As a TV critic, I occasionally find a show that meets two seemingly at-odds criteria.
The first is that it’s great. It speaks to me. It’s one of the best shows on TV. I can’t wait to watch the next episode.
And the second is that nobody is watching the damn thing.
This happens more often than I might like, but in the era of Peak TV, I’ve become more and more accustomed to shows with critical acclaim and low ratings toughing it out through what sometimes seems like sheer force of critical will. Just look at The Americans, FX’s spy drama that critics showered with praise, ultimately helping it land a six-season run (which will conclude in 2018) and major Emmy nominations, despite its low viewership numbers.
Yet even now, even in a world where TV networks are just as interested in their shows’ long-term prospects as they are in the shows’ overnight ratings, there are series whose ratings are so low that the only reason to renew them is pretty much because the network loves them. And even that’s sometimes not enough — just ask fans of WGN America’s two-season Manhattan Project drama Manhattan.
The same probably should have been true of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. Each and every season of the '80s tech drama has been better than the last — and lower-rated than the last. The ratings for season three (which wraps tonight with a two-hour finale) were truly dire, to the point where a cancellation wouldn’t have surprised me, even though the show has become a critical favorite.
But AMC just renewed the series for a fourth and final season of 10 episodes, so my plea that you watch the finale — in hopes of boosting the show’s ratings enough to secure an unexpected renewal — is no longer as necessary.
But if I could, I would still walk into every house in the country and tune the TV to Halt and Catch Fire. The last six episodes of season three (including the finale) are basically perfect. The show is smart, sleek, stylish television — and it’s doing something genuinely different.
Halt and Catch Fire passes my number one test for a great drama
The highest praise I can give Halt and Catch Fire is that I want to see all of its characters succeed. There’s a breathtaking scene in the seventh episode of season three in which all of the show’s major players argue over the future of online gaming company Mutiny and whether to take the company public, and you understand each and every one of their points of view.
Some characters believed that going public was the only way the company could grow. Others believed that doing so at that moment was premature, that they needed to get all of their ducks in a row to make Mutiny all it could be.
The entire season hinged on this scene. By the time it was over, relationships had changed and fallen apart, characters had turned on each other, and the story turned toward its endpoint. And, again, this happened in episode seven of 10 — there was still more to come.
Halt and Catch Fire can’t create stakes in the same ways that many other shows can. It would be weird to send its characters into life-or-death situations, and it doesn’t have a consistent antagonist. (Indeed, depending on the episode, nearly every one of its four major characters cycled through an antagonistic role this season.) So when it creates these conflicts, it has to root them deeply in character and in relationships.
When I visited the show’s set during the filming of episode eight, I learned that one of the show’s most fundamental relationships would be split apart by that eighth episode, and I was stunned to hear it. In fact, I was a little worried that Halt and Catch Fire was trying to force that split to create drama. But the more I watched of season three, the more I saw just how carefully it built to that rupture. When it came, it felt both like the only thing that could happen and like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from.
This is what Halt and Catch Fire does so skillfully at its best. Even if it’s following would-be tech mogul Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who has caused most of the other characters endless irritation, it really wants you to understand why Joe does what he does, what makes him tick.
That level of attention has slowly built up my reserves of affection for the show. By the end of season one, I was committed. By the end of season two, I was addicted. And by the end of season three, learning the series was canceled would have driven me up the wall.
The finale functions almost as a standalone Halt and Catch Fire movie
To be clear, the series could have ended with the two-part season three finale, and it would have been a solid ending to the story so far. The episodes function surprisingly well as a Halt and Catch Fire movie, one that draws the four main characters back together in a way that really earns having all of them in the same room together for the first time since late in season one.
But the finale also leaves just enough doors and windows open for season four that I can’t wait to see what’s next. Ending with season three would have felt satisfying, but planning an end in season four has a chance to feel just about perfect.
Ultimately, what has made Halt and Catch Fire stand out, and what will hopefully make it stand out in the final season yet to come, is the show’s dedication to telling stories about human connection. It takes place on the cusp of the internet, and the closer it gets to the arrival of the wired world we live in today, the more comfortable it seems with exploring both the beauty and the terror of how our machines have turned us into one giant global hivemind.
And yet the show understands that drift toward human connection all the same. Its characters don’t really function as individuals. Joe is too convinced of his own genius. Gordon (Scoot McNairy) actually is incredibly smart but can’t seem to trust his own abilities. Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) is the outside-the-box thinker Joe wishes he was, but struggles to relate to other people. And Donna (Kerry Bishé), who goes from "cable wife" to business tycoon in the first three seasons, is often rigid and inflexible.
Halt and Catch Fire loves all of these people for their incompleteness, but it also loves their many permutations and reinventions as they attempt to solve the programming problem that is themselves.
They switch business partners and scene partners and become a constantly evolving nucleus. Like the industry they’re a part of, they’re always hoping the right connections will draw themselves together, and data and information will flow.
On many other TV shows, the gaps between the confident tech industry warriors these people believe themselves to be and the very human, very fallible people they actually are would manifest in stories about how they kept making the same mistakes without ever learning the right lessons.
But Halt and Catch Fire is, on some level, an optimistic show about the hope that the next permutation of yourself, the next relationship you enter (whether personal or professional), or the next big idea will be the one that offers you salvation.
Halt and Catch Fire’s two-hour finale airs tonight on AMC at 9 pm Eastern. The first two seasons are available on Netflix.