Why 'Halt and Catch Fire' Was the Best TV Show of the Decade
There's one scene that fans of Halt and Catch Fire will invariably point to as being the series' high point. It's not that AMC's shamefully underappreciated drama, which ran for four seasons from 2014–2017 and centered around four lonely souls creating tech at the dawn of the industry, didn't have many other great moments, but this is the one that would have become iconic if more people had watched the show.
The moment happens in the penultimate episode of the third season, just after a time jump that propels the characters from 1986 to 1990. Cameron, the brilliant coder played by Mackenzie Davis, has returned to the U.S. She's now a cult hero for having designed a video game called Space Bike, featuring a punk heroine. She goes to Comdex, a trade show, and runs into Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan, the ideas man who first identified her genius. The former lovers spend the day reconnecting, and end up at an Atari party. As the Pixies "Velouria" plays, Joe and Cameron drunkenly dance, limbs flailing, the space between them closing.
"There's this kind of wicked magic between Joe and Cameron," says Pace when I call him to reminisce. "They're not necessarily good for each other, but they're irresistible to each other. It's like what Joe says at the beginning of the show -- it's not about the machine. That's not 'the thing.' It's about people and connection."
Halt and Catch Fire was not the most viral show of the decade. It was generously praised by critics, but it wasn't the most consistently acclaimed either, and it was largely ignored during awards season, so loving it felt like being part of a small but passionate club. But perhaps more than any other show that began during this decade, Halt and Catch Fire captured the agony of trying to navigate a world where it's easier and easier to hide behind a computer screen. In documenting the beginning of the boom that brought us to where we are, creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers created characters who reflected universal anxieties through their longing.
I, admittedly, came to Halt and Catch Fire late. I had watched the pilot when it first premiered, but found myself a little exhausted by the anti-hero narrative it seemed to be selling around Joe, a rich, self-sure man rebelling against IBM by recruiting a team to reverse engineer one of their computers. When AMC picked up Halt it was still the network of the Great and Troubled Man, having just closed the book on Breaking Bad and with a year left to go in Mad Men. In the initial episodes, Joe drives the narrative: He recruits the punk Cam and beleaguered father and engineer Gordon (Scoot McNairy) to join his team at Cardiff Electric and build a personal computing device. Donna, Gordon's wife played by Kerry Bishé, hovers in the background, despite the fact that she herself is an accomplished employee of Texas Instruments. Cantwell and Rogers were newcomers to the industry, and they drew from stories of Cantwell's own childhood in Texas with a father who worked in tech to craft their pitch.
"We had very few models to look towards in terms of prestige television," Cantwell says. "And so I think owning to the fact that we were young, that we were new writers, we told a very sincere story in our opinion, but one that was structured in a way that seemed to be the way TV we supposed to be structured. There was a sea change during the premiere of the show, even in season one, where all of these articles started coming out about wanting to move away from the anti-hero story on television."
And then Halt and Catch Fire did a remarkable thing. It evolved. Rather than doubling down Joe's arc, the writers made him part of the ensemble. His cockiness was not a strategy for success, it was a ticking time bomb. Meanwhile, it became clear that Donna was much more crucial than she might have originally seemed. By the fourth episode, "Close to the Metal," it all starts to click into place. When Cameron appears to fry all of her code Gordon calls Donna in to solve the problem. (Turns out Joe did it on purpose to impress a magazine reporter's benefit.) Cameron and Donna are immediately at odds. Cameron is a soda-swigging young woman who acts like a child and has little respect for authority; Donna is a mom with no time for that bullshit.
It's wrong to argue that the first season isn't as essential as the rest, though it has that reputation. But when the show shifted focus in the second, Donna and Cameron's ultimately uncomfortable collaboration added the friction that elevated it from good to great. Bishé came into the series not wanting to play the "wet blanket wife," and saw Donna progress from a weary caretaker to entrepreneur to VC boss. "It was so much about process and not results in a way that I think is so meaningful to me," Bishé says of her time on the show. "The allegory for making a computer product and making a piece of art was always very vivid for me and probably everybody else on the show too. It felt like these people were deeply, passionately pursuing their creative goals and it was always about the pursuing of them. I think because of that I'm much more willing to give them some latitude and say it was a process."
By season two, Donna and Cameron were running Mutiny, a gaming platform that Donna also identified as an early social network. By season three, which moves the action to San Francisco, that sputters as Donna pushes them to monetize. By season four, they are estranged -- their conflicting versions of ambition having become untenable -- but Donna sits in her gorgeous house quietly playing Cameron's virtually unbeatable game, Pilgrim, nearing some understanding of her former friend and colleague. It's not until the finale that audiences truly see them reconcile, standing in the empty space that used to be Mutiny and dreaming up the shell of a new idea, Phoenix.
"One of the things that I love about Halt and Catch Fire was I felt like they never made a point of saying 'this was a show about women,' they just made a show about women and never applauded themselves for doing so," Davis explains when I spoke to her about her role in Terminator: Dark Fate. As Davis is notes later on in our interview, Halt and Catch Fire didn't leave Joe and Gordon behind. Their narratives were equally rich. Joe, the consummate dreamer whose queerness was an organic part of his persona, comes to realize the limits of his charisma; Gordon's own insecurities as a husband and father run up against the traumatic brain disease from which he quietly suffers. But in giving us Donna and Cameron, Halt and Catch Fire mirrored the transition TV itself was enduring during the decade, reexamining who should be at the center of quote-unquote important stories.
When I finally made it to Halt, I myself was in a period of transition and frustration with regards to work, and found myself drawn to these stories of wildly ambitious people. Halt and Catch Fire exists in a world with Apple and Microsoft and IBM, but its characters are on the sidelines watching as other people manage to manifest or market their big ideas first.
As I watched, I felt like I let in on a secret guarded by a fervent cadre of fans, and that fervency was reflected in how the actors approached the material as well. Rogers recalls how the actors would come to him with suggestions for their characters. Davis, for instance, wanted Cameron to have a fish. Toby Huss, who plays the fatherly businessman John Bosworth, was like an advisor to McNairy. From the second episode onward, the principal actors would gather the Sunday night before each episode and do a table read as if they were working on a play.
The performers would come in having done research about the tech and how to pronounce certain terms, Bishé says. They were fiercely defensive of their characters. "I felt very close to Joe. I really, really did," Pace says. "The rest of the cast would always make fun of me because I was always defending him. Even when he was doing really selfish things. I was like, but he's got everyone's best interest at heart, he's got the project's best interests at heart, trust him, trust him, and they would be like, yes, but he's acting like an ass." McNairy had a similar connection with Gordon, admitting that they were all so close with these people that they often refused to see their flaws.
For his part, McNairy just wanted Gordon to succeed, a tall-order in a show that spends such a significant amount of time exploring failure. "I didn't really get that until season three that that's the whole point of the show," McNairy says. "These people don't succeed. They are right on the cusp of succeeding all the time. And they have little bitty wins, but at the end they don't. That's just life."
Stories about the making of Halt and Catch Fire feel like a metaphor for the show itself: Tales of scrappy people with good ideas operating in the shadow of more cynical giants.
When you ponder TV that told the story of tech in the 2010s, your first thought is probably Silicon Valley, HBO's bro-centric comedy that aimed to capture the ludicrous nature of the start-up boom. But that show framed its creators as amusing, but untouchable, distant nerds too often swept up in the greed and pettiness of the culture.
Halt and Catch Fire's characters were often arrogant and wrongheaded, but they are also dreamers consumed with the ideas of how technology can enhance the world through artistry or innovation. Through this pursuit they found each other but their passion often augmented their loneliness. "What always struck me was that naive positivity about the future, about how these things are created," Davis says."We create these inert spaces that we imbue with only the best intentions and assume that's an essentially part of their DNA, but it's not, they are vacuums to pour in all of human experiences and resentments and bias and everything shitty and everything great about humanity and sometimes the shitty parts are louder. I think living through our current era of the internet and making show its origin point was so sad and illuminating and really made you understand where this thing came from but how foolish we are all the time."
The contradictions that Davis alludes to are at the heart of Halt and Catch Fire. It's often a heartbreakingly sad show, but one that fundamentally believes in humans' essential need for one another. What computers can yield is often ugly and isolating, but can be beautiful, mysterious, and euphoric. At the simplest level Halt seemed to traverse distinct points in our cultural relationship with tech. As Rogers explains, it was written before Steve Jobs died and purchased afterwards. It began in 2014, the Obama era, when there could still be an optimistic vision of the Internet as a place for community. Cantwell and Rogers took a retreat to Joshua Tree to brainstorm season four the day after Donald Trump was elected, a moment that felt like definitive proof the evil, vitriolic Internet had won. "I think this discomfort with [tech] and this trying to find a role for it in our lives and the question, and I think it's been asked a lot, of whether technology is connecting us or driving us farther apart ended up becoming central to the show in tandem with this thing of the people who create things make themselves into the things they create," Rogers says.
Halt and Catch Fire was never imprecise about what Cameron, Donna, Joe, and Gordon were building, but the jargon was ancillary. It found beautiful moments in Cameron and Joe sharing a day-long phone call and Gordon getting lost in a parking garage. These scenes are the reasons it's the series that most consistently makes me cry. "I think ultimately the show had a reveal of being about human connection and the importance of that direct connection, literally the touching of hands or the making of eye contact, as opposed to through a wire or over a wireless signal," Cantwell explains.
At the end of season three, the four principal characters all gather in a room to hash out what's next. It's the dawn of the World Wide Web, and they are dancing around the notion of a browser. Cameron and Joe find themselves at odds. "I'm so sick of hearing about the future," Cameron says. "What is that? The future is just another crappy version of the present. It's some bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want." Joe counters: "This future can be different." Halt and Catch Fire believes both can be true, and that's what makes it exquisite.
Writer: Esther Zuckerman
Graphic Designer: Megan Chong