“Pardon our dust, but expand we must,” a member of the Mutiny crew jokes during that brilliantly choreographed single-take scene that also served as the season 2 trailer for Halt and Catch Fire. The dorky line serves as a wink to the audience, acknowledging how uncomfortable some of the show’s changes may be, but there’s nothing to do but expand.
As the dust settles from last season’s finale, we realize we are not where we were. But the writers of the premiere, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, open with the familiar: Joe MacMillan tying the perfect Windsor knot in the mirror.
The careful viewer may immediately recognize the scene as a flashback, since a newsman in the background mentions the year, 1983 and a week after Hurricane Alicia, but it quickly sweeps us into a fantasy we want to believe. Joe and Cameron Howe are in love and playing house, something Joe said he would never do. They’re bickering over a video game and lightly tugging at their familiar power struggle. It’s so cute and tender and … not real. It’s in the past.
The scene teases at what could have been and reminds us of what is: Joe and Cameron are no longer a couple. Twenty months have passed and Cameron is married to Mutiny, her online gaming company. The nearly three-minute, long-take tour of the place ushers us into a messy, hectic, present day 1985. Mutiny is more of a LAN party and construction zone than an office, and while Cameron wouldn’t have it any other way, the chaos puts Donna Clark, who is now working there, into mommy mode.
Later in the episode, Donna explicitly states that she doesn’t want to play the mother to this rag-tag bunch of coders. She’s spent plenty of time supporting someone else’s genius, thank you very much, and she’s trying to make room for her own. Donna pleads for support from Cameron, who initially rebuffs her. But after the pair go on a caper involving stolen computers (more on that later), the show gives us a glimpse of something unusual in television—a nuanced partnership between two strong female characters (who are computer scientists and entrepreneurs, no less!) that helps each of them to grow.
Not growing, but instead quite stuck, are the men. When we first see Gordon Clark again, he is awkwardly touting a terrible commercial for the Giant Pro involving a corny Jack and the Beanstalk theme. The ad makes it abundantly clear that Joe is no longer any part of Cardiff Electric—he never would’ve allowed such a goofy concept for their national campaign.
Instead it’s Gordon doing press for the company, and badly, though it hardly matters since he’s leaving the recently-sold Cardiff to start an investment firm out of his garage because “good ideas don’t come out of a boardroom, do they?” Gordon tells the interviewer with forced bravado, a sad attempt to imitate Joe’s mojo, which it turns out, Joe himself doesn’t have.
So … Joe. Should we still call him that? He may need a new name, because he’s barely recognizable. If it weren’t for the eyebrows, we wouldn’t know it was him. Long gone are the Porsche and sexy sunglasses, the clever speeches and elaborate corporate strategies. His slick suit jacket was thrown into the Giant fire, as was, apparently, much of his personality. He has risen from the flames, a Phoenix, and has become … well, a pretty boring guy.
At least on the surface, Joe is more L.L. Bean ad than cologne commercial these days, but don’t panic, we do know him to be a chameleon. Cameron used to tease him about being a cyborg trying to fit in, and he often acts like an extra terrestrial—there’s that scene in episode 5 where he took off his tie and adjusted his shirt to imitate a billboard (for cologne). That’s Joe’s form of being stuck. While Gordon is embarking on a cocaine addiction and looking to Donna for affirmation and direction with no real motivation of his own, Joe has all kinds of motivation to destroy and recreate himself again and again, destroy/recreate, destroy/recreate, an addictive cycle that is quickly catching up with him. The $2 million in damages he caused to an IBM data center last time he imploded may not have ruined him, but the $200 thousand in damages he caused to Cardiff this time around prevents him from receiving his payout, the seed money he’s counting on to start his new life and new company.
When we first meet Joe 2.0 (or could it be 3.0 or 4.0 at this stage in his life?) he is running. He runs through the woods and lands at a house that looks nothing like his previous fortress of solitude—there are floral curtains and collectable plates! There’s also a woman, Sara Wheeler, his new love interest who’s as supportive as Cameron was challenging.
NEXT: Chatrooms are the future