There’s a lot to find impressive in the resurgent second season of AMC’s drama Halt and Catch Fire, but foremost is the show’s confidence. It’s a rare prestige drama that would dare dabble in blatant clichés, but Sunday’s season finale included a big one—the lead character Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) biting her lower lip, sitting on a plane headed to California, and hoping that her love interest and fellow programmer Tom (Mark O’Brien) would take the seat next to her. Halt and Catch Fire is, at its core, a portrait of the volatile computer industry in the 1980s, as well as a dazzling examination of that world’s gender dynamics. But after a rocky and forgettable first year, the show cleverly chose to harness the power of soapy melodrama—stolen kisses, illicit affairs, dark secrets—making it not only one of the smartest shows on air, but also one of the most watchable.
Whether Halt and Catch Fire will return after this critically hailed second season remains a toss-up. Its ratings are underwhelming, and it got a slow start with audiences last year with a first season that tried to do too much, too quickly. It followed an ideas man, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), and an engineer, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), as they created a revolutionary personal computer (based on the story of Texas PC company Compaq) in the early ’80s. Along the way, Joe recruited, fell for, and broke up with the rebellious programmer Cameron. The story trudged along in early episodes and then tried to cram in the rest of the plot toward the end: Joe and company tasted success with their prototype PC before having to throw their innovations out the window to fit into an IBM-dominated market. Season two wisely hit the soft reboot button and focused on Cameron starting an online video-game company in 1985 with Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), while Joe and Gordon receded to the background to pick up the pieces of their own failures.