Halt and Catch Fire Recap: How Low Can You Go?

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC/© AMC Film Holdings LLC.
Halt and Catch Fire
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

Limbo is a funny thing. Traditionally thought of as hell’s waiting room, limbo is where the virtuous nonbelievers hang out until Jesus comes to usher them into heaven like a super-chill bouncer. Life in Satan’s suburbs isn’t pleasant, per se, but it isn’t particularly torturous either. It’s safe, with an anesthetizing sameness stretching in every direction.

Which is what makes Halt and Catch Fire’s “Limbo” so curious, all things considered. As mentioned in numerous previous reviews, all of the characters this season are trapped in a nebulous space, as though locked in constant concert with both their future and their past, forced to endlessly repeat their mistakes and unable to break free of the ties that bind them. The irony is that it’s only in “Limbo” that the characters are finally removed from their pleasant-enough prison, the problem being that it doesn’t appear to be heaven they’re being released into, but something significantly warmer.

Now, for Joe, it’s no surprise that he’s freed himself from the frying pan, only to land in the fire. When Halt and Catch Fire first premiered on AMC, there was much talk about Joe MacMillan being the new Don Draper before the thought was immediately dismissed as outrageous. But Halt is a crafty show and, throughout, season two has found a way to pick up the Draper mantle in a fashion that other shows have not. While Don Draper was certainly sexy and effortlessly successful, the completely unchecked nature of his white male privilege increasingly made him a relic in his own time, and a dinosaur by the time Mad Men ended. What Halt understands, that many shows haven’t, is that as entertaining as picturing Don Draper mired in the 1980s is, the reality is something far less charming.

Joe MacMillan is 1980s Don Draper. He is handsome and charming, and even when he fails, he fails upward. But that’s not enough anymore. Joe is surrounded by people who are creative geniuses, who are actively getting their hands dirty trying to build something to serve as their legacy, something that Joe finds himself fundamentally unable to do. While he’s an ideas man, it’s just not enough to depend on being a visionary (give or take a Steve Jobs). Joe is impotent in a very profound way and a reflection of how, though amazing, privilege isn’t an automatic ticket to fulfillment. The episode sees Joe eloping with Sara, turning in his notice at Westgroup, and immediately departing for a several week-honeymoon, only to return to find he’s already been replaced by an individual even more bloodthirsty and vision-driven than himself. Immediately he has second thoughts about his hasty decision to marry and relocate to California, but the door has closed behind him, and Joe has no choice but to stumble blindly into the future.

Though that’s not an entirely accurate picture because, after deciding to go out clubbing while rolling on ecstasy, Joe takes the time to speak about his vision for the future. He talks about how the physical world is dead and soon all real and meaningful interactions will take place electronically. Joe does have vision, but it seems impossible for him to extract it from his head. And strangely enough, it seems like the real stumbling block is the fact that Joe isn’t willing to be ruthless enough when it comes to matters of his own success. Sure, all the other characters hate him for being a talentless hack who manipulates other people’s ideas for his own benefit, but none of them seem to realize how bad he is at doing just that. Though they’re about to find out.

Over at Mutiny, there’s a picnic to celebrate all of the company’s customers who didn’t desert them in the face of their sheer incompetence, and while a good time is had by most, it also serves as the background for Tom and Cameron to have their first big fight of coupledom. After putting the finishing touches on a new game, Cam wants to copy protect the code so all of their hard work isn’t ripped off by someone else, something that fundamentally offends Tom, as they both learned to code by ripping apart the work of others. More than that, the pair only got together because he tore Cam’s code apart, but Cameron is unconvinced by his argument and proceeds apace. This is a problem for Tom for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that it’s become increasingly clear Joe is the only person Cam takes advice from. At one point in their argument, Tom accidentally tells Cameron that he loves her and that seems to be enough to spur her to try harder to keep their relationship functional, but, at this point, Tom is too good and too dull to be long for this world.

As though that weren’t enough for one picnic, Cam also learns that the vast majority of the customers attending are community users, as opposed to gamers, proving that not only was Donna right about the potential of the community rooms, but that Cam is rapidly losing control of the company she claims as her own. However, the community rooms are the least of her problems now that Westgroup has cloned Mutiny and redirected all their traffic to the replacement site, much to everyone at the gaming company’s confusion.

It’s betrayal on the highest order and, even though he’s rolling, Joe understands that when he witnesses the events from Westgroup’s mainframe room. That’s why he heads over to Mutiny HQ to try to explain that he wasn’t responsible for this move. Though he tries to explain himself, it comes out muddled and unconvincing (probably because of all of the drugs), and he’s eventually banished from the house. But Cameron, especially with her Joe-truth-sensing skills, of all people should understand that this was more cutthroat than Joe was capable of. Yet she pushes him out of the house, maybe finally, out of her life for good, leaving them both to face the future for the first time free of the past.

The final moment of the episode features Donna pleading with a silent Cameron, asking her, “What are we going to do now?” and it could not be less clear what the answer to her query is. Joe and Cameron may finally be free of limbo, but what remains foggy is where precisely they’ve landed now. Because it sure ain’t heaven.

Random Thoughts:

  • Yet another week where Gordon gets relegated to random thoughts, which is unfortunate, but mostly just a testament to how disconnected his journey has been from the rest of the season. That said, things really start to get interesting this episode when he has a full paranoid break, leaving him in the back of a police car and convinced that Donna has been plotting against him. While it’s still unclear how this is going to play out, I’m at least more interested in what happens either way.
  • Poor Donna. She finally got a win by getting Cameron to admit the importance and potential of her community rooms, and now the company is all but kaput. She just can’t catch a break.
  • I’m not a huge 'shipper, but this fan vid really got me onboard the whole Joe/Cameron thing in a profound and pathetic way. It probably doesn’t help that Sara and Tom are two of the dullest characters in the history of time and space.