When dramatizing the world of technology and the history of invention, perhaps the hardest thing to portray is the act of creation itself—the colliding of inspiration and circumstance that leads to great ideas (and, of course, to terrible ones). AMC’s drama series Halt and Catch Fire has handled that challenge effortlessly, while proving itself as one of TV’s most elegantly crafted shows. Currently entering its third season, Halt continues to be a terrific accounting of the miraculous, human ways the tech world stumbled into its biggest advancements—even if it’s disguised as a low-key workplace drama. Most importantly, Halt knows that the best way to sell viewers on its characters’ lofty ideas is by making you care about them long before they succeed.
For the show’s second season, the creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers wisely shifted the narrative focus to Halt’s female leads—Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), two coders trying to start an online gaming business called Mutiny in Texas’s Silicon Prairie, circa 1985. The show’s brilliance lay in its intertwining of the technical and the personal: As Cameron and Donna struggled to keep their friendship afloat, they realized the biggest appeal of Mutiny lay in communication and letting users chat with each other while they played games. As they tried to understand each other, they almost accidentally invented instant messaging; but for the viewer, the triumph of that discovery was compounded by the simple joy of watching Cameron and Donna learn to work together.
Season three opens in 1986: Mutiny has moved to the Bay Area as a sort of fledgling social network, and Cameron and Donna’s renegade spirit is clashing with the mainstream business practices of Silicon Valley while they hunt for more venture capital. Halt’s first season saw the pair working to create a new kind of personal computer alongside tech visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Donna’s twitchy engineer husband Gordon (Scoot McNairy). But their efforts failed because their indie PC was targeting hobbyists just as the industry was starting to go mainstream—a trend that has only continued into 1986.
Of course, Halt and Catch Fire knows how to have fun with its retro setting: There are songs from Paul Simon’s Graceland and the Talking Heads on the soundtrack, and Donna’s daughter gets a robot butler toy as a birthday present. Perhaps an even better throwback image in the season premiere involves Cameron scanning Mutiny’s chat archives in search of user data—by sifting manually through a large stack of paper. The future is certainly on its way in 1986, but the art of online communication remains pretty bare-bones, so much so that it takes printing out chat archives for Donna and Cameron to realize that looking through them might amount to an invasion of privacy.
This is a world where it isn’t so odd for Gordon to fire up his old HAM radio in an effort to talk to someone out in the ether, and where it doesn’t even occur to a Mutiny user that someone might be able to listen in on his conversations. But it’s also a world that’s in some ways sadly reflective of the present day: one where the purse-strings are largely controlled by men, and Cameron and Donna have to overcome constant skepticism at the mere idea of a female CEO—let alone two of them—running a tech firm. That’s one way Halt and Catch Fire makes the process of building a company so thrilling: The obstacles Cameron and Donna have to surmount are so familiar, that watching them eventually vault past them feels novel and exciting.
It’s also refreshing to see them work as a team, considering hero worship is a big part of many contemporary tech dramas. Last year’s Steve Jobs and USA’s twitchy hacker show Mr. Robot are fully invested in enigmatic figures like Jobs and (the fictional) Elliot Alderson, framing them as alien gods scorned by around them until they sit down in front of a computer and have another eureka moment. Halt and Catch Fire is similarly about very smart people. But it’s also about the constantly shifting world around them and the power of connectivity, of businesspeople and coders alike tapping into the growing network of minds that exist online. Just like the previous year, Cameron and Donna’s big breakthrough in the early episodes of season three comes as they realize Mutiny’s users are using chatrooms to swap items between each other, creating a sort of proto-eBay based on a medieval barter system. Viewers watch as that concept gets turned into a business proposal, then a hunt for funding, then a rapidly scaling company—and it’s far more thrilling than a genius simply barking about an idea viewers already knew he was going to have.
Even better, Halt and Catch Fire uses MacMillan to satirize the Jobsian cult of personality that defines so much of the tech world. He began his time on the show as its brooding anti-hero, the renegade who brought everyone else together to try and take on computer giants like Apple and IBM. That’s why Halt’s first season felt like such a Mad Men knock-off, and why it has since struggled to gain ground with viewers after its slow start. But over three years, Cantwell and Rogers have turned MacMillan into a parody of the Don Draper-esque mercurial “idea man,” one who doesn’t know how to follow through on his big thinking and is constantly chasing the next revolution in an industry full of them. By 1985, MacMillan has become a millionaire by putting his name on anti-virus software, attracting new PC users with by stoking fears of hacking and privacy threats.
It wouldn’t work if Pace, clad in linen pants and designer aviators, couldn’t find his character’s humanity amid all his peacocking. But Pace makes MacMillan’s search for the next big idea feels like an unquenchable addiction, rather than a lame effort to seem cool. As he becomes the kingpin of online privacy, MacMillan comes back into conflict with his old partners at Mutiny. If last season is anything to go by, Halt and Catch Fire will lay an impressive amount of narrative groundwork before building to an appropriately soapy climax. This is a show that merges a gorgeous aesthetic with grounded storytelling, that talks about big-picture ideas while never betraying its core characters. Not enough people are watching, but they should be: Halt and Catch Fire is the best drama on television.
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