There are, based on the best estimates experts have been able to make, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 shows on television right now. It’s totally out of hand. It’s just about to the point that recommending a new show to someone is a passive aggressive act of psychological warfare. Everyone is very busy and watching everything and still missing almost everything and the FOMO of it all is agita-inducing. I get that. I can relate, believe me. But man, if you can find the time, you should really try to watch Halt and Catch Fire, because Halt and Catch Fire is so good.
We’ve discussed this before. A few times, actually. But here’s the quick version again: After a mostly uninspiring first season (not bad by any means, just… yeah, uninspiring), the show switched gears in its second season and moved from a kind of B- Mad Men But Computers to a totally engaging and engrossing look at two women trying to build a company in the male-dominated world of online gaming. In doing so, it created one of the most fascinating relationships on television right now. Cameron and Donna (Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé) are business partners, friends, rivals, and now, as of the most recent run of episodes, enemies. We’ll get to that last one again in a minute. I promise.
Season three shipped everyone off to California, with Cameron and Donna taking their company, Mutiny, to Silicon Valley, which conveniently happens to also be where Joe (Lee Pace) — our Draper-esque charismatic snake, who is both the former business partner of Donna’s husband, Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and the former flame of Cameron — has set up roots with his new company. A company, by the way, that is based on code he more or less took from Gordon, who started the season as a mostly neutered Mutiny employee who spent his free time tinkering with his ham radio in a closet. The point is: Things have been changing, onward and upward, quickly, as Mutiny grows and evolves and attracts suitors. The guts alone of these decisions are to be commended. The show finally figured out a successful formula last season — creatively-speaking, at least, and let’s just agree here not to discuss its ratings — and then promptly heaved many important parts of it into the shredder to keep growing.
This brings us back to the past few episodes, and especially the one from this week. The show spent the first half of its season running around and placing tiny sticks of dynamite all over the place. (Metaphorical dynamite, I mean. But if you’re looking for a show about computer experts planning to blow something up in a literal sense, you have that option, too.) Little lies here, little hidden agendas there. The gist of it was that Cameron and Donna have very different management styles and different plans for the company, with Cam the tortured genius reacting by running away and Donna the suit reacting by going behind her back to do what she thinks is best. And — spoilers a-comin’ — it all just went boom in an intense boardroom scene that started with a disagreement over an IPO, with each woman threatening to leave the company if the board voted against her, and ended with Cameron leaving in tears. A Mutiny mutiny, we’ll call it.
It was all riveting and dramatic and heartbreaking, and yet, somehow, it hasn’t even been the most impressive part of the season for me. It’s been the best part, sure, because of everything I said about the relationship between Cameron and Donna. But the most impressive part is that the show appears to have figured out what to do with Joe and Gordon. As I said in my review before the season, shifting the focus away from them and toward the female characters could have led to a situation where they became caricatures and a drain on the show. (My exact words were “[t]here’s a very clear ‘Joe is a brooding weirdo sociopath, Gordon is a weenie’ problem they could be heading toward.”) The funny thing about it all is that after years of the female characters on prestige dramas facing this dilemma of thin plots and “Wait, why aren’t the cool people on the screen? Bring back the cool people!,” the tables had turned for once.
But it turned out to be a lot of worrying for nothing. By separating Joe and giving him a non-Mutiny purpose, a secret mission, a new sidekick (Manish Dayal), a mystical new Jobs-y worldview and scrufflebeard, and a new authority figure to rage against (Matthew Lillard! As a grown up! With a mustache!), the show gave us the best of Joe in smaller doses, which turns out to be the right formula. And by building all of that on a foundation of him hosing Gordon (again), it allowed Gordon to fluctuate between impotent nerd rage at his situation and sage advisor in his wife’s. That’s why when their situation — a lawsuit over the stolen code, years of respect and resentment smushed all together — came to a head of its own this week with what I believe is now their third different business partnership, I was just as intrigued as I was by the other partnership falling apart. And there are still three episodes to go in the season. I’m more excited about this than anything else on television right now.
It’s really been kind of amazing, watching this little show grow from a middling period drama into the rightful successor to Mad Men. It’s the rare series on TV right now in which the drama stems from feelings and relationships instead of murder and more murder, and it’s doing it all while flipping a bunch of the conventions of prestige television right on their square-jawed heads. So, look. I know there are a lot of shows out there. And I know another recommendation is putting you in a tight spot. But, guys, Halt and Catch Fire is so good.