“This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.” –Ghost World (2001)
In the waning year of the Bush II administration, back when I fancied myself a film critic, I attended an advance screening of a movie called The Good Night. The plot description sounded decent, but the film was bad in the most banal way imaginable—something that would turn up letterboxed on cable but still look panned-and-scanned. The lack of anything resembling the truth of human existence made the film seem boring and opaque, and the blue-chip cast seemed at odds with the mediocrity of the screenplay and direction. It was, in short, a film for which only a scion of Hollywood could get funding, and when the closing credits rolled at the end the “Directed By Jake Paltrow” byline made me throw up my hands and say “OF COURSE.” Almost a decade later, as I tuned Halt and Catch Fire, I saw the same credit and had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. How would the younger sibling of the GOOP CEO and the son of the two most mediocre people to get any kind of power in Hollywood ruin one of the most engaging hours of television?
To his credit, Paltrow has gotten better at working with actors. Of course, the Halt and Catch Fire cast has gelled over the past year, grounding even the most bizarre plot twists in a humanity that could be recognized outside of rich show-biz families. Bos gets a fair amount of screen time in this episode, but—given his fondness for one-liners and Toby Huss’s puckish screen presence—the character’s material runs counter to what we’d expect from such an episode. Sure, we see Bos tear it up with his colleagues in the Silicon Valley, and he has some gruff-yet-endearing interactions with the Mutiny crew, but Huss and writer Alison Tatlock allow us to see the sadness lurking behind Bos’s boisterous exterior. After teasing at a flirtation between Donna Clark and new Mutiny investor Diane Gould, the writers have hinted at a connection between Diane and Bos that’s more than strictly business. Annabeth Gish’s steely portrayal of the businesswoman contrasts nicely with Huss’s bruised vulnerability and quick wit.
Joe MacMillan is also at the party where Diane and Bos have their first date, and his creepy phone call to Bos and off-putting conversation with Diane—combined with his stalking of Cameron in the previous episode, his slightly unkempt appearance, and his unbreaking eye contact—all but leave a slime trail behind him. Lee Pace downplays Joe’s charisma and invests an aloofness in the character that make him come off as creepy. In spite of his uncomfortable interactions, Joe has moments of clairvoyance, most notably in a series of scenes where he lets go of a client for wishing death on his gay son and shifting his attention to the government project ARPAnet. In his scenes with Pace, Manish Dayal still brings an eager ambition to his role as Joe’s new assistant, but he seems less like a character and more like a voluble brainstorming partner and audience surrogate.1
Meanwhile, Mutiny’s purchase of Swap Meet finds the company experiencing growing pains. The tech bros in charge of the old company are asserting too much control for Cameron, and her anxiety gets the best of her as she tries to figure out how to deal with them. These scenes have their own hand-tipping as well, with the more bellicose Swap Meet owner sporting a mullet and a polo shirt with a popped collar. Cameron’s palpable anxiety and questionable decision-making puts Donna in a tight spot. Kerry Bishe plays Donna’s ambivalence towards her partner’s erratic-seeming behavior with great subtlety, and an ominous scene late in the episode has chilling implications for Cameron’s future at Mutiny.
This is one of the most visually striking episodes of the series, at times to its detriment. While Paltrow cannily uses camera movement and framing to suggest Gordon’s deteriorating health, the frequent use of raked low-angle shots and quick cuts gives the episode a vertiginous feel that took me out of the episode. Directors like Karyn Kusama, Kimberley Pierce, and Daisy V.S. Mayer—who, like Paltrow, came up through the indie film scene of the ‘90s and 2000s—have done a better job of allowing the characters and the dialogue to tell the story.2 I’m looking forward to seeing how ‘80s icon and John Hughes regular Andrew McCarthy handles tonight’s episode, “Yerba Buena”.