And now, a list of events and elements in “Flipping the Switch,” this week’s episode of Halt and Catch Fire, that made me incredibly glad that this show, one of the very best on television, exists. NB: This list, while extensive, is by no means comprehensive.
1. The ‘80s music cues. While other period shows gun for the most obvious David Bowie hits for a stab at post-death relevance, Halt uses his forgotten-by-all-but-aficionados (ahem) Bryan Ferry-esque “Absolute Beginners.” When Joe listens to Gary Numan on his headphones, it’s not “Cars” or even “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” but “War Songs,” a track even a Numan geek like me had to look up. The songs with a higher recognition factor add the perfect jittery texture (Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” from Graceland) or plant tongue firmly in cheek when soundtracking Joe’s latest self-consciously rebellious act of throwing caution to the wind (Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”). Eat your heart out, Stranger Things.
2. Matthew Lillard as Joe’s macho, mustachioed investor Ken Diebold. If you haven’t seen Lillard since his comic-relief days, this is an astonishing transformation; he looks as convincing with his head shaved as Bryan Cranston did on Breaking Bad, which is saying a lot. Watch how he makes a show of disliking his drink, for example, or how he bobs his head and grins with almost mindless delight when he says, of charging for Joe’s heretofore free anti-virus software, “I see a spigot, and I wanna turn it on.” He’s a shark.
3. Toby Huss as John Bosworth. A highlight of basically any episode, Boz has his widest range of parts to play yet in this ep, as far as his professional life goes. He’s a dumbstruck bystander when Gordon and Donna have an unexpected marital blowout in the middle of a company meeting. He’s a shoulder for Donna to lean on when she comes back from lunch afterwards, blitzed and regretful. He’s the dispenser of hard-earned wisdom to Cameron when they discuss the Clarks’ woes: “It was quiet…at least they weren’t screaming? “I’ve heard quiet make you beg for screaming.” He’s the keen-eyed businessman he’s always been when he heads to Swapmeet to tender Mutiny’s buyout offer, senses that they’ve been had, then rips the deal up on the spot and renegotiates a much lower fee. And in so doing he’s a wee bit of a sex symbol, as his improvisatory instincts and Southern swagger intrigue Mutiny’s investor, Diane Gould. If you’re not beaming with delight at Boz at some point during the night’s proceedings, I just don’t know what to tell you.
4. Donna and Gordon’s whole deal. It’s not just the work meeting that explodes into marital strife basically out of nowhere, though that’s a big part of it. (For what it’s worth, I never in a million years would have assumed Donna was bringing up Gordon’s infidelity until he accused her of this. I thought she was talking about his belly-up custom-computer business and his degenerative brain condition, not that that’s a whole lot better, though at least he’s not morally culpable for them.) It’s also Gordon asking “Do you want me there because you think I have something to contribute, or because you want me to feel like I have something to do?” when Donna invites him to the meeting in the first place, equal parts canny and bitter. It’s Donna asking for the “rizzotto” (rhymes with “lotto”) at lunch with Diane, who informs her “Men can’t seem to handle the idea that sexual availability and business acumen can exist in the same body,” then second-guesses her decision to send Boz to proffer the deal to Swapmeet alone, both of which catch Donna off-guard. It’s her coming back from said lunch drunk and dazed, responding to Boz’s blandishments about her marriage with a sad smile of resignation: “I don’t know how you and Gordon do it.” “Well, apparently not so well.” Also: “There are men out there who’ve done a lot worse, Donna.” “Yeah, but it’s hard to turn that into good news.” It’s Gordon’s HAM radio communication with someone who may or may not even exist. It’s his inability to keep his mouth shut long enough even to successfully apologize and move on from his outburst the previous day. It’s in the rare crosstalk as he, Donna, Boz, and Cameron shout to be heard as their meeting breaks down into chaos. It’s in all the little details that add up to two decent, loving people failing to make it work.
5. Joe McMillan, inscrutable guru. Of all the masks Joe has put on — yuppie hard-charger, friend in need, devoted husband, employee of the month — this is by far the funniest, most fascinating, and most convincing, because it’s essentially a performative version of what he already is: a cipher, a riddle even he doesn’t know the answer to. Why not make other people do the work of figuring it out for him? Bearded and aloof, he can be all things to all people: a coke-orgy hedonist, a bottom-line businessman, a Time magazine cover icon, a power-to-the-people tech ecumenicist, a rip-it-up-and-start-again maverick, a gnomic mentor for an up-and-coming genius. In fact, it seems like he hired Ryan to help him figure out his next step as much as the next step. “I am the product,” he tells the kid, arguably his most honest admission. Earlier, as Ryan slinks home the morning after Joe’s big soiree, his roommate asks “Was that fun?” “I don’t know what the hell it was,” Ryan replies, courtesy of a beautifully baffled line reading by actor Manish Dayal. You and Joe both, Ryan. You and Joe both.