“This isn’t a game you play,” says Cameron (Mackenzie Davies) in Season 4 of Halt and Catch Fire. “It’s a game you live.”
And how. AMC’s drama about four people on the cusp of technological breakthrough throughout the 80s and 90s has evolved into something that profoundly captures the modern world by refusing to draw the line between the machine world and the personal one. It’s one of the best TV series of the decade, without a doubt, and Season 4’s confident opening double-bill boots the system up for another cycle of reaching for greatness and falling into obscurity.
In an age where everyone wants their 12 hours of fame – preferably in the form of their own Netflix show – it’s been so satisfying, and so sad, to see this group of pioneers climb to the brink of innovation and, inevitably, land on the wrong side of history. If Halt and Catch Fire were about any actual famous people, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as insightful or relevant. But Season 4 sees the show mature in the way that only an accomplished long-running drama can, becoming less about a company or collective effort, and more about four people colliding. Before, we winced at the way individual grudges thwarted the triumph of Mutiny. Now, we weep at how Mutiny has thwarted the relationship between the people behind it.
Crucially, this is a show that can stand up to that development, as creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C Rogers stay true to the people they penned to begin with: even with the shift to the female characters in Season 2 and beyond, not one member of this ensemble has been rewritten or reprogrammed. Deploying a time jump, not for the first time, the show’s leap forwards to the next technological threshold are rooted in characters not calendars; these are all recognisably the same people, just a bit older. (To get an idea of how special that is, compare it to Harry and Potter and the Cursed Child, which managed the same magical feat in writing grown-up versions of well-known characters that still speak in the same way.)
So where are our intrepid quartet? Gordon (Scoot McNairy) has entered the ISP arena, essentially fighting against AOL for custom and actually almost winning. Joe (Lee Pace) is downstairs, literally hiding in the company’s cellar, trying to build a web browser that, due to a lack of work by Cameron in Japan, is already looking dated. Donna (Kerry Bishé), meanwhile, is now funding other startups with Diane (who, thankfully, is still going strong with Toby Huss’ scene-stealing Bos).
But the cast have grown into these roles so well that they’re still the same people from three seasons ago. Gordon is confident like never before, but McNairy still laces him with that frantic desperation not to become irrelevant – especially when things start to go sour. Cameron is a creative genius, but Mackenzie’s slightly sunken disposition, and still childish annoyance at people not liking her designs, hints at her awareness that she’s nearly become mainstream, with no system for her punk personality to rebel against.
Donna is given a new, coolly ruthless edge by the ever-classy Bishé, as she frustratedly still breaks through the glass ceilings above her, but, not unlike Gordon, there are glimpses of her starting to feel lonely at the top of her career ladder. Pace’s Joe, meanwhile, remains the soul of the series as the non-Draper he always had been, an earnest salesman of big ideas that he himself buys over and over again. Gone from a boardroom to a basement, he’s more eccentric than ever, but still has the fervent zeal of a man who can taste his future legacy in the air.
Forget the browser, he figures, but what about a website that works on all of them? A website of websites, an index of the whole World Wide Web. And in that moment, he rediscovers his drive – and the Post-It notes on his wall listing all the URLs he can find (the web is only a few hundred sites small) turn from the kind of sprawling obsession you see in serial killer movies to a pathway to something truly life-changing – not just for them, but for everyone.
And so the system is fully back up to speed, managing to once again find a point of no return for the computing world and fuse it with the personal collateral eclipsed by such milestones. A big step for mankind is a giant kick in the teeth to someone – and Halt and Catch Fire hasn’t run out of molars yet.
It’s that conflict between entrepreneurial spirit and human emotion that makes the show’s human drama so effective, as we know all too well that these people clash and contradict, but still hope time and time again that they might give it one more shot. Only two seasons ago, Gordon and Joe were literally at each other’s throats. Three seasons ago, Joe and Cameron were grinding each other into the office desks – and driving each other into the ground. Yet such is our emotional investment in each player that we still yearn for some kind of harmony.
“If we had worked on this together,” says Joe, half-wistful and half-bitter, “it could have been amazing.”
There is a sense that these components don’t work best on their own. Gordon’s gone from building things to supporting other people who build things. And how poetic that Cameron’s game should involve looping back to the beginning all over again – a quiet nod to the way that her life has stopped and started repeatedly over the years.
The best moment in the two-part premiere, tellingly, is a phone call between her and Joe that almost lasts a whole episode, as they drift in and out of inane chatter, still inspired by each other, still fond of each other, and still busy looking for something new, as they race, like the computing world, away from yesterday’s trend. Or, perhaps, it’s the scene when both Gordon and Cameron are able to pause life for five minutes and escape into the world of Mario Kart on the SNES.
More telling is that Donna isn’t involved in either. Her position as someone with the power to halt other people’s fledgling companies feels like a step driven by the soured end of Mutiny. If these people can, in Joe’s idealistic vision of the world, do their best work together, there is certainly pain in their mutual isolation, as their paths are destined to keep crossing – and, in a dog-eat-dog world of new industry, trample over each other’s, whether intentionally or not. An index of the web, after all, is such a good idea that Joe isn’t the one who’s going to have it.
Director Juan Jose Campanella is familiar with the show’s push-and-pull play on our sympathies and brings us right back into a world that relies less on stylish visuals and more on a careful, gentle handling of character dynamics within four walls. With the knowledge that there can only be eight more episodes, this final run at trying to win the tech race feels set to be more heart-wrenching than ever. And long may it last, as our characters’ cumulative baggage adds more and more weight to every exchange and glance. From hardware to operating systems to online gaming to search engines, Halt and Catch Fire keeps hitting refresh every decade but refuses to clear its cache. And with four years of history, this game of life has never been more gripping. If you’re not watching this show right now, what else are you doing?
Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes arrive every Monday, within 48 hours of their US broadcast. A subscription costs £5.99 a month, or, if you want next-day delivery on Amazon products too, is included with a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.