There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in this episode. If you’ve been following Halt and Catch Fire since the beginning, or even since the start of the second season, “The Way In” is like the roar of the engine when Boz starts up the Mustang that had been sitting idle under a tarp.
It’s nice to see the gang back together—Joe and Sara throw a dinner party and invite Gordon and Donna, and even Cameron makes an appearance at the get-together via a phone call, though she’s too shocked to speak. But it’s not just the reward of having the main characters in the same scene and the same room, it’s the gratification of Gordon and Donna meeting the new Joe and discussing whether or not he’s real.
Donna argues that Joe has Sara “completely snowed,” and that he’s just interested in her father Jacob Wheeler’s power. Sara herself gets a whiff of the old Joe and asks him, “Who are you right now?”
Gordon feels more successful than Joe 2.0, so he’s pleased. And he also approves of Sara, a “trade up” from Cameron, he says. Gordon is convinced by Joe’s heartfelt declaration that relationships “make it all worth it,” and finds it plausible that Joe has changed. This debate is going on for the viewer as well, “Is this a softer side of Joe we’re seeing, or is it an act?” And having the main characters discuss it onscreen—and they’re not sure either—is satisfying.
The primary reason Donna and Gordon go to the dinner party is out of curiosity about Joe, even though Donna claims her “interest in tall dark mannequins with delusions of grandeur has dwindled.” The scene where they replay Joe’s answering machine message again and again (on that great clunky ’80s hunk of junk, remember those?) is a highlight of the entire series. Gordon and Donna react to his engagement the same way we did a couple of episodes ago, with a resounding “HUH?” They don’t believe their ears, and then, in a debate that sounds straight out of the writers’ room, they figure out what kind of woman he must be marrying.
Donna is convinced Joe’s new gal is an Upper East Side type or perfume model, “Dior, no … Halston,” tall, blonde, with Daryl Hannah cheekbones and shoulder pads. Gordon suspects a Joan Baez look-alike that’s not challenging to him—the opposite of Cameron. He’s spot on, and it makes us wonder if he knows Joe better than we do. But then again, Gordon seems to be wrong about everything else. The program he’s been writing is the thing that creates discord in an episode full of harmonies.
Gordon has been slamming Jolt cola and tending to a superiority complex, or maybe, better said, a Superman complex. At first, he felt paralyzed by his success, and now he thinks he can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He loads his program, Sonaris, without properly testing it (after quoting Superman, “They only lack the program to show them the way!”) and it promptly destroys Mutiny’s network.
After accusing Gordon of tearing down Mutiny because of jealousy and impotence, Cameron lashes out at Donna and has a panic attack. But Tom is there for her, and he expertly instructs her through the anxiety, diverting her thoughts to a chapter in Parallax where the player has to crack a dragon’s egg on the fourth wizard’s chest to make him human again. That fourth wizard would be Joe, after Gordon, Donna, and Cameron herself—but despite the Joe metaphor, it’s Tom who gets closer to Cameron. He finally admits his love of the game she created, where “every trap had a reward, every exit was an entrance,” and he seems poised to win her heart.
NEXT: How cool is Boz?
The other man in Cameron’s life, Boz, has his own story line, and it’s about time! With Nathan Cardiff gone, Boz is the only bona fide Texan in the bunch (seriously, no one else has a Texas accent?) and he’s a solid character that deserves more screen time. He’s also accompanied by great music—first John Fogerty and now Johnny Cash. (Toby Huss tweeted about Fogerty’s “The Old Man Down the Road,” after the premiere, saying, “Way to cough up the bread for the #johnfogerty @AMC_TV. Much appreciated.”)
Huss beautifully moves through Boz’s family drama—he fully lives in the character. Boz is at once flawed, heroic, and relatable, a cowboy who has wandered too long and is slowly making his way back home. When Boz gives away his beloved Mustang as a wedding gift to his son, it’s both recompense for the past and an entry fee to the next phase of his life.
Joe has also paid some dues and is moving on, but it’s not clear that he’s moving forward—he may be stuck in his continual, egotistical loop. Yet, he learns something each time around. He values relationships more than he did when we met him, and when Jacob Wheeler readily accepts his proposal for a new data management department, Joe wavers at the thought of destroying what’s there to create something new. Jacob responds with a riddle: “A seat opens up on a crowded train. It’s okay to hesitate. Maybe you’re the next stop, maybe you’re a good Samaritan, or maybe you think you don’t deserve it.” Joe may falter for any or all of those reasons—his newly developed good Samaritan side feels remorse at the prospect of firing his idiot manager Eugene (played with subtle humor by James DuMont).
However, once Joe finds that thing he’s been missing—his big idea—he’s in. Joe worships “Idea”; it’s his lord and savior. He believes Idea will deliver him from sin, or worse, mediocrity. Joe’s “Way In” is his realization that the mainframe servers are being utilized only eight hours a day, and that he can sell their unused processing power for a profit.
A glance at the Cardiff manual is the only signal we need to know that the roller coaster is starting again, there’s the tick tick tick of the ride inching toward the sky. But watching Joe rise and fall, re-imagine himself, and rise again is the draw of his character. He’s stuck trying to achieve his pre-programmed idea of success; he’s still “swinging for the fences” like his father told him to do. But there are plenty of clues that a home run isn’t what Joe needs. He’s been described by the other characters as hollow, an alien, a mannequin, and an evil sorcerer. Someone needs to crack an egg on his chest and make him human again. But who? Cameron? Surely that’s a lesson he’ll have to learn for himself.