Back when Halt and Catch Fire arrived in 2014, many critics cited Mad Men as a clear influence and criticized the show for not coming close to that mark. Whether or not that comparison was accurate in the first place, it's ironic that after the show's beautiful, riveting third season it's clear Halt is the heir apparent to Mad Men. And it's not just the fact that both are period workplace dramas. It's because no other show has that distinct spark that Mad Men did, where it could be warm, funny, intense, and heartbreaking all at the same time. (The Americans, for example, is another one of the best shows on TV, but while it has nuance and subtlety to its writing, it's not exactly a "fun" show.) When I see these characters interact, with all of their history and flaws and complexities laid out there on the table, I can't help but be reminded of Mad Men.
And yes, Halt and Catch Fire is excellent as a workplace drama as well. Because it doesn't have death and violence to fall back on the way other dramas do, it has to rely on making the simple act of work thrilling, which it does with great skill. The show, and its third season especially, focuses on ideas and the value that its characters place on those ideas. To watch Halt and Catch Fire is to watch a show about smart, capable people with strong notions navigate the conflicts that arise when their vision clashes with the visions of others.
No relationship displays that thesis better than the one between Donna and Cameron. Part of the reason why the show made such a leap in quality from season one to season two was because of the pivot that made Donna and Cameron the quasi lead characters. Watching these different but ultimately complimentary people come together and develop a powerful bond over the course of last season was such a joy to behold. Somehow, season three was just as big of a leap in quality, primarily because the Donna and Cameron relationship as well. If season two gave the fans what they wanted by bringing them together, season three was crushing in the way that it slowly drove them apart.
It all started when they had to take in a new duo to bring Swap Meet to life, where Mutiny users could complete monetary transactions with other users. Cameron wanted to fire the guys shortly after they joined but Donna, fearing that it was a rash and unwise decision, crafted a lie to make Cameron believe that their new benefactor Diane (Annabeth Gish) wouldn't allow the firing. This decision was the catalyst for the slow motion car crash of fights, resentments, and maneuvering that occurred in the second half of the season. It didn't truly set in with me how excellently the writers constructed this conflict until I read people debating about it in comment sections. The more I read, the less consensus there was on who was in the right. That's because the story allowed for both parties to be equally right and wrong. Cameron can often act like a petulant, self-centered child, but Donna has a habit of making decisions for others and justifying it under the guise of well-meaning paternalism. Each viewer may have their preference -- I'm generally more Team Donna -- but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is one of the most even-handed and compelling television conflicts in a long time.
The Donna and Cameron schism is a microcosmic version of what makes Halt and Catch Fire so engaging: it's about ultimately good people trying to do their best. In the vein of great, humane dramas like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, nobody on this show is trying to deliberately hurt anyone, it's just that their wants and needs don't always mesh with others'. Cameron just wants her creation to remain pure and uncompromised and Donna just wants to be recognized as a talented and vital part of Mutiny in her own right. Both are doing what they think is right for the company, which makes their inability to reconcile those differences all the more devastating.
Halt delivered the emotional death blow in its two-hour finale on Tuesday. This is a show that has always been willing to take radical turns, from making Donna and Cameron the main characters to transporting the whole gang to Silicon Valley for season three. The finale was no different, as the first hour quickly revealed that the show had leapt four years ahead to 1990. Having been scattered to the winds after we last saw them in 1986, the core four are brought back together when Donna presents an idea for what would be the beginning stages of the world wide web. It's an exciting finale for a number of reasons, partly because it's so nice to see Joe, Gordon, Cameron, and Donna bounce ideas of each other. But it's mostly satisfying because it finally brings Cameron and Donna together to make amends and work with each other again. Or at least it appears, until Cameron utters a devastating five-word gutpunch -- "I can't work with you" -- after Donna offhandedly mentions that they can get rid of Joe if that would make Cameron happier.
The season leaves us with Donna walking away from the group and leaving Joe, Gordon, and Cameron to run with the world wide web idea. For anyone who has grown to love these people and want nothing more for them to get along, it's a depressing ending. Up until very recently, it wasn't certain whether Halt and Catch Fire would be back for another season. Despite the growing fervor for the show from the critical community, the ratings are horrible. Thankfully, the show's renewal for a fourth and final season was announced shortly before the finale, because I wouldn't have been able to live with leaving on the note season three ends on. If you would have told me two years ago I wouldn't have believed it, but Halt and Catch Fire has become an astonishing, essential show.