The opening credits of Halt and Catch Fire play out like a beautiful idea. A series of gleaming signals race across a retro-futuristic landscape of red neon, running hotter and faster until one takes the lead, shatters a gleaming barrier, and lights up an LED bulb that feels as big as the world.

The AMC drama, which came to a close last weekend, traces the modern computer age from the early 1980s to the dawn of the internet in the mid ‘90s, a time when the tech industry felt like a heady mix of meritocracy and magic: have the right idea at the right time, and you could remake the world, forever changing the way people talk, work, think, and live. “I know that something’s coming,” says one young programmer on the show. “Something big, like a train, and all I want is to jump on board. But it’s getting faster and faster and I’m terrified I’m going to miss it … I don’t want to get left behind.”

The heroes and antiheroes of Halt and Catch Fire can see the future barreling down the tracks and are just trying to stay out ahead of it. But while this is ostensibly a show about technology, focused on people whose lives revolve around boxes of circuits and wires, their story—and the story of technology—always circles back to that most basic of human emotions: the desire to connect with people. “Computers aren’t the thing,” says one character, more than once. “They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.”

If Joe is Steve Jobs, conducting every conversation like an Apple keynote address, then Cameron is the woman with a bleached blond pixie cut throwing a sledgehammer in its “1984” commercial as the men around her watch, their mouths agape.

The early days of Halt and Catch Fire are packed with archetypal Silicon Valley figures like Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a salesman-cum-confidence man who looks and sounds like a venture capitalist pitch in human form, full of the arrogance that would come to define the tech industry’s charismatic, self-styled geniuses. The real creators of vision and code, however, are the nebbish Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), his long-suffering wife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the punk prodigy who can see into the future of machines like an modern-day oracle. If Joe is Steve Jobs, conducting every conversation like an Apple keynote address, then Cameron is the woman with a bleached blond pixie cut throwing a sledgehammer in its “1984” commercial as the men around her watch, their mouths agape.

Again and again, Halt’s four protagonists see the future coming long before it arrives, and set out to lead the way—with laptop computers, online gaming, internet commerce, and the World Wide Web. Their prescience seems destined to make them the CEOs, “thought leaders,” and revered geniuses of tomorrow, but as the series progresses, it tells a different story: one where the shimmering meritocracy of Silicon Valley reveals itself to be a mirage, and no amount of beautiful ideas can shield them from the larger corporate forces that so often doom them to failure.

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