In its third season, Halt and Catch Fire has finally found what alludes so many series: footing. From the very beginning of the first episode of this season, one can feel a confidence that seemed to dip in and out in Season 2 and was brasher overall but far less consistent in the inaugural season. It has as much to do with us coming to know Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe, and Donna and Gordon Clark at this level as it does with the writers and the actors settling into these characters with complete comfort. And yet, that comfort doesn’t make the emotional underpinnings of the series even remotely more stable or predictable than in the previous episodes.
That sense of anxiety despite the veneer of safety permeates throughout this season, with both Mutiny, run by Cameron and Donna (Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe), and Lee Pace‘s MacMillan’s company venturing into the world of security in personal computing. The writers and directors of the show don’t make that a subtle revelation. A billboard can be seen in one of the very first shots that asks “Are You Safe?” It’s a real question but also a catchphrase for MacMillan’s new product, an anti-virus security system for personal computers, scaled down from the corporate security systems he’s made millions on. As such, the series makes the show as much about what makes the central quintet of characters feel secure as it does about the new technologies that make people feel at home on their computers.
Sometimes those two things are obviously conflated, such as when an argument about expansion at Mutiny drags in both Gordon’s (Scoot McNairy) infidelity but also Cameron’s previous, intense romantic relationship with another coder. There’s also the fact that Cameron is living under the Clarks’ roof, making Donna’s managerial role in Mutiny and troubled marriage getting equal attention at home. In the world of MacMillan, however, the repression of those feelings has caused for a more alluring prospect, one that has made him a lot of money but has clearly caused him to sublimate his own rambunctious character. At one point, Mutiny’s advance man John Bosworth (Toby Huss) opines to Cameron that he’s heard silences that would make you beg for screaming, and in that moment, he seems to be alluding directly to MacMillan. This occurs in the third episode and is followed by a loud argument in the Mutiny offices which cuts directly to MacMillan’s quiet office, livened up only by his voice.
Not unlike House of Cards‘ view of the political game, Halt and Catch Fire is similarly about the slow but steady ascension of women as the dominant creative force in technology and business. In this, the series can often play it a little too simple. Early on, Cameron and Donna are given a grade-A run-around by a powerful male investor but soon after make a close female contact at a boutique investment firm, in the form of The West Wing vet Annabeth Gish‘s Diane Gould. And though this is a show where connections are often compromised in the name of ambition and vision, the show adheres to a familiar, idealistic view of feminine unity in making Diane be the one who allows them to move forward with their new idea: an online transaction marketplace, like an early eBay.
Still, that’s a minor nitpick amongst an otherwise politically daring and increasingly entertaining dramatic series. Even in the creation of their marketplace, opportunism and the willingness to manipulate personal connections seems to be at the root of capitalism but also art in the view of Halt and Catch Fire‘s creators and writing team. And the show’s imagery often reflects moods and emotional outbursts in inventive, subtle uses of lighting and color, as well as wardrobe and set design. One can see the difference in how MacMillan dresses like a not-so-secretive drug smuggler and Gordon looks like a drop from a Revenge of the Nerds casting session, but can also hear it. MacMillan blasts major pop opuses like Paul Simon‘s Graceland and Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues while Mutiny sticks with blasts of punk, post-punk, and alternative rock.
The energy when these two sides meet is still combustible, as one can see when Cameron and MacMillan bump into each other during a guest lecture that Cameron is giving for budding coders. Cameron immediately calls bullshit on MacMillan’s humble vibe, a clear knock-off of Steve Jobs‘ minimalist, Asian-influenced style, and seems dubious about MacMillan’s vow to let his personal computing anti-virus software out for free. She’s not wrong to call him out, as MacMillan is the embodiment of fiscal ambition in the guise of creative ambition, even if he personally believes that limitless creative ambition is the final goal. There’s a great scene where MacMillan must meet with his corporate overseers, primarily personified by Matthew Lillard in an exhilarating, surprisingly deft performance. In the scene, Lillard’s honcho and MacMillan say almost exactly the same thing but one without the veil of spiritual mystique.
MacMillan can feign confidence but he doesn’t have enough in his personal life because despite being a leader in his industry, he knows almost nothing about coding; we see him taking coding classes at one point. As such, the man who is asking customers to question their security is himself lacking in personal security, in self-possession and self-confidence. It’s a state that exists both silently and quite loudly, and Halt and Catch Fire finally seems to know how to fluidly move from one proverbial decibel to the next, all in the hope of finding a place where you feel comfortable being yourself. Even if that happens to be behind, or in front of, a small screen.
Rating: ★★★★ – Better Than Ever