Halt and Catch Fire is named after a jokey computer command, but the imagery of chasing after a flame is entirely apt for the hurtling AMC drama. Set in the mid-’80s at the dawn of the personal-computer revolution, as tech companies conjure up a future in which no home would be complete without a hulking beige box in it, the series follows a quartet of programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs as they work together or against each other (depending on the season) to leave everyone else behind. Creativity is their collectively pursued fire; it’s the invention that could change the world, but it’s also the unwieldy force of nature that could end up destroying anyone who dares come close.
Critics have been harder on Halt’s debut season than its admittedly more original follow-up year, but both have been great at dramatizing how progress happens — or doesn’t happen — as different personalities clash with or complement each other. Season 1 saw the brilliant but parasitic salesman Joe MacMillan (the magnetic Lee Pace) teaming up with the brilliant but aimless computer engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to create a fine-enough product that failed to get them what they really wanted: a place in the history books. Last year, Joe’s love interest, prodigy programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and Gordon’s wife, fellow computer engineer Donna (series MVP Kerry Bishé), took over the show by founding a gaming start-up that had to drastically evolve to survive.
Premiering tonight (August 23), Halt’s third season undergoes a minor reboot as it finds its characters newly and uncomfortably transplanted to California’s Silicon Valley from dusty Dallas. (At least in Texas, muses CEO turned convict turned bookkeeper John Bosworth, played by the charismatic Toby Huss, your enemies do you the courtesy of stabbing you in the front.) Venture capitalists have paved the streets of Reagan-era San Francisco with gold while making the air reek with bullshit. It’s unsteady ground that Cam and Donna have chosen to rebuild their company, Mutiny, on — and that’s before Joe casts his long, cold shadow once more over his former colleagues’ work.
In contrast to the sexless Silicon Valley, Halt embraces its characters as complicated human beings, not caricatured geeks — an approach that the drama wonderfully continues in its compelling third season. Donna and Gordon are stuck in a modern marriage that, for all its commitments to fairness and equality, still can’t offer what each spouse needs. Donna’s real partner is Cam, but the college dropout prefers to treat the older woman the way a bratty teenager treats her mom: demanding everything while yelling at her to stay out of her way. (Poor, poor Donna.) Cam still doesn’t know how to harness her creativity productively and within the bounds of polite society, if it can be at all. (Halt is quite clear: “Eccentric is just another word for asshole.”) Upon introduction, the most fascinating aspect about Joe was the middle space he occupied on the show: between consumers and techies, dreaming and delusions of grandeur. Now transformed into a Steve Jobs look-alike with a beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a wardrobe drained of color — so thoroughly, in fact, that Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin should have auditioned Pace for their 2015 biopic — Joe takes advantage of every pleasure his place atop the Valley affords him. But the newly crowned “thought leader” is also (rightly) riddled with anxiety that obsolescence has him in its sights at all times.
The fact that the only way to stay alive professionally in the tech industry is to remake creation in your image gives Halt and Catch Fire (and Silicon Valley) its tremendous stakes. Technology seems to render the world simultaneously larger and smaller when Cam discovers that her former gaming site is used for all manner of communication — to buy and sell used joysticks and to serve as de facto grief groups — and that their closest rival, four times Mutiny’s size, is expanding operations to Japan. But Halt also tells deeply human stories about how its characters falter because of blindness or lack of skill or pure fate, like Gordon’s deteriorating physiology or (bisexual) Joe’s violent reaction to a homophobic client.
Silicon Valley skews white and male both on- and off-screen, but Halt and Catch Fire learned the right lesson from its sophomore season: It’s more compelling to see the world from the outsiders’ perspective. The relationship between Mrs. Clark and Miss Howe, as Donna and Cam are maritally labeled in one scene, remains one of the most unique female relationships on TV, and the waxes and wanes in their bond continue to serve as the show’s emotional spine. (Complicating their partnership this year is the arrival of Annabeth Gish’s investor, a divorced mother who’s so encouraging of female empowerment that she doesn’t mind that her daughter gets into fights at school.) Gordon finds himself aged out of the office, which is dominated by anarchic young dorks, and retreats to an old ham radio to find someone he can talk to — a story line that illustrates how we’ve always used technology to connect us to other people. An Indian-American coder, Ryan (Manish Dayal), offers a vision so new even Cam can’t see it happening. Only a small, AIDS-related misstep — and the show’s occasionally too on-the-nose symbology — mar the first half of the new season. Hopefully this will be the year that audiences finally tune in to reward the show for thinking different.