Season two of the AMC series is drawing to a conclusion and – to my horror – most people I meet still haven’t heard of this incredible show.
Halt and Catch Fire is a character driven series, focusing on four very different personalities. Set in Dallas during 1983 (the Silicon Prairie of Texas according to wikipedia); this is the journey of the personal computer revolution from the viewpoint of insiders.
The Set Up
A former IBM executive, Joe Macmillan plans to reverse engineer the flagship product of his former employer and forces his current company – Cardiff Electric – into the personal computer race.
MacMillan enlists the help of Gordon Clark, a great engineer whose unrealized dreams of creating a revolutionary product have created tension in his marriage to Donna and Cameron Howe, a volatile prodigy who quits college to join MacMillan’s rogue PC project.
Heading off the team is Joe MacMillan (portrayed by the delightfully versatile Lee Pace); a cold hearted manipulator. He has vision and determination, paired with a ruthless disregard for people and a moral compass that appears to be broken. It’s difficult to build up any sort of backstory when everything he says is purely to motivate his audience to behave as he wishes. Interestingly, he appears to be a bisexual character, though this is played out more as an emotive element of his story; rather than for gratuitously. I approve!
One of Joe’s first moves is to bring in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis – demonstrating mastery of ALL the emotions) – a renegade 22 year old programmer with talent out the ears and a bad attitude to match. Her chaotic lifestyle and appearance (and gender) mean that she is a literal vision representation of the new era of IT use; the decade to come as it were. Naturally, she constantly butts heads with the more conservative Gordon, while Donna regards her as a sort of primitive prodigy. Nevertheless, across the season, Cameron discovers her passion and becomes a dedicated team player. Despite her prickly facade; Cameron is a decent and honourable person for the most part. She is slow to trust and regards betrayal to be unforgivable, which will have obvious consequences for the second season.
Gordon Clark (the improbably [and delightfully] named Scoot McNairy) is an engineer with ideas but no ability to practically organise them. He is a ‘has been’, desperate for a last hurrah after the humiliation of his failure with Symphonic – a computer he created with his wife. Marred to Donna; an equally talented engineer; his life has become humdrum, with work and home almost equally flat and uninspiring. When charismatic Joe appears at Cardiff Electric, Gordon leaps at the opportunity to start something new; despite the pressure this places on his marriage and the technical hurdles. Also, his relationship with new talent Cameron is volatile at best.
Accomplished musician and former engineer; Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé is amazing in this role) has been raised in privilege and with high expectations. These expectations were shattered after the Symphonic fiasco, resulting in fears that her stale marriage won’t survive any more upheaval. Additionally, Donna resents being resigned to the home-keeper role (especially with a full time, if under appreciated, job of her own); while simultaneously wanting to support Gordon in a project that might restore his spirit. Over the course of the first season, Donna is pulled into the Giant project and by the end, it is clear that Donna is one of the most transformed characters on the show. Her evolution and development were part of what made this series unmissable for me.
Season Two is as tonally intense as its predecessor but has broadened its focus and sharpened the relationships. Stylistically, there are no major changes; but the shift of locations from offices to a mad-cap house business makes it feel very fresh, which is impressive for a show set 30 odd years ago. Of course AMC shows have a tendency to be very visually distinct so perhaps I should have expected them to up the ante in the sophomore year.
Once again, the characters drive the plot – however, in contrast to season 1, Joe and Gordon are a step removed from the action and Donna and Cameron are in the driving seat. It’s particularly exciting to see these stories told, but I’d be lying if I said that the emphasis on the female leads hasn’t been hugely thrilling for me. That these two characters seem to subvert tropes and avoid obvious stereotyping is just the proverbial cherry on top. Sure, there are a few instances that make me wince but in the main; these are two of the most well developed characters (who happen to be women!) on network TV.
The primary story is of course the four interacting and working together or actively NOT doing so. Donna and Cameron have created Mutiny – an online games platform. As they are very different personalities; the relationship isn’t stress free but there is a deep trust between the two and both seem determined to make it work. So, we see solid communication between the two. It’s not emotionless and doesn’t always appear to be professional but somehow they made it work. Cameron has grown up hugely, but is still prone to the odd wig out. Her heart hasn’t quite healed from the previous year, but she is focused on work and on learning how to be a boss. Donna is loving her work, but finding her home life and family to be out of balance.
The superlative Bosworth (brought to life by Toby Huss) is also back, vulnerable despite his vast experiences. His interactions with his two new bosses – Donna and Cameron – are at once unexpected, sweet and oh so human. It would have been very easy to have portrayed him patronizing or directing either women or attempting to assume control of Mutiny, but instead he has become part of the team..no, family. Where he sees gaps or errors, he takes them to the duo and advises, but follows their lead utterly. Sorry, I’ll stop gushing…bit of a personal favourite here.
Joe is out in the cold. He hasn’t seen the rest of the team for a year and has been seeking to mend his wicked manipulative ways by settling down with Sara Wheeler (daughter of an oil magnate). Of course, being Joe – he just can’t quite getting his oar stuck in; though his past actions continue to dog him. Pace manages a beautiful balancing act or appearing to be contrite for his past failures…while also perhaps not really understanding the emotional boundaries crossed. His continued inability to respect boundaries or accept that his vision isn’t the only or even the best option to others makes his journey fascinating to watch…though I really wouldn’t like to have anything to do with the likes of him in real life.
Gordon has made a packet from the sale of Cardiff Electric and is the proverbial house husband, taking care of two daughters. Occasionally, he interferes with Donna’s work life – usually with disastrous consequences. We see a lot more of Gordon familial relationships which bring further depth and heart to the show. He wants to return to his engineering roots…but despite having the capital, he remains as gormless as before. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good guy, but can’t do anything right.
As I was two when the series was set, I enjoy the technical stuff (look – the internet, online communities, gaming, first person games, etc were all invented by the same three people :P) but don’t really have any context for it. It has been a pleasure watching this with Himself, who knows the history of the timeline and coveted all the innovations being mentioned.
Check out the official music playlists for the series HERE