Halt and Catch Fire is a show I could talk about for days.
I started watching it a couple years ago when it debuted on AMC. A show about building computers in the 1980’s sounded like a fun watch. But that first season was rocky, filled with melodramatic speeches and cliches like the nagging wife, sociopathic businessman, and punk chick. I guess I just thought it was all too stereotyped.
But I still watched the second season, and I’m so glad I did. It totally blew me away. The writing improved, the storylines felt tighter, and the characters became well-rounded originals. It’s like the creators and writers finally figured out that it if they switched focus a little, they could find their footing.
Here, I want to share a few reasons the show has grown since the first season! (Some spoilers — nothing that won’t make the show worth watching though!)
The one-dimensional characters were a major problem in season one of HACF.
Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) was interesting enough as a programmer, but you couldn’t get past the glasses and bumbling personality to see a unique character.
Gordon’s wife, Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), was a programmer too, yet most of her story was either her nagging Gordon for working all the time or trying to have an affair with her boss. She was the most disappointing character to me.
And then there was Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a young genius programmer who was locked in the basement of a computer company, coding to punk music and apparently refusing to shower. I can’t believe I’m saying this, given how much I love her now, but I found Cameron extremely annoying in season one.
That first season revolved around protagonist Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who was a strong character but too detached. He’s one of those charismatic guys who, through sheer force of personality, is able to make amazing things happen. He dreams big, but he’s self-centered. He wants to land a great idea in the tech industry, which in season one was the portable computer. The problem is that a character like that isn’t very relatable. He might be fascinating, but I just didn’t like him (I don’t think you were supposed to), and that made it hard to enjoy the show overall.
I also think the writing in the first season was too over-the-top. Joe gives some pretty melodramatic speeches, such as one in a dark parking lot where he kind of rips off his shirt, if I remember right. Meanwhile, Cameron has an entire episode devoted to her shacking up at a hotel with a bunch of punks, tattooing herself and smearing writing on the mirror until she — bam! — gets a big idea for her coding back at the office. The storytelling really fails the characters in season one.
But that brings me to season two, which shifts focus from Joe to Cameron. I’d argue that she’s the new main character of the show, as she creates an online gaming startup called Mutiny. Watching her fumble to manage it, propelled by passion and instinct, is so much more fun than watching Joe manipulate people in season one. Cameron is no longer a stereotype in a basement — she’s a complicated person who makes brash decisions, is honest with her feelings, and suffers from insecurities about her work. I love her moodiness throughout season two.
What’s even better is seeing Donna Clark transform from a nagging, cheating wife to a savvy businesswoman. I mean, she does have some cool moments in season one. Like when she comes up with a simple, brilliant idea for making the portable computer that her husband Gordon is building half size. But in season two, she becomes about 10 times more real and interesting as she joins Cameron’s startup and helps her run it.
Watching two women leading an online gaming company in the 80’s is one of the most fun concepts I can imagine. The show touches on sexism here and there, but it’s never a major focus. These are just two passionate people trying to run a company. I find that really refreshing.
The fact that Cameron and Donna are so different keeps things interesting. Cameron brings attitude to the endeavor, as she stomps on anything corporate and works her ass off on the games her company publishes. Meanwhile, Donna has her own ideas — she’s more excited by the online chat rooms the gamers are using — but finds herself bogged down in the practicalities of running a business. You know, that stuff (like bills and electricity) that Cameron ignores.
The two have a mutual respect and friendship that sometimes frays at the edges when they butt heads over how to approach situations. And while both are young and smart, Cameron as a single woman who wears T-shirts and overalls feels a lot different than married mother Donna, who dresses in business suits for interviews and goes home to her husband at the end of the day.
But neither is a stereotype anymore. In fact, they’re more alike, in their love for the company and big ideas, than they are different.
Joe MacMillan is also much better in season two. He tries to get his act together, settling down with an earnest writer and going for 10-mile runs in the woods. Yet he still spins his web near his old programmer Gordon Clark and his ex Cameron Howe, waiting like a spider for them to give him his next big idea. He’s almost the new villain, albeit an ambiguous one. You can never quite trust him — but what’s fun now is spending time trying to figure him out, rather than wasting time trying to like him.
Gordon Clark gets an upgrade too. Season two has him taking cocaine as he works on a new project, and then finding out he has a degenerative brain disease (maybe from the drugs). It fits well with life in the tech industry, yet it also adds a new dimension to his character, breaking him out of the nerdy programmer stereotype.
The writing also improves in the second season. There are a few twists and tight storylines that I believe are some of the best in television right now. For one thing, the show focuses less on vague cliches and more on small, unique details. For instance, I’d much rather watch Cameron freak out over badmouthing Donna in a private message (that turns out to be not-so-private) — than watch her snarl at people like some tortured soul the way she does in season one.
The stories also focus more on the characters’ relationships, which are tricky. For example, Gordon tries to help Donna with Mutiny, even though he doesn’t work there. What he doesn’t tell her is that he’s making a deal with Joe. When this gets out, Cameron — Joe’s ex — is furious, but at Donna more than Gordon. After all, Donna shouldn’t be leaning on her husband for behind-the-scenes help with the company. These kinds of scenarios make the act of running a tech start-up feel unique to this set of characters. And that means that as a viewer, you care more.
Beyond that, I love the retro style of the show. It’s hilarious to see characters occasionally wearing the puffy, high-waisted jeans and shoulder pads of the 80’s. It’s cool to hear the names of the big computer companies of the era. It’s exciting to see ideas take shape that are now commonplace — like portable computers, online gaming, chat rooms, and anti-virus software. I’m not sure how realistic everything is for being set smack dab in the middle of the 80’s, but it’s fun anyway. And just listening to that old dial-up modem crackle makes me nostalgic. The 80’s music is another high point.
All of these things make Halt and Catch Fire one of my favorite shows on television now. Season three has just started, and I’m looking forward to seeing if it can live up to the second season. I hope it will continue to reinvent itself with new ideas each season, which is also what it’s had going for it so far!