“Many companies start doing one thing, and then change direction,” Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) notes midway through the third season of AMC's '80s computer drama Halt and Catch Fire, which premieres tomorrow night at 9(*). He notes, for instance, that Coleco started off as the Connecticut Leather Company, then began manufacturing toys, and by the '80s was in the video game business, just as Joe himself stumbled into his current, hugely lucrative career selling anti-virus software after several prior computing ventures went sideways.
(*) AMC snuck the season's first episode on last night in a timeslot that was listed as the second hour of Talking Dead, perhaps in hopes that Fear the Walking Dead fans would watch/record it by accident and give this very different show a try. But tomorrow will not only feature that episode again at 9, but the season's second episode in what will be the regular timeslot at 10. (Episode 3 airs next week at that time.)
Reinvention isn't just on the mind of Joe – who worries, “I'm not sure I've got another 'next' in me” – but everyone on Halt. As Joe's former lover Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and her partner Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) attempt to turn their online chat company Mutiny – which itself was originally designed to focus on games – into a primitive version of eBay or Amazon, Donna frets over getting it exactly right, telling Cameron, “We need this to be it, because we only get one shot out here.”
Halt and Catch Fire, thankfully, has had more than one shot, surviving miniscule ratings and a shaky creative start to make it to this third season. (I've seen the first 5 episodes.) And if thought of reinvention is consuming all four main characters (also including Scoot McNairy as Donna's husband – and Joe's betrayed ex-partner – Gordon), it's because that process has defined everything that's made Halt one of TV's best current dramas.
The series began as a muddled, reverse-engineered Quality Drama, mixing in bits of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and others, but having no compelling reason of its own to exist, save for the fine performances of its leads, plus Toby Huss as smiling Texas businessman John Bosworth. But over the course of that first season, it began moving away from ideas that had been too drained of life by other shows, particularly Joe as a charismatic anti-hero whose erratic behavior kept driving the plot, and toward ones that felt fresher and more vital, like the awkward but compelling partnership between responsible Donna and anti-social Cameron as they broke off from the men to start Mutiny. The jump in quality from the start of season 1 to the start of season 2 was remarkable(*), with the series brimming with possibility in the same way Mutiny's online community did. Donna's arc over the course of that second year – struggling to avoid perpetual mommyhood in both her home and work lives, often at great personal cost – was a miracle of characterization, and the work done with the others (even Joe) was nearly as strong.
(*) Go here for the answer to the inevitable “So do I have to watch the whole thing to get to the good stuff?” question?
The improvement was so great that you could hardly blame creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers if they had chosen to simply maintain that status quo for as long as AMC's corporate largesse kept the show on the air. Instead, they blew up the series again at the end of season 2. Now everyone has moved from Dallas to San Francisco as the Clarks try to save their marriage, Cameron and Donna struggle to integrate Mutiny into the booming world of Silicon Valley(*), and the restless Joe looks to identify what will make the next fortune after his current one. The new season's not as severe a reboot as the last one, but it reflects a show that has begun to understand that, in TV as in tech, you have to keep evolving or die. (Even the synth-driven theme song changes a little at one point, becoming deeper and more ominous.)
(*) The HBO comedy of the same name has much in common with this one; even if the tones couldn't be more different, both have a keen sense of just how damn hard it is to make – and keep – a fortune in the tech world. Now if only Cameron could bump into a little boy version of Erlich Bachman at the arcade…
The best part of the new direction is Joe becoming a more overt villain, having built his new company around a piece of software Gordon gave him as a favor to solve a single problem. Though Pace and the writers have worked very hard to make Joe sympathetic despite his tendency to wreck other people's lives in pursuit of his own ambitions, it's never entirely worked – he spent most of season 2 trying and failing to convince both the other characters and the audience that he had turned over a new leaf – and the character works vastly better in his new incarnation as a smug Steve Jobs wannabe, who dismisses all suggestions that his latest idea might ruin the product by saying, “I am the product.” The season introduces a new character in Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a frustrated Mutiny coder who dreams of working for Joe (you can see him in the clip above), and though Ryan himself is a bit opaque, his ambitions do wonders in helping to unlock the mystery that was previously the show's most frustrating protagonist. There's a scene in tomorrow's second episode where Joe and Gordon come face-to-face for the first time since Joe became rich and famous off of Gordon's work, and the ease with which Joe continues to hurt his old friend is mesmerizing.
The relocation also brings with it a kind of Gordon Clark 3.0: mustachioed, seemingly laid-back and willing to do whatever Donna and Cameron (who is temporarily living with the Clarks and their daughters while she allegedly searches for a house of her own) need, but secretly anxious about both the deteriorated state of both his marriage and his mind, as he copes with the symptoms of the degenerative brain condition he was diagnosed with last season. Scoot McNairy's performance is alternately charming and aggrieved this year, and always excellent.
The improved work with the men doesn't mean the show has left the women behind again. If anything, moving into the heart of the Valley only provides greater clarity on how tough Cameron and Donna have it running their own company in an overwhelmingly male field. And the cramped living situation tears down whatever professional/personal barriers there were between the two of them, and between Cameron and Gordon, creating new tensions even at something as seemingly innocuous as a backyard birthday party for one of the Clark girls.
We're now in 1986, and like The Americans, Halt remains a case study in immersing in period detail without wallowing in it. Joe at one point throws a debauched party full of crimped hair, cocaine, and androgyny, and – as you might imagine from a show set in San Francisco at this time, and with a bisexual male in Joe as one of its main characters – the AIDS crisis becomes a story point, but the clothes and music and references ground the story and people, rather than distracting from them.
It would be easy for all this reinvention to feel jarring, or like Halt desperately racing from one idea to the next because the last one ran out of steam. But each transition has felt natural, earned, and of a piece with what came before. This new bearded, aloof Joe is very much the same man from the show's muddled early days, just in a different context, and the same can be said for all the regulars – including Bos, who now fits in with the geeks of Mutiny in a way the John Bosworth we met at the start of the series could have never imagined. One thing leads to the next, to the next, to the next, and in the process, Halt has become something truly special.
When Joe and Cameron have their first encounter of the season, she worries that he still blames her for ruining his previous job and relationship. Instead, he smiles that insufferable, all-knowing Joe MacMillan smile and tells her, “How could I have risen from the ashes if you hadn't burned it all to the ground?”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com