It's 1985, and a rush to get online.
Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

“We all have to take our lumps before we come into our own,” Jacob Wheeler, a new character played by the formidable James Cromwell, says in the opening scene of “New Coke.” “Makes getting there all the more sweet.”

The second episode of the second season is a series of lumps on the head, each character bangs into an obstacle and deals with the setback. While their struggles show us more about them, the hurdles slow the plotline and change its course. It feels like applying the brakes—but will getting there in future episodes feel all the more sweet?

The last scene does hint at progress—Gordon goes back to work in the garage and throws away the cocaine. He spent most of the episode high, zipping around making bad decisions like sending poor Stan to pick up the kids at school, where he gets mistaken for a kidnapper. “I’m not one of those people that gets addicted to stuff easily,” Gordon tells his doctor before going on a drug-fueled rampage over a glitch in Tank Battle. He’s reached his goal of creating a computer and fulfilled his promise to Donna by replacing her engagement ring, and now, sitting with his success and money, he just doesn’t know what to do with himself.

Joe is also rudderless and decides to take up the job offer from his future father-in-law. Sara lightly protests, but quickly gives in to her new fiancé. Joe imagines a slick sales job, but ends up doing data-entry in the basement. (His doughy manager introduces it as “dead end try.”) Joe has to help clean the bathroom and ask permission to use the microfiche—we’ve never seen him in this kind of environment. It’s ugly, mundane, sad, and devoid of possibility. It’s also fascinating to see him there, his shiny suit fabric muted under the florescent lights.

Speaking of lovely suits, Donna dresses up for Mutiny’s meeting with a venture capitalist interested in funding the company, while Cameron wears her holey jeans and a backpack. Both women doubt their own outfit choices, a relatable and sweet moment, but it turns out not to matter. The smug Mr. Bondham is less interested in their presentation than their biology. He waves a finger at their femaleness and asks about their “biological imperatives” to have children and disrupt business. The scene dovetails off of the sexual harassment Joan experiences in Mad Men and reminds us that unchecked discrimination in the workplace is still rampant in the mid ’80s.

The scene points out that gender equality has inched along while tech has developed at the speed of light. Only 10 percent of Americans had computers and only 15 percent of those had modems in 1985, Mr. Bondham points out. Drastic change is possible, when it’s change that serves those like Mr. Bondham.

The women have to deal with discrimination on all fronts of their business. In the past episode, they were physically threatened by the man selling stolen computers, and now his boardroom counterpart is trying to intimidate them. Both of these men are misogynistic hustlers, it’s just one of them is wearing an expensive tie and suspenders. The women have increased their strength by sticking together, but their bond weakens when Cameron hires John Bosworth, “Boz,” without consulting Donna.

Donna is able to brush off the disastrous meeting with the venture capitalist, but Cameron internalizes the sexism and lashes out at the next man who threatens them, a new character, Tom Rendon. He hacks into Mutiny’s network and “upgrades” their games, all to get their attention and a job offer. Cameron initially threatens him, “You don’t think a couple of girls could sue you into the ground?” But she sees his brilliance and hires him, once again making a hiring decision without Donna’s input. Cameron’s insistence on doing whatever she wants at all times wears on the women’s relationship, which had been developing into a strong partnership.

NEXT: What about Tom?

Tom is introduced as a new love interest for Cameron, they’re both young and brilliant, and already, Tom has challenged her. Never mind the lingering stares they give each other, they give each other ideas, exactly what Cameron had hoped to get from Joe before ending up disappointed in season 1, when she said he merely reflected her own ideas back at her.

Tom is a threat to a reconciliation between Joe and Cameron, but is that even something we want anymore? The relationship was electric but unstable, and Joe kept Cameron in a box—”the clean room” in the basement where he could monitor and manipulate her.

Cameron’s healthiest relationship is with Boz, whom she trusts to know her real name, “Catherine,” and reveals that “Cameron” was her father’s name, which she started using after he died in Vietnam. She used to write letters to her father, just as she did with Boz when he was in prison, and for her, the two have merged into a single father figure, who is now leaving her, at least temporarily. Boz can’t stay.

He doesn’t fit into Mutiny’s dorm atmosphere, where he’s been teased and his privacy violated. When Malcolm Levitan “Lev,” steals Boz’s letter to Cameron and reads it aloud to the group, Boz reacts with dignity, but realizes this is no place for him to pull his life back together. (Lev is becoming a bigger character and an even bigger brat, the sort of villain that slowly annoys you to death instead of murdering you outright Game of Thrones-style.)

While Boz decides to take a breather, Joe resolves to take on his adversary. His future father-in-law is testing his worth, so instead of complaining about the crappy job, Joe sends him a waffle iron as a thank you gift. Now that he understands the game, he’s ready to play it, and play to win. We see a glimmer of the old Joe, the Joe that Sara doesn’t know. Sara is angry with her father and wants to save Joe from the humiliation of data entry, but Joe won’t have it. He will win his princess, not be saved by her.

Similarly, Gordon, who has been failing as a stay-at-home dad, can’t stand the gender reversal. When cocaine doesn’t ease him into it, he comes up with a big idea to save Mutiny from the gamers who have figured out how to play for free. He jumps up from what he pronounces to be a delicately prepared meal for his working wife (it’s takeout, she notices immediately), and heads to the garage. Supporting Donna’s dream lasted just two episodes, but she doesn’t seem surprised.

Donna is the one holding the whole thing together—not just her own family and Mutiny, but the show. And she’s doing it with grace and style. She has come a long way from the “wet blanket” we first met in the first episode of the first season; she’s steadily assuming the role of our heroine, which in a show about the rise of the computer age is no small thing.

We trust that she will be able to handle the obstacles thrown in her way without blowing something up, getting hooked on cocaine, or throwing a tantrum. Joe, Gordon, and Cameron could all learn from the way Donna manages the bumps, or as Jacob Wheeler would call it, “lumps before we come into our own.” Arguably, Donna has already come into her own, but we know she has much more to show us.

Episode Recaps

Halt and Catch Fire
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