“I’m looking for the giant!”
Time for me to eat my words.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire remains a seriously confused and flawed program that has no idea what it wants to be on a week-to-week basis; that being said, it is also a show that has grown into itself marvelously, and is admirably and consistently entertaining every week in a way that many other “premium” (but ultimately stiff) cable dramas are not.
No, the writers still have NO clue who Joe McMillan is, nor do they have any true grasp of the scope of mystery that supposedly surrounds him. No, they don’t realize that the evolution of Joe and Cameron’s “relationship” can at best be described as a SparkNotes version of human relations – taking three steps backward one week, before rocketing a hundred steps forward (and bounding another dozen for good measure) the next week.
But once Juan Jose Campanella relinquished the director’s chair after two episodes, the creative team behind the show somehow did a pretty respectable job of righting the ship by:
- Quickly doing away with Campanella’s ADD camerawork aesthetic (including the screeching Dutch Angle template that encompassed 90% of the first two episodes)
- Encouraging Lee Pace to quit contorting his face like a robot attempting to learn human facial expressions
- Giving Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron and Kerry Bishe’s Donna significantly larger quantities of substance and depth
- Reining in the comic cartoonish-ness of Toby Huss and giving his character real dramatic turmoil
- And for the love of god, taking the leash off of Scoot McNairy and telling him to have absolute fun with losing his goddamn mind.
And with ingredients like that, you have a show that is completely erratic and unpredictable. Which – in a TV drama landscape that is currently plagued with halfhearted rehashes of tired antihero tropes – is a pretty remarkable feat.
This is a series that can show Lee Pace telling Mackenzie Davis that he’s “turning her on” as he electrocutes himself with a live wire and have her actually be turned on by it, shortly before jumping on him for Round 45 of office sex.
This is also a series that can pivot immediately into an admirably realistic and human conversation between Gordon and Donna (which, for my money, is one of the best TV depictions of marriage that I’ve seen in awhile). And I have a tremendous amount of respect for how the writers handled Donna’s confused betrayal of Gordon by kissing her high school sweetheart/boss. Unlike other shows that awkwardly fumble infidelity and immediately trumpet the philandering wife as a villain to her genius husband, the audience can clearly trace the emotional journey that leads a stifled Donna to attempt to finally be bold. The show knows she isn’t evil (just as well as she does) and the look of regret on Kerry Bishe’s face as she picks up the phone to escape back home was delivered marvelously.
But really. If there’s any reason for AMC to renew this strangely great show, it lies with devoting an hour every week to Scoot McNairy giving one of TV’s most delightfully unhinged and manic performances. At the start of the series, Gordon was confined to every lame, awkward, misunderstood, white, male, genius-in-a-midlife-crisis trope imaginable and I was really infuriated to see this great character actor limited in such a large way. But the show quickly embraced the many rough edges of this guy, and watching him break out of his shell (while simultaneously melting down in spectacular fashion) has been something to look forward to weekly. In particular, the show easily slipped back into shaky-cam mode for (what felt like) the first time in weeks, as an unstable Gordon was left at home to take care of his children. The quick succession of a simple fisheye shot of his disoriented face and an effortless (and meaningful!) Dutch angle immediately put us the headspace of this seriously messed up character, and did so without beating us over the head like the early episodes.
To end an episode of a freshman drama with a co-protagonist crazily digging a hole and matter-of-factly delivering the explanation of “I’m looking for the giant!” is pretty ballsy and cool. I know AMC probably won’t renew Halt and Catch Fire, and I’ve still got three episodes to go in a season that just finished yesterday. But what the hell: I’m just gonna sit back and enjoy the ride for those next three hours.