With a Season 3 Silicon Valley reboot, Halt and Catch Fire is better than ever.
“It only takes one of them to ask you to the dance.”
“God, I love how even the metaphors in this business are sexist.”
The best thing about Halt and Catch Fire’s third season is that it exists. Despite the show’s hard reboot for Season Two when it moved away from Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark’s weekly “difficult men”-styled dong measuring and refocused as a superb feminist computer drama, there was serious doubt that Halt’s critical acclaim could save it. The show has never gotten great ratings, but strong reviews (and AMC having four The Walking Dead-centered ratings behemoths to dull the sting of Halt’s lackluster viewing numbers) managed to earn the show an unexpected, but much welcomed, third season. That said, it’s time to stop letting that be the focus of every review I write about the show. Let’s move on to the plethora of other things that made its double episode premiere so wonderful.
After two seasons on the North Texas Silicon Prairie, Halt has relocated its characters to the heart of the tech movement in Silicon Valley, and “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” opens with John Bosworth serenading the company’s employees and an increasingly impatient reporter while Gordon and Donna rush to get their mainframe running in the basement. It’s a big moment for the newly relocated and rapidly expanding company as they celebrate signing up their 100,000th user, but the revelry only lasts until the next morning’s paper reveals the reporter’s hatchet job. While Mutiny’s growth may have made it an outlier in Texas, they’re playing a whole new game in California.
In each of the show’s three seasons Halt has improved its storytelling ability, and “Valley” reveals that last season’s sudden jump in quality wasn’t a stroke of luck. The morning breakfast scene where an earthquake interrupts Donna, Gordon, and Cameron’s discussion of the reporter’s Mutiny write-up is masterful. From the layers of characterization quickly revealed (Cameron living with Clark family, daughter Joanie’s trouble adapting) to the metaphor of the earthquake showing that the Mutiny crew is on shaky ground (a little on the nose, but I’ll allow it), to the humorous tension release of a post-earthquake toast popping, Halt is suddenly a show doing all the little things right. Appropriately, to match its female-centric story, both premiere episodes were directed by women (Daisy von Scherler Mayer and Kimberly Peirce, respectively).
Just like the show, the focus of Mutiny itself, has swiveled again. Cameron realizes that users are using the online forums to arrange real life trades (shades of eBay), and she and Donna intend to make that a feature of the site. What follows in “Valley” and second episode “One Way or Another” is their attempts to secure an investment to further expand the site, to little avail.
More troubling is Donna and Cameron’s ignoring of a security flaw that makes conversations in Mutiny’s private chat rooms easily accessible to hackers. One of their newest employees, Ryan (Manish Dayal) points the flaw out to them in a private conference, but the two company heads choose to devote their resources elsewhere. Surely, this will be the jumping off point for Season 3’s drama, especially considering Joe MacMillan’s current role as a tech security guru.
So, if its sheer existence is the best part of Halt’s third season premiere, the surprising lack of Joe MacMillian has to be another encouraging sign. Lee Pace is a gifted actor, but the show has struggled over what to do with his cocky, smartest-man-in-the-room performance. After an inaugural season as a mysterious, troubled tech genius, and a second as a tech advisor looking for his father-in-law’s approval, Season Three finds Joe reinvented yet again. Joe only appears in the final five minutes of the first episode, but his shadow looms large throughout it. In the show’s offseason he’s transformed Gordon’s Sonaris program into a tech security empire. The episode’s opening image is actually a billboard of MacMillan Utility’s questioning slogan, “Are You Safe?”
The new Joe is historically John McAfee, but the image he projects is all Steve Jobs. He now sports a beard and wireless glasses while giving a company keynote presentation to an enraptured audience. Even his name and myth have grown in our absence. The Mutiny programmers quietly clamor for information about him. “Did he really date Madonna!?” one asks with bated breath. When another tries to simply dismiss Joe’s success to gain Gordon’s approval, Gordon offers unexpected words of praise and caution. “Don’t you underestimate him. That’s when he’s most dangerous. No, Joe’s brilliant,” he says, positing Joe’s manipulative abilities and hypnotic words as the true nature of his genius. “you feel like the most important person in the world. That’s when you wake up with your neck slit, bleeding all over the floor.”
The one person who seemingly misses the message is Ryan, who’s enraptured by Joe’s speech and sets out to work at MacMillan Utility. Joe is impressed with Ryan’s persistence and ingenuity, but he’ll only hire the young programmer on one condition: he has to quit to Gordon’s face and tell him that he’s going to work for Joe. Even in the midst of their court case over Gordon’s rights to Joe’s security software, Joe can’t help but twist the knife in his old partner one more time. This third iteration of Joe is full villain, and it’s the best version of the character yet, but it seems the two rivals can’t help but still pull their rulers out to compare manhoods.
As Cameron and Donna make a presentation to one final group of venture capitalists, they find themselves facing a hopefully sympathetic face. Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish) is a strong woman in the tech industry just like Donna and Cameron. She and Donna’s daughters even go to school together. But she, too, passes on Mutiny’s proposal for a $1.4 million investment. It’s not because the children are butting heads, but because Mutiny’s online trade idea isn’t as original as they think. Swap Meet, another company, has an 18-month head start on their idea, and Diane’s company isn’t willing to invest that much money to see if Mutiny can catch up. Donna and Cameron are crushed and out of options.
But Donna and Cameron didn’t get Mutiny to 100,000 paying users without some brains of their own, and after several days of anxiety, Donna counters with another proposal: buy Swap Meet out. Why fight a war for $1.4 million when they can win it outright for a few hundred thousand? It’s a coup Mutiny needs in their efforts to get financing, but it doesn’t solve all of their problems. Note the dust that continually falls from the ceiling onto the temperamental Mutiny mainframe. Their security flaw has yet to be addressed, and, of a personal nature, there’s that telling symbolic crack in Donna and Gordon’s bedroom window.
There’s a lot for the Mutiny team to handle, but with Donna and Cameron in command, the company is in good hands. The same goes for the show itself and creators, now showrunners, Christopher Cantrell and Christopher C. Rogers. Whether its Donna and Cameron or Mayer and Peirce, Halt is willing to trust in its women. It’s paying off. As its third season kicks off with back-to-back great episodes, Halt and Catch Fire is better than ever.