AMC’s period computer drama heads into its final season bringing its rich characters and tormented relationships to the surface.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire begins its fourth and final season on Saturday night as good as it has ever been.
And it’s quite possible that the whole of Halt and Catch Fire is even better than the sum of its parts.
Let me explain.
Halt and Catch Fire was a very good show for three seasons. Don’t believe the people who tell you the first season started slow or started weak and it improved dramatically. The decade-spanning drama has improved, but in an organic and steady way, without ever making my Top 10 for a given season,
As I was watching the first three episodes of the new season, I was shocked by how much I was invested in every character interaction, coming out of a third season in which every character mistake or stumble also felt like a twisted knife. As a season-to-season show about four or five people coming close, but just missing out, on crafting the biggest computer innovations of the past 40 years, Halt and Catch Fire was creatively successful. The show’s cumulative power after four seasons as a story of four people working together, hurting each other, clinging to each other, separating from each other and chasing dreams together is greater than any individual piece of the show.
It’s the kind of literary duration and expression of time that movies find difficult to simulate without a Boyhood-style gimmick and that even some terrific TV shows can’t pull off either, but in these last episodes of Halt and Catch Fire, so far I’ve found that every single interaction is saturated in character history, that no conversation exists in a vacuum, that every choice is weighed down by choices made in the past. That’s what I’m finding special about it.
Even if you appreciated Halt and Catch Fire throughout, it was never inevitable that it would find this collective power as it neared the end. (It was never inevitable that the series would have a second season, but that’s a different thing.) It’s always been notable that Halt and Catch Fire, like its characters, was reinventing itself every year. Each year marked a different technical triumph or failure and, ins several cases, a different location. The show has been prone to time jumps taking it from the early ’80s, when it began, to the ’90s, where we find ourselves this season. Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ series could have ended up playing as almost an anthology, with the characters from one season connected to the characters the next only by resemblance. It doesn’t.
Time passes in the opening sequence of the new season, years going by between the splintering that took place in the third- season finale and where we find ourselves for the meat of this season. Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is working the ISP side of the business out of the same warehouse the characters occupied at the end of last season. He’s wildly successful, so successful that he’s able to book Blue Man Group for his 40th birthday. Joe (Lee Pace) is occupying the basement, waiting on Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) to deliver web browser specs from Japan and realizing, to his chagrin, that what was a brilliant idea has been usurped in the marketplace. Prone to obsession, Joe is writing down the URL of every website he hears about, which apparently was what people did back then. And Donna (Kerry Bishé) has become a big boss lady, working with Diane (Annabeth Gish) and steering a number of projects in the internet space, raking in dough.
Every character is where they are now, but they’re also tied to the snapshots we have of the way they used to be. Gordon is still the anxiety-prone, self-effacing genius from the first season, buoyed now by money and a veneer of confidence instead of the stability of Donna’s love. Joe, who viewers criticized as being too much a Don Draper type in the beginning, has become a surviving Icarus after the fall, wounded and battered but still capable of getting a glint of inspiration even if we know he’s almost surely doomed. Donna, overlooked and underestimated for so long, has become an authority figure and a business superstar, but everywhere she looks she worries that she isn’t being taken seriously, plus she’s become isolated in her power. And every time we see Cameron, we remember the punk-rock coding genius she used to be and we see her wondering if she’ll ever be that close to the cutting edge again. Cameron has created a new game, Pilgrim, that takes players who finish and loops them back to the beginning again, much more metaphorical than the Doom-loving gamers of the moment crave, but perfectly metaphorical for people watching Halt and Catch Fire.
Every onscreen pairing is different, but seeded with what we know. When we see Joe and Gordon now working together, Gordon the apparent hero and Joe the sad troll in the cellar, we remember how close they came to killing each other earlier. When we see Gordon and Donna, still co-parenting Joanie (Kathryn Newton) and Haley (Susanna Skaggs, in a marvelous piece of aged-up recasting), we remember the nature of their estrangement. And don’t get me started on how badly I need reconciliation between Donna and Cameron (or how badly I need TV and movies to use these two actresses properly when this is done). The show remembers how awful Cameron and Joe were for each other and I remember, but when they look at each other, they want things to be different and maybe I do as well. It’s all just good writing and spectacular acting from Pace, McNairy, Bishé and Davis.
Always one of the best directed shows on TV, Halt and Catch Fire gets superb early contributions from Juan José Campanella, Meera Menon and Jeff Freilich, all gamely covering for a show that has become mostly interiors, presumably to keep the budget from hitting that level that dooms many period dramas.
Like Rectify, which ended last fall after four low-rated and glorious seasons, Halt and Catch Fire hasn’t built up such a huge library of episodes that you should feel daunted, and it benefits from the totality of the journey. There have been 30 episodes going into this season, with 10 more to come. Don’t let somebody tell you that you can jump in at the start of the second or third seasons. Start at the top and know that even if those early episodes are a little slow and exposition-heavy, it pays off in character-specificity if not always in plot. It’s a show that has been good and very good and based on the start of the fourth season, I’m expecting to look back on it overall as something great.