Halt and Catch Fire did something kind of incredible in its second season. After starting out as a run-of-the-mill, prestige-y period drama about a mysterious and difficult guy being mysterious and difficult (basically a B-, 1980s version of Mad Men), it hung a hard left between seasons and turned itself into a riveting series focused primarily on two women running an online video game company in the very early days of both online and video games. That… that was really something. Abrupt changes are easy. (“Quick, everybody do something else!”) Successful abrupt changes are much harder. (“Quick, everybody do something else… better!”) As the show makes its way into season three, it has another round of small changes up its sleeve, and with these changes in place, it solidifies its place in the upper echelon of TV dramas.
But first, the show, in brief: Season one focused on the relationship between business partners Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) as they attempted to break into the computer business. It was all very Jobs-Wozniak, but in a way that made Steve Jobs also Don Draper. That is, really, all you need to know about the first season, and I know that because that was all I knew before bailing on the first season midstream and deciding to pick up season two fresh, and I was fine. The second season shifted the focus to Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) and her coding genius business partner and former Joe disciple/lover Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) as they attempted to get a video game slash chat forum called Mutiny off the ground in Texas. Joe and Gordon were still around, but less so, and the show was better for it.
This brings us to season three and wheeeeee we are in California now and it is 1986. Specifically, we are in Silicon Valley, with Mutiny now trying to secure venture capital funding and pivot its business model yet again, and Joe riding high on the success of the anti-virus software he (allegedly!) stole from Gordon last season after Gordon a) was diagnosed with brain damage, b) almost ruined his wife’s company with faulty code, and c) almost ruined their marriage by cheating on her with an old flame. (It was a rough season for Gordon.) Also, Joe has gone full Steve Jobs now, as evidenced by both a dramatic presentation he gives in the season premiere and every single thing happening in this picture.
But as it was in season two, the real story here is Donna and Cameron, who are now attempting to navigate a male-heavy industry in new, choppier, more sleazy waters. There’s a dinner with potential investors early in the season that takes exactly the turn you expect and it still manages to break your heart for them, in large part because Kerry Bishé is making a real run at the Hey, Why Aren’t We All Recognizing Keri Russell For Her Work On The Americans? title now that Keri Russell is no longer eligible. And please don’t mistake that praise for her as a snub of Mackenzie Davis. She’s also excellent as the fiery, awkward, brilliant mind behind the product. Their relationship — ranging from friendship to admiration to frustration — is one of the best and most fascinating on television right now.
(The trick here in the long run is going to be figuring out what to do with Joe and Gordon, because as they become secondary characters, it’s going to be hard to paint them with a lot of nuance. There’s a very clear “Joe is a brooding weirdo sociopath, Gordon is a weenie” problem they could be heading toward, but the show has done a solid job of avoiding it through the first half of the season that was released to critics, thanks to zeroing in on Gordon’s bubbling inferiority complex with Joe, and giving Joe what, for now, amounts to “his own thing.”)
Maybe what makes Halt and Catch Fire so good — in addition to being, like, good — is the fact that it’s so unique. It is:
- A show in which the action and drama derive from the professional partnership of two women
- A show in which none of the plot twists involve murder or jail or mythological creatures
It’s kind of funny, really: The show more or less set out to be Computer Mad Men, in that it focused on a charismatic, morally-flexible leading man in a high-status industry. But that didn’t work so it’s changed course, only to end up becoming Computer Mad Men anyway, in that it’s carrying the torch of non-murder prestige television. It’s like Mad Men if Mad Men had been primarily about Peggy and Joan, with periodic cuts to Don. Computer Mad Women, you could call it. Although Halt and Catch Fire is a much better title. They should just keep using that, I guess.
Halt and Catch Fire returns tonight, August 23, on AMC at 9pm ET.