Set in the early 1980s, Halt and Catch Fire dramatizes the personal computing boom through the eyes of a visionary (Joe), an engineer (Gordon) and a prodigy (Cameron) whose innovations directly confront the corporate behemoths of the time.
Season one is streaming on Netflix. Season two airs Sunday 10 pm EST on AMC, with the finale airing 2 August.
Created by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers
There’s a trend in TV dramas that has gotten old. You’ve probably seen it in one form or another, and are familiar with it even if you can’t name it. It is the “Sad, Mysterious, Enigmatically Persuasive Rogue Antihero Protagonist.” You know the one, the guy who is handsome, always says the right thing to get what he wants, but withholds love from those who get close to him, has secretly crippling insecurities because of his mysterious childhood and/or general ennui, and is never satisfied and always wants more, more MORE of whatever it is he “wants” (money, power, respect etc.). I could go on.
I credit the popularity of this figure in recent times (popularity that I think only truly persists in the minds of aspiring (male) screenwriters) to the coinciding successes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Of course, The Sopranos (and many other HBO flagship shows) was before those, but that was one show, which was lucky enough to exist just before live-tweeting and binge-watching-as-introduction-to-a-show became prevalent (can you imagine??). All of the think pieces about Don Draper and the jerking off over Walter White got future show runners thinking “people love this! Yes… yes, I can write a guy like this. People LOVE this guy! He’ll keep ‘em coming back each week!” As these two shows began to approach their end, new dramas on various networks (especially AMC, trying to capitalize on a brand) would premiere a show about some dark, sad guy we’re supposed to root for even as he does shady things (i.e. Ray Donovan, that show with Ralph Fiennes, The Americans, Empire). Some are better than others, as it goes for all TV. But…. isn’t anyone else bored with this?
I’m frankly tired of seeing this same type of character placed in the center of a drama, and the show expecting us to care about what he does again and again, even though we’ve already expended so much interest on another Guy Like Him on another show. A part of me thinks that besides people thinking the presence of this character will immediately sell a show (I guess they’re not totally wrong there), they think making someone’s motives secretive, selfish and sometimes contradictory alone makes them a complex character.
And, so we have that “antihero network” AMC and its Halt and Catch Fire. Before it premiered it even had whispers of attempting to fill that Mad Men period drama hole because it takes place in the 1980s (the show premiered the summer of 2014, when Mad Men began airing the first half of its last season). That’s a weak expectation to have, and a flimsy comparison to make between the two shows. Once the show premiered, it unfortunately did seem to show its sweaty attempts to be compared to Mad Men and its ilk with its two sad and ambitious male leads, one in particular that is seemingly shipped straight from an “AMC antihero drama” factory, bypassing a writer’s room.
“It Wasn’t a Heartbeat, It Was an Echo” – Cameron
The first season was bad; shaky at best. I stopped watching after about four episodes, and I usually pride myself on sticking it out at least until the end of a season. I couldn’t get interested in the characters, specifically the main one. Joe (Lee Pace) is a hulking, suit-wearing guy who used to work at IBM and is now looking for computer geniuses to create a new computer. Or something. He gives so many “inspiring” speeches to the people he wants (namely: Gordon, the hardwire guy and Cameron, the andro-punk coding genius) about how amazing and special they are, while he secretly plots and manipulates everybody. Oh, he also has daddy issues, an empty apartment (with floor-length windows, natch), a mysterious mother, and mysterious scars all over his chest that are revealed in a very contrived shirt-rip mid-fight with Gordon. He gives Gordon and Cameron at least three different explanations for these scars, all meant to inspire sympathy, all false. This whole scar issue does not even need to be included in the character, because it hasn’t been mentioned since halfway through season one and has no bearing on Joe, or anyone else, at all. It’s just to make him more of an attractive enigma. But at a certain point “enigmatic” becomes “unknown.” This character is too loaded with mystery and clichés that he ceases to be understandable at all to us.
The other male main character, Gordon (Scoot McNairy), is kind of a shrug of a character; his story is a tragic one, where he’s always doomed to be the last one on the train. He isn’t incomprehensible like Joe, but he isn’t quite interesting enough for the screen time he got. Meanwhile, each of the men had a female counterpart. For Joe, there’s Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), who begins as a fairly annoying and brittle character (albeit with great music taste), but begins to grow into someone who knows how to balance her individuality with her business that requires cooperation. She and Joe, of course, gradually fall into a relationship because there has to be some tortured romance that falls apart by season’s end. Married to Gordon is Donna (Kerry Bishe), the “responsible one” who works at Texas Instruments while looking after her two kids and her husband. She wasn’t given much to do in season one, but she’s brought into Joe’s scheme with Gordon and Cameron because she is capable of a lot more than what she’s doing at work.
These women were secondary characters, used by and in relation to Joe and Gordon for season one, but their scenes were my favorite. They were real characters, and genuinely smarter than the men – in terms of computers and business. The end of season one ends with the computer the team created essentially being reduced to a mediocrity that contains none of their vision, and everyone scattered to the computer winds. There’s one glimmer of hope: Cameron creates a gaming company, called “Mutiny” (a bit on the nose, but also…) and asks Donna to be her partner. Donna says yes, ignoring Gordon’s hesitation, and a year later we had season two…
Season Two – consisting of ten episodes, with its finale airing this Sunday (8/2) – has brought the show up to a respectable level. Whereas last year I heard critiques of the show that justified my abandonment of it, this year I heard relatively amazing praise, enough so that I made myself rewatch and finish the first season and get into the second one. And now it’s pretty much been the show I look forward to seeing each week.
I believe the reason this show has gotten better is because it finally realized the futility of trying to make this cipher of a character (Joe) become the locus of the show and its plots. It has two strong and vibrant female characters that can easily generate plot and sympathy and frustration in the audience. The major arc of season two has been about watching Cameron and Donna attempt to get their gaming company Mutiny to a stable place. They’ve hit just about every roadblock they could, including a debilitating virus inadvertently created by one of the male characters who’s “just trying to help,” but who Cameron takes issue with because he seemingly just can’t let them have their own thing.
Joe and Gordon have been creeping along the edges this season, tying to rehabilitate their characters, trying to get involved in the main action and pretty much causing destruction and/or failing miserably. What delicious symbolism for the demise of the focus on these characters in the show. No more sad, mopey men and their lost dreams – this has suddenly become about these women and their ambition and hunger to make what they know they can make… and their fight against everything and everyone in their lives who “just wants to help” by changing their dream and adding what they think is best. In another excellent benefit to seeing two women working together, the two characters who began the series as polar opposites have come closer, and become supportive partners. Cameron is the only one there for Donna during a personal crisis this season, and when their company hits bottom, Donna goes to Cameron and asks what they are going to do. They refer to each other, and respect each other, even if it sometimes takes time. Moving these two women to the leads of the show hasn’t just given us great plot; it’s also given a great representation of a female friendship and partnership.
In season one we had to watch Joe plot and manipulate to get…something. This season, we get to watch Cameron – with the help of Donna, her schlubby but lovable co-workers and their ex-boss Boz (short for “Bosworth,” and he is a great Texan teddy bear) – fight tooth and nail to get what she knows she and her company deserve. The goal is defined, because the character is too. Thank god.
The show is still about desperation, and ambition, and always being slightly behind where you want to be in the great march of progress. The show reminds us of this by having larger companies crop up – the appearance of a Mac, the mention of Nintendo – which brings us back to reality. These characters are working relatively alone, and although their dreams are big and innovative, someone bigger always gets there first. The basic sadness and raggedy nature of the show and its characters hasn’t changed; that wasn’t the problem. The problem – which the show has amazingly located and nearly remedied – was the focus on creating yet another Sad Mysterious Male Antihero for viewers to love/hate. Well, as we saw, that doesn’t always work. That isn’t enough to make a show compelling. But… switch out the protagonist for two interesting characters – and hey! They’re women for once! – and suddenly the show is fresh and comprehensible in a way it was not last year.
And here’s the thing: these characters are actually smarter than the men. They deserve to be the protagonists out of merit alone. Cameron has developed ideas “of the future” that Joe so longs to have (he’s an “idea man,” you know) and Gordon tries to be a part of. She wanted to make their computer have a personality, to say “hi” to you. Joe ultimately sacrificed that element of their computer for size…only to come across a group of awestruck boys saying “hi” to an early Macintosh. This season Cameron develops a first-person shooter game. Donna, the most unsuspecting of the four even though I’ve always believed she’s a certifiable genius (I have no computer skill to speak of), realizes the draw of “community” message boards and chat rooms on Mutiny and pushes for its development despite it originating as a gaming company. Community becomes the most popular part of Mutiny and it was created by “housewife” Donna.
“I’m Removing Myself From the Equation” – Joe
This upcoming season finale might be the series finale. I thought the show’s cancellation was inevitable last year, and didn’t sweat it, but now the show has made such progress that I would really be a bit sad to see it go. Most shows don’t realize what they need to fix, or what they need to fix, but Halt and Catch Fire was able to do it. The solution was simple: stop hanging onto the idea that dramatic, sad men are the only protagonists that will attract a dramatic audience. Any good characters will do, and H&CF has at least two of them. I don’t know what the third season would look like, especially as the men are looking less and less important and powerful. Joe has a plan to move to California and Gordon is physically and psychically falling apart. If the third season becomes even more about Donna and Cameron the characters may start to feel the weight of the show’s expectations on their shoulders. If the show doesn’t get a third season, at least we’ll have this second year to teach us all something: go with what works; not with what you think you need to have, or what you originally planned. If what works is strong, supportive female protagonists then so be it. Good characters are what make good shows, not enigmas dressed in suits.
next week: the first #TBT takes you to high school in 1999…