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.