AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire isn’t just a Mad Men Clone.
The US television network AMC had two aces up its sleeve. It was the network known for telling the story of a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook in Breaking Bad, and for its nihilistic exploration of the world of 1960s advertising in the Don Draper led narrative of Mad Men.
But when both shows drew to a close AMC had to rethink its drama lineup. In place of Breaking Bad it released Low Winter Sun, a gritty remake of a Scottish mini series, and Mad Men’s successor came in the form of Halt and Catch Fire, a story of computer programmers in the early ‘80s. Low Winter Sun wasn’t a success, and neither was Halt and Catch Fire, at least at first.
Viewers would be forgiven for dismissing Halt and Catch Fire as a cash in on the Mad Men format. It’s a period drama, with the dark heart of prestige TV that we’ve come to expect, and its nihilism within a burgeoning industry is reminiscent of the early seasons of Mad Men – before Don Draper lost his appetite for advertising.
In fact Draper has a replacement in Halt and Catch Fire, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is a suited, good looking white man, who has charisma and a confident tone. His early story is similar to Don Draper’s, and he has some skeletons in his closet too. It’s generic writing and Joe’s narrative isn’t particularly interesting or compelling.
In the first season Joe arrives at Cardiff Electric, a Texas company with little vision for the future. Joe knows all of the right buzzwords, he has no regard for the well being of the employees, and he rises through the ranks quickly. He builds a team, hand picked, and fills their heads with big ideas of portable computers.
Joe employs a rookie computer programmer called Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a fragile girl who drinks far too much fizzy pop, and stays up late, hunched over a computer eating junk food. She’s the creative force behind his endeavor, and Joe head hunts a quiet Cardiff Electric employee, a man with bad luck in his past called Gordon Clark, to take care of building the machine.
As a team they work well together, but individually they’re flawed and unhappy people. Joe and Cameron have a relationship of sorts, while Gordon leans heavily on his wife Donna (Kerry Bishe). But together they build a computer, one that looks set to revolutionise the tech industry.
Season One’s Familiar Story
Halt and Catch Fire’s first season is immediately recognisable. A tall good looking white man with vision assembles a team of misfits and together they take on some of the biggest names in their business (IBM). They strive to create the best product but sometimes have to bow to external pressures while trying to maintain their integrity and the integrity of what they’re building.
The ’80s setting evokes nostalgia and it plays on our retrospective gaze. Mad Men, and Masters of Sex, and now Halt and Catch Fire provide glimpses of a past world, a place that no longer exists, that has been irrevocably changed. And the first season of Halt and Catch Fire adds little to the mix. It’s often formulaic but at the same time there’s something stronger at its core, there’s a story worth telling, and a world worth exploring.
The first season is good, but as a follow up to Mad Men it isn’t good enough. The second season however is far more interesting. Our hapless team from the first season are scattered, each one in a purgatory of sorts, paying for past mistakes. But the strength of the show is revealed too. It has great characters, strong women who run companies, and it explores the emerging potential of the internet.
Season Two Changes the Narrative
Cameron now heads up Mutiny, an online gaming community, and one that allows users to talk to one another. It’s a technology that will change the world and Cameron and her employees are only just starting to grasp its potential. Cameron is joined by Gordon’s wife Donna and together they lead a bustling and chaotic technology company, in a nascent industry that we know will experience huge growth and success.
Joe’s story is just as interesting. Laid low after the highs of the first season he is a man without direction. He’s engaged to be married, but domestic life doesn’t seem to suit him. As a character he’s defined by action and season two relegates him to a back seat, he has little power and his charisma has little effect on those around him.
Gordon has done well for himself and become quite rich. But he also needs a project and he starts a business from his garage. There are some collaborations between the characters but mostly they don’t work out so well. Now it’s a story of individuals, of people striving for innovation, and finding that the tech industry has great potential for creativity and self expression.
The Competitive Tech Industry
Halt and Catch Fire has come into its own in its second season. The problems it faced, and its inevitable comparisons with Mad Men, have mostly dissipated. What’s emerged is a more focused show that tells the stories of a group of people trying to make their mark in the anarchic world of technology in the ’80s. The future will belong to big monolithic companies, but the present is theirs and their legacy is notable – these are the people that built the foundations of the digital world we take for granted.
Mackenzie Davis is great as Cameron, and she depicts this entrepreneur with care. Her character battles with social anxiety, depression, and self doubt but she’s also strong, and she shapes her own future. Donna Clark is much the same, another independent woman who is making her way in the world on the back of her own efforts.
It’s also worth mentioning Tobby Huss, who plays John Bosworth, an older business executive at Cardiff Electric in season one, and a financial adviser at Mutiny in season two. His performance is restrained, and his perspective on the world is increasingly challenged by emerging technologies, and the lifestyle choices of the youthful coders and programmers he works with daily. John’s character provides us with scope and a sense of lineage. His world is all but gone now but he’s a character open to change, and he embraces the new world, instead of fighting it.
Out of Time in a Changing World
Not so for Gordon and Joe, two men who are looking to carve futures with tools from the past. The new technology driven world is coming and for the male heroes, the good-looking white men like Don Draper and Lee Pace, the future is just as threatening as it is promising.
The ‘80s introduced new forms of communication, new ways to share information, and the potential of the internet was just being realised. Halt and Catch Fire explores not just the change in the technological world, but the change in society too: women like Cameron and Donna replacing men like Gordon and Joe.
Halt and Catch Fire‘s future is uncertain. AMC have yet to confirm a third season. Which is a shame because it’s a TV show with promise but it isn’t judged simply on its own merits, and like the tech world the TV world is quick to kill off anything that doesn’t turn a profit. It’s not about art, it’s all about viewing figures. So tune in and hopefully Halt and Catch Fire will have a long and prosperous future ahead of it.