WARNING: This review contains spoilers
Halt and Catch Fire closed its first season with slick-tongued salesman Joe Macmillan fleeing Cardiff Electric, the software company he forced into the evolving personal computer industry, for a journey of self-discovery, leaving engineer Gordon Clark to pick up the (literally) burning pieces he left behind. Meanwhile Clark’s wife Donna, tired of putting aside her dreams in favor of her husband’s, joined former Cardiff hacker and Macmillan fling Cameron Howe at her network computer game startup Mutiny.
Cameron’s residence was once a place of zen, a habitat in which she could clear her head and start anew with someone like Joe Macmillan, a frontrunner in the industry she wished to make her mark in. Now, twenty months after the release of Cardiff Electric’s Giant personal computer and Joe’s departure from the chaos he started, it is no longer a place for rest, but a madhouse, with masses of poorly protected wires connecting overworked servers to sustain a popular online computer gaming network created by Cameron and her former Cardiff colleagues.
Welcome to Mutiny.
While Cameron approaches the company’s unending issues with server crashes and lag with a certain lackadaisicality, Donna tries to reign in the chaos with Mutiny’s talented, but immature programming team and make Cameron see sense in a more organized and properly wired network setup; her point is almost immediately emphasized by a power outage that spans the neighborhood block. Meanwhile, Gordon nervously talks on a local Dallas talk program about the follow-up to the Giant, the Cardiff Giant Pro; Cardiff’s acquisition by an overseas company; and his plans to move on from the company he took over as president.
In Austin, Joe receives a call about Cardiff’s sale and relates the news with new love, Sara Wheeler, with whom he shares a quaint, homey place, a far cry from his spare, modern apartment in Dallas. He is scheduled to collect his share of the company the following day, but shows hesitation in “going back there, seeing those people.” Sara suggests canceling a gathering with friends later that night as a way to ease Joe’s stress, but he remarks “it’s a good distraction.” Back at Cardiff headquarters, Gordon packs the remaining possessions from his desk (formerly the desk and office of John Bosworth). Inside the top drawer, he finds a small vial with a white substance inside; as movers come to claim the desk, he pockets the vial and grabs the last of his things.
Later that night, Sara and Joe entertain friends around an outdoor fire, telling the story of how she and Joe, friends from school, became reacquainted when they both found themselves at Fisk Observatory (Author note: If Sara meant Fiske Planetarium, then Joe wound up in Boulder, Colorado.)— her on an assignment for Texas Monthly “to write about their SETI program,” or the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” (hence the episode’s title), he on a mission to “reevaluate” himself. Sara elaborates more on his accomplishments with Cardiff, and is met by a surprising modesty from Joe. He also details his plans for his share of the Cardiff money: relocating to the Silicon Valley in California to start his own company.
After the power returns, it is revealed to Donna that their issues were not solved by cooperating with the power company, but hijacking power from the “loaded” neighbors via extension cords. Donna emphasizes the need for someone to take charge and handle the root issues and illegalities of their set up rather than putting a temporary “patch” on them; Cameron remains steadfast in her lazy management, walking out on Donna when she remarks she no longer wants “to be the mom here.” Elsewhere, as Gordon nurses a beer at a bar, former Cardiff employees come in and spout their bitterness on their sudden unemployment, but are revealed by a friendly colleague to have job prospects beyond Cardiff. Gordon begins to apologize for the company’s demise, saying it was essentially out of his hands because company chief Nathan Cardiff wanted to sell; the colleague touts the massive opportunities working on the Cardiff Giant and its ancestor gave him and reminisces on old times in the Kill Room.
The following day, Gordon speaks with a heavily distracted Donna about the free time his departure and share of money from Cardiff will give him to spend time with his family. At Mutiny, tensions remain evident between Cameron and Donna as Cameron leaves to meet with her “XT guy” about more equipment. Donna meets with Cameron in a deserted parking lot that evening, when her equipment guy, a fence, arrives and sells them two IBM XT computers for $500. As the fence drives off, Donna powers the computers on using a power inverter and finds out the motherboards of the computers are counterfeit.
Gordon and Joe come face to face once more in the lobby of Cardiff, lining up with several other shareholders to collect their checks. Joe broaches sporadic conversation with the bitter Gordon, who doesn’t hesitate to bring up Joe’s “mistake” in defecting from the company, but finally admits his relief about Cardiff’s closure, and ends up in chuckles with Joe over the Cardiff Giant Pro. Gordon is ushered into the office to collect first, leaving with a check for over $800,000 and a goodbye from Nathan consisting simply of “Thanks for the memories.” After Joe is seated, Nathan, about to hand him a check of similar value, remarks the amount is “minus the first shipment that you burnt,” then rips the check into pieces. He tells him he will get nothing, saying Joe “cost dozens of good, honest people their jobs; you sent my SVP of sales, my friend John Bosworth to prison, and for what? A doorstop of a computer with a fancy screen and no legacy!” Joe remains stoic, remarking that Nathan and Cardiff have no place in the future that’s coming, then departs by telling him to “stay healthy.” A solemn Joe rides the elevator down to the first floor with Gordon, but doesn’t tell him of what transpired.
At home, Gordon, initially planning on celebrating his last day at Cardiff with Donna and their two daughters that night, is told by Donna over the phone that she will be working late at Mutiny. After hanging up, Gordon takes their kids to get ice cream and answers their questions about whether the family is “rich now.” In the midst of answering, Gordon’s nose begins to bleed.
While waiting for the arrival of the fence at a local bar, Cameron and Donna unwind with a few beers and discuss their management issues and future prospects, coming to a compromise on sharing managerial duties. When he arrives, they demand for their money back, but leave when he physically threatens Cameron. In the parking lot, Cameron reveals she nabbed the fence’s car keys; they proceed to break into his vehicle, finding two new XTs in their original boxes in the back. Opting for the computers instead of their money, they nab the two boxes and drive off, leaving the counterfeit machines in their wake.
Donna finally arrives home, and apologizes for her absence to a pajamaed, tissue-nostriled Gordon, who says they can have dinner “next time I sell a company.” Exhausted and a bit drunk, she immediately heads to bed, but is stopped by Gordon asking for affirmation that the selling of Cardiff is “good.” She agrees it is, and appends, “Besides, it wasn’t up to you.” Back in Austin, Joe arrives home to a concerned Sara and tells her Cardiff “shut me out.” Assuring Joe that she believes the things she said the previous night about Joe’s integrality to Cardiff, and that the money doesn’t matter, Joe proposes to Sara. Meeting his proposal with suspicion, she eventually relents and says yes. Unable to sleep, Joe, under the username “USER85,” is online playing a tank game on the Mutiny computer network against Cameron. After a well-earned victory, Cameron asks her opponent in the chat area if they’re a new subscriber, to which Joe replies, “Yup. Just signed on.”
Later, Cameron drives to the front entrance of a prison in the middle of the Texas desert and waits in her vehicle. The gates unlock, and out from his tenure behind bars walks John Bosworth, warmly greeted with a hug by Cameron.
This episode does a great job laying the groundwork for the character arcs of the season, and already places the characters in situations that will inevitably become tribulations and obstacles in the future, like the switching of roles between Donna and Gordon, and his way of coping with that (which I believe has already started, if the vial of what I'm assuming is cocaine from Bosworth's desk is connected at all to Gordon's nosebleeds). Joe’s departure from the industry and coupling with Sara is bringing out quite a different side to him — how this develops and is affected by future challenges with Cardiff remains to be seen, though. The man is a master manipulator, after all, so this softening could end up being a facade with personal motive.
New addition to the story Sara Wheeler (who, by the way, is a doppelgänger of Anna Friel, Lee Pace's co-star in Pushing Daisies — Ned/Chuck feels!) is starting out to be an interesting question mark; she is well aware of Joe's machinations in regards to Cardiff, but is still accepting of him. Her reaction to Joe’s proposal is intriguing, though — suspicion is her first instinct. I’m 99% sure this alludes to what is later revealed in the season in relation to Sara (if you’re curious and not averse to some season arc sneak peeks, check out AMC’s "A Look at Season 2 of Halt and Catch Fire" video here for more elaboration on this), and could be what once again reveals Joe's true, inbred stripes. Also, we can't disregard Joe's connection to Cameron — with Bosworth out of prison and probably poised to become a villain (or at least an obstacle) to Joe, Cameron will likely end up in the middle, having to choose her loyalty, and inevitably crossing paths with Joe again. Perhaps Joe’s “Just signed on” could be a small foreshadow to some future dealings or collaboration with Mutiny. With computer networking gaining fast popularity in the industry, and Joe wanting to start anew with his own venture, it wouldn't be out of the question that he and Cameron somehow team up.