Like a lot of television shows that go on to do great things, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” started off a little rough.
Its first season, which debuted in June 2014 a few months after screening at South by Southwest, was a fictionalized account of the nerdy North Texas computer industry of the early 1980s. As they dreamed of making a dent in IBM’s giant personal computer empire, engineers and suits kickstarted the PC-clone industry. The first season was largely about the tensions and triumphs at a fictional company called Cardiff Electronics and the destructive messiah complex of a man named Joe MacMillan, played with Steve Jobs zeal by Lee Pace.
Though it was filled with accurate period details, from the short-sleeved work shirts and Texas helmet hair and miles of chunky circuit boards, something about it felt absurd and turgid at the same time. Its primary characters, Joe and put-open, stressed-out family man Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) were unlikable in different, but equal degrees. The AMC white-male antihero formula so successfully employed in shows including “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” seemed to fizzle in a modest story of digital dreamers from Texas.
Then a remarkable thing happened. In its stellar second season, the show course corrected in a big way, shifting its focus to two much more interesting characters, savvy businesswoman Donna Clark (Gordon’s wife, played by Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant punk programmer. It leaned harder into the human dramas around innovation instead of the innovations themselves, made a showcase for good-ol’-boy charmer John Bosworth (Toby Huss, Emmy-worthy), amped up the smart soundtrack of the era and landed a smooth time jump into the 1990s birth of the World Wide Web for its last two seasons.
“Halt,” which never had strong ratings, got the attention of critics and some techies and logged off from TV permanently with its last episode, a 2-hour, 15-minute finale on Saturday that was enormously satisfying and a testament to why the show can stand alongside other Peak TV touchstones.
A show that could spend an entire hour on the panic and pain of a PC hard drive crash or that absurdly portrayed a world where the same four people were responsible for the rise of PC clones, online chat rooms, free antivirus software, multiplayer gaming and search engines... well, it shouldn’t have worked. Splitting the difference between our recent tech history (Compaq, CompuServe, Atari, Yahoo and Macintosh, to name a few oft-mentioned brands in the series) and a highly fictionalized version of that world meant a lot of dancing around the possibility of a fresh idea versus the reality anyone with a casual grasp of the tech industry knows actually played out.
But what wonderful, elegant dancing “Halt” was able to do in its run.
Here’s what the show did right:
Focus on the characters and bigger picture. Particularly in the seasons that took place in Texas, it would be easy to get caught up in the kitschy allure of 1980s pop culture, from the Rubick’s Cube to Atari to the rise of movie blockbusters. And while games like “Combat” on the Atari 2600 end up making an appearance, “Halt” grew to use pop culture as backdrop and not a focus. Instead, it keyed into the inner turmoil of its four leads: Joe’s narcissistic need to bring to market a revolutionary product; Gordon’s restless dad ennui; Donna’s struggle to be treated fairly in a male-dominated tech industry; and Cameron’s lack of focus and tendency to self-sabotage.
It found gold in humanizing the character of Bosworth (or “Bos” as the crusty character came to be known), who started as a cranky boss and ended up bringing the folksy soul of practically all of Texas with him when the show relocated to Silicon Valley for its third season.
Toward the end of the show’s run, it also became much more generous about the possibilities for change and the power of ideas, even as a balm against tragedy. Gordon learned to enjoy the success that he’d worked so hard for, Cameron gained friends she never thought she’d have, Donna emerged as a powerful businesswoman with killer instincts and Joe went from bullying blowhard to mellow, gentle searcher. Near the end of the last episode, two estranged characters come back together and immediately begin trying to figure out how they might be able to work together again to change the world. One of them has the flash of a brilliant idea, and it becomes easy for the viewer to imagine another season of reaching for the Next Big Thing.
Smart use of music. For two specific time periods, the early-to-mid-’80s and the mid-’90s, the show was able to use music of the period (and to reach back further for flashbacks), with a well-trained ear toward not only what the characters would be listening to, but which songs would resonate with the themes of each episode. In the last season alone, “Fish Heads,” PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me,” Veruca Salt’s “Seether” and Beck’s “Beercan” aren’t just songs used to point to the grunge era, they become the backdrop for beautiful montages and to mark where characters including Donna and Gordon’s daughter Haley, are emotionally at in a particular moment.
That the show was just as in tune with punk and new wave from the ’80s as it was for the Seattle scene and alternative music of the ’90s suggests its young showrunners, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, did a bang-up job hiring the right music supervisor.
Hope the future. Dystopia and depressing storylines are the easier tack when you’re building a drama around technology, and nobody does it better than Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” But “Halt and Catch Fire” was perhaps most remarkable for how hopeful it was about the promise, and even the failure, of the modern technology industrial complex. Rather than exposing the sweaty desperation of chasing Silicon Valley venture capital dollars, it could turn on a dime to drop humor into the mix (Donna’s reaction to hearing the name “Yahoo” for the first time is to keep saying it over and over until she laughs in hysterics) or to simply turn the camera over to life around tech, such as a pivotal dance party that takes place just outside the sterile, empty puffery of a COMDEX convention.
“Halt” could be mopey and moody, but when it reveled in joy, it was all the sweeter for it. Launching rockets with your tech-wiz daughter, a passionate reconciliation with a long-estranged lover, the cathartic pleasure of releasing something into the world and seeing it move the needle. These characters learned to connect, each in their own way, and we got to watch it happen gradually and satisfyingly.
“Halt and Catch Fire” believed passionately that a single great idea could change the world. And that whatever damage these characters had, these pursuits could also redeem and heal them. The work itself, the journey, was a reward.
Why didn’t more people watch this show? Maybe it was the head-scratching name or the drab, reaching first season, which bled viewers before the show improved. But it’s not hard to imagine that as we question the technology around us, which can violate our privacy, destroy our sense of self and even change the course of our political future, that more people will find this little show and embrace its transcendent message: That the people behind our tech can be much more interesting than the tech itself.
If you never watched it or gave up along the way, I can assure you that the finale was beautiful and satisfying, a great conclusion to a series that grew ever confident in its strong cast, particularly Mackenzie Davis, who along the way delivered another brilliant performance in the Emmy-winning “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror.”
You won’t regret binge watching this show, even if you work in tech and feel too close to the subject matter.
It becomes key that Joe says early in the show’s run that building computers wasn’t the thing — it was the thing to get us to the thing (which, it turns out, would be the web).
No disrespect to “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and other TV forebears, but it’s taken a lot of great TV to get to a show about tech that could be so moving and, most importantly, so human.
Cover image: Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark, Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe and Toby Huss as John Bosworth star in “Halt and Catch Fire,” an AMC TV show about life in the tech industry that just concluded with its fourth and final season.