"Halt and Catch Fire": A hidden gem
In this edition of Marginalia, the best series you've probably never heard of.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014 – 2017)
If further evidence were needed of the downside to our content-saturated culture, look no further than AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. The unjustifiable mismatch between its outstanding quality and sadly diminutive viewership is the result of Halt being drowned in the endless sea of “content”. In 2009, the number of original scripted series released in the US alone was a little over 200; today, that number has tripled. With six hundred shiny new things being pushed in front of our eyeballs each year, even a series truly worth watching is easily overlooked. It’s a modern miracle that Halt made it through four seasons to a satisfying conclusion, rather than falling prey to the original cancel culture – the network cull.
Opening in 1983, Halt throws us into a world in which IBM dominates the computer scene. Companies are still run by good ol’ boys like John “Bos” Bosworth (played with infinite charisma by Toby Huss), a cigarette in one hand, scotch in the other, and an off-colour joke loaded in the chamber. Bos rules the roost at Cardiff Electric, where the dreariness of office life is captured in the beige, ill-fitting office wear of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Gordon clocks in, clocks out, never checks in for parental duty, and long ago checked out of being a husband. It’s into this drab picture that Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace in his finest role and on best form to date) erupts like a shooting star blazing through a dark sky.
Within weeks of taking a job at Cardiff Electric, Joe overhauls the company from sellers of software to a challenger in the computer-building market. Joe hires Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davies, electric both in performance and the way she charges up every room she enters), who has the coding abilities of a prodigy and the social manners of the punk anarchist she is. He then manipulates Gordon into building a new kind of computer. The question of what Joe brings to this project is at the heart of his complicated character: is he a mere salesman, a fast mouth able to commandeer the talents of those around him? Or is he a visionary, able to see what others can’t to direct their skills in revolutionary directions? Is Joe MacMillan a critique of the solitary genius type, a criticism of the now-familiar tech bro, or something far more complex? Over the course of four seasons, he will be all of these and more.
One of the show’s smartest choices is setting its story at the beginning of the internet age, when the biggest innovations were things we now take for granted. There’s far more than the mere invocation of nostalgia going on with the show’s use of the eighties and the once-grating, now-soothing sound of a dial-up modem. When Mutiny stumbles on the idea of a community where users can interact with each other, we present-day addicts of social media know that this is a golden idea. When our team of coders suspect they are pushing at the door of something world-changing with an idea that we viewers know as the internet, the dramatic irony in this difference between our knowledge and theirs has us cheering them on. In short, when they invent something brand new to their time but well-established in ours, we immediately understand that they’ve had a genius idea without it being explained in narrative-slowing detail.
Halt’s aforementioned failure to connect with a wide audience is ironic as well as a shame: the show is all about connection. How this grab-bag of characters fails in connecting, how each of them attempts to communicate with each other, is the big heart of a series that could have been coldly technical. Halt never feels, as lesser shows have, like a History Channel show with a story papered onto the surface. Its interest in how people connect drives the show into season two, in which most of our principle players have moved on from building computers and are now inventing chatrooms. The characters, meanwhile, are repeatedly forced into novel pairings that defy simple binaries of love and hate, and we get to watch these wonderful actors shine in these new dynamics. A highlight from the third season is the lovely and affecting team-up of Cameron and Gordon as they attempt to beat Super Mario in a day. From this humble and small seed, the writers develop an episode that doesn’t feel like anything else on TV or streaming.
That uniqueness of tone and vision is something Halt does take some time to establish. It’s evident in the first half of the first season that the show’s predecessors are closer to templates than jumping off points, most notably in the “brilliant men struggle to succeed” trope the writers consciously work with. But even here the series is sharp and the characters eminently watchable, and once the show finds its voice, it sings its own tune with the unabashed earnestness of someone who can hold a note and isn’t embarrassed to falter reaching for the highs.
In fact, I depart with the vanishingly small coterie of critics who did see Halt, and who agree that season one is an enjoyable though largely uninspired outing, and that season two is where the show begins to soar. Occasionally, this opinion comes wrapped in a lazy application of the so-called Bechdel test: the writers, so goes the critique, clearly didn’t know what to do with Donna, played by an always scene-stealing Kerry Bishé, who would occupy the narrative spotlight for so much of the later seasons. This is not just nonsense, it is impatient nonsense that might just as well argue for the first act of any story to be axed. Who needs to see Superman before he gets the cape, or spend any time in that gin joint (in all the towns, in all the world) before a certain blonde walks in and gets the plot going?
What those critics miss is that the character arc for Donna – who spends season one as Gordon’s harangued housewife, solving his tech problems and receiving no thanks, while raising their children – would be so much less heart-burstingly fulfilling at its conclusion if we didn’t see the depths she climbed out of. The heights she reaches are all the higher when compared to where she started. In any case, rags to riches is a more compelling story than rich to still rich. In the finale (no big spoilers here), Donna gives a stirring speech about the unacknowledged role of women in the tech world, and it’s earned because we’ve seen the long, arduous road down which she has travelled to arrive here.
There’s so much more I could say and want to say about this hidden gem of a show. I could write about the wonderful production of the series, about how, in lieu of traditional table reads, the cast met at Lee Pace’s house to drink wine and read the script, or how the stars of the show lived together in a rented house for the last two seasons, or how Davis and Bishé have praised AMC for raising their salaries to match those of their male co-stars before they could even request it. I want to write about the show’s reinvention of the will-they-won’t-they dynamic by making it about whether the central two women will become friends, stay friends, and find success in their joint venture. I want to praise Halt and Catch Fire for never talking down to its viewers, for making the gist of its techno-babble intelligible while nothing is dumbed down.
Instead, I will act simply as a signpost, a navigational aid to help you find your way through the ever-entangling thicket of content, so that out of the six-hundred new shows you could give a chance to this year, you might discover this one. After all, reviews are like computers, in Joe MacMillan’s words – they aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”~ Edgar Allan Poe