Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 11 through 17 is "Yerba Buena," the fifth episode of the third season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
If I wanted to convince you to give AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire a shot, I might have you watch "Yerba Buena," not just the show’s best episode so far but one of the best TV episodes of the year — and notable for just how episodic it is, too.
Yes, I would probably have to explain some of the very basics of the show, so you’d know which character was which, and who was feuding with whom. But you might be surprised by how little you would need to know to figure out how Halt and Catch Fire operates — you might even get by with just, "This is a drama about the 1980s tech industry."
"Yerba Buena" isn’t showy. It doesn’t feature any big, flashy set pieces or dramatic twists and turns. There are a couple of character moments that don’t bode well for the future, but neither is given all that much weight.
Instead, the episode is thoughtful. It takes stock of where these people have been and where they’re going. It is, in other words, a respite from the season’s storylines so far. And that might be its greatest success.
"Yerba Buena" is set during a holiday TV rarely covers — but that’s not the only way it distinguishes itself
The bulk of "Yerba Buena" is set over a long, lazy Independence Day weekend. Simply because it’s set during this holiday, which is the subject of very, very few TV episodes, "Yerba Buena" sets itself apart a little bit.
And that’s further reflected in the content of the episode, which evokes a similar feeling of a necessary pause, a vacation from everything else.
The characters, freed from the responsibilities of work, go on road trips to visit family, spend a quiet weekend alone without the kids, or reflect on their own mortality.
That might sound boring — I’ll explain why it’s not later — but it’s actually necessary. This sort of episode used to be quite common on TV shows, even on series as recent as The Sopranos and Mad Men, with every season providing a built-in oasis where the characters had time to think. (The Sopranos, in fact, sometimes felt as though it was half constructed of these sorts of episodes by the end.)
This sort of episode has increasingly fallen out of favor in recent years. You’ll still see various shows try to put their spin on it, but TV’s creative focus has shifted more and more toward heavy serialization — by which I mean stories where the demarcations between episodes are largely incidental — and the standalone hour has fallen by the wayside.
Heavily serialized shows play better in a binge watch, because it feels like everything flows together. But watched week to week, it can be disorienting (not that it’s hurt, say, Game of Thrones).
Still, I miss the days of stronger standalone episodes, and "Yerba Buena" is both the most standalone episode of Halt and Catch Fire yet — for the most part, its conflicts arise and are resolved within the hour, though several will presumably carry forward in echoes — and an episode that reminds us that "standalone" doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
The standalone episode can be as profound as a more serialized hour
Now let’s be clear: When I say "Yerba Buena" is a "standalone" episode, I don’t mean to suggest that Halt and Catch Fire suddenly drops its character arcs from the past. One of the things that makes "Yerba Buena" so rewarding for fans is the way that it builds those character arcs to very tiny emotional climaxes.
But you can also watch "Yerba Buena" as the story of, say, a woman returning home to try to put her dead father’s legacy to rest, then failing miserably at that task. In this case, that character is Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a genius when it comes to computers but a disaster when it comes to dealing with her own emotions. ("Yerba Buena" makes it clear that Cameron probably has undiagnosed depression — and since it’s the 1980s, it’s likely that it will continue to go undiagnosed.)
The scenes where Cameron returns to her Texas home to try to buy her dad’s motorcycle are tiny master classes in telling stories with big emotional stakes, and without having to push too hard. The big catharsis here comes when Cameron has a huge argument in the front seat of a car with her workplace father figure, Bos (the always terrific Toby Huss). People don’t screw up because they don’t love Cameron, he tells her. They screw up because they do love her.
It’s exactly what Cameron needs to hear — in that she’s spent the whole season pushing everybody she cares about further away, for reasons even she doesn’t seem clear on. But it’s also exactly what she doesn’t need to hear, because it hits too close to the raw nerves at the center of her soul. She storms out of the car, headed off to something else.
Cameron was a shaky character in the show’s early going — she sometimes seemed as if she had been conceived based on her wardrobe and hairstyle, as if Halt and Catch Fire creators Christopher C. Rogers and Chris Cantwell had wanted a programmer who looked very '80s counterculture and thought they might fill in the other character bits later.
And yet the longer the show runs, the more she’s become the center of its central idea: You are stronger when you are connected to other people, weaker when you’re not. Without her co-workers and friends, Cameron spirals into oblivion. With them, she has a safety net, so her spiraling has somewhere to go.
But this kind of small character moment wouldn’t necessarily exist in a more serialized hour of the show. In a standalone episode, it gets the chance to stand out not as something glimpsed in passing, but as a key moment in a character’s development.
Halt and Catch Fire increasingly offers all of its characters the spotlight
"Yerba Buena" doesn’t just have a scene like this for Cameron. It has a clarifying scene for every single major character, including Ryan, a young programmer who was just added this season.
The show’s closest thing to an antihero — reclusive tech entrepreneur Joe (Lee Pace) — discovers that a lover has contracted HIV and anxiously awaits the results of his own test for the virus. (Joe is bisexual, and season three has slowly been revealing how the AIDS crisis is forcing him to realize how integral his sexuality is to his self.)
Married couple Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) have a quiet weekend together, which eventually unravels. Ryan struggles to understand what Joe wants from him. And Bos worries both about his biological son and his workplace daughter, Cameron.
I don’t want to overstate the brilliance of "Yerba Buena." It is not some episode that is breaking the template of television for all time. It is, as mentioned, a very conscious throwback to the kind of episode that used to provide actors with meaty character material (and Emmy tapes).
But as scripted by Mark Lafferty and directed by Andrew McCarthy, "Yerba Buena" finds a way to take a situation we’ve all been through — the long, listless holiday weekend — and turn it into the stuff of compelling emotional drama. It perfectly executes everything it sets out to do.
And why shouldn’t trying to tell a simple story of emotional catharsis be as acclaimed as something more technically challenging? There might not have been dozens of swooping crane shots and special effects in that scene between Cameron and Bos in that front car seat, but I felt more than I have on TV all year. Halt and Catch Fire knows its characters backward and forward. Turns out that’s all you need for great TV drama.
Halt and Catch Fire airs Tuesdays on AMC at 10 pm Eastern.