How is “Halt and Catch Fire” still on the air?
The question may seem rude, given timing and context, as AMC prepares to launch the third season of its period tech drama this Tuesday (Aug. 23), but the query demands further investigation for (at least) two reasons: First, I’m not sure who the audience is I’m writing to right now — nostalgic techies? Lee Pace fans? Odd hangers-on who typically only watch one season of TV? The series has failed to snag enough awards attention or land on a significant number of Top 10 lists to become “prestige TV” in the day and age of “Peak TV,” and the ratings read as a national collective shrug when it comes to the fictional tribulations of a Texas-based PC startup. So who among you need to know if Season 3 is worth watching vs. how many have already decided it’s not?
This quandary leads us to Investigatory Edict No. 2; a more important point, to be sure, that revolves around how Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ series continues to give zero fucks if you like it or not. It is what it is, and you best recognize that’s not going to change — no matter how many more seasons it runs.
Never is this more evident than through five episodes of Season 3. Some critics pointed to an improved Season 2, and they were right. Season 2 course corrected ever so slightly to top its uneven first year, but let’s be clear: Nothing really changed. Sure, the writers were smart enough to emphasize their strongest assets — namely, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé and how their struggles in the sexist ’80s tech industry frighteningly parallel modern practices — and they even reimagined their lead character by dismantling Joe MacMillan’s (Lee Pace) uber ego to create compassion for the confusing idea man from Season 1.
Yet even as Pace changed his look, the pace remained the same (feel the fire of that hot wordplay, folks). The stakes remained the same. The series, for what it’s trying to accomplish, remained the same. “Halt and Catch Fire” is dedicated to recreating an era through the eyes of its dreamers — how they saw it unfolding around them and how that perception is affected by our collective knowledge of the future. Cantwell and Rogers may drop in a few knowing nods to what’s coming — the .gif pronunciation battle begins in Episode 3.1 — but they remain focused on authentically capturing technology’s big bang.
Therefore, Season 3’s biggest shift is in setting. Mutiny, Cameron (Davis) and Donna’s (Bishé) company — with a reinvested John Bosworth (the great Toby Huss) — makes the move to California, and Joe is right there with them. Well, against them. Across from them? It’s hard to tell, but the big picture guy finally hit a home run by using Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) software to create a computer security program valued in the tens of millions. Now he’s taken on the Steve Jobs’ persona (beard and all) as he looks for the next big thing.
There’s a time jump, too, but we won’t spoil anything (pre-airing) here at IndieWire, so I’d say the above are enough examples to outline how “Halt and Catch Fire” Season 3 could have taken a big swing to lure in a new audience. With easily identifiable cultural markers — Jobs, Silicon Valley, the Internet — all of which are still relevant today, “Halt” could’ve used a shift in locales to shift toward something more popular or, at least, more shocking; aka it could have tried to save itself from pending cancellation. After seeing viewership cut in half from the series premiere to the Season 1 finale and then drop even further in Season 2, one would think the writers would experiment a bit with form and/or function in an effort to keep their show on the air.
And yet there’s no evidence of it onscreen. “Halt and Catch Fire” Season 3 feels like the same story we’d be getting if Season 1 won more awards than “Mad Men” while pulling in “Walking Dead”-level numbers. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like the end is nigh. One might expect a show that’s barely survived its first two seasons to set up some kind of end game in its third year, but Cantwell and Rogers literally laugh in the face of such presumptions. Without giving anything away, there’s an episode-long arc that felt like it could have been much longer; had a decision been made the other way, this plot point could’ve served as a definitive end point for the series. Instead, the writers wrap things up within the episode, ending on a character laughing straight to camera as if the series was drunk with power rather than facing a firing squad.
That, in and of itself, is kind of great. The sheer guts of it have to be admired, but to see a show build exactly what they want to build — similar to how Cameron refuses to compromise Mutiny with outside influences — is a welcome change when so many series bend the knee to corporate or critical demands. The one flaw is that “Halt and Catch Fire” remains engaging for everything other than its core story. The meaty archetypes of the American men and women in the workplace make for fascinating post-show discussions. Each member of the core cast is at the top of their games, drawing every ounce of life from the words on the page. Attention to detail and direction keep the production on par with the best on TV.
But moment to moment, the stakes remain incredibly low — especially at this stage, when these former upstarts are now solidified players in a burgeoning market. There’s little doubt they’ll succeed to one degree or another (if they haven’t already), and our investment in the people vs. their work is hampered by so much of the conversation skewing toward the latter. As refreshing as it is to see a series pass the Bechdel test multiple times each week, it would be nice if Cameron and Donna’s debates were about more than using credit cards or bank accounts for online transactions. (Though at least these bonding exercises no longer devolve into gender-specific insults — again, there have been course corrections.)
So, as we enter Season 3, fans can rest assured their beloved favorite is returning unchanged. The rest of you, well, you know what you’re missing.