Review: On ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ communication breakdowns plague Joe and others

A review of tonight's Halt and Catch Fire coming up just as soon as we finally beat Mario Bros…

Right now, as you read this essay by me about an episode of Halt and Catch Fire, you don't know for sure that I wrote it. You can't know it. I mean, you probably know it's me, because I have certain convoluted ways of stringing words and phrases and clauses together, and because, to quote The Untouchables, who would pretend to be that, who was not? But there's always a chance I've outsourced some of these recaps, or I had a computer science friend construct an AI program to write pieces for me, or maybe one of my kids is doing it. My son is fond of sending innocuous texts from my wife's phone, only revealing his true identity after few rounds of conversation because he can't resist throwing in lots of conflicting emoji, but he can fool someone for a while. Or maybe my son isn't real, nor is “Alan Sepinwall.” Maybe you're all being catfished by a guy from Tupelo who invented this whole persona.

The internet and other technology has made communication much simpler, but also much more complicated, because we can never really know for certain who's on the other end of that signal, clicking away with their fingers and thumbs. And even in the more primitive computing era depicted at this stage of Halt, much of the storytelling this season – and especially in “And She Was” – has dealt with the difficulty of connecting, of getting your point across, or even being positive that you're communicating with the right person, at the right time.

Periodically throughout the hour, we're presented with conversations that, at least for a moment or two, lead one participant or the other – or just us in the audience – wondering what's actually happening.

Diane suggests that Donna and Cameron go up to her house in wine country to talk things out about the possibility of a sale or IPO, but Cameron wants no part of her lying partner, leaving Donna to imagine (with help from drugs provided by a friend of Diane's older daughter) the perfect reconciliation with a more forgiving Cam who insists she'll always need her.

That talk in the grass is the only one in the episode that we can be sure didn't happen, as the camera swirls around Donna long enough to reveal that she's been alone the whole time. But others are ambiguous. Did Gordon only recently disconnect one of the leads on his ham radio, or has his degenerative brain condition caused him to hallucinate the friends he believes he's made with the device? (When he and Cameron speak later in the episode after she buys her own radio, the sequence is shot and edited in a way to highlight how separated the two are, and how they may as well be talking to thin air for all the static and other audio issues they deal with.) Cameron's various online chats with new husband Tom are real, but there are often long enough gaps for Tom to question if Cameron is still there, and she seems far more connected to Joe when she goes to see him in person and he points out that he once also impulsively got engaged to a person he mistakenly believed was responsible for his happiness because they were in front of him right as he stared to feel happy again.

For that matter, Cameron only goes to see Joe because Gordon tells her about his condition while they spend the weekend hanging out(*) during Donna's absence, as the characters who are able to truly engage with one another are the ones who do it IRL. (Though even this has limits, as we see when Bos and Diane's backseat hookup fails to turn into anything more.)

(*) Hands up, everyone else who feared their Mario Bros. marathon was going to end with Gordon making a clumsy pass at Cameron. Color me relieved that the story went in a different direction.

Joe and Ryan, of course, spend much of the episode trying to lay the groundwork for a future where virtual communication will, as Joe promises, become a public utility every bit as prominent and lucrative as the telephone or television, only for Ken from the board to shut it down because Joe has caused too much trouble lately, and already has such a bad rep that there's a “Joe MacMillan Clause” in his contract to protect the company from him pulling the exact kinds of shenanigans we saw him pull so often in seasons 1 and 2. Denied access to his next great idea, and threatened with spending years as a bored figurehead, Joe instead lobs a metaphorical hand grenade into the situation by admitting in his deposition that he stole the anti-virus software from Gordon. For once, the kind of Joe behavior that was so frustrating in the first two seasons becomes a relief, because it's actually helping out the characters we care about rather than further complicating their lives (even if Joe is doing it for selfish reasons rather than altruistic ones), and the scene ties in neatly to all the earlier ones by having Joe's confession be presented simultaneously in person and on the video monitor. This is a thing Joe MacMillan definitively said, not only to the other people in the room, but to anyone who will watch the recording after the fact as this now very messy case continues to wind its way through the courts. There can be no doubt as to Joe speaking, nor as to what he said, and while this may turn out very well for Gordon in the long run, but this seems like a situation that, coupled with Donna and Cameron's current estrangement, means things for everyone are about to get a lot worse before they have any hope of getting better.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at