Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)

Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Mark O' Brien, Annabeth Gish, Manish Dayal, Matthew Lillard
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Plot Points From All Three Seasons of the Series**

"The barriers between us will disappear. And we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable, and we’ll pay the price. It’s a huge danger. A gigantic risk. But it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone."

It's a good feeling when you stick with something and it pays off. Two years ago, an 80's-set series about the personal computer revolution called Halt and Catch Fire premiered with a reasonable amount of promotion and unrealistic expectations for a network looking to "replace" Breaking Bad and Mad Men, as if that were possible. With alarmingly low ratings and wildly mixed reviews, its initially over-the-top, inconsistent storytelling dragged down a still promising series searching for a voice. Any voice. But even from the very beginning, something was there. The setting, acting, directing, cinematography, production design and overall concept had too much potential to just throw in the towel. This was a well made show that needed a lot finessing to reach its fullest potential, assuming it wouldn't be cancelled before then.

The cast of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)
After AMC surprisingly renewed this for a second season, the writers started working out the kinks, readjusting its focus, as we started to sense a journey for these increasingly nuanced characters, and the series, for the first time, seemed to be flirting with greatness. At that time last year I wrote that those improvements would probably need one more season to fully take hold, but if they did, breaking the through the glass ceiling to reach the upper echelon was legitimately possible. Unfortunately, with the show hemoraging even more viewers, that possibility of more episodes seemed to be a pipe dream. 

Credit should go to AMC for realizing that the TV model has changed enough that ratings matter less and the network's commitment to quality is part of how HACF has arrived here. Season 3 is not only its best, but it retroactively redeems and justifies all the decisions made up to that point, most especially those from its now underappreciated first season. And you can actually pinpoint the moment this all happens. It comes at the end of a season few thought would even happen, as creators and eventual showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers make a narrative decision that quite literally changes the game, proving the show deserves to share the room with television's top dramas. And this while another far differently conceived computer-centric critical favorite, USA's Mr. Robot, struggled through a disappointingly dense sophomore season. In contrast, there's comfort in just how simple and unfussy HACF is. It would be easy to keep complaining that no one's watching a show this good, but if the network doesn't seem to care, then why should I?  I'm just glad to have it.

Whether it's personal computing, laptops, message boards or first-person shooter games, the ideas and innovations that come from the characters residing in the show's hardwired 80's universe are ahead of the curve. Sometimes frustrating so. They're always just a little too early for what's coming next, with the rest of the world either unprepared for what they've created or the technology not yet where it needs to be. This has almost become a running joke with many pointing out unfavorable comparisons to Forrest Gump, as they seem to have a presence or role in every key computing breakthrough of the past thirty years, even if it's just a walk-on. And up until this season, I may have agreed. But now they're right where they belong, on the precipice of something huge, everything else that's preceded it feels like a primer. A string of baby steps, hiccups and failures meant to get us here.

Joe MacMillan, founder of MacMillan Utility
It's 1986 and when we last left the slick, manipulative Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), he had once again manipulated "Gordon, "stealing" his anti-virus program to build his own company, MacMillan Utility, and closing a deal for office space in California. It's a venture Gordon could have been involved in had he not been given an ultimatum by Donna (Kerry Bishé) to move with her and the kids from Texas out to Silicon Valley, as she and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) relocate the latter's now rapidly growing startup, Mutiny. With his health woes continuing and the wounds inflicted by his recent affair still fresh, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) wasn't given much of a choice but to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Similarly, Cardiff Electric's former Sales V.P. and everyone's favorite ex-con, the incomparable James "Bos" Bosworth (Toby Huss) is also once again along for the ride, after a brief return to the corporate world reminded him how alive he felt at Mutiny, and how strained his relationship with his son still is. While it might be cliched to state that these characters are at a crossroads, the writing, acting and directing throughout this season pays that description off. In a brilliant bit of misdirection, every one of them is forced out of their comfort zone, forcing viewers to reevaluate them, before arriving at an emotional crescendo that brings the entire series full circle.

Clad in white linen pants and sporting a full beard, we're witnessing a more relaxed, Zen-like Joe MacMillan than in episodes past, clearly taking a cue from early Steve Jobs. And like Jobs, Joe's an idea man used to answering to no one, making the presence of a board his worst nightmare. This nightmare comes in the form of venture capitalist Ken Diebold (a mustachioed Matthew Lillard), who acts as a puppeteer, pulling the strings of an increasingly helpless Joe, who's company is slowly slipping away from him amidst a software pricing battle (ep. 3.3, "Flipping The Switch"). The little relief he finds comes from a working friendship with MacMillan Utilty's newest employee, Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a socially awkward ex-coder at Mutiny whose forward-thinking ideas were constantly shot down by Cameron.

Joe and Ryan brainstorming ideas
With Ryan under the tutelage of his hero, Joe MacMillan, the two begin working on something big, and it's an apprenticeship that not only echoes his days of working with Gordon on the Giant in the garage, but changes the course of the series. It's the first of many call-backs that somehow creates nostalgia in viewers for a series that's only been on a couple of years, and sets Joe on his eventual path of doing right by Gordon. It may be fair to call Ryan the most important supporting character the show's ever had, at least as far as being the trigger for these characters to land where they need to be. And if nothing else, he writes and verbally delivers what ends up being the series' manifesto, (ep. 3.8, "You Are Not Safe") a monologue both timeless and timely in how it accurately describes the dangers and benefits of a future where everyone is connected, while somehow still being completely disconnected from the world in which they live. In other words, the present day.

Growing at too fast a speed to keep up, Mutiny is slipping away from its free-spirited, rebellious founder Cameron and the more composed, business savvy Donna. They just don't know it yet. Or rather, one of them does, and the other won't listen. Unlike for Joe, outside assistance comes for Mutiny from a more benevolent source, venture capitalist Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), an acquaintance of Donna who's seriously considering investing in the company provided a few obstacles are cleared. Without going into the specifics of how, all of this turns out to be a disaster ten times worse than what Joe's experiencing because at least you know he'll always have some kind of nefarious plan in his back pocket. It sets off a chain of events that puts Mutiny founder Cameron on a collision course with the supposedly more capable Donna, with Gordon and Bos caught in the middle.

Cameron and Donna, while never exactly friends, managed to make Mutiny work, and viewers were always clear where each stood on the company food chain. If the former is a talented, but extremely immature coder who fell into a CEO role she's entirely unsuited for and doesn't want, then the latter is the heart and soul of the company, as well as the show's moral compass. Coupled with Kerry Bishé's extremely warm, likable presence and do-it-all performance, it's easy to see why Donna's been the fan favorite since day one. It's certainly helped Cam has been written to be at her most petulant this season, panicking at criticism or compromise, firing people on a whim and disappearing for weeks at a time while Donna steers the ship, making tough decisions for Cameron to be pissed about when she decides to show up for work. Much of the time, Cam comes off as a scared little girl, which until now has been touchingly reinforced with her relationship with Bos, who's always viewed himself as her father figure of sorts. Except only for the fact that she did have a father who died in Vietnam and her trip back to Dallas (ep. 3.5,"Yerba Buena") to find closure, and potentially reconnect with the returning Tom (Mark O' Brien), finds even Bos justifiably fed up with her behavior, perhaps permanently straining their bond.

Gordon and Cameron playing Super Mario Bros.
If there's a silver lining for Cam this season, it's her surprising friendship with Gordon despite the fact she's at war with his wife. But Gordon's been marginalized too, essentially blackmailed into joining Mutiny, even as his role in the company remains completely undefined. Retreating to the confines of his closet with a ham radio as his symptoms of toxic encephalopathy intensify, it's the first time we're forced to consider that Donna might not be as perfect as we thought. Watching Cam and Gordon bond over beating Super Mario Bros. (ep. 3.6, "And She Was") not only works as pure nostalgia for viewers who grew up trying to do the same, but provides some of the season's few moments of joy for these characters. Gordon wants to help her in fight against Donna, or at least attempt help them find some common ground, but it's painfully clear that his professional allegiance will have to remain with his wife, no matter how rocky their relationship.

As the company heads toward a potential IPO it may or may not be ready for (ep. 3.7, "The Threshold") a funny thing happens to our perceptions of Donna and Cameron. Maybe it's okay to think you're right all of the time, and maybe even okay to lie and manipulate a little bit if you think it's in everyone's best interests, but if you do all these things, you better be right. As all the cards are laid out on the table, it appears Donna was dead wrong. The moment when Cameron slowly exits the Mutiny offices, doubled over, heaving and gasping for air as her eyes flood, it's apparent the series just landed its biggest emotional blow and Mackenzie Davis delivered it, further solidifying her as TV's best, most unheralded actress.

Despite all of Cam's childish, immature behavior throughout the series, we still feel real sympathy for her due to Davis' performance in that scene and everything leading up to it. Donna may have rapidly grown Mutiny and taken it to the next level, but it wasn't her idea. It was Cam's baby. And while it may be a disturbing parallel, Donna symbolically aborts it just as she literally aborted her own baby last season when Cameron secretly drove her to that clinic.

Cameron gets kicked out of Mutiny
Donna's made many sacrifices to achieve her professional goals but the explosive impromptu meeting that determines Mutiny's fate casts that in a different light. She's now a money person, and potentially even a sell-out, short-changing Mutiny's long-term prospects for a big payout and petty revenge. And the amazing thing is that Bishé doesn't really alter a single note in her performance of the Donna we've known and loved since Season 1. It's just a matter of the writers reframing everything that been in front of our faces the entire time. And yet it's still just as easily possible to defend her actions from a business standpoint and see why she felt the need to make these choices, as selfish as they seem.  In many ways, Diane is her role model, foreshadowing her eventual future as a single mother trying to conquer the business world.

If it seems nearly impossible for the season to continue after an event more befitting a series finale, this not only does that, but tops it twice over. Just as Cam's life comes crashing down, Joe's master plan with Ryan to break away from his own company ends in a tragedy that directly or indirectly alters the lives of every character, most specifically him. When Joe MacMillan awakens in his apartment to cops and an open terrace door, he seems for the first time truly shaken to his core. Dare we even say a changed man. The same Joe who hit an armadillo with his car in the pilot episode, sabatoged an entire project at Cardiff just to get press and burned a truckload of Giant computers, and earlier in the season even had an HIV scare, finally hits rock bottom and suddenly everything that came before starts to make a lot more sense.

Of course, this moment means nothing without all of those, and we can recognize both in Lee Pace's delivery and reactions that this guy, as we've known him, is done. In Joe's own words, even he "can't work with Joe MacMillan anymore." The character who seemed to start as a Don Draper-Patrick Bateman hybrid is now a fully developed, three-dimensional human being driving the narrative. A narrative that seems to have reached its conclusion with what again could have easily been a suitable series finale. And it's with no where else for its characters to go, that the writers pull off their grandest trick yet, leaving the 80's in the rearview mirror. They've gone as far as they can go.

Copyright, 1990.
Had it run long enough, that intriguing possibility that the series could pull off a major time jump or flashforward was always on the table. It just makes sense. And its arrival in the first episode (ep. 3.9, "NIM") of its two-part season finale, makes for thrilling television. It's the high-water mark for the show, aweing and rewarding audiences who stuck around long enough to witness its disorienting opening minutes where we're wondering what's going on. Time jumps have been misused and overused so much it's tough to remember when they weren't commonplace. But it's also just as easy to forget how well they can work, freeing up the writers' creative options and enhancing already strong characters by taking them in a new, fresh direction.

When we see the Windows 3.0 screen and realize the series has hit the reset button, making a seamless and organic transition to 1990, it's clear why those preceding episodes has such an air of finality to them. As we scramble to fill in the blanks of the past four years (and it doesn't take long) the true masterstroke of this idea is how the show is rapidly approaching an era where the world and technology is finally catching up to these characters' ideas. And if they took all took a strange detour over the past season, pushed and pulled in surprising ways, this move returns the series to its core. They all converge together again having grown and matured, while also realizing that the more things change, the more they've also stayed the same. Joe's itching to get back in the game, Donna's out on her own, divorced from Gordon, who's struggling to control his rebellious teen daughter and progressing illness while reentering the dating game.

The biggest change has come over a very different looking and acting Cameron, whose time spent in Japan as a successful Atari game designer married to Tom seems to have mellowed and wisened her to the point that she's now open to a reunion of sorts. If anything, THE BIG IDEA certainly seems important enough to warrant it. Bringing back the COMDEX convention (where the show staged one of its strongest first season episodes), is another great touch and a reminder that Joe and Cameron will always be damaged goods, yet intrinsically linked since that first scene in the pilot when he recruited her out of the classroom. It's a dynamic that's sort of taken a backseat to the rest of the action over the course of two seasons, while still bubbling just enough under the surface, destined at some point to reemerge. And the writers couldn't have possibly timed it better.

Joe and Cameron reunite at COMDEX
The brainstorming sessions that occur in the season's final episode (ep. 3.10, "NeXT") do more to reveal the history between these four than maybe any other previous interaction in the series because their interpersonal dynamic affects every technology-related discussion or argument they have. And those debates hold us captive, both because they directly relate to the present and Joe MacMillan's never better than in sales mode, only this time driven by inspiration rather than ego, envisioning the web as a door everyone and anyone can eventually enter and do inside what they wish.

We also sees a more mature, world weary Cameron taking agency in her own life and making a rational decision she couldn't have just a few years earlier. It appears that Donna may have finally gotten her receipt for killing Mutiny when she realizes Cam has cut her out of the very idea she brought to them in an effort to put the band back together. It's no coincidence that Donna's emotional breakdown echoes Cameron's reaction upon discovering she was kicked out of the company she built.  It feels right that the final image we see this season is of Joe, Gordon and Cameron huddled over a monitor working again, as if they've taken this long, sometimes torturous journey to come full circle. Only now they're ready and the timing is right for them to begin the project they've unknowingly been preparing for since day one.

The gang is back together
With the series now so clearly in the zone and completely sure of its voice, it seems nearly impossible to for this not too exit on an extremely high note. And with the recent announcement of Halt and Catch Fire's renewal for a fourth and final season, the writers can plan for a proper finish without that perpetual cancellation ax hanging over their heads. Regardless of how many are or aren't watching the show, its tremendous improvement and uncommonly high quality has, in the very least, earned it that privilege.

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