Struggling to get a mainframe computer working in the first episode of Halt and Catch Fire’s third season, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) refers to the uncooperative machine as “her.” Donna (Kerry Bishé), one of the heads of the pioneering tech company Mutiny, questions her husband’s choice of words. “Her?!”
“Yeah, her. Temperamental, high maintenance, only responds to the right touch.”
“Well, I’ve been touching this thing for six months,” Donna responds, “and he still hasn’t turned on.”
This exchange, as it turns out, isn’t just a bit of pointed repartee between spouses. It’s an indication that in its third season, more than ever before, Halt and Catch Fire is concerned with the perceptions and the realities of gender dynamics in tech. What makes Halt’s foregrounding of these dynamics so effective is the way in which it arises organically out of the characters and the dramatic situations in which they find themselves. There’s nothing heavy-handed or conspicuous about the show’s concerns with sexism. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said of the show’s desire to appear knowing and witty about tech culture. At one point, for instance, two characters have an exchange about the correct pronunciation of GIF, and nobody, but nobody, was having that conversation in 1986.
Of course, Halt is a fictional show, and it’s never been overly concerned about faithful adherence to technological reality. It’s primarily interested in exploring its characters and their relationships; the broad trends of 1980s technological development are just a means by which it does that. So while season three may show us online avatars and graphical environments that are far more sophisticated than anything CompuServe or any other actual online service could have managed in 1986, it doesn’t really matter. Anyone old enough to have dialed up a BBS in the mid-80s will recognize that the show gets the most important thing right: the excitement of developing new ways for people to connect through their computers.
Halt’s third season finds Mutiny relocated to the Bay Area, a San Francisco tech startup a few decades before the city would find itself overrun with them. Donna and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), the brilliant programmer who founded Mutiny, are eager to keep the company on the frontier of online innovation. Noticing that many people are using their online community to set up informal exchanges with each other, the two seek the necessary venture capital to incorporate trading into Mutiny’s official offerings, complete with software designed to support an online marketplace.
But for Donna and Cameron, pitching their plan to potential Silicon Valley investors is especially difficult. Not only are they asking people to take a big financial risk on an unproven idea; they’re doing so in a culture dominated by male visionaries–Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the show’s own fictional Joe McMillan–where people are more likely to see a man’s idea as worth rolling the dice on, and where women generally aren’t expected to have such ideas at all. Time and again, Donna and Cameron’s pitch gets no response from venture capitalists, and there’s only one reasonable conclusion as to why. When their colleague and friend John Bosworth (Toby Huss), trying to cheer them up, says “It only takes one of them to ask you to the dance,” Cameron is quick to shoot back, “God, I love how even the metaphors in this business are sexist.”
As is always the case with systemic sexism, it’s so ubiquitous as to be largely invisible to many people, and even the sympathetic and supportive men of Mutiny, like Boz, don’t really see the extent of how it functions. His efforts to be supportive are genuine, but when he says to Donna and Cameron, “The fact that you two are women I’m sure doesn’t help matters,” it’s obvious that he doesn’t grasp just how significant of a force sexism is. It becomes more apparent, though, when one venture capitalist has an easier time seeing Donna and Cameron as potential sexual conquests than as serious business partners. Sadly, this aspect of Halt’s narrative is just as relevant today, as female entrepreneurs still have a much harder time securing venture capital than their male counterparts.
Unsurprisingly, Joe MacMillan, the figure who has alternately propelled the show’s other central characters to greatness and left their lives in shambles, has a much easier time making it big in Silicon Valley’s business climate. As played by Lee Pace, MacMillan exudes the kind of enigmatic charisma that makes it clear why some people are so drawn to him, even when he continues to be an egomaniacal prick.
Now the head of a cybersecurity company, MacMillan’s ambition is no less ruthless, even if, in coming to dominate the Bay Area’s tech scene, he now masks it more effectively under a quasi-spiritual veneer and seems to be equal parts businessman and prophet. “Something’s coming,” a young coder says to Joe. “I don’t want to get left behind.” As if Joe is the religious figure who can lead him to the promised land. That young coder, the latest person to fall under MacMillan’s spell, is Ryan Ray, a brilliant programmer who feels that his ideas go unappreciated at Mutiny. Manish Dayal as Ryan brings a bit of much-needed diversity to Halt’s excellent but overwhelmingly white cast, and his social awkwardness makes his presence a great counterpoint to MacMillan’s graceful manipulations.
Also joining the cast in season three is Annabeth Gish as Diane Gould, a seasoned venture capitalist who acknowledges that being a woman in these spaces means that the rules are different for you. At one point, she explains to Donna that she still wears her wedding ring despite being divorced, because men take her more seriously as a businesswoman if she appears sexually unavailable to them. At another point, in a particularly sad bit of commentary, she refers to a male associate as “a sexist jerk, but better than most.” Pushing back against sexism doesn’t seem like an option to Diane; rather, she feels she has to accept it and adapt to it.
The show is clear about how male-dominated boardrooms in which sexism goes unchallenged can become places in which men perform and bond around sexism, as in a scene in which two powerful men discuss their preference for women in wetsuits or bikinis. When comments like these go not just unchallenged but reinforced by gestures of approval, it’s no wonder that women find themselves positioned as outsiders whose primary value lies in their sexual desirability rather than their ideas and business sense.
Given that the show has been transplanted from Texas to San Francisco, there are perhaps greater opportunities in season three for Halt to explore Joe’s bisexuality, which has arisen in earlier seasons but never been given much narrative weight. Sadly, the show continues to keep issues around queerness at arm’s length, and though concerns about AIDS arise in one character’s life, the show doesn’t acknowledge the tragic scale of the AIDS crisis, or the sense of shame and political silence around it.
It’s great, however, that the dynamic between Donna and Cameron is given narrative prominence. The unlikely connection between these two very different women has become the heart of the show. As Boz says at one point, they’re “the brain trust” of Mutiny. “They run the place. I just work here.” And as they try to navigate the challenges of running a pioneering, risk-taking company in a culture that’s predisposed to thinking less of them because they are women, it’s a pleasure to watch them also navigate the joys and challenges of their connection with each other; Donna, the more cool-headed of the two, more willing to play the game of business if it means Mutiny can be successful, and Cameron, the brilliant programmer whose passion created Mutiny but could also destroy it if she doesn’t learn to compromise once in awhile. Like Joe MacMillan, Halt and Catch Fire largely reinvents itself from one season to the next, and in season three, it has primarily become the story of two women trying to build something extraordinary together. And that, in and of itself, is pretty extraordinary.
The two-hour Season 3 premiere aires Tuesday, Aug. 23 at 9/8c on AMC.
Photos credit: Tina Rowden/AMC