Out of sheer necessity, nearly every TV critic lied about how good the second-season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire was compared to the season that preceded it. In reality, the second season of Halt picks up qualitatively in largely the same place where the final two episodes of season one left off, thanks largely to the show’s choice to slowly but surely make Joe (Lee Pace) less of an insufferable asshole.
“New Coke” takes the largest strides yet to reforming Joe’s horrible personality defects by putting him in direct contact with his fiancée’s father, Jacob Wheeler, a wealthy man who works in the oil industry and has a promising job opportunity he thinks Joe should take him up on, after strongly implying that Joe wasn’t likely to round up a better deal. It doesn’t hurt that Wheeler is played by the always-phenomenal James Cromwell, whose natural gravitas acts as an instant absorbent to Joe’s oily nature.
When it turns out that Joe’s new job is doing data entry in a small office where he needs management to sign off on him using the microfiche machine, it’s the most brilliant comeuppance of all, and the fact that he’s willing to just sit back and take it makes it seem like he may truly be changing who he is and how he operates in the world around him. As skeptical as I remain about Joe’s feelings toward his fiancée, particularly given the fact that we’ve yet to see him truly interact with his old friends and, for the most part, his old life, it certainly seems like he’s trying to be a better person, which says a lot.
Joe isn’t the only one eating a huge slice of humble pie, as Cameron, too, spends much of the episode being bested in one way or another. Her impulsive hiring of Bosworth now that he’s out of prison leads not only to tension between herself and Donna but complicates the workplace environment, as an aging ex-con doesn’t exactly fit in seamlessly with the current makeup of Mutiny corporate life. Not only that, but a local hacker gets the best of her not once, but twice, before she finally has no choice but to offer him a job, so she can make his talents work for her (and so she can stare into his super dreamy eyes). Cameron isn’t used to not being the smartest person in the room, so it’ll be interesting to see her interact with her new employee and see if she can handle having someone onboard who challenges her on a consistent basis.
Meanwhile, Gordon and Donna are fighting different battles than their compatriots and struggling a bit to break out of their routines. Donna is still racing to clean up after Cameron’s decisions, first with Bosworth, then with the hiring of the new hacker, eventually putting her foot down and telling Cameron that her unilateral decision-making isn’t going to fly any longer. This must feel particularly egregious to Donna, considering it was just last episode that Cameron was going on about how she didn’t want to be the boss. Apparently, what she meant by that was she didn’t want to have to make decisions, while still wanting to retain the rights to make whatever decisions she wanted. Donna also finally gets her separate chat function up and running, only to have it not take off the way she hoped. Knowing how perpetually wired modern culture is, one has to imagine this won’t be the end of this particular side project.
Gordon, on the other hand, is at loose ends. He sees the doctor for his continuing nosebleeds and sheepishly admits to some former cocaine use, conveniently leaving out any current cocaine use. He invites his old employee over to try to troubleshoot issues with Mutiny’s games (which no one asked him to do), even going so far as stopping by the Mutiny offices to direct them on how to implement his fixes. Eventually, Gordon decides to throw himself into crunching numbers to build a better business plan for Mutiny’s pursuits into funding and throws aside pharmacological stimulants for his drug of choice: work.
It’s a curious thing to watch the characters progress collectively and separately, with Joe and Cameron being forced to be bigger people, and Donna and Gordon being forced to hold fast to the things that they know to be true about themselves and the work that they do. There are new habits for people throughout, but it remains to be seen if they’re just terrible and unnecessary reinventions of things that didn’t need changing or if they’re revisions to recipes that are long overdue. What’s clear, however, is that while all of Halt and Catch Fire’s characters are continuing to evolve separately, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to be brought back together to make something even greater than the sum of their parts.