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How ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Evolved Into Prestige TV’s Only Worthy Successor

Heading into the final season of AMC’s deeply layered tech drama, it’s time to go back to the beginning

Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, and Mackenzie Davis of ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ AMC/Ringer illustration

“I think if you watch the show from the beginning, you can feel it morphing from what it starts as into what it ultimately becomes,” Christopher C. Rogers says of Halt and Catch Fire, the drama he cocreated with Christopher Cantwell that returns for its fourth and final season this Saturday on AMC. “The sense of having lived with these characters has let them become real for four seasons. I think the beautiful thing about the fourth season is, we know these guys now.”

On the eve of its home stretch, Halt and Catch Fire has long since outgrown the “copycat prestige turned groundbreaking television” narrative it’s been saddled with since 2015, when the period drama returned for Year 2 with a new setting, a reshuffled ensemble, and a reconsidered sensibility. As Rogers points out, we’ve now had years to steep ourselves in the fully realized version of Halt: the story of messy, stubborn, ultimately sympathetic adults stumbling their way toward a changed world.

In 2017, Halt’s success no longer comes with caveats. The story of the modern tech industry’s beginnings, told through the personal and professional lives of four hopelessly complicated people, is one of the best shows on television, full stop. No, you don’t have to watch the first season—but you should watch the next three, or else you’re missing out on a prime example of what happens when TV’s potential for long-term, character-driven storytelling is taken full advantage of. Yet knowing where Halt started is essential to understanding how far it’s come.

Still of the ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ ensemble AMC

Rewatching parts of the first season a few weeks ago, I was struck by how the early episodes’ weakest points have, over time, developed into the series’ greatest strengths. When Halt started, the show was criticized (or, as the ratings showed, simply overlooked) for how closely its setup hewed to an obvious template, made all the more obvious by the originator of that template still airing new episodes on the same network. Halt’s pilot aired exactly a week after Mad Men’s midseason finale, even inheriting its prime, Sunday-night time slot. Its antihero, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), was a blazer-clad, sports-car-driving, Gordon Gekko’d version of Don Draper. The other principals felt similarly typecast: rebellious programming prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis); dweeby engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy); Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), equally knowledgeable but saddled with the additional burden of work-life balance. Nuances in all four archetypes emerged over the course of the season, but their first impressions didn’t offer much of an incentive to stick around.

Three years later, those of us who kept the faith have watched Halt’s core four endure nearly a decade’s worth of cross-country moves, accidental epiphanies, overnight successes, failed business ventures, marriage, infidelity, divorce, and depression. More importantly, we’ve borne witness to the changes those seismic events have wrought on the people directly involved in them. The Halt cast of today feels impossible to pigeonhole the way earlier versions of it easily could be, and were. With time and care, they’ve deepened into some of the most layered, believable people on TV. And along with them, Halt has evolved from one of Mad Men’s many imitators into its only worthy successor, a workplace drama that gives the work epic stakes by driving home what it means to those doing it.

Halt and Catch Fire is ostensibly about the computer industry, and key moments in that field’s early history have frequently dictated when and where the action takes place. That strategy has led the show into something like benevolent mission creep over the years, expanding from a relatively unknown chapter in tech’s early history to a mini-history unto itself, made manageable by its specificity. It’s a trajectory that was all but impossible for both viewers and the creators themselves to predict from Halt’s initial episodes. “When you sell a pilot, they go, ‘Do you know where this will go?,’ and you smile as big as you can and you say, ‘Absolutely!’ But deep inside, you really don’t know. And thank God that sometimes those initial ideas we had about where it would go proved to not be the case,” Rogers reflects. “Halt and Catch Fire for us, both personally and what you see on screen, has been the story of learning to listen to your show and let it become what it wants to be, not what you thought it was going to be.”

The series opens in 1983, with Joe and his team competing directly against IBM, building computers on Texas’s “Silicon Prairie.” By Season 4, it’s the early ’90s, and the gang has (mostly) relocated to Silicon Valley, where they’ve scattered across the booming tech landscape. After an abortive partnership in upstart gaming company Mutiny, Cameron and Donna have parted ways, with time only exaggerating the already marked differences between them: Donna, the pragmatic businesswoman, has become a high-powered VC partner, while Cameron, the principled creative, has become a reclusive game designer based out of Tokyo. Joe and Gordon, meanwhile, have a more successful company of their own, though Gordon does most of the heavy lifting while Joe remains literally stuck in the basement, hung up on a wallowing project (an early browser) that’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for his unrequited passion for Cameron, who’s married.

Rogers and Cantwell frame Halt’s significant time jumps, which total seven years over just a handful of episodes in seasons 3 and 4, as a matter of following their material. “We realized that, while the web was created in 1990,” where Season 3 left off after starting in 1986, “it wasn’t until the release of Mosaic, this browser, the precursor to Netscape, in ’93 that things started to take off on the web,” Cantwell explains. “We did discuss having the characters just continue to sit in the house and play with HTML code, but we thought maybe that was too avant-garde and that we’d be swinging above our weight class if we tried to do something like that.”

Instead, Season 4 opens with a brilliant montage that shows the three-year interim from Gordon’s point of view, bearing witness to Joe’s frustration and stasis even as he builds a business from the ground up. “We thought a way to differentiate the time jumps was to have the characters really feel like they’re waiting, because they would be,” Cantwell says. “So it was a fun way to approach the season—to isolate them and see them really drumming their fingers on the desk, waiting for their lives to change, and the rest of the world waiting for the World Wide Web to come to fruition.”

A side effect of following tech’s IRL timeline is how much ground the story is able to cover. Conveying seven years’ worth of life experiences in just a few hours of TV is an enormous challenge: If too much in the protagonists’ circumstances stays the same, the show’s reality starts to ring false; if too much changes, we risk losing our connection to people and places we no longer recognize. But Halt seizes the opportunity to take its characters further than it likely could have had the show confined itself to a more limited time frame.

Take Cameron, who we meet as a punky, arrogant college dropout only to see her grow into a much more mellow 30-something—still an uncompromising visionary, but one who’s been humbled by the disappointment of seeing of her ideas collide with practical obstacles. “It’s interesting for Cameron, who has always been labeled a genius and a prodigy from a very early age and has always been so confident and so self-assured in her amazing abilities, to suddenly be full of self-doubt,” Cantwell notes. “We’re seeing a real change and shift in the character as she matures. It’s a lot of those anxieties that all of us are familiar with once we reach adulthood and realize that we don’t know shit about shit.”

Cameron’s story line this season, in which a poorly received game forces her to question her own judgment for the first time, is a perfect example of what Halt does best: finding situations and conflicts that unlock a character’s hidden depths, forcing them to adapt while keeping their core motivations intact.

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan in ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ AMC

No character has changed more drastically, or benefited more from that change, than Joe MacMillan. Perhaps the smartest move Halt has made has been incorporating outside criticisms of Joe into the show. To other characters, Joe’s bluster and rash, destructive grand gestures don’t make him a genius asshole, in the ends-justify-the-means vein of a classical antihero; they just make him an asshole. But after spending Season 2 isolated from the rest of the cast in de facto purgatory and half of Season 3 as a full-blown villain, Joe has been successfully rehabilitated into the fold, partly because the show has given his actions serious consequences and partly because it’s given him the time to absorb and recover from them. “Joe is somebody that has been put through the wringer by everyone on the show, and last year,” when Joe’s latest bit of corporate subterfuge directly led to his protégé’s suicide, “was probably the roughest one yet for him,” Rogers notes. “I’d like to think we played fair with how that would change a person.”

Seven years later, Joe is still visibly shattered; it’s easier for the audience to forgive him because he so clearly hasn’t forgiven himself.

Halt deals with the difficulty of change as well as its inevitability: When Joe gets his hands on a new idea, essentially a preliminary version of Google, he flips right back into executive mode, throwing himself into the project and practically bullying prospective colleagues into joining him. (“You push people, Joe,” Gordon tells him. “Whether they’re ready for it or not.”) In many ways, it’s Season 1 all over again, but with the acute awareness both on- and off-screen that this is history threatening to repeat itself. Or, as Rogers puts it: “We find Joe returning to some of the dynamics we’ve seen before on this show that didn’t work and seeing if maybe now is the right time—if the changes that these 10 years have brought upon them as people have fixed those edges and smoothed them to the point where this time, they can reach their arms out farther. I think Joe is actively engaged in that, and has a little more perspective, but: Do people really change? Some of that stuff dies hard.”

Halt’s foursome has now been in a dizzying variety of combinations, both romantic and platonic. Gordon and Donna were unhappily married, then amicably divorced, and are now direct competitors in the nascent search-engine space. Cameron and Donna were acquaintances, then work spouses, and are now isolated and weathering the storm of tech’s institutional sexism on their own. Joe and Cameron were a tempestuous couple, then bitter enemies, and are now tentatively entering into an actual adult relationship.

Over time, though, certain constants and steady alignments have emerged among the four central players. Cameron and Joe have their differences—she creates; he sells other people’s creations—but they’re both dreamers at heart, constantly chasing the future and skipping over trivial details. Gordon and Donna may not be together anymore, but they’re both workhorses, picking up their more high-minded collaborators’ logistical slack. It’s in these tensions that the show’s personal and professional strands collide, with questions about how to run a business (or, on a much grander scale, how to build the future) growing inextricable from ones about how to live your life.

“You want them to be happy … and I think they struggle with realizing in the final season, that it’s not just about the next thing,” Cantwell says. “They’re all looking at the possible next thing, as they’ve always been looking for the past 10 years and over the duration of the series, and starting to question if the cycle of reinvention and innovation and finding the new idea is really the cure-all that they thought it was at the beginning of our story. That’s a big, existential question that they’re all wrestling with in the final season of the show.”

“It’s always been a show about having the right idea at the right time, and our characters’ failure to do that at certain moments,” Rogers adds. “That’s usually true in the business story, but I think it can also be true in the personal story.” This attempt at a relationship is only Joe and Cameron’s latest, and it remains to be seen whether conditions are finally right for things to work out this time around; Gordon and Donna figured out their issues only after they split up—though, as some excellent sparring scenes remind us, just because a divorce is amicable doesn’t mean it’s conflict-free.

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron in ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ AMC

In a way, it’s essential for Halt to work so well as personal drama because we already know how the the tech side of it ends. While the Halt crew lives in a world where Silicon Valley is a wide-open landscape, we live in a world where Google exists, and neither Joe MacMillan nor Donna Clark created it. Sometimes, Halt addresses this fact head-on; Cameron is dismayed to see gaming drift inexorably toward ultra-gory first-person shooters and away from the cerebral journeys she loves. But when I ask Cantwell whether the show has some tragic undertones, he pushes back: “I think there’s something interesting in American culture where we have a very black-and-white view of the term ‘loser,’” he observes. “We know that our characters are not going to be the ones with the Wikipedia articles written about them, but what’s fun about our story is, we can somehow still get excited about their excitement, because they’re in the fog of war and they don’t know what’s coming. I think there’s a beautiful parallel to their personal lives, and a person’s personal searches as well. We just don’t know, and as much as you think you know where it’s headed, you don’t.”

Halt and Catch Fire may be a show about tech, but it’s a show that uses tech first and foremost as a backdrop to and conduit for its characters’ universal struggles. You don’t need to understand ISPs or search algorithms to understand the impulse to perfect something before someone else gets there first, or see the difficulty in negotiating boundaries with an ex. As fitting as the Mad Men comparisons may be, Halt’s characters don’t speak in grand metaphors for the soul of America. They’re speaking as people, and in terms it’s possible for anyone to engage with. “Every season of this show has been a little less about technology, on the pie graph of what it’s about,” Rogers says. “That’s to its benefit.”