I’ll just come right out with it: This is the first episode of season four that I didn’t love. It’s not hard to see why it might struggle a little, especially after “Tonya and Nancy” rode on such a high. Rover and Comet have been playing a frantic game of musical chairs, and the end of episode four felt like someone suddenly swept out Comet’s legs, finally giving Rover a big advantage. It was a huge moment, culminating in Joe’s F-bomb cut to black. But in “Nowhere Man,” Donna and Joe are the only ones who can see Comet has been hobbled. It’s less like the bottom suddenly fell out from under Comet, and more like they’re walking around with a death sentence and don’t realize it yet.
It’s hard to go from the giddy highs of teams competing to win the golden surfboard, all the way down to Joe in a funk and Cameron and Tom having a long conversation about a parrot. But my problems with “Nowhere Man” have less to do with the sudden tone shift and more to do with my frustration with Donna and Cameron.
Last week, I wrote that it makes absolute sense for Cameron to be where she is: Though she truly believes Rover is the future, Joe is Team Comet and she’s estranged from Donna. I understand why she’s out in the Airstream reading Stephen King and trying to block out the world. But this is the first episode where Cameron’s isolation really feels like a liability for the balance of the show. At the start, Halt and Catch Fire was driven by the competing impulses of Joe’s ambition, Cameron’s idealism, and Gordon’s practicality. Over time, Donna’s competitiveness got added into the mix and those various drives got rebalanced. The show has always worked best when each of them has a little bit of all of those qualities.
The balance will shift back again. You can feel it in Donna’s absorption with Cameron’s unplayable game, and you can feel it in Cameron’s confession to Joe. Right now, though, it’s frustrating that Cameron’s out in the wilderness, waiting for I’m not sure what. She’s still entirely at odds with Donna. She’s helped Bos, but that magical code fix for Rover is not enough, and he’s back to ask for help again. She’s finally signed the divorce papers with Tom. She’s in an ideological argument with Joe about the future of search, but it’s all so unspoken and underground that they’re hardly communicating at all. Instead of motivated, enthusiastic, and impolite Cameron, we have a Cameron who’s almost entirely reduced to that other constant element of her character: childishness.
Not childishness in a self-absorbed way, although an inability to see other perspectives has always been one of Cameron’s struggles. No, this is Cameron as the kid who ran away from home and isn’t sure how to come back. The kid who comes weeping into the hospital waiting room, sure that Bos’s collapse is her fault. “I was mean,” she tells Donna, grasping for reassurance. It’s an immaturity that stems from the story, but so much of it also comes from Mackenzie Davis’s remarkably convincing performance. Her crushed expression is absolutely the face of a young girl who thinks she caused her daddy’s heart attack — completely persuasive, even if I wish Cameron’s story had more backbone. I also wish we’d had a moment where we saw her delight at being able to craft the Rover fix, where we could’ve seen her pleasure in her own genius. But it took place offscreen. So all we have left is the gut punch when Cameron realizes Tom is going to be a father, and then telling Joe she wrote the algorithm and half-hoping he’ll leave her.
At the same time, this episode is a new height for Donna’s heel turn. She prowls around the Rover team, poking and prodding at their story, needling them about why exactly they need engineers and how Cecil came up with the magical algorithm. (Alas for poor Cecil, who continues to be the single most useless person imaginable, incapable even of understanding the algorithm he half-wrote himself.) She pushes Bos harder and harder at dinner, and as he lies in a hospital bed, Donna’s overcome not by her potential complicity in his illness, but by the dawning knowledge that Cameron wrote the algorithm. Her dogged search for the real story is ruthless, and when she finally gets Bos to admit he brought someone in, her fury is all consuming. “I have enemies all over this town,” she spits at him. How he could he do this to her?
I want Donna’s villainous rage to be glorious, a purifying fire that lays bare Bos’s pusillanimous betrayal and Cecil’s total inadequacy. I want to be on her side as she circles the meeting table in her hellfire-red blazer. But the fight doesn’t feel equal. Cameron isn’t standing in opposition, crowing about the brilliance of the new algorithm. Joe is railing against Rover’s ascendancy, but his complaint is about money and no one’s really listening to him yet. Gordon, bless him, is happy enough to keep banging the chief ontologist and chipping away at a project he enjoys, even if the project is about to get lapped by another company. So Donna’s sniping about protecting her project comes off as selfish and cruel, rather than righteously furious. At the very least, I could’ve done with less of the parrot conversation and maybe a moment where the ambitious new partner at Donna’s firm shows up to remind us why she’s so defensive.
But this is Halt and Catch Fire, so there is still plenty of great stuff going on too: Haley pulling the sheets over her head to listen to PJ Harvey, ’90s roller-derby dream girl Anna Chlumsky, Donna’s realization that in order to beat Cameron’s game you have to stop walking forward and try walking up. And I like the ending with Gordon burning all of his symptom notebooks. Earlier in the episode, he tells Joe to stop reaching so desperately for something he doesn’t have. They are already in the future. Look around and accept it. No one believes that’s going to happen with Joe, of course. But the corollary implication for Gordon is that he can stop obsessing over the minutiae of his illness. This is his future. He needs to accept it.
As I said, I can feel that my frustrations will not stick around forever. Donna figured out how to get the Pilgrim back to his home in a lovely park in the middle of a metropolis, as good a sign as any that reconciliation or at least forward momentum is coming. (Given the solution of the puzzle, maybe the momentum should be more upward.) In the long view, I am still absolutely bonkers over the trajectory of this show and this season more specifically. I’m just ready for the next step.
• Did I mention how amazing Donna’s blazer is in this episode? I did, right? Halt and Catch Fire is occasionally pitched more toward atmospheric yellows and greens than I’d like, but when that makes Donna look like a fiery-red flag baiting the bull as she archly issues commands, it is stunningly good.
• Of course Joanie and Katie the ontologist get along so well. Joanie has roller derby written all over her.
• Gordon isn’t moving the plot much these days, but I continue to feel surprised at how fond I’ve grown of him. Gordon, who loves Sneakers and is trying to just accept where he is in life. Gordon, who’s so proud of his daughters and is capable of dealing with Joe’s antics. Gordon, who calmly tells Joe that his outburst is okay, that Joe needs to look around and see where he is, and placidly informs him: “If you ever scream about my sex life in front of my kid again, I will rip off your head and shit down your throat.”
• The big question is Joe and Cameron’s future, but I also wonder what will happen to Bos now. His secret is finally out. Will Diane forgive him? Will Donna? Will Cameron?