Trust and teamwork are at the center of this week's "Halt and Catch Fire," the best episode so far of what's already a strong season. Earlier episodes have furthered ideas of where our heroes have stood since the end of last season — Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishe) as a grand creative collective, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) as a marginalized figure at Mutiny and in his marriage to Donna, Bosworth (Toby Huss) as the beloved business-savvy patriarchal figure of Mutiny, and Joe (Lee Pace) as smooth, dynamic "genius" figure. "Rules of Honorable Play," however, challenges assumptions about the characters and sees their relationships shifting, occasionally for the better, often for the worse.
Take Gordon, who opens the episode with worsening symptoms of toxic encephalopathy: his vision blurred as he rubs his eyes, a dolly zoom showing the office setting shifting around him. He's lost his appetite, his hand is trembling, and he's nauseous. He uses his logbook to say his symptoms are at a "5" right now, and he's not helped when, during an argument between the Mutiny mainstays and the new employees from Swapmeet, he's struck in the ear by one of them (his yell of "what the f-" blurring into the synth-heavy opening credits in a fun edit). Gordon's at his lowest point in a while for much of the episode, trying to relieve stress by playing "Duck Hunt" on his Nintendo system but having little luck hitting anything, to the giggling of the almost surreally annoying "Duck Hunt" dog. When Cameron enters and jokes that he take the guys out back and shoot them, his fingers tremble, and a close-up on the laughing dog suggests something horrible around the corner.
And then: a good idea! Gordon proposes a team-building exercise of laser tag, acting like Lee Marvin to their "Dirty Dozen" as he adopts a mock-officer affect before they hit the floor. The group bombs, badly, until Gordon leads a charge, storming the rival team in such a gung ho fashion that he tackles one of them, knocking over one of the walls and getting thrown off the floor as the others continue. It's a deliberately goofy scene, an action sequence set in slow motion to Billy Joel's maudlin "Goodnight Saigon" as Gordon storms the floor, shouting like a madman and shooting left and right. But it's also a heroic moment for Gordon, one that sees him fighting to unite the different factions of Mutiny through a kids game and somehow succeeding, Joel's chorus soaring with a "And we will all go down together." He even writes down later that his symptoms for the day are at "0." Gordon needed a win, and for a short while, at least, he gets one.
He's the only one who manages it: elsewhere, Cameron is overworked, trying like hell to rewrite the Swapmeet code to fit Mutiny rather than the other way around, much to the consternation of fratty Swapmeet co-founder Doug (Joe Massingill). Doug's partner, Craig (Joe Dinicol), is eager to meet Cam halfway, but Doug doesn't make it easy, disparaging Cam's coding abilities ("oh, I get it, you're that good") and later, after a half-hearted extension of the olive branch, asking Cam if some loser ex turned her into "a man-hating b----." The set-up to the scene is perfect, Cam lost in coding and music (Elvis Costello's "Beyond Belief," to my delight), the camera starting on her headphones cord and panning towards the door as Doug enters; after his insult, Cam jumps up, ready to attack, only to pull down a shelf as she rips out her still-attached headphones out of the jack, the music blaring.
Before she has time to recover, she receives a call from home, her stepdad advising her to make a trip before he and her mom move to Florida and all of her departed father's stuff is sold. Speaking of her mother, her stepdad ssures Cam that "She's not what she used to be...she's much better now." Cam doesn't buy it: "Then why didn't she call?" Already vulnerable, she meets for a peace talk with Craig over Bos' stash of Wild Turkey, admitting that the code she's keeping is the last thing she wrote herself before turning Mutiny into a company. The camera separates the two of them on opposite sides of the frame between edits, then turns as she explains why it's important to her, Craig's head coming into the frame, showing an active listener. "It was fast and it was..." "beautiful," he interrupts. She assents: "I'm proud of this place, but back then it was this secret, it was all mine," she continues, before mentioning her stepdad's call, her father's motorbike (which he used to take her to school on), and the possibility of a solo venture, without Doug.
As Cam considers pushing out a partner, Joe actively alienates a client in front of his cokehead boss Ken (Matthew Lillard). The client's (closeted) son was caught on the way back from Joe's party with cocaine. Joe schmoozes the client, talking surfing and promising that he didn't know drugs were at his party. He sits forward, the client and Ken sitting back, Joe acting a charming as he's ever been. Everything's going well until the client makes a comment about business associates with "soft handshakes," adding that "maybe we'll get lucky, all the f------ will catch that special flu that's been going around." Joe's bisexuality has never been one of the better-handled elements of the show, often serving as an all-purpose plot device, but there's something more than just a satisfying kiss-off (though it's certainly that) as Joe lowers his head and goes into attack mode, grabbing tightly onto the man's hand, hoping his son finds a way for him, and insulting his wife before letting him go. Joe's just forcibly severed ties with a man who provides 30% of the company's money, but the scene illustrates that he's in a better position to weed out undesirable business partners than Cam, who has to at least try to make nice with the odious Doug. Within a few scenes, Joe and Ryan are moving forward, looking into Arpanet for "what's next."
Less focused on what's next than whether anything's in front of him is Bosworth, still a beloved figure at Mutiny but not entirely satisfied. Diane (Annabeth Gish) recognizes a kindred spirit, another more wizened, weathered figure in a company that's otherwise filled with relative novices. She's also nursing a clear crush on him, though an invitation to join her at a party is said to be a fear of flying solo following her divorce. Bos is the life of the party: he entertains the guests with a story involving a bear impression (punchline: "that's not a bear, that's your ex-wife") that he used on the Mutiny team early in the episode, and Diane's quick to tell him that everybody loves him.
But Bos also has an unwelcome reminder of the past when he sees Joe. He does thank him for the call in the premier congratulating him on the birth of his grandson, but there's a testiness between them. Joe's framed in front of a silver-framed window into the outdoor pool, Toby in front of the rest of the party. Joe looks like a man of the future, the one-man show that he's always played himself up as. Toby mentions that "it's always good to hear from an old...friend." This is a man whose actions damned him to a stint in prison in season 1, and there's no love lost between them. When Diana calls him the life of the party, he can only mention that over time, he's lost his taste for tobacco, champagne and parties. In a later encounter with Gordon at the arcade, he demurs when asked to tell the bear story again ("that's out of gas") and barks after being asked to join the team on the laser tag floor. He's a fun figure, but he's also out of step with what's around him, and he knows it. This is a bit of a replay of a story from last season between Bos and Cam, but he's more isolated now and more in debt to her, leaving him in a similar position to Gordon with Donna, but without a newfound camaraderie.
As for Donna herself, she and Diane set up a dinner to try to mend the fence between Cam and Doug, only for Cam to not show after falling asleep coding (she'd previously said she wanted the Swapmeet people fired, to Donna's alarm). That cedes the floor to Doug to B.S. his way into saying that he'd love to work with her, "but she can't work with us." Donna apologizes for Cameron to Diane, but Diane says that she's willing to buy out Doug and Craig if need be. "I just hope it's the guys who are the problem." Donna considers this, meets with an sleepy-eyed Cam back at work, and, for the first time, lies to Cam, breaking the trust that's been central to the past season and change. "She said no...they're part of the deal."
Cam is disappointed, but accepts, blowing off steam at home with Gordon and proving herself to be the queen of "Duck Hunt." It's the best the two have ever been with each other, especially compared to their difficult relationship over the past few episodes, and it's nice to see her walk back to the kitchen and grab some sodas for the two of them (noticing his hand tremor along the way). But Donna, guilty over her lie, mentions to Cam that she can stay as long as she needs, after earlier trying like mad to find her her own place. Cam nods, recognizing Donna's over-conciliatory tenor, and walks back to Gordon, the camera in front of her, handheld as she lets Donna's probable betrayal sink in. "Can I ask you a question," she starts to Gordon. "When did you know you were losing Cardiff." Cam's been in a relatively decent place for the first few episodes of the season, but she knows now that even as the founder, her position is tenuous, her partner untrustworthy. She takes aim with the gun controller, points at the camera, and fires.
-Solid direction from Jake Paltrow, brother to Gwyneth, director of "Young Ones" and co-director of this year's "De Palma." Like a number of "Halt" directors, he plays well with shifting dynamics by moving the camera at key moments without drawing attention to his own technique, Cam's meeting with Craig being the best example.
-As someone who spent years as a kid yelling at that obnoxious "Duck Hunt" dog on the TV, I feel Gordon's pain.
-Something I love about the way the show is shot this season is how distinctively sunlight is used as backlight. It captures a very California look that Paul Thomas Anderson has utilized in his most recent films ("The Master," "Inherent Vice") and gives an otherworldly glow to key moments, like the sunlight practically refracting off of Joe's white shirt as he points Ryan in a new creative direction.
-Doug and Craig are referred to disparagingly as "Thing 1 and Thing 2" (Cam doesn't mind "Thing 2" all that much), Hekyll and Jekyll, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb and, finally, "Dick und Dorf."
-Joe meets Diane at the party and gaslights Cameron. "I'm surprised Cameron is playing ball with another company...must be in a good place." Diane, already more wary about Cameron than Donna, looks uneasy. This will come up again.
-No recap next week, as I'm on vacation. I'll be back on the 21st.