Halt and Catch Fire on AMC is one of those rare creations where the follow-up is better than the first. As a loyalist, I usually find myself staying true to the original, and as much as I loved Halt season one, season two is so much better. Before season two premiered, so much of the early critical buzz centered around a much tighter, more cleanly developed reboot of sorts that shifted the story’s focus and perspective in a more energetic and entertaining way. The past three episodes have clearly shown the improvements made to the Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers drama, but last night’s episode “Play With Friends” may just have been the strongest episode in the show’s history (it’s been on for less than two years.) Halt and Catch Fire is a show that’s never too late to start watching. While jumping in during season one may have proved for a more difficult trek, akin to a higher level in the game Colossal Cave Adventure, season two remains as invitational as ever. Especially with each episode being offered for free through AMC the night after its first airing.
- “Tonight’s Halt and Catch Fire was directed by Kimberly Peirce (writer/director of Boys Don’t Cry) and written by Dahvi Waller” – Christopher Cantwell (@ifyoucantwell)
“Play With Friends” – aired 6/21/2015 – (5 stars)
Directed by Kimberly Peirce and Written by Dahvi Waller
*Spoilers for “Play With Friends” are contained within.
“You know why vegetables are a better way to start your morning? Because they contain fiber, which helps with your digestion.” says Gordon (Scoot McNairy) to his two daughters, Joanie and Hayley. It’s another morning at the Clark residence and while Gordon remains at ease with the world, the kids and Donna are getting ready to begin their day. Donna (Kerry Bishe) believes she might be coming down with the flu, as Joanie is just getting over it, but Gordon reassures her that she’s as “cool as a cucumber.” Scoot McNairy has always been excellent on Halt and Catch Fire, but this second season has really allowed him to come more into his own. He’s a unique actor, one to look out for, especially with next March’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and has given life to every word in each week’s script. There’s a certain natural born loser element to Gordon and while it hasn’t been played up to the extremes of last season, there’s a faint sense of that still lingering throughout his performance in this season. Gordon is trying to get healthy, especially after his visit with the doctor concerning his now nixed coke habit in episode 202 – “New Coke.” We’ll see how far they take this plot, but for the time being it works in a great way, especially due to the earnestness and sincerity that McNairy brings to it.
Joe, in a similar path to Gordon, is also trying to better himself. Not through smoothies, but through this positive and honest approach to pitching his vision for Westgroup’s network and computer systems. Since Joe returned to the real world after his “sabbatical” brought on by setting fire to the Cardiff trucks, containing the first shipment of the Giant PCs, we’ve seen him as a much different man. There’s an oddness to it as each episode throughout the first season was designed to peel back another layer on who Joe really was – nothing more than a fraud and a dreamer. But after seeing him at his lowest, this second season hasn’t been quick to restore him back to his version of “greatness.” While I believe many viewers have been slightly disappointed that Lee Pace as MacMillan is no longer center stage and no longer the Don Draper/Harvey Spector/Patrick Bateman character of sorts, it’s much smarter of the creative team to give us a Joe 2.0. This Joe is almost like that of the mythological archetype that Lee Pace has spoken of and each scene is almost a way for the writers to build him up, only to tear him down again. The feeling of the gods hating Joe could not be any more clear this season, especially by season 2 and episode four’s intro scene with him.
Joe meets with Ellis Mortimer, the chief at the Network and Computer Systems department at Westgroup. He pitches him the idea that they could lease the mainframe space and network to third parties during off-hours as the machines aren’t being used on weekends and during the hours of 5 pm to 9 am each week day. Joe’s pitch revolves around the same conducting of ideas and vision that we’ve seen him employ during several moments throughout season one – “We can turn this juggernaut into one massive, forward-thinking entity and you, you’ll be on a first-name basis with Jacob Wheeler. All we have to do is imagine it, trust it, and flip the switch.“
It looks as if Joe has found his moment, the one he’s been waiting for since beginning his Data Entry position, but Mortimer stone walls him. He insults Joe by calling him a “plebe” and reminds him that he was there before Sara’s (Aleksa Palladino) first marriage and “I’ll be here after she’s done with you, too.” It’s an expertly staged moment as we believe we’re getting a Joe returning to his original form, but in a better and more directly honest way. And, why would he be shut down? His ideas and vision are sound this time around with a legitimate way of making money for Westgroup. Yet, Mortimer insults Joe and a door closes on him, yet again. Just like Nathan Cardiff tearing his check during the season two opener “SETI.” Will Joe catch a break?
While Joe struggles getting his vision across, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna break the news to the Mutineers that they could no longer pay them. Mutiny, in many ways is in the same position as Cardiff Electric after the IBM raid in “FUD.” Due to them losing subscribers, SONARIS, and operating costs, they can no longer pay the Mutineers, but in foregoing their salaries, they are offering them shares. Some of the Mutineers decide to stay on board (Lev, Arki, Bodie…), but Yo-Yo (Cooper Andrews) and Frosty (Cory Chapman) leave. Cameron, Donna, and the rest of Mutiny are left in a precarious place as Yo-Yo states that he doesn’t believe their shares are going to be worth anything. There is mutiny at Mutiny.
After parting ways with his family last week, Bosworth (Toby Huss) returns to Mutiny. Despite not being paid, he’s brought them breakfast tacos and has started overlooking their books. Bos, an experienced manager and salesman, notices a few areas for them to cut, along with ideas on how they could rehabilitate their image. He outlines their biggest spenders and points out an opportunity to advertise in Byte magazine, the same magazine that featured Gordon’s article on “The Future of Open Architecture.” It’s a solid plan and it’s great seeing Bos back in a meaningful way. Toby Huss was a great member of the cast in season one and it was some of the season’s most memorable of moments as we saw him become more understanding of the new wave of innovation. I like that he’s back at Mutiny and being utilized in a way that I believed he would. Later on in the episode, Bos visits one of Mutiny’s “whales” and it turns out to be a teenage boy. The boy’s mother wishes to cancel the subscription as she wants her son to focus more on interacting with his peers at school, but what she fails to realize is that he’s communicating with several friends through Mutiny Community. Toby Huss, as I’ve mentioned before, is easily one of Halt’s MVP’s. Not only is it a win for Bos to go “door to door”, instead of cold-calling, but it’s a win for Mutiny. It’s also a subtle little throwback to “High Plains Hardware” when Bos suggests going “door to door” to sell the Cardiff computer program to the VC Joe met with. While he brought up that idea to sink the deal, this time he means it, and it works.
“Play With Friends” also helps further establish the father/daughter relationship Bos shares with Cameron. In a later scene, Tom Rendon (Mark O’ Brien) returns with the developed photos he took of the Mutiny team for Byte magazine. Bos clearly recognizes an attraction between the two of them and introduces himself to Tom. It’s one of the most subtle of moments and so beautifully conveyed just how invested and protective Bos is over Cameron.
“I’ve had a day.”
While Community is growing, including Catty Cathys complaining over their thread being hijacked by bird feeder enthusiasts, Cameron still believes that Donna’s creation should be taken down. She tells her partner that she doesn’t want to take a risk on something so small. It’s another wedge driven between the two partners and in many ways brings to mind a variation of the partnership Joe and Gordon shared during season 2.
- The 1985 song “Things Can Only Get Better” by Howard Jones plays in the background at Mutiny.
- Annabelle, the mannequin, is featured in her pink striped bikini with a plastic cup on her head.
Cameron, later on, admits to never having used Donna’s Community. She does eventually use it to speak with Tom as the other’s are playing, but accidentally sends an insulting message to everyone in regards to Donna’s husband, Gordon. It’s a scene of irony as just prior Donna was telling Cameron that Mutiny Community “people can be more authentic online than in real life.” We get a real understanding that there may be too much of a continual strain on Donna and Cameron’s partnership that may end in her leaving. It would not be surprising as the writers seem to be building to something with Donna’s Mutiny Community growing in a separate direction than Cameron’s online gaming. They’re both equally inventive, but service the maturity levels in both women. While Cameron is focused on gaming as a way to help people communicate, Donna is more interested in fostering user interaction by way of finding a new way for people to communicate.
Kerry Bishe as Donna and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron are the rightful stars of Halt and Catch Fire season two. This is their show. They are both extraordinarily capable actresses who bring to life such an interesting dynamic between the two that reflects, but also transcends the partner relationships in season one. Donna has always been a fan favorite, and while we rooted for her during last season, two has given her more of a significant arc as we watch her become consumed with the daily grind of working for a startup like Mutiny. Throughout the episode – “Play With Friends” it appears as if she may be feeling unwell (possibly the flu), but it turns out the she is pregnant. It’ll be quite interesting to see Donna deal with this next and more urgent matter as she has essentially served as a mother to those she works with (Mutiny) and is already a mother of two daughters (Joanie and Hayley).
I’d like to point out that during “Play With Friends”, Gordon finds his wife hiding in the bathroom as it’s the only place their children won’t look for her. She tells him that she’s “had a day” and for those familiar with season one, Gordon had said that a few times to her.
“Play With Friends.”
After a game of shooting at one another with dart guns, Cameron and Tom figure out the concept for a completely different kind of game. They initially come up with the idea as they both are hiding in the closet during the team game. It’s a high concept for a first-person shooter in many ways, but it also helps further along their undeniable chemistry.
- The song “Don’t Wanna Lose” by Ex Hex is featured during Kimberly Peirce’s wildly shot dart-gun fight sequence. It’s worth noting that as the song was also heavily used during the promotion for season two.
Tom Rendon, while it appears he has developed an apathetic attitude towards Mutiny, he’s actually working nights at Orson’s Family Foods. He’s a stock boy and clearly embarrassed when Cameron shows up in her blue pick-up truck (oddly similar to the one Joe has.) It was nice to see that it’s his late nights working at Orson’s and lack of sleep that has been the reason he’s shown up late at Mutiny. I have enjoyed the direction they’ve taken Tom Rendon’s character in his first season on Halt and Catch Fire. Mark O’ Brien, much like Toby Huss, is a real natural and plays his characters emotions in a believable way. It was expected that he’d be a love interest of sorts for Cameron, but the way their relationship has played out over the past four episodes has worked far better than I expected. Both characters compliment each other very well, especially as Tom’s affection for Cameron began as a user admiring the work she was doing at Mutiny. While it seems Bos is skeptical of Tom, I hope he turns out to be as decent as he seems.
Joe and Gordon begin working after-hours at Westgroup. Earlier, Joe began setting up the lines for the two of them to use while they set up the time sharing options for them to ultimately connect with various third parties. (It’s clear that Joe’s vision of time sharing will eventually bring him into contact with Cameron as Donna’s Mutiny Community will be using Westgroup’s mainframe. The whole idea of them using Westgroup’s mainframe hinges on both Gordon and Joe sneaking into the building, unbeknownst to Sara and her father, Jacob Wheeler (James Cromwell).
“Play With Friends” is an outstanding episode and, once again, I have to add that this was the best of the series so far. Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers have a true prestige drama on a great and established prestige network such as AMC. With each episode set in this current season, we have seen the characters written in a much stronger way. Episode 204 writer, Dahvi Waller also gave us another episode that furthers the development of Gordon’s deteriorating health. In one of the episode highlights, we see Gordon jogging; it’s 1985 and he proclaims that this is his year. He meets with Joe to discuss the possibilities of working together and when he sees him sitting on a bench outside his home, he begins to run and brag that he just did 9 miles. We know Gordon isn’t a runner, and it’s clear that his doctor did not tell him that he has the body of a 25 year old, despite what he tells Joe. Oddly, in much of the same way Joe tries to convince others of his status by faking his position and accomplishments, in a way to sort of convince himself more so than others, Gordon does exactly the same. Gordon, however, while facing an uncertainty regarding his health, is desperately trying to convince himself and others that he’s alright. We’ve seen that Gordon has had nosebleeds, memory loss, his right hand lacks strength, but now it seems as if his condition is only worsening as evidenced in the photo included. During their time at Westgroup, Joe remarks that Gordon is slower than he used to be. He steps out to get them sodas, but while he steps out Gordon collapses on the ground. Joe returns and he’s visibly shocked and concerned to see his friend on the ground. Gordon dismisses his collapse and says that he just slipped on the floor and we get a different side to their partnership/friendship that we’ve never seen before. Lee Pace plays the scene with a sensitivity that we’ve never fully seen in Joe before. If this was last season, Joe would probably be more concerned about Gordon in that his health may interfere with his plans. However, this time it would seem that Joe is more concerned with Gordon’s well being as opposed to creating his network at his father-in-law’s company. Was it just me, or did Joe’s “Hey Gordon, you don’t look so good” line bring to mind his “You stay healthy, Nathan” line in “SETI.” For me, it just serves as a reminder that this is a far different Joe than before. One actively trying to be healthy by himself and others, in physical and mental health.
Halt and Catch Fire airs Sunday night at 10 pm ET on AMC. Check your local listings.