Though it’s now known as the network that gave the world Mad Men and Breaking Bad and thus prolonged the Golden Age of Television, AMC got its start showing classic films all day, often including a healthy batch of Westerns in the mix. Perhaps the network heads have a lingering fondness for the form: Several of their shows, including Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Hell on Wheels and Preacher, have been attempts to translate the existential foreboding of the genre to TV.
Though Halt and Catch Fire revolves around a bunch of scrawny computer developers and executives who wouldn’t last five seconds on a kicking buck, in its own strange way the network’s secret jewel also serves as a modern Western, telling the story of some rebels working on the information superhighway and trying, and often failing, to tamp down the chaos of the early web. They may never draw a gun, but they are on their own, fighting to bring civilization to a lawless land, which is basically what every good Western is about. (Plus, the first two seasons took place in Texas.)
Set in the 1980s, Halt and Catch Fire, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, tells a fictional story that closely parallels the real-world innovators that created the internet. In turn, the series often feels like it was created from whole cloth by the concerns of the modern internet.
There’s Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), brilliant computer programmers fighting hard for respect in a male-dominated industry while also, in Clark’s case, trying to be a Good Mom and Wife to Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a resentful beta male who feels his genius has never been properly celebrated and who will probably join the first MRA listserv. The three of them regularly spar with venture capitalist Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who started as your standard Charismatic, Enigmatic Antihero but has over time become a fascinatingly original creation—a bisexual man whose desire to make a lasting connection in the world is constantly at odds with his willingness to screw over those closest to him in his quest to be seen as some kind of visionary.
All of these characters, all excellently played by one of the strongest casts on television, keep surprising you, revealing unexpected facets as the series progresses, from the deep neediness of Howe’s rebellious punk to the strength and drive of the maternal Clark, who when we first meet her seems to be yet another shrill television wife.
These four characters, all of whom are achingly human even in their worst moments, are always on the verge of gaining true understanding and coming together to make something great, but they always manage to get in their own way, talking over each other rather than listening and trying to understand. Which is to say, they’re like much of the internet these days. These days the ‘80s are a big playground for television (see: Stranger Things) and films (Everybody Wants Some), but there’s nothing out there that explains so clearly How We Got Here, endlessly connected and no closer to understanding.
Halt and Catch Fire is both a beneficiary and victim of the Peak TV phenom, in which there are too many good shows to keep up with. Series without a bankable gimmick fall through the cracks, but at the same time smart, incisive shows are given a chance to find their audience. The third season starts tonight with an entirely new storyline, which makes it the perfect jumping on point for one of the most engrossing dramas on the air.