WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Halt and Catch Fire
Between Walking Dead and its spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, AMC currently has a cable ratings juggernaut on its hands. But before the network put all its eggs in the zombie basket, it was committed to developing critical darling successors to shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The would-be fill-in for the latter, Low Winter Sun, got cancelled after a single botched season. But Halt and Catch Fire, a darkly lit drama following Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a tortured genius businessman in the fledgling world of personal computers in 1980s Texas, rebounded from anemic early ratings to earn increasingly improbable renewals for a second and then third season.
And that’s when the show did something pretty remarkable: It got even better. Halt and Catch Fire floundered out of the gate by trying to take the Don Draper model and shift the archetype to a different time period and industry. Then, instead of remaining committed to that vision, the show made the wise choice not to re-form the show to better fit the lead, but to embrace what was working—namely, its two lead female characters. Ambitious coding phenom and entrepreneur Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and computer engineer mother Donna (Kerry Bishé) took center stage with their videogame company, and everything that wasn’t operating on that level moved to the background. It turned the show from a middling one-season curiosity into one of last year’s best summer dramas, and with the upcoming third season handing the showrunner reins to the two original creators, it has a real chance of making good on its initial promise as it moves from the Silicon Prairie to California’s Silicon Valley.
Halt And Catch Fire
Number of Seasons: 2
Time Requirements: With only 10 episodes per season, it’s less than 15 hours of viewing time. That means it’ll only take the weekend to get caught up before the third season debuts Aug. 23.
Where to Get Your Fix: The whole series is available to stream on Netflix, but it’s also available for purchase by episode or season on iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play.
Best Character(s) to Follow: Cameron and Donna. When Cameron is introduced in the pilot, she’s the best computer programmer in her college class, which impresses Joe, but she’s also positioned to orbit him as someone alluring to occasionally lean on. Davis’ performance was too strong for the sidelines, and over the course of the first season she played a bigger role in the development of a personal computer at longtime software sales company Cardiff Electric. When she split off to form her own gaming company, Mutiny, the show didn’t track her progress parallel to Joe and Cardiff’s other lead programmer Gordon (Scoot McNair). But then it burns the Cardiff plot to the ground and follows her. It’s even better when Donna, Gordon’s wife, joins Mutiny because the two women serve as better centerpieces than Joe and Gordon did in the first season. Their personal progress, and failures, made the success of the second season incredibly rewarding, and bodes well for the third season, which promises to show them as leaders.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
With only 20 episodes, there really aren’t too many skippable ones. But if you must, cherry-picking the best of the first season we’ve selected below before moving on to the entirety of Season 2 is an acceptable time-saver. However, here are the two low-point episodes of the series.
Season 1: Episode 3, “High Plains Hardware” Joe is the son of a prominent IBM executive who flamed out spectacularly, and he basically comes to Dallas in order to corner Cardiff into creating a PC division for him to commandeer. It’s a terrible foundation that the first season works very hard to overcome, but before it digs itself out, things get worse. With Nathan Cardiff and senior vice president John Bosworth (Toby Huss) trying to wrest financial control of the company away from Joe following his self-destructive decisions, they attend a dinner party with an heiress and potential investor. Joe, in his infinite selfishness, seduces the heiress’ boyfriend and blows up the deal. Joe’s bisexuality is supposed to be subversive and a clear departure from Don Draper, but instead it comes off as antagonistic, self-serving manipulation with no charm to dull the bite.
Season 2: Episode 6, “10Braod36” It’s a toss-up over whether Joe or Gordon is the least interesting of the five lead characters. But in a subplot of the second season Gordon discovers that he has toxic encephalopathy, a brain disorder caused by working with lead in computer parts. To cope with this trauma, he takes his kids on vacation to see his estranged brother Henry (Kevin Rankin). But during the trip, Gordon meets up with his brother’s ex-girlfriend, and has a protracted affair that never rings true. It’s a shame, because the rest of the episode, particularly how Cameron and Donna deal with a positive pregnancy test, is some of the best writing in the second season.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “I/O” Establishing Joe as a renegade idealist—Steve Jobs in Don Draper’s body—takes barely 10 minutes in the pilot. But making Gordon into a formerly idealistic programmer who theorized a spectacular personal computer with his wife before settling for a middling sales engineer job is much more impressive. There is one transcendent sequence of the pilot, though: Joe and Gordon reverse engineering the proprietary code for an IBM computer over a single long weekend. The scene is great, but it’s also quite tedious—and the perfect bit to illustrate the kind of work the show had to do in order to turn things around by the start of Season 2.
Season 1: Episode 4, “Close to the Metal” If you’re a former Nickelodeon junkie and John Bosworth (Toby Huss) looks vaguely familiar, that’s because he played Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, on The Adventures of Pete and Pete. He’s the only person smart enough and strong-willed enough to contend with Joe at Cardiff, and he makes it known by the end of this episode. It’s strongly suggested that Bosworth is a dinosaur in a rapidly-changing industry, but he hangs on with everything he has. This is also the first episode where Donna, an engineer at Texas Instruments, starts to moonlight at Cardiff on the personal computer project, salvaging Cameron’s lost code. It’s the first time the two of them work together, and though they don’t initially get along, there are creative sparks, sowing seeds for the change of direction later in the show.
Season 1: Episode 5, “Adventure” Named for the influential text-based computer game, and directed by Ed Bianchi (Deadwood), the midpoint of the season shows how Cameron can be an effective manager. She uses Adventure to figure out which software engineers Joe hired are the most efficient, which both impresses Joe and shows just how poorly he’s managing his project. It’s also one of the best examples of how Gordon can’t luck into good fortune without immediately squandering it away, as he deals with his father-in-law in an attempt to secure a good deal on LCD screens.
Season 1: Episode 9, “Up Helly Aa” Even more than the finale, the penultimate episode of the first season brings the first chapter of Halt and Catch Fire to its narrative apex. At the Computer Dealers’ Exhibition in Las Vegas, the Cardiff team prepares to present its Giant model to the market after a frenetic development schedule. But Donna’s former boss at Texas Instruments introduces a knockoff version the day before Cardiff, sending the team into a frenzy, and causing Gordon to remove Cameron’s innovative operating system. Joe goes along with that decision, causing the split that leads to her gaming company Mutiny. But the real lingering sequence is when Joe gets a glimpse at the Apple Macintosh in a hotel room demonstration. All of the strum und drang over the Giant seems completely insignificant in the face of the true PC competitor. The first season is based in part on the industry trajectory of Compaq as well as Tracy Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine, but this is where those comparisons end, leaving open the possibility to pursue a more original narrative thread with Cameron and Donna at the forefront.
Season 2: Episode 1, “SETI” There’s a strong sense at the beginning of the second season that Halt and Catch Fire wanted a hard reboot. Joe has left Dallas for Austin, is in a seemingly stable relationship with Sara (Aleksa Palladino), a freelance journalist, and has little to do with Mutiny, which has blossomed into a fledgling success. But while Cameron has the creative vision to keep her employees designing games and to keep them up and running online, it’s only through Donna’s financial acumen that the place is able to stay afloat. Instead of the PC market, the show acts like the startups it wants to portray, and pivots to an industry where its characters can have the largest impact.
Season 2: Episode 3, “The Way In” The season-long conflict swirls around whether Cameron and Joe can ever work together again, even in a friendly professional capacity. But the early episodes also concern what Gordon will do with his life now that he no longer has the financial success of the Cardiff Giant. Gordon weasels his way into Donna’s company, but instead of helping like he did in the previous season, he almost destroys Mutiny altogether. This episode sketches out how Joe, while working for Sara’s oil magnate father, will encounter a way to get back into the tech world, intersecting with Mutiny. They’re on a collision course.
Season 2: Episode 4, “Play with Friends” One of the most intriguing conflicts of the entire series is how Cameron champions online gaming, while Donna continues to campaign for her chat room functions within Mutiny. They’re both right—either one develops into a multi-billion dollar industry in the next 20 years. But they’re both too early, and therein lies the drama. So as Cameron and her new employee-slash-boyfriend Tom (Mark O’Brien) hit upon the idea for an online multiplayer first-person shooter, the most profitable game genre of today, it contrasts with the early development of anonymous online communication.
Season 2: Episode 9, “Kali” The only sequence in Season 2 that lives up to the idea of placing Joe somewhere between Steve Jobs and Don Draper is the one in this episode, as he delivers a keynote speech to Westgroup investors. But it gets hacked by Cameron, who has uploaded Gordon’s malicious improper code in order to delete everything that belongs to Mutiny after a hostile and backstabbing acquisition. This is an episode where every conflict throughout the season finally bubbles over into a boil, and the fallout is a pleasure to watch. Joe finally loses the possibly comfortable life he never wanted all along, Cameron gets one over on the big corporate overlords, and the Gordon illness subplot finally gets some resolution.
Season 2: Episode 10, “Heaven Is a Place” Donna and Gordon decide to start over together, Mutiny is moving to California, and Joe somehow scuttles his way to the Bay Area as well, with a prescient idea to focus on digital security. The first season always felt too stuck in the past even as it was depicting characters who were supposed to be the vanguard of personal computing. But by following Donna and Cameron, Halt and Catch Fire shifted to focusing on games and communication, and how those initial digital representations of both had giant implications for those around the tech world. It would’ve been fine to leave things there, but thank goodness AMC made the right decision to see what these people do together in California.
Why You Should Binge:
Silicon Valley is often a very good show, but after three seasons, it has largely remained stagnant. Halt and Catch Fire, by contrast, has taken ambitious steps to entirely shake up the show, first by maneuvering Cameron and Donna to the center as dual protagonists, and then taking a big risk by moving most of the action from Texas to California for the upcoming third season. That ambition, the fearlessness with which the show eschews cynicism to portray characters—specifically two young women—who plainly state career goals and dreams for affecting an entire industry on the cusp of popular explosion, becomes more rewarding when viewed in quick succession. The show banked on Bishé and Davis to deliver earnest, frustrated characters in a way that didn’t feel like retreads the way pushing Pace’s character did early in the first season, and they pulled it off.
Best Scene—The Long Take:
There are several great moments throughout the series—Joe discovering the Apple Macintosh at the end of the first season, characters boarding an airplane at the end of the second season—but the one sequence that encapsulated the positive momentum of the series comes during the second season premiere. It’s a long take through the headquarters of Mutiny, Cameron’s new game design studio. It’s a bit of an expansion on the garage startup mythos, with a bunch of nerdy coders working on games overseen by Cameron, with Donna as the second-in-command dealing with logistical problems. It’s bit of a frat house mentality—with crude jokes aplenty and a gross fridge. But it conveys the energy shift of Season 2, jettisoning the sanitized office building for a dingy home, which is more aligned with the ethos of a struggling company teetering on something great.
Don Draper clones are done, and television networks should stop trying to replicate that initial critical success. Much better to focus on spotlighting professional and personal relationships rarely seen on the air, such as two pioneering women in the technology field constantly beset by a huckster who continues to follow them and ineptly harm their business.
If You Liked Halt and Catch Fire You’ll Love: The aforementioned Silicon Valley, but also Pushing Daisies for more of Lee Pace, and Mr. Robot for a more intricately technical computer drama.