Shows that tell stories about making things often share a problem: Because the end condition is completion and success, the show can't ever let its characters fully achieve anything. Instead, it cycles through several repeating iterations of failure and accomplishment, following a sine-wave pattern of obstacles and resolutions.
The second and third seasons of Halt and Catch Fire follow that same fundamental pattern, but rather than feeling repetitive, the show is remarkably good at making the threat of dissolution feel truly fraught.
That's what happens in "Rules of Honorable Play," an hour that could have been predictable and forced. The first few episodes certainly had that familiar, distracting sense of narrative gears clunking into place. And yes, HACF has a tendency to go for the obvious metaphor — Gordon's closet ham radio was a doozy. Cameron's father's motorcycle is similarly unsubtle, although much more emotionally grounded. But on the whole, the season's fourth episode does a fantastic job of once again signaling a precipice for Cameron, Donna, Gordon, and Mutiny as a whole, and it does so in a remarkably upsetting way.
The threat to Mutiny works so well because of the pacing, which is spot on throughout "Rules of Honorable Play." This is not a new obstacle popping up out of nowhere, trying to shock us with Mutiny's sudden collapse. It's a steady pile-up of stuff; it's seeds of discontent that are now blooming all together. The Swapmeet integration is going as suspected, the already chaotic Mutiny code team spins even farther into disarray, and Gordon's swaying in front of a nauseating cheese Danish. Bos is growing tired of his Texas charm charade. And none of that is even the real problem! Donna and Cameron have always struggled to figure out how their partnership works, and Donna in particular has always had trouble finding the right line between deferring to Cameron's genius and acting as her parent. Lying to Cameron about Diane's position on firing the Swapmeet guys … that is a real rubicon for Donna. And somehow, Cameron senses it.
The incipient chaos succeeds at feeling both inevitable and slightly unexpected. Gordon's health is a bell that's been ringing for a long, long time, so that's bound to feel doom-y. Likewise, Cameron's deeply personal relationship with her work (and her correlating trouble with collaboration) is a story that HACF has been writing since the beginning. But Doug's distinct awfulness throws a new wrench into the works, and contact from Cameron's stepfather is an especially destabilizing fillip.
And then there's Bos. His story line is my favorite thing about this episode, and my favorite thing about how this season has been built so far. In California, he's been slightly uncomfortable with his role as Mutiny's vestigial paternal figure, but on the whole, he still seems to be enjoying himself. He counsels Donna about her marriage, he checks in with everyone, and he slays crowds at big Silicon Valley parties with jokes we never totally hear. In the season premiere, it was something with the punch line, "And that, gentlemen, is how you jerk off a dinosaur." In this episode, it's a joke that ends with " … that ain't a bear, that's your ex-wife!" Bos always gets uproarious laughter.
"Rules of Honorable Play" takes this image of Bos and turns it inside out, so we can see that he's actually gone sour. We hear his latest laugh line several times, most notably at the fancy fundraiser Diane brings him to, and then Joe MacMillan sidles up and congratulates Bos on his thorough Texas performance. Bos (quite correctly) congratulates Joe on his own act, but we already knew Joe was putting on an elaborate show. The sudden realization that Bos is doing the same feels far more surprising. Now we see the real person behind the punch line: He's lost his taste for tobacco and champagne and parties. He doesn't want to play laser tag with a bunch of coders. When Gordon asks, he really doesn't want to tell that dumb ex-wife joke again. Suddenly, the person who Cameron and Donna rely on as a mentor, the person from whom Cameron quite comfortably pilfers Scotch, turns out to be chafing at being relegated to the role of Texas show pony.
The episode is full of effective sequences, most especially with regards to Bos, but also Gordon's fabulous laser-tag team-building exercise, Cameron's heart-to-heart about the final remaining bit of Mutiny code and her stepfather's phone call, and Donna's betrayal of Cameron's trust. (The show is almost always on Donna's side, but the title of this episode clearly indicts her for lying to Cameron.)
It's not a coincidence that the episode works because Joe is also less-annoying than usual. Don't get me wrong, HACF still suffers from Joe Is Always Right syndrome, notably represented this week by Joe Is Right About Homophobia and Joe Is Right About the Internet. Ryan is still an empty yes man, and Joe's blank-slate white board is obnoxious. But if Joe has to be right about stuff, then he might as well be right about throwing away a huge chunk of his company to squash a powerful investor who's destroying his gay son's life. It's also a relief every time someone calls out Joe's dumb act. Thanks for stepping up to the plate this week, Bos.
One of the last scenes in "Flipping the Switch" presented Mutiny as a dysfunctional but hopeful family, with everyone sitting around the conference table yelling at each other. "Rules of Honorable Play" also relies on a family dynamic to close things out, but it's a beautifully mixed one. Cameron and Gordon play Duck Hunt, while Donna listens from the hallway as Gordon skillfully dismantles Cameron's resistance to working with Doug and Craig. They're friends at last, and in the kitchen, Donna tells Cameron that there's no need to find somewhere else to live just yet. Except Cameron has seen Gordon's hand tremor, and she also has a sixth sense about Donna's guilt. Just as they seem to finally pull together as a family, something clicks in Cameron's head and she can feel the underlying fissures. "When did you know," she asks Gordon, "you were losing Cardiff?" And Gordon's hand keeps shaking.
- Even if you watched with the sound off, you could still tell that Swapmeet's Doug is a jerk, thanks to his deliciously and resolutely popped collar.
- Last season, HACF struggled to track Gordon's disintegrating health without dipping into melodrama, frustrating lack of communication, or overwhelming self-centeredness. His symptom book has been a pretty effective solution: It allows Gordon (and us) to track exactly how things are going, and to keep that narrative thread pulsing in an efficient way.
- Last week's "Oh yeah, the ’80s!" shout-out was for risotto. This week, we get Cal Erickson's homophobia and snide reference to the "special flu" going around. Bonus shout-out: Cameron leaping in fury at Doug, wreaking havoc as her office gets clotheslined by her headphone cable.
- I love this show's credits, but they often contribute to an overall sense of self-serious heaviness. This week's edit, with Gordon getting punched in the face and yelling, "What the FFFFF — " was a funny twist on the usual Very Important Synth Music vibe.
- Please, HACF. You're set in California. It's a very bright, sunny place. Turn on some lights.