It is hard not to continue to draw comparisons between Halt and Catch Fire and Mad Men, regardless of how foolish they are. Forget the fact that they are both on the same network, that one is beginning as the other one is wrapping up, and even that each series’ first episode opening was a definition of the title of the show. It seems clear that Joe is supposed to be the 1980’s Don Draper. And if Halt and Catch Fire was as well made, as well written and paced, and as well acted as Mad Men then it wouldn’t be a problem. And while “FUD” is only the second episode of the show, it actually brings more of the show’s shortcomings to light without building anything from its first episode.
Let’s just get the comparison between Joe and Don out of the way, hopefully the final time. Both are pitchmen but where Don has substance to his ideas and pitches Joe only has flash. His pump up speech to the workers of Cardiff in which he rips off a line of Steve Jobs’s, which he is called out for both by Gordon and Cameron, just goes to show Joe’s flashy mentality. He is your typical 1980s antihero – he wants what he wants and he is going to take it no matter what he must do. The more troubling similarity between Joe and Don, however, is the “mysterious past” trope.
Joe’s mysterious past is being played up far too much this early in the show. No one knows where Joe came from or what he’s done – except that he did 2 million dollars of damage to IBM somehow – and even when it seems like we are getting some insight it turns out to be a lie. And while Joe revealing that he was bullied for being interested in science while he was a child, which doesn’t turn out to be true, does show us how slick and smarmy he is it only draws more attention to an aspect of the show that isn’t really all that interesting. Will we eventually find out who Joe really is? Sure, at some point. Will we care? At the moment, no and if his mysterious past continues to be given as much focus as it does now it will only annoy viewers into not caring as opposed to making them curious.
More importantly, however, is the haphazard storytelling of both “FUD” and the arc of the season so far. While “FUD” isn’t a reversal of what was set up in “I/O”, “FUD” feels like it rushed into more plot than it needed to this early. There is no problem with the characters getting out of the legal predicament with IBM relatively quickly, no one wants to watch three hours of character depositions. However, when the show has so many clichéd mini-arcs, which are presented illogically, it causes quite a concern.
Halt and Catch Fire is still in its infancy, there is no need to have individual character arcs at this point. The show should be focused on the characters growing together and interacting with each other and how that changes over time. “FUD” only reinforces the disconnect between these three characters even more, without offering up any new behavior. Gordon and Cameron don’t get along but that doesn’t matter anyway since they have to be legally separated. Cameron is still meaningless sex with Joe because she can(?) and it gets her mind off of things. Gordon doesn’t trust Joe. And John hates them all. This is nothing new from “I/O”. And when Joe and Gordon get into a physical fight in the parking lot at the end of the episode it means next to nothing because their behaviors and their circumstances really have not changed since Joe first convinced Gordon to reverse engineer the IBM in “I/O”.
Since the show is reinforcing the relationships set up in the first episode, it feels it must then give each character a mini-arc for the episode. However, is there really any point to have a minute of melodrama between Gordon and his wife because he didn’t initially tell her that Cameron was a woman. There is no reference point for the audience why Gordon would do that in the first place and he and Cameron have not been working long enough for Gordon’s wife to actually become upset, so it adds almost nothing to the show.
Likewise, Cameron’s little stealing spree turned possible defection only served to add more unneeded melodrama. Great, Cameron steals t-shirts for no reason because she likes to live on the edge and have a cheap thrill. Again, nothing new being introduced besides her utter stupidity. Her being approached by some random suits and Gordon and Joe believing she took the code binder to sell also didn’t make any sense for this part of the show. Is Cameron really going to just up and leave two episodes in? Would anyone care if she did?
Cameron’s meeting with the random suits also offers up another problem for the show: There is far too much happening off screen. Even though Cameron tells us what those suits approached her about in the mall how can we believe her? It doesn’t offer up any more intrigue for the audience being kept in the dark just before something is about to happen. This also goes for her and Joe’s implied sex. Sure, we don’t need to see the dirty details but when you leave a scene before anyone is exactly sure what is about to happen that doesn’t make watching easy. And it isn’t as if Halt and Catch Fire is too crammed full of action to devote about a minute of time to either of those two things – especially if you are going to show a Cameron-clothe-trying-on montage.
In fact, much of “FUD’s” action seemingly happens randomly. This is a sequence of plot events: Joe revisits Cameron after their sex and orders her to just copy the code; Gordon tells his wife Cameron is a girl before she brings it up to him; Cameron is in a department store looking for business clothes and then steals t-shirts and is then approached by the random suits; Cardiff phones are ringing off the hook as IBM raids their clients. The show has very little flow to it and that is because the episode’s plot points are not properly paced out.
Last, it seems foolish to have something as big as IBM undercutting Cardiff and stealing their employees happen within the last 20 minutes of the second episode of a series. Cardiff has already undergone huge changes, is there reason to ratchet up the stakes even more at this point? Yes, now Joe’s computer development division is more important than ever but it was unneeded for Cardiff to lose 70% of its business so soon in the season. It also seemed foolish to show Joe being caught by surprise by IBM so soon as well. It would have made for a much more dramatic moment if everyone learns in the middle of the season that Joe isn’t as meticulous as everyone thought, not in the second episode. The most important moment, where Gordon gains respect for Cameron’s capabilities by reading her code, is completely overshadowed by the needless dramatic flotsam that floats throughout the entire episode.
Between Joe’s raging in the storage basement and his raging by blasting various music genres on various stereos “FUD” didn’t build off of anything from “I/O”. It is still a show trying to find its footing and suffers from poor storytelling and structuring. Joe wants to build a laptop now, and that’s great, but for a show that should be rooting itself in its characters and not changing what they are working on week by week.