UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 (Episode 1 and 2)
Ivan Radford | On 31, Aug 2016
“The fact that you two are woman I’m sure doesn’t help matters.” That’s John Bosworth (Toby Huss) to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) in the opening episodes of Halt and Catch Fire Season 3. His comments come after a string of meetings with potential backers for Mutiny, as the online gaming start-up attempts to make it big in Silicon Valley.
Yes, Silicon Valley; AMC’s tech series has finally made it to the big league. After the first season of faltering in the shadow of the Apple Mac and the second season of starting one of the world’s first online gaming companies, our trio of Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Donna’s husband, Gordon (Scoot McNairy), have made the jump from Texas to California – and just as they set their sights on sitting at the top table, AMC’s show has also hit its stride. From its period details to its character work, Halt and Catch Fire has never been better.
We join Mutiny as it tries to find funding for its expansion. New servers, new staff, new avatars with 8-bit bow ties. But underneath the cool surface of their hip warehouse digs lie the same, flawed people – people who are born to be outsiders and losers. Season 2 let the women take the fore, laying the foundations for a hopeful future in which they might actually succeed. Sure enough, Mutiny’s systems boot up and the room cheers – but as soon as the speeches stop and the fireworks cease, Gordon, Donna and Cameron all retreat into their own separate spaces, looking as lonely and miserable as ever.
Gordon, who has always been an engineer who manufactures his own way in life, is now trying to find a purpose within someone else’s design. Donna, now the founder of a successful start-up, is frustrated to find herself still fighting the same battle against male prejudice. (“I love how even the metaphors in this business are sexist,” she quips.) Cameron, meanwhile, is used to being the smartest person in the room, but is finding that title stolen by newcomer Ryan Ray (an excellent Manish Dayal), who has ideas that could genuinely improve Mutiny, rather than merely make its interface look pretty.
Ryan, inevitably, is in thrall to someone else entirely: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). Once the Don Draper of the show, Joe has grown into its Steve Jobs. Indeed, he’s now embroiled in a bitter legal battle with Gordon, whose system-mapping software was given to him as a present – and promptly turned by Joe into an antivirus software. Joe is smartly hidden for most of these first two episodes, allowing us to sense his shadow looming over the rest of the cast.
Ray, of course, isn’t the first to fall victim to Joe’s charisma; all of them have been lured in by it at some point. For Gordon, an obsessive personality with a tendency for addiction, it’s like a drug. “You feel the most important person in the world,” he breathes, as he tries to be a mentor in his own right to Mutiny’s bright young thing. But this is Gordon we’re talking about; McNairy gives us just enough of a hint of desperation to his genius to make it clear he’s no Joe. Even the way he walks through the computer pen is mildly pathetic.
All of the actors are equally at home in their roles, slipping back into familiar shoes with supreme confidence. Bishé and Davis are as astoundingly good as ever, delivering the kind of turns that surely demand awards; as their start-up stutters its way forwards, we genuinely share in the joy of each happy achievement (their placing a phone call on hold to jump up and down is hugely endearing), as well as the frustration of being wined and dined by potential investors, who expect something a little more personal in exchange for their professional support (an awkward dinner conversation swiftly becomes a fist-pumping, table-turning moment). The other main newcomer to the ensemble is Annabeth Gish as Diane Gould, whose Silicon Valley veteran adds welcome weight to the sisters-doing-it-for-themselves narrative – far more complex than she first appears, it’s testament to just how good the show’s writers are that, after a male-heavy first season, Halt and Catch Fire has reinvented itself as one of the best female-driven programmes around.
Lee Pace, though, steals the spotlight with only a handful of minutes, as he reminds us immediately why he’s such an intoxicating screen presence. Standing on stage at the launch of his new product, sporting a Jobs-worthy beard and a relaxed smile, he plays the crowd like a violin, touching their nerves about security and trust. For a man who’s stabbed so many people in the back, it only reinforces his ruthless drive; he even holds sway over the camera, as he seems to look straight down the lens every few seconds, then slides his focus away, pointing and gesturing like a puppeteer.
Halt and Catch Fire is full of those kind of tiny details – through its performances, direction and script, it excels at crafting moments for its cast to breathe and interact, whether that’s with themselves or with us.
“Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? What’s going to happen? Are we safe?” asks Joe, in a silky speech that perfectly sums up the show’s themes of uncertainty and finding one’s feet in a competitive industry. But it’s Ray, who gets the chance to pitch to Joe, that really strikes at the heart of what makes Halt and Catch Fire so wonderfully engrossing – and not just because of his soon-to-be-important discovery that Mutiny’s private conversations can be easily hacked.
“Nobody listens to me,” he confesses. “I don’t want to get left behind.” Whether it’s about catching up with contenders or buying them out, AMC’s period drama uses its advanced technological knowledge to tap into that timeless human fear: not just of safety, but of not mattering, of not making a difference. Whether it’s the 1980s or the 2000s, the worst thing that can happen in the digital age, apart from having your messages spied upon, is becoming obsolete. As Season 3 starts with a stunning double-bill, it’s clear that Halt and Catch Fire should never suffer that fate. And the fact that its two leads are women definitely does help matters.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 to 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – until 16th October 2020.
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC