universe”
It’s evident that Gordon is facing a real issue of regressing during our time we spend with him in season two opener “SETI.” While Joe is actively pursuing change, Gordon is not. The way we are introduced to our main characters in this episode reflects the cleverness and strength of Cantwell and Rogers writing. They’ve crafted an engaging setup that reflects a larger, over-arching story that is more than just a season two. With the subtle developments that tie back into season one, “Halt and Catch Fire” is already a much stronger and engaging series than people realize. The character writing is just one of the many reasons “Halt”should not be missed.
Meanwhile, back at Mutiny, the power returns to the house after Cameron siphons off electricity from their neighbors meter. Donna does not approve, but Cameron calls it “trickle down electricity” as The Andersons “are loaded.” This leads to an argument between both women as Donna feels that there is a real problem Mutiny is facing without any boss or company structure. There’s an appeal to Mutiny in that it’s based on people coming together doing what they love, but an issue that could shut them down as everyone does what they please. Donna, already a mom to two girls (and Gordon), doesn’t want to be the boss at Mutiny and feels that Cameron needs to take more responsibility. However, Cameron feels different and shows that she still hasn’t lost her disdain for authority. We do see a slight change in Donna as she is now becoming consumed with her work at Mutiny. She’s caught in a tough position as she cares about Cameron’s start-up company and doesn’t want to see it fail, but doesn’t want to be consumed by it as she came to work and enjoy what she does, especially after leaving Texas Instruments. While at home, we see a bit of a role reversal as Gordon is now more like Donna and she is more like him. She’s caught up with sorting out the power line issue with the phone company and forgets about the closing of Cardiff Electric. Gordon tells her it’s okay while he tells her about the girls, and we do believe he has everything under control.
“Something’s coming. It’s gonna be big…”
While Gordon waits in the lobby of Cardiff Electric, Joe arrives. “Of course you’d show up for your piece of the pie.” He says to Joe after not seeing him since the launch party for the Giant. Joe, however, is not the same man he used to be. He’s actually more of the man he really is – uncertain, insecure, a boy playing the man. It’s here where we get more of a return to form for Lee Pace, not seen since his days as Ned, the pie-maker on “Pushing Daisies.” We learn that Joe and Gordon are the lowest shareholders (they split eight percent in “1984”). In the time between then and now, Joe wrote Gordon a letter and he asks him if he got it. It’s another road to recovery/ A.A. kind of step Joe’s taking to better himself and it’s different to accept that this version is the kind that would attempt to reconnect with someone via letter. Gordon asks his ex-business partner “How was Shangri-la?” and Joe tells him “It’s good. Healthy.” Both men start to bond while they reminisce over the Giant, the mistakes they made, and how Gordon feels the Giant PRO was “a lateral move, less inspired.” It’s actually something Joe would have originally felt, but Joe 2.0 makes him laugh when he tells him it “wasn’t that bad.”
Gordon, first called in to collect his share, gets the sum total of $838,121.56. According to the script, Cantwell and Rogers wrote “He’s been preparing for this, but now it’s real.” It’s the kind of sentiment perfectly conveyed by Scoot McNairy as he asks “So I can just take this to the bank?” One of the attorneys responds with a quick “Yes, that’s still how checks work.” and pay attention to McNairy’s subtle look he gives the man. Perfect. Up next is Joe and mind you this is the first time Nathan Cardiff is seeing him since he burnt down the truck and exited Cardiff. Nathan personally hands Joe his check and shows him his total share worth is $605,304.12 – it’s his worth after the damages have been taken out. Nathan then rips the check and tells Joe that he gets nothing, “not one red cent.”
“You destroy lives. You cost dozens of good, honest people their jobs. You sent my SVP of Sales, my friend John Bosworth, to prison, and for what? A doorstop of a computer with a fancy screen and no legacy.”
It’s a heated moment; while it wasn’t expected, we didn’t necessarily see coming. Nathan’s last words to Joe leave a ringing noise in his head as he contemplates that his time at Cardiff and ultimate dream of building a PC unlike any other will have “no legacy.” On a more profound level, it hits him as it connects to Cameron’s last words to him about not being the future, being a footnote instead.
Joe, before he leaves, chimes in that it’s good that Nathan is selling the company, even though he told Gordon that he felt selling now was a mistake. Joe believes that “something big is coming” and insults Nathan by informing him that it won’t include Cardiff Electric, nor will it include him. Nathan bellows at Joe one last time and while walking out of the room says “You stay healthy, Nathan.”
- “That scene with Nathan is the reason this entire season happens. Just remember that.” – Christopher Cantwell
While in the elevator, Joe and Gordon speak for what we all know won’t be the last time they’re together. He’s seething with feelings of anger, failure, despair as he contends with having nothing to his name and dashing his plan of moving to California. However, it looks like he’s happy for Gordon’s success and encourages him on going back into the garage – “You’re a builder. That’s what you should do.” Make no mistake that Joe is broken completely.
The idea of something big coming, one that Joe seems to feel, strongly suggests that he may, in fact, be a visionary. While we’re in the midst of an online gaming and gaming phenomenon in and of itself, we recount Donna commenting that Mutiny’s game subscribers are paying $5 an hour just to chat with one another. It’s something Donna sees as an opportunity as she believes a community can exist outside of the games. While Donna is on the verge of potentially making a breakthrough idea for Mutiny, one that will ultimately save them, is it possible that Joe will find his way back to them (his own personal search for extraterrestrial life) through the shared vision of connecting people?
Author William Gibson (“Johnny Mnemonic”) wrote the science-fiction, cyberpunk masterpiece “Neuromancer.” It released in 1984 and went on to win The Nebula Award, The Philip K. Dick Award, and The Hugo Award. We see Gordon reading this after he brings the girls to Braum’s.
- Braum’s ice cream is another Texas reference in “SETI”
After their trip to Braum’s, Gordon has a nose bleed indicating his usage of cocaine. Is it a solution and aid to his creativity such as Sherlock Holmes? Or is it, in fact, a greater problem that will play out over season 2? For those familiar with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, the story arc is eerily reminiscent to that of what happens in “SETI” and what possibly may happen in season 2 of “Halt and Catch Fire.” The main character in “Neuromancer” has an addiction to cocaine, among other drug issues. Along his travels he meets various other characters with shades that remind us of some of our main players (Cameron and Joe) and faces yet to be seen this season (Tom Rendon played by Mark O’Brien & Rick “The Fence” played by Nico Nicotera) Should “Halt and Catch Fire” fans begin reading William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” for clues?
“You’ve got to hidey hide. You’ve got to jump and run.”
In a moment that almost certainly sets up a plot for later on this season, Cameron and Donna meet with Cameron’s fence, Rick. They need to get new equipment for Mutiny and he scams them by giving them counterfeit IBM XT’s. Before they realize the scam, Cameron pays 500 hundred as she lowers the amount asked from 3 grand. Later on, Cameron and Donna bond at a dive bar, and we learn about Donna’s online gaming community vision along with Cameron’s realization that she should be the boss. They see Rick enter the bar and after an encounter with him, steal the money from his lock box and two brand new IBM XT’s from his truck. It’s worth noting that Donna advises to just take the XT’s, not the money. They drive off, escaping Rick, and Donna leans out the window shouting “Hey, you still want my number?”
- Rick refers to Donna as Mrs. Garrett. This is a reference to “The Facts of Life.”
As they “jump and run”, we get a lingering shot on Rick’s face and it’s clear that this is not the last time we’ve seen him.
Joe returns home to Sara and he’s crushed as Nathan Cardiff shut him out of the money. He asks her if she believes what she said to her friends about him the other night? Sara tells Joe that despite him having “hurt a lot of people or that you lied your way through the door” he made Cardiff what it is today. He then says… “Marry me.” It surprises us and throws Sara off guard. He tells her that he’s asking because he loves her and she suggests that it’s because she’s the first person to forgive him. Reasoning that he knows she’s scared as she’s “been down this road before” (another reminder of her ex-husband), he assures her he wants to marry her out of love. Sara says yes and we’re left uncertain whether or not this was a genuine move on Joe’s part. But moments later, as Sara is sleeping in bed, we see Joe up late playing a video game against a user CamHowe. He loses to her and when she asks if he’s a new subscriber, he types in “Yup. Just signed on.” Fascinatingly, Cameron doesn’t know she’s playing with Joe, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t know he’s playing against her (as some reviews have speculated.) Joe, as ever, is still obsessed with Cameron.
“The Old Man is down the road.”
Cameron drives down a long dirt road and we see a prison fence. She parks outside and, for those that have watched, we know what’s coming. As the John Fogerty song plays, we all can’t help but smile and cheer as the MVP of “Halt and Catch Fire” returns – John Bosworth (Toby Huss). He walks to her uneasily, but they soon smile and embrace each other with a giant hug. They grasp each other and start laughing.
There’s a great clarity to “SETI” as the second season opener for “Halt and Catch Fire.” It shows great promise and raises several more questions about Joe and Gordon, especially as to where this next part of their journey will take them. It should also be fun to look back on this episode a few weeks in to spot anything we may have missed. Were there names referenced or events that will come back to reward/haunt our main protagonists? Either way, “SETI” is a strong start to what will surely be another great season of “Halt and Catch Fire.” I’d also like to mention, on behalf of Christopher C. Rogers, that this episode was “lovingly produced” by Jeff Freilich.
“Halt and Catch Fire” airs Sunday nights at 10 pm on AMC. Check your local listings.