My review of Halt And Catch Fire, season 2, episode 9, “Kali.” It was originally published on the AV Club, which is read by infinitely more people.
Season two of Halt And Catch Fire begins with a flashback of Joe and Cameron happy together, a presumably brief interlude we never saw, where Joe’s master plan had yet to reveal how implacable it was. It was a worrisome construction as this season moved along, suggesting that Cameron’s empowering journey as the head of her own company—and as a computer visionary quite apart from Joe MacMillan—was merely going to end up back where it began. Well, “Kali” brings Cameron and Joe back together all right, but it does so in service of an admirably executed plan (on the part of Cameron and Halt And Catch Fire) to put the Cameron-Joe love story away.
Whether the decidedly uneven events of season one adequately laid the foundation for the big emotional payoff that comes tonight is open to debate. I’d say there’s less debate about how astoundingly well Mackenzie Davis and Lee Pace play their big scene together, a sequence of emotional intensity that only gets more potent once the dramatic irony kicks in.
Finding Joe alone just before he takes the Westgroup stockholders meeting stage to play nice in order to salvage his reputation, Cameron speaks as honestly and maturely to Joe as she’s ever been able. (Cameron’s default setting around Joe MacMillan traditionally being something akin to an emotional “blue screen of death.”) Cameron’s found out from Donna that Joe was telling the truth last episode, and that he is not responsible for Westgroup’s plunder of Mutiny, and she tells him that she wants him to know that she knows it’s not his fault. (This time.) She, having just broken up with Mark O’Brien’s loyal and trustworthy Tom, asks Joe what would have happened if they’d stayed together. Then she kisses the newly married Joe, passionately. It’s everything the Joe and Cameron saga has dangled over this entire season—that all of Cameron’s struggles to define herself as an independent entity were all in service to a love story that was far less interesting. When Cameron gives Joe a floppy disc with the new and improved version of Mutiny (and Community) she’s been working on, complete with a love note on the front page, Joe’s refusal to leave Sara and run away with Cameron looks all the more like a mere speedbump to their inevitable happy ending.
And then comes the reveal that Cameron has burned it all down. Her determined stride through Mutiny’s cluttered backyard is intercut with Westgroup’s big presentation, its purloined Mutiny clone melting down in front of Jacob Wheeler and his shocked stockholders. And in front of Joe—who’s just delivered a sincere, career-crippling condemnation of what Wheeler has done (and eloquent tribute to Cameron). As he sits in stunned realization that Cameron’s used Gordon’s Sonaris program to scramble Westnet (and thus tank Westgroup’s stock), she settles back on a blue blanket on the green grass and stares impassively up as raindrops patter all around and over her. Destroyer of worlds, indeed.
What’s most affecting about Joe and Cameron’s ending(?) is that they’re finally operating on the same level. Joe started out this season up to his old tricks, but his realization that the Joe MacMillan way brings only destruction has led to a sincere desire to change—even if he’s still pulling people’s strings in the process. Making Wheeler (and Sara) believe that he’s going compromise his principles and assure the Westgroup stockholders that all is on the up-and-up, he stops in the middle of a familiarly slick Joe MacMillan speech and says, instead:
This all began with a very talented young programmer named Cameron Howe. She saw the future and she got there first. I didn’t invent this. I don’t own it, and neither does anyone else here. If we skate past that we’re doing violence to the one thing, maybe the only sacred thing in our business—innovation.
Joe MacMillan’s drive and seductive skills—put finally to use for the good of someone else, even at the expense of his own—are used against him by the one person he truly cares for, right after he’s thrown away his own future to secure hers.
Cameron’s come to a similar place, her actions tonight similarly mitigated by circumstance. Beginning Mutiny with an anarchic idea of running a business on pure creative freedom, Cameron’s spent all of season two walking that back in steps that doomed her relationship with Tom even as they ensured her company’s survival. As well-matched as Cameron and Tom are, the signals have been there all along that poor Tom was destined to be thrown over, his idealistic and essentially juvenile vision of Mutiny increasingly diverging from Cameron’s gradual acceptance of the mantle of responsible command. (“But we don’t do that—we’re Mutiny!” was Tom’s stunned response to Cameron copy-protecting their game,Extract And Defend, not seeing that Cameron’s conception of Mutiny had changed.) Tonight, both Cameron’s move against Westgroup and her decision to break up with Tom finished her evolution into, ironically, someone who’d be a perfect match for the person Joe’s become. Riding his bike back to his mom’s house away from Mutiny and Cameron, the resentful Tom responds to Cameron’s entreaty, “I couldn’t have done any of this without you,” saying, “No, Cameron, you did this all by yourself.” I’ve liked O’Brien’s earnest Tom a lot this season, but Tom fell in love with a Cameron who isn’t there any more.
Joe’s marriage to Sara was similarly ill-fated, even if its seeming dissolution tonight isn’t as much of a heartbreaker. Aleksa Palladino’s Sara has never escaped her initial conception as Joe’s course corrector, the touchy-feely outsider who lectured Joe about not returning to his old, manipulative ways even as she stoked the ego that fueled them. (Palladino never had a chance against such an inconsistent character.) Tonight, for example, Sara’s all for Joe cutting ties with his old life completely—except that she urges him to give the keynote speech at the Westgroup shareholders meeting because it’s expedient. The idea that Sara’s not as free-spirited as she pretends to be when it comes to her imperious father explains some of her actions—but it doesn’t make the character any more interesting. And her renunciation of Joe is another in the long string of speeches in which she sums Joe up a little too neatly:
I thought that you were a victim of your genius. Some sort of sidetracked prophet, and that I was your second chance. But you’re not, Joe. You’re an accident. You’re something that happens to people who deserve better.
Except that, at this point in his evolution, Joe kind of does deserve better. (And Pace’s reading of Joe’s response, “I’m not an accident” is wrenchingly childlike and vulnerable.)
There’s a poetic sort of tragedy in the fact that Joe and Cameron’s different trajectories intersect as they do here, their mutual embrace of a pragmatic idealism making them a better match than they’ve been at any time before. Would Cameron have called off her plan if Joe had returned her kiss with an offer to throw it all over and run away together? (“What if, instead of chasing what each of us wanted separately and obsessively, we just held on to each other instead,” muses Cameron in their scene tonight.) Probably not. And it’s possible that ”Kali”’s events are just setting the stage for Cameron and Joe to get back together, I suppose—Davis and Pace play Cameron and Joe’s tangle of regrets with such sad longing that it’s enough to make you wish for it to happen. For a moment anyway. It’s enough to make Cameron’s double-edged goodbye message to Joe resonate, echoing back through their entire story.
“For Joe. Always. —C.”
- Gordon’s story reaches its sad apotheosis tonight. Setting out to go after the custom computer company he’s convinced has stolen his idea, he finds they’ve already gone under—and then he gets lost in the parking garage for seven hours looking for his car. It’s Gordon’s fate to be as unable to handle success as he is to be destined to miss it in the first place, and his doctor’s diagnosis that his instability stems from that even more than his medical condition (which has stabilized) appears, finally, to have reached both him and Donna. Scoot McNairy’s portrayal of Gordon’s descent this season has been heartbreaking, his helpless tears in the back of an ambulance tonight just the latest, and saddest, example of Gordon’s downfall.
- Honestly, I thought Gordon was going to get run over by that truck.
- And it’s probably not a good sign that Donna had no idea that Gordon spent the night in jail. Or that Gordon called Joe for a ride home.
- Joe and Gordon advising each other to, essentially, abandon the paths they’re on and get out of Dodge continues to be both touching, and a subtle recognition that the story proper has passed them by.
- Bosworth is leaving Mutiny. Toby Huss’ presence on the show this season has been as welcome on Halt And Catch Fire as its been for Cameron, but his parting is just right. Forget Joe, Bos was the first one to recognize Cameron’s gifts for what they were, and his goodbye—calling Cameron by her real name and saying, “Get some sleep, honey”—is about as pure an expression of warmth as the show’s ever presented.
- When Cameron’s program takes over, a cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” starts playing. (I couldn’t discover the artist—to it, hive mind.) For a moment, I thought it was coming from the computer itself, then I remembered that that, if that were the case, it’d sound more like the Super Mario Brothers theme.
- Speaking of, a stray shot of an NES controller shows that Extract And Defend is bought by Nintendo.
- Bosworth is as slick as Joe in the scene where he susses out that Nintendo is planning to “invade” America. But Bos’ is a more human example for Cameron to follow.
- Kerry Bishé isn’t as central tonight as she’s been, but cheers to Donna for her line to Skylar Astin’s smug Jesse, “That’s a charming anecdote, but I work for a living.”
- “Do me a favor. Get off the stage before I throw you off.” Joe tees off on Jesse, too.
- Pace similarly nails his ice-cold denunciation of Wheeler—genuine anger humanizes Joe.
- Just because, Donna and Cameron discuss Mutiny’s finances on a shooting range. I’ll allow it.