After the comprehensive two-hour season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, viewers might safely assume that Chris Campbell, Chris Rogers, and the showrunners and the writers’ room would want to give viewers a chance to catch their breath with a transitional episode. They could lean on the exposition, fill out the 42 minutes with extended dialogue scenes, write a few sassy one-liners for fan favorite John Bosworth, and leave us a cliffhanger ending alluding to the season’s major story arcs. To their credit, the Chrises and the HCF crew leaned on the gas pedal for a satisfying continuation of the series’ third season.
In the pre-credits scenes, writer Lisa Albert, director Jeff Frelich, and editor Tom Wilson cannily contrast the startup environment of Mutiny and the bacchanalia lurking behind MacMillan Enterprises. As Gordon indulges his interest in ham radio—a hobby Donna compares to online communities in a telling, throwaway comment—Joe looks in on a Dionysian party in his slick ‘80s bachelor pad with keen interest, never letting his sex- and drug-crazed guests know who’s hosting. Creative edits and an unexpected, appropriate music cue underline the work and the process that goes into working in technology as opposed to the flash that comes with money and working in a sexy new industry. Seeing body-painted waitresses walk around with trays of cocaine and ivory straws may have shown the alluring side of ‘80s drug culture, but it also diverged with Gordon’s life-threatening use of the rich man’s aspirin in Season 2.
Both Mutiny and MacMillan are experiencing growing pains. Now that the Anakin-esque Ryan Ray has switched to the MacMillan Dark Side, Cameron and Donna are left trying to figure out how to carry out their ambitious plans and their acquisition of tech startup Swap Meet with a skeleton crew. Gordon’s presence in the Mutiny office adds tension to the volatile Clark marriage, and their fight in the middle of a management meeting pulls many of the problems in their relationship out into the open.
In light of Donna and Gordon’s blow-out, Diane Gould’s scenes in this episode have a Sapphic undercurrent. When she meets with Donna to prepare for Mutiny’s purchase of Swap Meet, Diane’s disdainful comments about her ex-husband and the smooth way she pours a drink for her business partner seem flirtatious. Donna’s giggly retelling of the pair’s lunch date seems as girlish and crushed-out as it was tipsy on too many scotch-and-sodas.
Meanwhile, Ryan is struggling to find his place at MacMillan. His fight for a job with the exacting CEO has led him to a position Joe wants him to create for himself. The tension between Mutiny and MacMillan comes to a head at a class where Cameron presents. When Joe stalks his former protegee and lover, he realizes how much Ryan is worth and makes a move to keep the nascent tech whiz under his wing. The episode’s conclusion will inspire a thousand slash fanfics between Joe and Ryan, but Joe’s predatory sexuality and history of manipulative behavior will put many fans on edge.
(Kudos to the music supervisors, by the way: the episode-ending “Burning Down the House” cue carries layers of significance for Joe MacMillan, but hearing a particularly evocative line from “The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon gave his following scene with Cameron a scary sense of foreboding.)
The third story arc teased in the season premiere concluded on an ambiguous note, as Bos and Diane learned that Swap Meet was much less than it seemed. In spite of the office’s slick interiors, the cavernous office and overextended employees make the Mutiny reps realize that Swap Meet is worth far less than their asking price. Bos pulls rank on the startup, but the possibility for renegotiation seems plausible.
With just three episodes into the third season, the Halt and Catch Fire crew have gained considerable momentum. While Mutiny and MacMillan have survived computer viruses, infighting, and low ratings, they face their greatest challenge this week: a script written by rich-kid film dilettante Jake Paltrow. Tune in tonight for the fourth episode of Halt.