Halt and Catch Fire takes the rise of personal computers in the early 1980’s, follows four engineers through ten years and makes an entertaining, captivating and flawless tech-drama perfectly relevant also today.
As a TV writer I often get asked to recommend shows when getting into conversations with people. It’s difficult, I get dumb, I mean it all depends on what kind of shows people like. But then there is one show that I have come to always recommend, because I think it suits most people and at least before, not so many were already watching it.
Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark, Kerry Bishé as Donna Clark, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron How and Lee Pace as Joe McMillan in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
The fact that Halt and Catch Fire works for most people is not because it is a smooth and easy watch, but because it is universal and relatable to more or less anyone, as well as a marvellous portrait of people and the times. It takes us back to Texas in the early 1980’s where Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), a former IBM employee and a charismatic entrepreneur, decides to challenge his former employee, enlists Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a hardware designer and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a software genius to help him create a better Personal Computer (PC).
The characters, except for Joe, seems like they are taken from everyday life, but their stories are captivating as well as recognisable. They women runs companies in the computer business and the men try to find themselves and their context. There is a total retro-feeling to it at the same time as the questions asked are them same as we ask ourselves today, in the world of technology as well as in our private life.
When the fourth and final season ended in October, I was immensely happy, sad, enlightened and broken all at once and I wondered if there would be a reason to watch TV ever again, since there never could be anything else like it. Halt and Catch Fire was a show that managed to brilliant from start to end.
The one making the world go round
The first seasons gave much space to Joe who gave the story such a brutal kick-start. Then the creators, Chistopher Cantwell och Christopher C. Rogers, did the smart thing and let the other characters get more prominent, first Gordon and Cameron and later on Gordon’s wife Donna, who just demanded presence and became somewhat of the nave of the story.
Donna puts out fires, also at Gordon’s workplace, because she is smarter than both he and his colleagues are. She’s the one making the world go round.
I know the exact moment I fell in love with Donna Clark, beautifully portrayed by Kerry Bishé and my favourite character of Halt and Catch Fire. It was a scene somewhere in the middle of season 1 when she has an outburst, accusing her husband Gordon of not even knowing the name of their childrens’ doctor.
She just personified so many things I recognise in women also today. She is the project manager of the household and thereby ensures dinners are prepared, children get to bed, presents are acquired and all the other little things need to be done for everything to run smoothly.
She has a job that is not challenging enough for her, while Gordon has a job requiring enormous energy from him. She is being lectured by her boss, sometimes unfairly but always condescending, and can’t help but purr when receiving the appreciation her boss sometimes do find the effort to show her. Donna puts out fires, also at Gordon’s workplace, because she is smarter than both he and his colleagues are. She’s the one making the world go round.
After a very fascinating first season building concluding after a COMDEX computer expo, the second one still managed to be better. The focus swifts when Donna and Cameron take their learnings and confidence and go into business together and takes part in creating the world of online gaming, shopping and community chat rooms. It becomes quite magical as we get to take part in the successes and failures and how to manage a company together, their company, Mutiny.
While also watching Gordon and Joe trying to find new goals and places for themselves, we slowly get to know all these people better and better. What drives and motivates them, what are their strengths and weaknesses and how does that form their lives?
The feeling of doom
The start of season 3 amazed as the production team so skillfully evoked the feeling of doom as Donna and Cameron with Gordon’s help tried to move their company forward in a new city. I thought we would revisit our friends in a more exuberantly energetic and intense state as they had moved from Texas to Silicon Valley at the end of season 2, but the show just went in the opposite direction.
Those words from the old machine code command, Halt and Catch Fire, couldn’t better describe the start of the season.
The gloomy, almost dystopian atmosphere was not only present at work, where the engineers are lazying around, not knowing what to do as you just waited for the roof to have all the pipes and cables crash down on Gordon trying to jumpstart the mainframe computer in the basement. Also at the house of the Clark family worrying signs, big and small, earthquakes and arguments, made their announcements one by one.
Those words from the old machine code command, Halt and Catch Fire, couldn’t better describe the start of the season. Everything seemed to be at a stop, there was no movement forward, not at Mutiny and not at the Clarks. Although in another part of the city, at a large stage, Joe appeared like a saviour in front of the audience – uncannily like other computer visionaries from that time – and intuitively it felt that something was going to catch fire.
The creators continued to handle the womens’ stories so utterly well through season 3, but did not forget about the men. Between Gordon and Joe there seemed to be some kind of destructive attraction, the same that belonged to Joe and Cameron in season 1. Gordon may had sued Joe for steeling his anti-virus code and Joe may had acquired a new disciple, but you could just feel how Gordon wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from getting drawn into Joe’s world again. There was something in Gordon that attracted him to the genius and the innovator that is Joe, even if he was awfully tired of the psychopath within him.
That season ended beautifully with a chamber play of sorts when all the main characters – Joe, Gordon, Donna and Cameron – together with Cameron’s husband Tom, having a brainstorming session trying to understand that thing called world wide web and what it could possibly do in the future.
The world of ideas and innovations
The combination of the personal journey of the character with the technology makes Halt and Catch Fire so unique. This whole story with startups striving for success – the instinct to always look forward, to get further, understanding what people want, coming up with ideas, exert oneself for what seems impossible, unreachable – it’s so satisfying to see that getting room on television.
There are no bad ideas, because also bad ideas can inspire to new ideas and maybe the next one will be that fabulous one.
It’s incredibly exciting to follow the computer revolution in a perspective that make it not only nostalgic viewing, but relevant also today. We are more than ever looking of new services, new technology, to simplify and brighten are lives and at the same time parents will always worry about what their kids are doing. Technology changes, but behaviour stays the same, as someone taught me not so long ago.
The fact that it does take place in the tech-world is just something I enjoy immensely having worked in it myself for 20 years. Donna and Gordon embodies this world so well as I have seen and experienced it – Gordon, the introverted, rational designer, together with Donna, the structured leader, who in the longer run gets to lead change and run the company without there being anything strange about that.
I like character dramas where the obstacles for the characters comes from within themselves and their own personalities and struggles create the drama instead of having external forces steer the action all the time. Cameron and Donna were exposed to sexism for sure when trying to get to the next level with their company, but that didn’t stop them and at the end they found the right collaborators. Their main challenges on their path forward had to do with themselves and their different goals, purposes and motivation.
The role of ideas and innovation got to be prominent in the show. “There are no bad ideas”, is something a friend of mine had learned at a course about innovation, because also bad ideas inspire to new ideas and maybe the next one will be that fabulous one. This thinking is confirmed by Donna (or was it Cameron) about Community: “It was just one idea that purcolated out of one of your ideas.” This is innovation and when you think that all is lost and someone else has won, there will still always be new inventions and more improvements to come up with, even if it might not be evident to you just then.
The reversal of roles
Season 4 touched and captivated me even more than before, yet it was hard to put in words what made what made it do so. We had gotten to know the characters so well by now though, they all had their own story. We’d known them for four seasons and ten fictive years, their journeys became clearer without them having to be explicit about it.
Donna has become Joe, Joe became Gordon and Gordon became Donna, their character journeys made perfect sense, although nobody seemed to be really happy or content.
What startled me was how different things were 10 years later compared to season 1. The roles had shifted around even if their personalities are the same. It used to be Joe that called all the shots and Gordon who desperately tried to deliver whatever Joe demanded. But season 4 starts with Gordon trying to get Joe out of the basement and engaged in the main company, instead of collecting url’s all by himself. Joe still has ideas, Gordon still is the one who do the actual work, but now it’s Gordon who is the chief.
Ten years ago it was Donna who was the caring one who took care of all problems, private and business problems alike. Now this is what Gordon do, taking care of Cameron in her time of need, tending to his daughters’ ups and downs. He is the sympathetic business owner who after a busy week hits the sofa and plays video games. He is the optimist that knows how to adapt to reality, still getting ideas from Donna though on how to develop his company.
Back then Joe was the brutal leader who had a vision. In season 4 it’s Donna that forces her entrepreneurs to sharpen their ideas while Joe is stuck in the basement, just as Cameron and Gordon once was at the beginning. Donna has become the merciless business woman that without blinking disses proposals not visionary enough. She is arrogant and self-centred and manages to get a promotion she gives to an employee to be more about her own excellence than the employee’s. She is still utterly smart though.
Donna had become Joe, Joe became Gordon and Gordon became Donna, their character journeys made perfect sense, although nobody seemed to be really happy or content. The atmosphere the last season was a bit low-key and provided the characters with a bit of reflection and soul-searching. It’s not only the technology that is renewed and improved in the show, it asked the same questions about the people. What drives a person? Can you change and renew yourself, stop remaking the same mistakes? And how do you then do that?
Those questions certainly applied to Joe who’s journey from the genius, but slightly psychopathic innovator, to the softer, more mature man thinking about children and family was not an obvious one. Donna too got prompted to do some personal reflection this season when things just did not go her way.
Cameron, the coding genius, was a bit hard to like in the beginning, I thought, so stubborn and headstrong. It did become easier to feel sympathy when she had a crisis to work through and her stumbling around this season, a few steps forward then a misstep of sorts, was one of the most fascinating stories of the season. The sorrow and fear as well as the willpower beaming out of her was impossible to fend off.
The season that killed
The show just killed me a little bit with each and every episode of the last season. As Rogers and Cantwell knew season 4 was the last one, they could finish off their stories neatly even if they chose to shake us up brutally before that. Because that is what they did and did so well as the pain was described in sentences that were not finished, farewells that could not be brought off and emotions that could not be expressed. I love when shows go introvert and nothing is explicitly expressed, we are not told what to feel and when. We just do it anyway, in our own way.
I will just have to take Donna’s words to heart. There is always something new around the corner to get obsessed to find, or just to get obsessed with.
Yes, Halt and Catch Fire started as a show about Joe and Gordon before it changed its focus to the women and certainly by the end that’s where the focus still was. I wonder if I have seen a better story of a female professional relationship than the one about Donna and Cameron, both female engineers, yet so different. One of the most rewarding scenes in season 4 must have been when Donna tells Cameron that she finished her game, the scene where they truly confess how much they do respect and admire each other: “I made it for people like you. Unfortunately there are not many people like you.”
But that was not it. They have also learned to appreciate their differences and I get goosebumps just thinking about the scene in the old Mutiny-building where they reflect over their past and imagine their future all at the same time.
The last episode could not have been better with that phone call from Donnas daughter that she will live on for a long time. How she and Cameron somehow got back to basics when trying to fix Haley’s computer, yet realising things are different. Donna who of course would not give up on her drive and ambition, but was ready to use it in other ways as well, inspiring other ambitious ladies. And then the so utterly touching scene between her and Cameron pictured above, that I mentioned before, forever preserved in my mind. It is the most beautiful and dignified ending I have ever experienced from a show.
Will this be the end of my TV-viewing life? No, I will just have to take Donna’s words to heart. There is always something new around the corner to get obsessed to find, or just to get obsessed with. She already found herself a new idea to explore.
Read more about Donna here: Halt and Catch Fire: The Journey of Donna Clark