“Seems like that relationship [between creators and commerce] is symbiotic.”
“I would say it’s parasitic.”
— Donna and Cameron
After beginning as a period drama set in early-’80s Texas, about the efforts of a scrappy little startup to beat IBM to market with a portable computer, Halt and Catch Fire took the advice of its puzzling title: it paused, it reconfigured its four main characters and moved the focus from business visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and hardware whiz Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to their female counterparts: Gordon’s dissatisfied engineer wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) and young coding prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and it got really good.
In its second season, Cameron turned her focus to a primitive form of online gaming, enlisting Donna as her systems administrator, while Joe and Gordon receded to the background; Gordon, having made a pile of money on the portable computer, staying home with the kids, and Joe to a doomed engagement with the daughter of an oil baron with an underutilized server farm. Gradually the four characters found their way back together, and in season 3 the action moved to California, with Gordon, Donna, and Cameron growing their online community business and Joe a rich and (tech-) famous anti-virus software impresario (off of uncredited code gifted to him by Gordon).
As season 3 ended, Cameron had moved to Japan and married a fellow software engineer, Gordon and Donna were divorced, and Cameron and Donna had fallen out over a dispute over how soon to take their company, Mutiny, public. After a four-year time jump to 1990, the four principals reconvened with an idea to develop the nascent World Wide Web. Though Cameron is willing to work with Joe, who has both literally and figuratively screwed her in the past, and Gordon is willing to work with Joe since Joe has acknowledged and handsomely compensated Gordon for his anti-virus software, and Gordon and Donna are willing to put their marital estrangement aside, Cameron’s longstanding resentment toward Donna (who rushed Mutiny’s IPO over Cameron’s prescient objections) leads to Donna’s disinclusion from the project.
All of that brings us to the recently begun fourth season, which could just as appropriately be called a fourth iteration, as it once again keeps the elements of the show but reshuffles the players into a new arrangement. The season begins with a wonderful long-take sequence, showing how Joe and Gordon built a new company, an ISP called CalNect, without help from Cameron, who after promising to be part of the project to build a new Web browser to compete with Mosaic, retreated to Japan to try and fix her marriage.
We finally land somewhere in 1994, and as always, one of this show’s great strengths is its choice of deep-cut period music cues to orient us: we knew last season we had jumped to 1990 when Cameron danced to The Pixies’ “Velouria” at a COMDEX party; this season we know it’s 1994 because Courtney Love is singing about being the girl with the most cake over a montage of Donna, now a senior partner at a venture-capital firm, mastering her universe.
What has kept this show so interesting (though admittedly, drastically underseen, as its ratings have always been very low) is the way it manages to essentially reboot each season with its characters in new jobs, new circumstances, new versions of their relationships to one another, without ever forgetting past storylines or cutting corners to put someone where the plot needs them to be. Now that we are at the dawn of the World Wide Web, the contours of the plot are looking more and more familiar (at least to those of us old enough to remember the dawn of the World Wide Web), but as Joe said of computers in season 1, they’re not the thing; “they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Likewise, this show is not “about” the birth of the Web so much as it is about the fraught, complex relationships between the people who are busy building it.
This season adds a couple of big new wrinkles, starting with the fact that Donna, who in the first three seasons was easily the most sympathetic and likable character on the show, has done a full heel turn: Once frustrated by sexist men who didn’t take her seriously, the tables have fully turned and Donna holds all the power, crushing one startup’s dreams and granting another’s as casually as she orders lunch, and when Gordon mentions an idea of Joe’s that might get him out of the basement, where he’s been hiding for years nursing his broken heart over Cameron, Donna promptly steals it and puts one of her teams on it, putting her in direct competiton with her former comrades and illustrating, once again, the tension between innovation and business (a running theme through all four seasons).
And after mostly functioning as background noise for the run of the series, Gordon and Donna’s daughters take a much bigger role in the plot this time around, which is fitting: by 1994 the main characters are all in their late 30s, so it makes sense that one of their kids, who has grown up around nothing but computer talk, would have some aptitude or even a game-changing idea in the same field.
Since this story is set in a world where Mosaic and Apple and IBM exist, it is not likely that the show will suggest that its characters invented Yahoo! or even Alta Vista. This show has largely shown how passionate, driven, talented people can give their all to a great idea and still end up as also-rans, as with the season 1 Giant story. It may not be in the cards for our heroes to invent the thing, but they may have a hand in the thing that got us to the thing.
Season 4 began with a two-part premiere and the third episode aired last Saturday, both classic signs of a show that its network does not believe in. But don’t let that fool you: do a little googling and you will quickly find that despite its low ratings, Halt and Catch Fire is one of the best shows on TV and looks set to finish strong.
New episodes of Halt and Catch Fire air 9pm ET Saturdays on AMC and recent episodes are available on-demand; the first three seasons are available on Netflix.