With so many toxins, it’s impossible to determine how much damage they’ve done until long after the fact. That seems to be the overarching theme of “Extract and Defend,” the fifth episode of Halt and Catch Fire’s second season, most pointedly represented by the news that Gordon’s lingering medical issues are actually chronic toxic encephalopathy, a result of years exposed to toxins that are now atrophying his brain. The prognosis for Gordon is grim, with no known treatment and likely the worst of the symptoms yet to come, but perhaps worst of all, he can find no one to share his pain with, suggesting that maybe the life he’s living now is no less toxic than the one he lived before.
But while Gordon may feel alone in reality, he’s not alone in spirit, as most every character on Halt and Catch Fire seems to be struggling with his or her own type of poison at the moment. Take Donna, for example. As terrible as it might sound to suggest that Donna’s secret pregnancy is on par with a debilitating brain injury, both are similarly disruptive developments that completely shatter whatever vision of the future the sufferer had. It’s not so much that Donna is in denial about her pregnancy, but more that she is completely unable to discern how to proceed. She knows that telling Gordon about it will cut off even the faintest of hope she has of not following through with the pregnancy (though this is never explicitly stated), so instead of reaching out to the husband who desperately needs to feel connected to her, she throws herself into the building of the community rooms, creating safe spaces for online strangers to find each other.
And then there’s Joe.
The fascinating tale of Joe MacMillan continues this episode with his past and current loves crossing paths and, in the process, revealing just how corrosive Joe’s love seems to be. Cameron, specifically, is a mess this episode once it’s revealed that Joe is responsible for the network that Mutiny now operates on. She is haunted by his love and betrayal, so much so that it threatens to poison her nascent relationship with Tom which, by all appearances, seems to be a very healthy coupling. Joe wants to help her, but Cam doesn’t want help, not from Joe, not from anybody. Joe broke Cameron’s ability to trust in people, and it leaves her with damages that linger long after the toxin has been removed.
It would appear, however, that Joe’s fiancée Sarah isn’t as slow a learner as Cameron was and is finding herself less enamored with Joe now that she knows about his secret business and met his ex-lover. In truth, it seems like a strange leap for her to want so much distance after the episode opens with her yelling at her father for suggesting the pair sign a prenup, but maybe it’s merely a testament to how dangerous loving Joe is.
And so Joe ends the episode alone, against his will. Gordon has spent the entire episode with people who didn’t care for his company, finally breaking down and calling his brother and asking if he’d genuinely like to see him. Donna wants to be alone with her work, but can never truly escape the specter of the child she’s carrying inside her. Everyone feels stuck in suspended animation, trapped between a past they can’t escape and a future they can’t anticipate.
The brilliance of shows like Mad Men and The Americans and, yes, Halt and Catch Fire, is that by taking place in a bygone era, there is a natural tension that exists between the narrative and the audience watching. Though the audience may not know precisely what the future specifically holds for Cameron or Joe or Don Draper, they know the kind of world the characters are heading into and thus are left intrigued as to how said characters help dictate the architecture of the era we now inhabit. For instance, Gordon may not recognize the significance of his children’s obsession with their grandparents’ newly acquired, not yet released, Nintendo, but it the audience knows precisely what that particular revolution is going to look like. In reality, it’s not so unlike The Terminator in that sense — the 1984 James Cameron classic, newly on VHS, plays a prominent role in the episode and posits that in attempting to control the future, we end up creating it, for better or worse.
Think of it this way: The season-two premiere was a flashback to the heyday of Cameron and Joe’s relationship, showing the two of them engaging in some spur-of-the-moment gaming, side by side, on the couch. Later in the episode, we see the pair in the present, unknowingly competing at Tank Battle before striking up a friendly conversation. The future, particularly for a show set in the past, is fixed. What makes Halt and Catch Fire great is that it’s found a way to make the inevitable exciting.