The focus on user privacy is a natural step in HACF’s narrative of work culture encroaching on the personal realm, and vice versa. In the Season 3 premiere, Cameron meets with a Mutiny user in person and accidentally mentions something he told another user in a private message — technology facilitating and ultimately thwarting her attempt at human connection.
When Cameron and Donna notice users swapping items through chats, they steer their business away from an online community and toward a trading service. When they notice people aren’t just trading items but buying them, Donna wants to facilitate the exchanges through a credit card company, highlighting a central tension between the two characters: Donna wants to play in the big leagues, but Cameron doesn’t want to give up their independence. “Mutiny isn’t just my job,” Cameron tells her, “it’s who I am.”
If you can’t tell by now, I find Cameron and Donna far more interesting than Gordon and Joe. Gordon, who was diagnosed with a neurologic disorder last season due to long-term exposure to lead solder, has been aimlessly casting about for a new project since earning a healthy dividend from his former company at the beginning of Season 2. In California, at least in the first five episodes of the new season, he’s still feeling obsolete. “Why am I even in this meeting if no one’s gonna listen to a word I have to say?” he whines in the third episode; I found myself wondering why he’s on this show if no one’s gonna give him anything to do.
Joe has always been HACF’s least interesting character, a gloomy, humorless figure who apparently strolled onto the lot straight from central casting’s “anti-hero” division. On Pushing Daisies, Bryan Fuller’s sprightly mid-2000s fantasy series about death, Lee Pace’s air of interminable melancholy grounded the show’s airborne whimsy; but on HACF, a show that’s much closer to earth, his schtick is a drag.
Joe’s third-season transformation into a full-fledged Steve Jobs knockoff, complete with an Asian-minimalist office and a new pair of specs, makes narrative sense — he’s the wise sage envisioning a future in which user security will be a valuable commodity, something the folks at Mutiny are still figuring out. But even with the addition of a new character, Ryan (Manish Dayal) — a young acolyte who jumps ship from Mutiny to work for Joe — his Season 3 plot lacks the tension of Donna and Cameron’s venture.
And yet their business efforts are more interesting for the parallels they draw to the characters’ personal lives than they are in and of themselves. The problem with Halt and Catch Fire is that as much as we might care about what happens to these people, in a bigger sense, we already know what’s going to happen. We know Donna and Cameron are on the right path with their online trading service, because we live in a world of eBay and Amazon and Craigslist; we know Joe is right to bank on the future of cybersecurity, because we lose a little bit of privacy with every click of the mouse.
Of course, Mad Men was marbled with this kind of dramatic irony, particularly in its first two seasons — smoking in doctor’s offices! Kids putting their heads in plastic bags! Beautiful families littering! But unlike the protagonists of HACF, not all Mad Men’s heroes were on the vanguard. They didn’t always have the wherewithal to call out misogynist behavior, or the foresight to understand the direction in which their industry would travel in the next decade plus. They didn’t always get it right. They were of their time, not ahead of it, and that’s precisely why they were so fascinating to watch.