[CAUTION – SPOILERS]
Halt and Catch Fire was introduced by AMC this year as they said goodbye to Breaking Bad and planned their farewell to Mad Men, which entered its final season. With both of their critical darlings either out or on the way out, AMC had to place some bets, if they wanted to keep their reputation as a source of good dramatic television. Halt and Catch Fire was their first post Breaking Bad bet. Did it pay off? Perhaps. While Halt and Catch Fire didn’t deliver the immediate hook that Breaking Bad and Mad Men did, it does deliver fascinating characters and great TV.
The premise of Halt and Catch Fire covers old ground in a new way. The year is 1983, and the computer business we know today is just on the verge of exploding into the zeitgeist of modern culture. Joe MacMillan, as masterfully portrayed by Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies, Guardians of the Galaxy), has left IBM and come to Cardiff Electric in order to reverse engineer an IBM computer. Gordon Clark, as portrayed by Scoot McNairy (Argo, 12 Years a Slave), acts as a quasi Steve Wozniak to MacMillan’s Steve Jobs. Cameron Howe, as portrayed by Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment), is a young coder with a no compromise punk-rock attitude who gets sucked into Joe’s schemes. From there, Halt and Catch Fire weaves a web of lies, manipulations, and emotional breakdowns that upends the lives of its characters, and sets them upon new paths.
Joe MacMillan is central to the story as his machinations drive the plot forward. To put it simply, Joe is spectacularly full of shit, though putting it simply will leave you without the full picture. So lets us explore Joe chronologically, in order to better understand him. As a child, Joe survived a horrible accident caused by his drug addled mother, leaving him with a massive scar on his body, and another that would further fester in his psyche. After this accident, Joe’s father removed his mother from his life, and told Joe that she had passed away. And so, Joe grew up with a wealthy, and mostly distant father. Joe went on to join his father’s company, IBM, where he learned that he had a gift for manipulation that allowed him to advance his career, often at the expense of others. This all changed when Joe discovered that his mother hadn’t died when he was a child as he had been lead to believe. This was a major blow to Joe, who had an emotional breakdown and disappeared for a year. The series begins after that year.
Joe sets to Cardiff electric, where he forces the company into direct competition with IBM after making them legally liable for stolen intellectual property. This was Joe’s plan, and a great example of how he stews chaos to reap opportunity. The first time he pulled such a deception (the example of which we speak) I was mostly in awe of his audacity. The second time he did it (which involved royally screwing over Cameron in a way that broke her down to a weak shell we had never seen from her before) I was infuriated with him. From that point on, there were other instances which implied manipulation on his part, but went unanswered. By that time I was so trained to expect his chaotic shenanigans that I jumped to conclude his involvement in every downturn of luck. What made Joe so fascinating is that he is so masterful in these manipulations, but it is all hollow, and he knows that. It is similar in a way to Jon Hamm’s portrayal of Don Draper in Mad Men, excepting that Draper has a real creative voice, a talent for marketing, where as Joe MacMillan’s only talent is in deception, though he desperately wants to be the visionary he pretends to be.
As i said, early in this article, Gordon was the Wozniak to Joe’s Jobs. But this is just how they started. Joe was never a true visionary, and as such, Gordon is not the level headed open minded tech guru that Wozniak is. Gordon is a work of quick frustration, a complete lack of vision, and susceptibility to being gullible. As the season progressed you begin to realize that much of the genius behind Gordon is, in actuality, coming from his wife Donna, as portrayed by Kerry Bishé (Argo, Red State). This perspective is carefully crafted to a pay-off I did not see coming. Our frustrations with Gordon lead us to want Donna to pursue an extramarital relationship with her co-worker at Texas Instruments, Hunt Whitmarsh, as portrayed by Scott Michael Foster (Greek, Quarterlife). This, resulted in something very different than we had expected. Though Donna did sucumb to her desires, Hunt was not receptive. Later on, we discovered that Hunt was actually coaxing information from Donna in order to copy the work her husband (with her help) did at Cardiff before Cardiff publicly unveiled their own product. This is when I began to see more of what attracted Donna to Gordon in the first place. As part of the audience, I realized that my initial impressions of Gordon were lensed in a way to manipulate my judgement of him as a character. While, our judgement is not completely wrong, it was heavily clouded. Our initial understanding of Gordon as a tech genius was not wrong, and in the end, it is he, who essentially saves the company by undercutting their new competition with some quick and smart engineering. This necessary development, however, also fractured the troubled relationship between the 3 leads. Stripping down their computer to a cheaper price came at the expense of Cameron’s personality code, and eventually lead to the revelation that Joe had created a catastrophic situation that Cameron had shouldered the blame for. While Gordon is still without grand vision, he was the only one of the 3 able to find immediate success.
Cameron was the emotional center of the show, the focal point of the audiences affections, and the trigger to our happiness’s and despairs. If Gordon represented the past, plagued by our hindsight to eventual mediocrity, then Cameron represents the future, infuriatingly tied down by the constraints of the past. Cameron’s sexual relationship with Joe was an initial force of strife within the company. However, as the physical relationship grew into an emotional one, Cameron became an opportunity for Joe to be a part of the future he was never able to realize himself. Unfortunately, Joe’s deceptions, and their eventual discovery, saw that path to a hard stop. Cameron’s most vulnerable moment in the show was a mere manipulation of Joe’s. Cameron also found an interesting father/daughter relationship with John Bosworth, as portrayed by Toby Huss (Carnivàle, King of the Hill), a senior VP at Cardiff that, despite his initial rage at Joe’s trickery, comes to care deeply for Cardiff’s computer program, and those involved in it. John and Cameron, worked together to hack Cardiff Electric’s bank and steal money to keep the computer programming moving. John is arrested in the middle of the office, and Cameron is left to wonder if she will be next, until her last meeting with Bosworth informs her of how hard he worked to cover her part in the crime. While Pace had the better performance as Joe this season, Davis’ Cameron was the clear breakout of the series. A multi-layered representation of the future of the industry, hidden behind the facade of a brash and unattached rebel.
So, where do we go from here? Season 1 of Halt and Catch Fire ended with the definitive fracturing of the relationship between Joe, Gordon, and Cameron that drove the whole series. Gordon is running the computer department of Cardiff Electric, Cameron is initiating a start-up that is entirely based on looking towards what will be possible next, and Joe disappeared to go on a spirit quest of sorts that is comparable to his 1 year hiatus before the events of the series. As a fan of the show, I only hope we are given the opportunity to find out what happens next. Halt and Catch Fire has not yet been renewed for a second season.
Though my initial impression of Halt and Catch Fire was mild, the show turned towards greatness in the second and third acts of its freshman season, propelling it towards the summit held by Fargo and True Detective as the best new series of the year. Creators Christopher Cantwell (Vicariously) and Christopher C. Rogers brought an interesting concept forward, but it was Showrunner Jonathan Lisco (Southland, K-Ville) that brought the drama to fruition with complex characters and clever audience manipulation. Halt and Catch Fire is most certainly “must watch” television, though whether it will have the cultural impact of AMC’s previous icons has yet to be seen. Breaking Bad and Mad Men, each, didn’t gain their acclaim until several seasons had passed.
Stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more on Halt and Catch Fire as it develops. Have you watched Halt and Catch Fire? Do you agree with our assessment? Do you not? Tell us in our comments.