I’ll readily admit that I entered this show last year with a pretty huge bias – I’m a Lee Pace fan. I’m still reeling over the loss of Pushing Daisies, and it appears I may fear again another sophomore slump for yet another Lee Pace series. Halt and Catch Fire is not a perfect show. The show has a slow burn, much like Mad Men, which it’s often compared to, and it’s that same level of detail and attention paid to setting up and establishing story arcs and characters that make this show, for me, a TV viewing experience that will leave you really reflecting on technology and the fatal flaws of man that can get in the way of true success.
Season One was truly a wonderful set up to establish the electric force that binds these four characters in a particular place in this particular time. Ultimately everyone wants the same goal – glory in technological creation. And every character’s struggle slips and slides with one another but ultimately joins them together as they reverse-engineer a personal laptop, the tip of the iceberg in technological innovation. It’s funny that this storyline arose amidst Silicon Valley’s first season, which also employed a reverse-engineering plot point. The amazing thing here is that, from the get go, you see how everyone’s strengths complement each other, but everyone’s strengths also can bring out the worst.
Season Two expands on this more, but what I really loved about this is how fully formed and how bumped up Cameron and Donna are in this universe. Ultimately, they’ve always been the geniuses behind the innovations. It was Cameron’s coding and Donna’s motherboard design that elevated Gordon and Joe’s work in finishing the Cardiff portable laptop. So it’s no surprise that these two women found each other and created a world for themselves to rule. I’ve always found the writing for some of the female characters in AMC shows to do injustice to the actresses and the characters – Betty/January Jones has been derided, there’s a whole fanbase of Breaking Bad that loathes Skylar, and even the women in The Walking Dead feel like walking cliches and foils to the men. But right away, just by nature of these two women running the show at Mutiny, a gaming company founded by the two post-Cardiff, the writers were able to shape the women’s struggles beautifully and in a way that does them justice. The feminism here feels fully formed: we have the mother figure turning into the work-obsessive leader, but at the cost of her role in her nuclear household and questioning even her domestic desires. Then we have the stubbornly independent modern young woman haunted by a domineering ex and conflicted about intimacy. Donna and Cameron are workhorses, and work’s always on their minds – again, they spearhead these further creations: online gaming, POV shooter games, and, wouldn’t you know, online community boards. The suggestion of these women spearheading these innovations is totally remarkable, especially in what we know as a very male-dominated tech universe. If the show is meant to be somewhat prophetic about the development of technology, then there’s so much room to show the rises, falls, and the disappointment and despair that can be had in the care of these women. Hell, they already experienced the Man (both corporate and gender sense of the word) ripping off their work for a more money-driven, businesss-corporate gain. If anything, I do hope the show continues because if we learned anything about these characters, they’re the makers of their own fate, good and bad, and their patterns cannot help but repeat, so I’m curious to see how their hubristic habits would continue into the competitive world of Silicon Valley, where they’re clearly headed next.
The next most incredible thing about this season – again, this is what makes these historically set shows so fascinating – is the reflection on the innovations brought upon by Cameron and Donna in the larger world. Connecting to people online has become so ubiquitous, but the revolution of it totally taking over youth culture can be traced to a particular point in time. To see this erupt in the mid-80’s with some of the same concerns of the social effects is a powerful reflection on how much the world has (and did) change as a result of the technology. It’s both ironic and poignant, much like any other jokes and jabs at old vs. new technology in other period shows (I distinctly remember a moment in Mad Men where they made a big deal about these new typewriters as the “in” thing, and lest we forget how the introduction of the computer affected the SC&P workspace) – these people are at the forefront of what it means to create and unite a community of people whose main solace is the technology, and who may otherwise be alienated by the usual social norms. It comes with its own dangers of trust, as seen by Lev flirting with who he thought was another gay man but upon meeting discovers it’s a cruel joke that puts him in the hospital. Donna latching onto the idea that people want to talk just as much as they want to play games is huge (if not for the fact that the talking is the thing she can most identify with, but for the fact that this is totally her community NOW), and becomes the centerpiece of the power struggle between her and Cameron, whose biggest turn on is cracking the next gaming innovation. Watching Cameron and Tom pick apart a gaming style that has become so ubiquitous is incredible – it’s a result of their own live action play that brings together two people of like minds, it’s genius at work. And to root for these innovations to work also heightens the drama created as Joe (and essentially Westgroup) keeps inserting himself into the process.
Speaking of Joe, the men in this series are also well-written as tragic characters that have paved their own self-fulfilling prophecy. I was initially shocked and a little turned off by muted, domestic Joe Macmillan at the start of the series, but it was fun to watch the cogs slowly turn and bring Joe back to the person he cannot resist being. Though you see him fighting to maintain good intentions, and you do ultimately see he wants the greater good of Mutiny’s innovation, it’s also clear he cannot help but fall into his same traps. The magnetism between Joe and Cameron is like a drug – they know they’re not necessarily good for one another, but they cannot resist, because when the going is good between them, it can really be good. To see the twists and turns of Joe’s moral compass rise and fall with Cameron’s trust and distrust is amazing now that they’ve had time apart. And, of course, Joe’s desire to be a part of the next big thing as a major player starts with friendly promotion of Mutiny and turns slowly back into cutthroat taking Gordon’s virus fighting software and booming new business (to be fair, though, he did offer Gordon a part in this next big tech hit). The final shots of Joe feel very much an homage to Mad Men, when the five business partners embark on their new venture in their new space – Joe stands tall, proud, and very alone amidst a new office space in Cali. He may be in a winning position, but he is ultimately a man who will be alone, because intimacy with him seems to never work.
Then you have Gordon, the tortured genius who develops an illness and is in absolute denial of his fast approaching downfall, so much so that he even is subconsciously psychologically making it worse. What I first suspected was cocaine addiction (since he snorted some in the midst of his first personal computer building frenzy) soon became straight up illness. His inability to come to terms with it himself leads him to hide it from Donna, which leads him to so many mistakes thereafter that affect their marriage. And then, worst of all, when he actually has a moment where something of his can truly become a great innovation (he clearly hungered for something more once he got his Cardiff payoff – he’s a man who needs to innovate and feel purpose, much like Donna, so their initial attraction totally makes sense) – he’s already caught in a cycle where he has to turn it down to save his marriage. But of course, seeing Joe take his idea, he may be fueled with new purpose beyond being an engineer for Mutiny.
Season 2 allowed these characters that were maybe more flatly introduced in Season 1 to really take shape and experience wonderful ebbs and flows in development that bring more insight to who they are and what their universe is. The tech game is cutthroat, but the people who dive into it love it at this deep level and have a hunger for more. They’re the grassroots of what our technology-ruled world is now. They’re the examination of how society functions when driven by technology. And the show is also just shot so beautifully and thoughtfully. I hope more people catch on, if they have any interest in the roots of modern technology. And I hope the show catches fire enough to have a Season 3, because I so want to see what the roots of Silicon Valley are through their eyes.