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Review: Halt and Catch Fire Works the Bugs Out in Version 2.0

6 minute read

At the beginning of Halt and Catch Fire season 2, Cardiff Electric–the fictional 1980s Texas computer firm whose travails we followed for most of the first season–is up for sale. The larger company that plans to take it over doesn’t want it intact; it wants to strip Cardiff down for its most valuable parts.

This very much feels like what the promising opening to season 2 (returning May 31 on AMC) is doing: deconstructing last year’s model, which was a kludgy assembly comprising some terrific pieces that needed to be broken down, separated from the duds and reassembled. And what it’s putting together looks like a more powerful machine.

The first season, set in 1983, centered on the attempt by mystery man Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace) to remake stodgy Cardiff by plunging its resources into the Giant, a clone of the IBM PC. It was a sketchy premise to begin with: even assuming an audience interested in the beige-box computing era, the quest to create a slightly better, cheaper knockoff did not exactly make a thrilling underdog story. The bigger problem was that Halt, the Joe storyline in particular, itself felt like a clone–a Don Draper-esque antihero-with-a-secret soldered and duct-taped onto the assembly because that’s what the cable-drama consumer base expects.

But if you stuck with Halt, as I did, it revealed some terrific character work. And the underwhelming Giant storyline turned out to be, like a cleverly crafted software virus, a Trojan Horse.*

*I’m just going to run with the computer metaphors here. I apologize for being a hack.**
**OK, “Hack” is, itself, a computer metaphor. I apologize for nothing!

At heart, Halt was about creative passion, what it takes, and what it costs. It introduced Gordon (Scoot McNairy), a brilliant and bitter Cardiff engineer who once, with his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), built the Symphonic, an early computer so far ahead of its time that it utterly bombed in the marketplace. As the Giant project unfolded, their marriage–two nerd-spouse-lover-parents balancing the need to pay the bills with the urge to make something better–became one of the most fascinating and equal partnerships on TV.

Meanwhile, Joe took on a foil in young programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a spiky-haired electrical charge of geek intensity who looked like the future and, as it turned out, was. Hired to write the Giant’s operating system, her real insight came in her first scene, as she anticipated that the big change in a decade would be computers networked over phone lines. (This played off what remains the series’ most famous line, Joe’s declaration that “computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”)

The Giant wasn’t that worthy a project. Joe, despite Pace’s magnetism, wasn’t that compelling a focus. (As Donna says of Joe early in the news season, “My interest in tall dark mannequins with delusions of grandeur has faded out.”) But everything around them was fascinating. Cameron, the seeming punk nihilist, was really an idealist who saw computing as art–the machines could have personality, could inspire emotion, could be a place to play. Donna, far from the practical-minded wet blanket she appeared in the first early episodes, was a trained musician who could hear the song in code. By the end of a season of office intrigue, the Giant was nothing more than a quick cash-in, but Cameron and Donna had launched a company, Mutiny, based on a crazy idea: that people would want to play games, online, by making their computers talk to other people’s computers!

The thing had gotten us to the thing. And whether by accident or design, Halt and Catch Fire has remade and refocused itself in its second season–essentially pulled the plug and restarted. It has, for all practical purposes, two new stars. Although Joe and Gordon are still prominent, Cameron and Donna’s dynamic drives the show: Cameron teems with ideas but can’t manage a staff, Donna resists again being made the Mom who has to tell everyone to clean up their mess. And both of them are in the more-interesting situation of seeking investors willing to put money into a company run by women. (“Are you committed long term?” one asks them. “Even over, you know, biological imperatives?”)

Above all, Halt’s software has been upgraded: it now has a compelling subject, the emergence, through modem clicks and whistles, of the wired Internet era we live in. Like many a good period piece, it’s really our own origin story. (It also, not for nothing, rivals The Americans for the curation of its 1980s soundtrack, featuring deep cuts this season from Hüsker Dü and Icicle Works.)

I don’t know if Halt will be more commercially successful this time out; it’s still a tall order to bring in a big audience for a drama about the excitement of work, with no violence or magic to up the action. (It shouldn’t be that way–the thrill of executing a project should be at least as relatable as, say, the thrill of cooking meth–but it is.)

But true to Moore’s Law, it has become magnitudes better. It has both energy and subtlety, and–a bit like a dramatic version of HBO’s Silicon Valley–it manages to convey the sense of digital creation as a kind of drug rush. There’s a great scene, for instance, in which Mutiny gets hacked, and yet the programmers can’t help but be impressed by the chops of whoever targeted them.

One thing the new season does have in its favor: it is so thoroughly a new thing that if you–or a friend, or preferably several–didn’t see the first season, you could quite easily jump in and start here. If you will permit me one last, hacky tech analogy, what’s true of smartwatches and iPhones is true of Halt and Catch Fire. Sometimes it’s better to let the early adopters work through the bugs, and wait for the improved second version.

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