For years now, America’s best TV drama has consistently been one of its least watched. With Halt and Catch Fire now in its fourth and final season, ratings don’t really matter anymore, especially since the show is airing on AMC on Saturday nights (an audience dead zone if there ever was one). What’s important is that the series gets to complete its story, and will likely be discovered as a hidden gem on some streaming service once it’s finished and easy to binge. That’s because Halt has told the best, most definitive account of the birth of the computer age, the rise of the internet, and Silicon Valley’s never-ending cycle of creative booms and busts—and it’s done so without losing its grasp on the people in the eye of the storm.
The show’s creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have spun this tale while radically reinventing it each season, finding original ways to approach the familiar tale of two technology revolutions (the rise of personal computing and the dotcom boom). Beginning in Dallas’s Silicon Prairie in 1983 and now concluding in the Bay Area circa 1994, the show has chronicled the invention of the operating system, online gaming, social networks, internet browsers, and now (in Season 4, which kicked off with its first two episodes Saturday) the first search engines. With each shift, the series captures the thrill, and existential horror, that comes from creating something new and then trying to make it profitable.
Halt and Catch Fire’s tremendous third season saw its characters pull up roots to pilot ambitious projects in California, like eager prospectors going west for gold, and suffering creative and personal hardships as a result. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is the show’s take on a Don Draper-type iconoclast, someone who endures in the industry by mixing egomaniacal magnetism with a charismatic form of bullying. Last season, he tried to convert his messianic image into a genuine push to create an early web browser, recognizing the impending importance of the world wide web. Prickly genius coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and her business partner Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) looked to turn their indie games company Mutiny into a name brand with venture-capital funding.
But business, as it often does, got in the way of everyone’s starry-eyed ideals, and the show made a drastic time jump to a less-secure future (the early 1990s), where Donna and Cameron (whose partnership had been the emotional spine of the show) had an irreconcilable falling out, and Joe found himself tortured and alone after years of trying to have everything his way. In Season 4, Halt leaps forward again, thrusting us into the mid-’90s, where the internet is no longer a hobbyist fad but a crucial consumer market, and investors are working to figure out the best way to translate it to the widest audience possible.
Joe is now in business with Donna’s ex-husband Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a grumpy engineer with a knack for encouraging the ambitions of those around him. Together, they run an internet service provider that’s fending off competition from bigger players like America Online. Gordon, as usual, is happy staying put in the business he’s built for himself. Meanwhile, Joe is busy digging for the next big thing, even writing the names of every website (there were only a few hundred in the mid-’90s) on Post-It notes in his basement, in hopes of detecting grander patterns like a deranged conspiracy theorist.
Joe’s original plan was to build a browser with Cameron, who is now a game designer disgusted by the violent, Mortal Kombat-loving fanbase of her industry, but his project now resembles something people today take for granted: a search engine, a tool that can trawl through the deep recesses of the web and find whatever random piece of information you might be looking for. As usual, Halt and Catch Fire is less interested in the technical particulars of how such a thing would be designed. It’s more fascinated by creative sparks—what might drive Joe, a man seeking order in a world that has constantly upended his fantasies, to catalog the entire internet, all the world’s data, in a single place.
Quickly, Cameron is brought into Joe’s web of intrigue. In the season’s second episode, the two have a days-long conversation on the phone, including long periods of silence and sleep, where they wrestle with deep philosophical questions, chat inanely, and even play Doom together online, trying to figure out what inspired them to work together in the first place and how they can rekindle that partnership. Their on-off romance is one of the show’s ongoing arcs, but its tempestuousness serves as a perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley’s habit of falling in love with a new tech trend and just as quickly abandoning it—a cycle Joe and Cameron seemed cursed to repeat.
Working against them is Donna, once Cameron’s ally in the world of indie computing, now a shark-like businesswoman in venture capital who finds herself on a parallel path to her former friend. Her efforts to create a search engine are reminiscent of those of so many gargantuan tech companies—cobbling together algorithms and proprietary pieces of code to create a functional new juggernaut backed with blue-chip investments, a Goliath ready to take down Joe and Cameron’s lovingly crafted invention.
It’s a story that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read one word about the success of Microsoft or wondered whatever happened to once dominant pieces of software like Netscape Navigator. Halt and Catch Fire succeeds by making its tech narrative not a dry history lesson, but rather a battle of wills between four very flawed, compelling characters, each possessed of the kinds of manic ambition and tendency toward self-destruction that make for the best television drama. If you haven’t gotten to Halt and Catch Fire in this heavily programmed era of peak TV, you’re forgiven—but it’s not too late to catch up for what should be a marvelous sendoff.
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