The story of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) grows increasingly fraught and sad on "Halt and Catch Fire," a series filled with hard-won optimism and looks to the future. Seduced and abandoned, so to speak, by Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), ripped off, suffering from severe brain damage, marginalized at Mutiny and now on rocky terms with his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), and her business partner, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Gordon has few places to go and fewer things going for him right now. Sure, some of that is his own fault — he cheated on Donna last season — but it's hard to know that the people you moved across the country for don't trust you, and that the one person who wants you is A) the guy who put you through hell and ripped you off to make a fortune, and B) replaced you with an ambitious up-and-comer (Manish Dayal's Ryan).
That's what makes Gordon's perspective in "Flipping the Switch" both infuriating and sadly understandable. He spends much of the episode making life harder for Donna and Cameron, but as we're introduced to him working on his HAM radio in the closet of his home, it's hard not to feel his pain. He's been literally boxed in in his own home, with Cameron still living in the guest room (she's seen obliviously bopping around to music), and he's reaching out for any sort of a connection over the radio. It's not a subtle metaphor, but it's enormously effective, especially as Donna peers through the coats in the closet, looking on sadly as he has trouble finding anyone ("maybe they're all online,' she says, before realizing a reminder of her business is the last thing he needs right now). There's something simultaneously warm and sad about the way director Jeff Freilich visualizes their separation through the jackets, before Donna asks him to come to the meeting. "Yeah, sure...if you want me there."
Gordon senses it's a way to make him feel like he has something to do more than anything else, especially after his apparent partner in a new project, Ryan, left for Joe McMillan. Ryan spends a night at Joe's new wave-y party before a rude awakening when he returns home the next day, with Cameron waiting for him on his couch. Davis is an extraordinarily expressive performer, her stare communicating a mixture of irritation and understanding. "Do you have any idea what you're getting yourself into?" She empathizes, telling Ryan that she knows how great Joe makes people feel (Gordon said the same last week), but she knows he's in for a world of hurt — she's experienced it both professionally and personally with him. Ryan doesn't go for it. Her expression as she leaves is less angry than disappointed. "You just made a really bad call."
Ryan starts to get a sense that might be true at work, where Joe stops him from working on the 2.0 version of the antivirus program ("That's not what I hired you for." "Why did you hire me, then?" "I'm beginning to wonder that myself"), then drags him into a meeting with suit-wearing executives, with Ryan sticking out in a modest polo and hunched position. Joe's on the cover of Forbes, his claim that the new antivirus program will be free used as a headline with a big question mark. Joe shoots Ryan looks, trying to prompt him to argue in favor of keeping it free. Ryan buckles under the deep condescension of cokehead executive Ken Diebold (Matthew Lillard!). He asks Joe later why Joe didn't argue for the free version. "You said freedom from fear is a right." Joe says he believes it, but he has people to answer to, and he doesn't live in a perfect world where he can make it work.
That compromised but essentially functional meeting might be preferable to the dysfunctional one back at Mutiny, where Gordon keeps shoving his foot in his mouth, first making a reference to Cameron not being able to "get over herself," then getting annoyed when Donna and Cameron veto re-hiring Tom, Cameron's ex, to work on the code. In fairness, he doesn't know Tom and Cameron had a thing, but he still handles his rejected idea badly, blowing up ("Why am I even in this meeting if no one's going to listen to what I'm going to say?"), then letting it slip that he had an affair and that's what he thinks Donna's annoyed about. Cam and Bos (Toby Huss) can only watch in stunned silence as Donna and Gordon have a full-on marital spat in the middle of the office, Donna exasperated at his unprofessionalism, Gordon still convinced that every disagreement is a sign of her lack of forgiveness ("It's there, Donna, every time I look at you"). The whole scene is blocked beautifully, with close shots framing Donna, Cameron and Bosworth together while Gordon is seen at the end of the table, faraway, cut off from everyone. Even when he stands up to argue with Donna, he's framed between her and Cameron, in the background, receding. This relationship might be doomed.
Gordon does make a connection over the HAM, talking about his marital problems alone for a while before Cameron arrives, trying to mend the fence a bit. They don't dislike each other, really, but tensions are high, and even their jokes to each other (Cam: "So when are you guys moving out?" Gordon: "You've got every mug in this house in here") bear the sign of people feeling each other out to find out where they stand.
There's a testier relationship as Joe meets Cameron outside San Francisco City College, having spotted her giving a talk to students. Joe himself is a student, something Cam has a hard time believing. "I got tired of being told I was just a salesman who couldn't code...I might not ever be great at it, but I'm not unteachable." Cam's still not warming, not buying his "humble Zen master" act that he's selling with his product. There's some bitterness in his voice as she leaves, "You don't have to buy it, Cam. Haven't you heard? I'm giving it away for free." Some of that bitterness is aimed at her for having poisoned the well in his engagement, but methinks Joe's need to prove himself (and steal one of Cam and Gordon's allies) is the sign of something bigger, of someone who, if he can't have who he wants, he'll do whatever he can to hurt them.
They're hurt enough as it is, with their meeting the next morning going just as badly as the day before. Cam and Bos try to joke their way past Gordon's earlier outburst after he apologizes, but the four choosing to move on lasts all of four seconds. When Cam decides that she's going to write the code herself, Gordon balks. He restrains himself for a moment, but within a split-second he argues she's spread herself too thin, that they spend too much time waiting for Cam as it is, and so the four start arguing again, the camera moving outside of the office window as their voices blend into an indistinguishable wall of irritation and anger. Elsewhere, Joe tells Ryan to pack up his stuff...because they're going to start working on a new project that will make enough money to justify keeping the antivirus program free. Ryan's thrilled. "Don't smile," Joe lectures him. "We might fail." But as he strides out of the office, dressed in a white, flowing outfit and walking into the light as Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" plays, he still looks like a god...a malevolent one, but a god nonetheless as the mortals at Mutiny burn down everything around them.
-Bosworth and DIane (Annabeth Gish) go to make the deal to buy the competing company, only for Bos to tear it up and offer less after finding the office is hollowed out and the operation unprofessional. Diane seems impressed: "It could have gone the other way." "But it didn't." More cocky Bosworth, please.
-Other great music choices this week: David Bowie's "Absolute Beginners" at Joe's party, from the terrific cult musical of the same name, and a perfect way to show how square and out of place Ryan looks in that company. "War Songs" by Gary Numan blares as Joe walks through the office with headphones, cutting off when he takes them off to admonish Ryan, then playing again when he decides he's done with him. Lastly, Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" during a sequence of Joe doing his homework. This show is catering directly to my music tastes.
-I'm excited to see what the show does with Matthew Lillard, an underrated actor whose goofball, fratty energy could make for a great jerk at Joe's company (you know, other than Joe).
-Speaking of: Joe's slight head tilt whenever he's talking to Ryan is perfectly played because it's so infuriatingly condescending.
-Donna enjoys gin & tonics at lunch now. Donna has good taste in alcohol.
-Donna does not enjoy Bos reminding her that for all of Gordon's flaws, "My god, I know he cares." Her answer: "It's hard to turn that into good news."