August 20, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”



The links between AMC’s HALT AND CATCH FIRE as a television series, the stories it tells, and its characters have gone unusually deep.  The positive part has been that as series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have grown steadily more assured and ambitious in each season of the series, their characters Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), Gordon’s ex-wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) have done the same, and the plot that began as a mere footnote to the Information Age (Joe and Gordon developed a clone IBM PC in the early 1980s) has grown to be a saga about the invention of the entire Internet.  The parallel that’s been less happy is that just as Halt‘s characters always seem to be one step behind the epic success they’re seeking, Halt‘s own ratings have been so low that only a subsidy from AMC’s Walking Dead zombie fund has allowed the network to keep it on the air.  Even zombies can pay for only so much, though, and this 4th season of Halt will be its last.  The opening two episodes suggest that with that knowledge upfront, Cantwell and Rogers are crafting a farewell fitting for what’s become one of the best dramas on television.

The first hour (written by Cantwell and Rogers, directed by Juan Jose Campanella) gracefully moved the pieces of this final season into place.  The action has moved to 1993, and Joe and Gordon have the era’s version of a successful ISP, albeit one that relies on carriage via MCI to provide its customers with bandwith.  Joe is almost unrecognizable from the Don Draper wannabe who was too much the focus of Season 1, now an online visionary who’s more interested in the project he’s working on in the office basement than the core business, which he leaves to Gordon.  Joe is also not over Cameron–and who would expect him to be?–who’s spent the 3 years since Season 3 in Japan, working on a new videogame and her marriage to Tom.  Meanwhile, as the Season 3 finale presaged, Donna has become a somewhat soulless VC, one step away from Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.  Cameron’s return to town to supervise Atari’s tests of her new game and attend Joe’s 40th birthday party sets the season’s events into motion.

With the necessary exposition under its belt, the premiere’s second hour (written by Supervising Producer Mark Lafferty and directed by Halt newcomer Meera Menon, who directed the underrated female-led high-finance indie Equity) shoots the season into high gear.  Beautifully constructed as a cross between Before Sunrise and a corporate thriller, it intercuts between an all-day phone conversation between Joe and Cameron, and important developments at the show’s business ventures.  The house of cards on which Gordon’s ISP is built collapses when MCI refuses to provide additional coverage to the company, because it’s planning to get into the business itself.  Donna’s standing at her firm instantly starts to look shaky as soon as they hire a male newcomer into their VC ranks.  Cameron’s existential videogame (the prize for winning is starting over again at the beginning) is rejected by Atari.  And all of the characters realize almost simultaneously that the next giant step in the development of the web is what will become known as a search engine.

On Halt and Catch Fire, the personal and the professional are inextricably entwined.  Joe and Cameron’s marathon conversation, aside from bringing them back together as a couple, explains who they are as co-workers, managers and visionaries.  Whether the characters are acting brilliantly or self-destructively (or both), their decisions always make sense in the context of what we know about them.  Cantwell and Rogers also keep one eye on the metaphorical significance of the work their characters do, bringing together disparate individuals online and creating communities.

All of this is superbly realized by the writing and the performances.  The lead quartet has never been better–it’s been a particular pleasure over the past seasons to see Lee Pace freed of Joe’s Draper-isms–and as always, there’s room for a colorful turn by John Bosworth (Toby Huss), whose marriage to Donna’s partner Diana (Annabeth Gish) is strained, and who’s financially stretched as well.  The premiere also indicates that Gordon and Donna’s younger daughter Haley (now played by Susanna Skaggs), who cuts school to play chess with herself, will have a significant role this season.

The fact that we’re even talking about a 4th season of Halt and Catch Fire is a gift, and the show’s constant improvements in style and craft make one confident that it has a plan in place for its final stretch.  Even in an environment clogged by Peak TV, it’s been a low-key highlight.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."