Halt and Catch Fire Is the Best It’s Ever Been in Season 3

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L-R: Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan, Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC

Halt and Catch Fire does not get good ratings. It never did, and the season-three numbers are down from the already low season two. There are so many new series out right now, so many big buzzy projects and small prestige comedies and election stories to pull our attention, it’s not that surprising. But it is deeply, painfully sad to me, because holy crap, has this season ever been great.

Season two was strong. It refocused its tech-entrepreneur narrative around its previously underserved female characters, and in so doing, figured out how to tell a far more interesting, more inventive story. It had some twists, and it had some incredibly solid performances, especially by its female leads. Season two was also Gordon’s frustrating medical secret, his affair, Joe’s underbaked marriage to Sara, and the overly complicated WestNet series of advances and betrayals. Season two was strong, but a chunk of that was definitely a “most improved” award.

Like the second season, Halt and Catch Fire’s third season is something of a hard reset, and in moving its characters to California and jumping them forward in time to a slightly more successful, more well-established place, Halt and Catch Fire solved several of the problems that have plagued it all along.

The first is that it is fundamentally a series about making something — about building and building until the characters achieve some asymptotic position of success that goes perpetually into the horizon. Like many similar premises, the series has been stuck in the earlier part of that story. Lest it move too aggressively away from its comfort zone, HACF has followed its characters as they fail and start again, hit a sequence of frustrating obstacles and overcome them, and generally never go anywhere. Somehow, in season three, Halt and Catch Fire found the gumption to step on the gas, accelerating beyond those early growing-pain stages into something altogether more frightening and unfamiliar.

Mutiny’s no longer a rickety start-up, teetering on dissolution at every turn. As a result, Donna and Cameron have essentially moved up the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid — they’re no longer stuck worrying about day-to-day survival. Instead, their disagreements are about higher-order theories and bigger visions for the company. Joe, similarly, has made it. He’s a CEO of one of the most successful companies in the Valley, and he’s no longer scrambling to escape his failures. His whole purpose now is to just look at the tech landscape and find the next greatest thing, searching for exciting, promising projects. Halt and Catch Fire has always had a self-serious, philosophical bent. It pushed ideas about human connection, visionary idealism, pragmatism, innovation, and partnership onto the lives and narratives of characters who crumpled under the ideological weight. Season-one Joe was not built to hold up a nuanced story about the way tech revolutionizes our lives, and he and everyone around him came off looking inhuman and implausible as a result.

Now, finally, the show has found the scale and depth of characterization necessary to hold up those bigger thematic structures. Joe can wave his hands and pontificate about the importance of tech security, and those statements actually have an impact in the world and in his own personal life. Mutiny’s diverging options for growth can be a referendum on how tech companies rose and fell in the '80s because Cameron and Donna’s decisions now have real momentum — they make a choice about how to move the company forward, and everything rapidly spins outward from that moment, fundamentally changing the narrative. There are real stakes and real futures on the line.

As a rinky-dink operation in Texas, Halt and Catch Fire felt like it was running up against the limitations of its own story. Its ambitions (and its characters’ ambitions) were bigger than the stage it gave them. Now, at last, the stage has grown big enough to tell the story Halt and Catch Fire wants to tell.

And here’s the other necessary part of that equation: As the stage has grown bigger, as Halt and Catch Fire’s narrative platform has expanded to the point where Joe MacMillan’s ideological obsessions are on the cover of Time magazine, nearly all of its main characters have grown more detailed and more grounded. Cameron, in particular, consciously struggles to push herself into being a better partner and more thoughtful person, trying to balance Donna’s needs with her own vision for the company. This same growth is true for many of the series’ characters. Donna’s ambition expands with the company, and she becomes thoroughly convinced of her own rightness. Joe stumbles slowly toward empathy and selflessness. And sure, it’s not a universal improvement — Ryan Ray, a new character in season three, seems to have been granted all the inhuman dogmatic thinking that Halt and Catch Fire hollowed out of Joe to make him more like a real person. But heck, even Gordon now comes off as reasonable and admirable. Cabbage Patch Gordon!

So season three of the series has reset in a bigger, more mobile landscape, where decisions have significant impact and where the scale of the storytelling is broader and faster. At the same time, it’s found new depths and nuances for its main characters, allowing them to be better, more human mouthpieces for the war of ideas that Halt and Catch Fire really wants to put on display. And there’s one other thing that this season has done to dramatically improve over the first two seasons. At last, Halt and Catch Fire has realized that plotting does not need to be a zero-sum game.

From the first season, there’s been a sense that characters’ fortunes move in crisscrossing patterns, partly because betrayal was a persistent plot element on the show, and partly because it helped maintain the “always making something, never quite finishing anything” status quo. Cameron ascends, Gordon descends; Joe’s prospects fade while Gordon starts on something new; Mutiny and Westgroup look like they could work together for a moment there, but it turns out that they have to be adversaries instead. The zero-sum system works, of course. But it leads to blunt, cyclical storytelling, and is more tracked to winners and losers than it is to interesting ideological conflict.

At least through the eight episodes of season three to date, Halt and Catch Fire seems to have figured out that its stories are more compelling when its characters make decisions, and then no one wins or loses, precisely. There are losses, and there are advances, but the choice to oust Cameron from Mutiny and pursue an IPO is a great illustration of what this show can look like once it’s abandoned the zero-sum structure. The story is never as clean as “this was the right choice,” or “you were wrong.” Decisions are more gray, conflicting points of view can both have merit, and even when its characters are on the right side of history, they can still fail.

This, in the end, has always been Halt and Catch Fire’s biggest struggle. We know what tech history looks like. We know which companies won, and that the Betamax did not survive. When the series pitted its characters on opposite sides of a historical battle and guaranteed that only one could win, everything felt like a rigged fight. Now, with a more established alternate-historical universe, with characters who exist as more than cardboard cutouts, and with a more nuanced narrative world, Halt and Catch Fire finally feels like it's taken ownership over the history it’s trying to tell.

It may have finally figured things out just in time to be canceled. We’ll see. But this is one of those series that I’m truly grateful had the opportunity to survive as long as it has, and to improve as much as did.