The game is not the same, but everybody's still playing.
“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
But Sara’s not just supportive of Joe, she’s mothering, and the theme of find-a-mother-for-Joe was set up in the season 1 finale. After Joe incinerates the project manager part of himself that mirrors his dad, Joe MacMillan Sr., he hikes to Fiske Observatory, a metaphoric search for his stargazing mom.
And sure enough, when Joe and Sara’s how-we-met story is presented in the second season premiere, we learn they found each other while she was living at a planetarium to write about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (and the title of the episode). The punchline to Sara’s story around the campfire, which feels purposely corny, is “there I was, searching for contact, and Joe walked in the door.”
Joe smirks at her story and at his own account of what happened at Cardiff. “At the time I thought I was unhappy with the project, but in hindsight I realized I was just unhappy with myself.” It seems vaguely sincere until he laughs and says, “so, I guess that’s what I’ve been working on,” as though he doesn’t believe the line himself. His manner shifts from dopey to earnest when he announces he’s going to start his own company and move to Silicon Valley with Sara.
Except, he’s not. When the perpetually grumpy Nathan Cardiff refuses Joe the money he’s counting on, he’s stunned. Joe has no plan B; it hadn’t occurred to him that his past behavior could affect his future so drastically. For Joe, admitting he made mistakes, “lots of mistakes,” Gordon agrees, and writing them down in an apology letter is enough to atone for detonating all of his relationships at Cardiff. Gordon does seem primed to forgive him, but perhaps he’s just in a good mood after receiving a check for more than $800,000.
Meanwhile, Mutiny finds its future—chatrooms. The Internet is taking off like a rocket and Cameron has hitched the wagon to its contrail. Subscribers pay $5 an hour to game (Google says that’s equivalent to $11 an hour in 2015, which really makes that Netflix or World of Warcraft subscription sound crazy cheap!) and the chat feature is a big hit. But the growing company needs to fortify its infrastructure to keep growing, so Cameron and Donna buy some stolen IBM XTs so they can add to their processing power.
Predictably, the machines are counterfeit and the women are left standing in the parking lot in a scene reminiscent of the Cabbage Patch grift from the first season. But being ripped off together turns out to be good for their relationship, and they have some beers and talk business, working out their differences like a couple of adults. Their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of the lowlife who fleeced them, and while the scene threatens physical violence against the women, it ends on a note of girl-power: “Hey, you still want my number?” Donna yells out the window as they speed off with the genuine XTs and their dignity.
Donna returns home from the adventure drunk and having missed dinner (not exactly Mrs. Garrett behavior) and the role reversal is complete. Gordon’s staying home with the kids while Donna goes out and tries to make her mark on the world. Gordon tells his daughters the family wouldn’t be able to fit two elephants in the house, so it remains to be seen if he will make room for Donna’s greatness.
People who accomplish great things often have a partner who “makes their world possible,” as Donna pointed out to Gordon last season. And Joe sees that partner in Sara. When she doesn’t freak out about not getting the money, he instantly proposes marriage. Tellingly, she’s suspicious. “Why?” she asks. “Because I love you.” he says. “Or because I was the first person to forgive you?” she asks. This scene is a Pandora’s box of questions, what does she have to forgive? Does he really love her? Why are they getting engaged? What’s going on?
As soon as Sara says yes, it immediately cuts to Joe and Cameron playing a round of Tank Battle. Though they’re not together, or even speaking, they’re sitting down playing a game, just what Cameron begged him for in the first scene flashback. As Sara snoozes in the other room, we’re reminded of the electricity between Joe and Cameron. Joe is focused on beating CamHowe—he knows it’s her from the username. Cameron wins against this stranger (his username is simply USER85), and congratulates him on a good game. She’s not ready to forgive Joe, she said she’d like to see a wrecking ball go through Cardiff and she has created a game called Parallax that stars an “android sorcerer that’s brilliant and cunning.” Nevertheless, the scene suggests that it’s NOT GAME OVER for these two.
That little glimmer of hope is served with a big cherry on top. Cameron picks up John Bosworth as he’s getting out of the slammer after taking the fall for the fraud they committed together. The pair have become like father-and-daughter outlaws, and their reunion is sweet and well-deserved after an episode that destabilizes most of the relationships we had come to love and depend on through the first season. The premiere is a system overhaul—Joe and Cameron are kaput, Joe and Gordon are no longer building together, and much of the Cardiff team has dispersed. But expand Halt and Catch Fire must, and what’s a little dust?