By Stephen Porzio
On the basis of its first season, one would never have thought AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire – a series about the development of early computer software in the 80s – could grow into one of the best dramas on TV. Sure, it had a great cast of rising stars and character actors (Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Toby Huss). Yet, in its opening season, the series relied too heavily on prestige television tropes. Pace’s central sales executive Joe McMillan felt like a Don Draper knock-off – a mysterious charismatic anti-hero – whose antics, despite the actor’s talent, felt significantly less interesting than other players in the story.
It was only in season two did the show really hit its stride, revamping the story to focus on the relationship between programmer Cameron Howe (Davis) and businesswoman Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe) – two women struggling to succeed in the male dominated world of computing. Meanwhile, Joe was placed to the sidelines, slowly but subtly becoming more layered and fascinating as the show entered its supremely confident third season.
Despite vast critical praise, the series has never been strong in the ratings. Thus, what a delight that AMC took a gamble to renew the show for a fourth and final season.
Series four takes place in 1994, three years after last season’s finale – where Joe, Cameron and Donna’s ex-husband Gordon (McNairy) agree to team-up to develop an early prototype of the World Wide Web. They’ve accomplished their task but were beaten to the punch by various other companies including Mosaic. Regardless, Gordon is happy at the mid-level success they’ve achieved. Yet, Joe wants more, embarking on an ambitious plan to index the internet through search engines (a la Google).
Meanwhile, Cameron is floundering following the disintegration of her marriage and the potential failure of her latest game release – finding some solace in corresponding with ex-boyfriend Joe on the phone. Donna, on the other hand – separated from the others due to her divorce from Gordon and fall-out with Cameron – is also investing money in the idea for an Internet index.
There’s a meta moment in first episode “So It Goes” where Donna tells an employee: “You need to be pursuing your own vision, not aping somebody else’s, right?”. Whether intentionally or not, it serves as a statement of intent by creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, perhaps subtly addressing early critiques of the show. The two are clearly following their own advice – as Halt and Catch Fire moves into some uncharted territory in season four, both for the series up until now and TV in general.
“So It Goes” – directed by series regular Juan Jose Campanella (The Secret in Their Eyes) – opens with a technically dazzling eight-minute sequence revealing how over three years, the Cameron-Gordon-Joe partnership fell apart. Resembling a long take (due to tracking shots, sly dissolves, gradual lighting and scenery changes), it’s a smart, stylish way of filling in blanks for the viewer without exposition – all while resembling a cinematic rollercoaster in the vein of Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Yet, Halt and Catch Fire has not just improved on a technical level. It’s arguably one of the most mature adult dramas on TV right now. It doesn’t rely on elements other prestige dramas do e.g. sex, violence, plot-twists, surreal weirdness. Instead, it trusts that the viewer will simply be engaged by being with these interesting characters and following them attempt to balance their onerous careers (ones which demand a constant need for innovation) with their personal lives, often to little or no success.
Much of these first two episodes revolve around Cameron and Joe’s long lasting calls, where they recount stories from their past and how they’ve changed since they’ve last seen each other. This may not be gripping, if it wasn’t for the fact that the viewer is invested in these characters and are picking the conversation apart for hints on why these people are who they are and how they’ve altered in three years. Cameron recounts a story about being dragged to beauty pageants as a child. Her choice of career is perhaps a concious effort to rebel against stereotypical gender norms. Meanwhile, Joe seems more existential than ever before – talking about God and children – a reaction to his father’s death a year ago.
In the glimpses we get of Donna, she seems to have changed too. Being out on her own has made her more confident and strong, as evident by the way she breaks the news that she’s cancelling funding on one of her R&D groups: “I was really rooting for you guys”. Her time away from Cameron and Gordon has let her grow into a more savvy businesswoman but has left her colder. I couldn’t picture tbe Donna from previous seasons act in such a manner.
The dialogue is funny (90s references to Fresh Prince and Mortal Kombat are witty) and intelligent. The performances are universally terrific (I haven’t even mentioned Toby Huss scene-stealing as John Bosworth, an elderly Texan businessman attempting to adjust to the computer age). Like The Leftovers, the creators clearly tweaked the show after a muted first season critical response and are now confident in what direction to take the series. It shows in these first two episodes which expertly set the stage for Halt and Catch Fire’s final season of stellar television.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio) covers noteworthy television and film and has recently written a series of articles reporting on this year’s Vancouver Lift-Off film festival, which he recently attended as an official critic. An Irish writer, Stephen also contributes to the sites Headstuff and Film Ireland and is an editor for Cold Coffee Press.