It all came undone with a sweater: A creamy, quilted, luxuriously expansive, undoubtedly astronomically priced bit of costumery that Donna (Kerry Bishé) tried on — and saw that it fit. The sweater belonged to her new friend, divorced Silicon Valley investor Diane (Annabeth Gish), who had a name not too different from Donna’s and, as it turned out, a life the slightly younger woman could snugly wrap herself in. Ensconced in Diane’s vineyard, retreating from her day-to-day reality to contemplate her future, Donna found herself led by the sweater to a pact that led to ’shrooms that led to a vision of forgiveness. There, Donna’s quixotic business partner, Cam (Mackenzie Davis), pardoned her for her momentous lie about their company. So forgiving of everyone else — Cam’s bratty inflexibility, her own husband Gordon’s (Scott McNairy) infidelity, his former business partner Joe’s (Lee Pace) deceptions and betrayals — Donna just wanted some forgiveness for herself.
Absolution never arrived, at least not from the person who mattered most. The rapid but utterly believable deterioration of the friendship between Cam and Donna, one of the most thrillingly unique female partnerships in all of pop culture, was arguably the most compelling (and heartbreaking) story line in Halt and Catch Fire’s magnificently full-tilting third season, which wrapped up earlier this week. But it’s Donna’s continuing evolution, accelerated by the unexpected four-year time jump between the eighth and ninth episodes, that best represents the AMC drama’s timely explorations of genius, success, influence, and gender in the tech industry. Often the most mature and capable person in the room, she’s also the epitome of that forward movement the main characters are always seeking in their pursuit to shape the future. That she’s so infrequently recognized as such — by her peers and by viewers alike — speaks to the importance of the series’s critique of our narrow ideas about brilliance.
Donna began as a cautious cautionary tale, a practical wife who’s been burned by her husband’s monomania and a trained engineer who toiled for decades in service of the dreams of the men (e.g., Gordon, Joe, and her same-age boss) around her. But at the start of Season 3, she’d single-handedly moved her entire family from Dallas to Silicon Valley and forced a new level of equity in her dying marriage — thus forestalling its demise by a few more years — in order to take Mutiny to the next level. By allowing Cam to share her house, she pushed her family further into the modern era by blurring the line between home and start-up lab. The years 1986 to 1990 found her leapfrogging from an overworked wife and mom sacrificing her personal happiness for her family’s togetherness to a happy divorcée, as well as from entrepreneur to investor, i.e., a low-ranking striver dependent on compromise and others’ approval to a jet-setting power player finally able to pursue her own projects. As the married mom of two daughters, she’s most often the target of industry sexism among the core ensemble — but has become a mistress of the art of brushing it off.
When Donna gets the band back together in the final two episodes of the season — still unforgiven by a grudge-holding Cam, as that brief gut-punch of a scene about the VC’s ruthless readiness to jettison Joe reveals — she’s the one with the idea for the newfangled “world wide web,” i.e., the show’s destined end point. Still on the hook for her past mistake, Donna’s promptly cut out of the group so the other three characters can make their own version of her pitch.
One of Halt and Catch Fire’s most fascinating thematic developments has been its complicating takes on the perception of genius. Landing somewhere between Don Draper and Steve Jobs (dismissively described this season, circa the late ’80s, as “a disgraced megalomaniac”), Joe exemplified the bad-boy prophet, an asshole who should be tolerated as much as possible because no one else thought like him — or manipulated others as well. Though he learned to be more empathetic this season — at least to other brash and arrogant young men like Ryan (Manish Dayal) who reminded Joe of himself — his genius archetype hasn’t really changed.
The romantic reunion between Joe and Cam is the one notable misstep this season, being that it comes out of nowhere after a four-year distance between the characters. And yet it makes total sense that Joe would be in love with Cam, since she’s the kind of talented iconoclast he knows he could never be, even if she’s lacking his greatest skill: communicating effectively with others. (Her post-Mutiny years in Japan are a kind of painful self-silencing.) In contrast to those two difficult personalities, Gordon is the other kind of cinematically familiar brilliant figure — an idealist undone by his self-doubt and his ambition (his occupationally derived neural degeneration).
In contrast to those three, Donna’s genius is more grounded and perhaps commonplace — according to our romantic senses, less a beautiful mind and more a highly effective one. Even she says of her former best friend and herself, “Cam is the genius. Donna is the mom.” And yet she’s the one sitting atop Silicon Valley in 1990 — and, by the finale’s end, soaring above the others en route to Switzerland. Halt and Catch Fire has become one of TV’s best dramas because it’s so hesitant to make anyone the bad guy; everyone’s perspectives and motivations compete ruthlessly for our sympathies. But it’ll be hard not to root especially hard for Donna in the show’s fourth and final season next year, as she potentially battles the petulant children she’s outgrown and once again fights to be seen as the formidable force that she’s become.