What I’m Watching: Halt and Catch Fire

It seems like Halt and Catch Fire has been stuck with one narrative from critics, that of a show with a troubled first season that turned it around in season two but never found its audience due to Peak TV. I think that’s a somewhat inaccurate story (how many shows really see any audience gain from improvement in critical reception, Peak TV aside?) and, honestly, I don’t think the show was that bad in season one and thus I don’t think season two was that much of an improvement. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Whyyyy did they give Joe a beard in season three?

I don’t know how Halt and Catch Fire was conceived or why it was greenlit, but the show certainly came across in its first season as a bit of a “prestige drama paint-by-numbers.” You got your artsy but kind of nonsensical sequences, your ~mysterious and ~edgy antihero, your “electrical shock from computers as foreplay” scene. And as silly as some of it was (electrocuting yourselves for foreplay! What the heck!) I thoroughly enjoyed the show’s first season, mostly on the strength of its core characters and their relationships with one another. I can’t think of another character, at least on TV, who’s quite like Cameron Howe–young, idealistic, creative, but tough and hard-edged and hot-headed.

Meanwhile, I loved the way that Gordon and Donna were united in their passion and skill for technology–Donna could so easily have been slotted into the role of “nagging wife holding the dude back,” but instead she was a force unto her own right, and ended up being a crucial part of the team. Gordon is a little less interesting, although the fact that he’s kind of really pathetic drove a lot of probably-unintentional humor.

So, yeah, I was along for the ride after season one, and I was stoked to hear that the show’s supposedly-bad quality took a sharp upturn in season two, coinciding with its drastic change in status quo and focus. Where season one was about early computers, season two was essentially about CompuServe–an early mix of MMO and web forum, sort of like Club Penguin but not kid-oriented and using pre-internet multiplayer technology.

It was a bold shift for the show, and it paid off. While some of the interpersonal storylines got a little silly (Gordon and Donna’s home life got pretty melodramatic), the show did a fantastic job of capturing an exciting time in computer software and was overall totally fantastic.

Which brings us to season three, which just hit Netflix. There was less critical hubbub around season three so I went in not really knowing where it was going; all I had was the implications at the end of season two, which ended up being not very indicative of the show’s direction in season three. Season three almost felt like it was picked up by a totally different team of writers from season two, and I think the season suffered for it.

Let’s start with Joe MacMillan, the aforementioned antihero character. He was basically just a caricature of a TV antihero in season one, behaving erratically and kind of swapping between “good” and “evil” with no real reason to it. Season two used this to amazing effect: Joe claimed to now be a “good guy” and seemed to behave altruistically, but because both the other main characters and the audience had experience with his “evilness” (I’m using quotes because you can only be so evil in the context of the computer business) it was hard to trust him. The show wisely never gave much insight into his true feelings until toward the end of the season, where the conclusion to his arc appeared to be that he had indeed been trying to be a good guy, but because nobody believed him and things outside his control went wrong, he decided to just give up and be a jerk.

Joe’s character arc in season two is one of my all-time favorite plotlines in a TV show, and I was really excited to see where they’d take “evil anti-virus mogul Joe MacMillan” in season three. So where did they take him? . . . Nowhere. Joe in season three had very little in the way of personality, a bizarre turn for character who previously was so exaggerated, and what personality was there was more “normal guy who loves technology” than “evil genius.”

All the characters kind of felt muted, really. The show as a whole kind of felt that way; the season was way low on actual conflict, so most of the tension I experienced watching it was more from an expectation of something going wrong, or characters having a difference of opinion, then anything really happening. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing–I like nontraditional storytelling and I had a fondness for these characters and this show built up. But the problem is, I’m left in the end wondering what actually happened in season three. Joe’s plotline with Ryan led to an anticlimax, as did the “Mutiny going public” thing, with the only real drama being the pretty-contrived split between Cameron and Donna.

I can respect a certain amount of “things petering out” as a purposeful narrative choice, but here the petering out was over the entire season–until the timeskip for the last two episodes, at which point the show seemed like it was in setup mode for season four. And at that point I think that’s just bad writing–to spend the last two episodes of your season on setup is such a bizarre move and results in such an anticlimax, especially after such an understated season. I can’t imagine how weird it would have been to watch this season live (I watch on Netflix). I’m still in for season four, especially since it’s already been determined that it’ll be the show’s last, but sadly I have a feeling Halt and Catch Fire peaked in season two.

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