Get Onboard: Halt and Catch Fire

[Blogged by Jay Yencich]

[Introduction]

“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” – Joe

“Screw the dance. I want to change the music.” – Cameron

Nostalgia has long been something that I’ve had a vexed relationship with. Being that our culture is so reliant upon it for the production of new material, there’s a desire to see what one is familiar with validated as worth remembering. True enough, for many the only access granted comes long after the event, when such stories that were fringe then are allowed a slice of the mainstream now. However, in practice we have all seen the shortcomings, so much navel-gazing, listicles, and self-congratulatory affirmations that your youth was awesome because you had access to some of the things that were available if not ubiquitous. Taken to the logical conclusions, you can easily wind up with scenarios where all anyone wants to see or hear is what already was: popular culture as a hall of mirrors.

While I don’t particularly have a solution or a specific balance that needs to be achieved for the art to endure, I can recognize that storytelling has been implicated in this debate from the get-go. After all, what are the great epics but a blend of mythic-level history and well-executed fan-fiction? Considering that the options available have always been to remember the past, attend to the present moment, make something recognizable up, or any combination thereof, we’ve done all right for ourselves and haven’t yet exhausted our back stores of stuff to talk about or ways of talking about it.

Television, of late, has become the primary medium to participate in our historical circulation and re-circulation. In my own lifetime, without digging too deeply, I can remember such entries as Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, That 70s Show (and its ill-fated 80s successor), Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire and more imaginative and interpretive fare such as Life on Mars and Carnivàle. Yet, every so often one of these captures the cultural zeitgeist in some way and channels it into something that becomes an international phenomenon. If you’ve watched television in the last ten years or so, you can probably guess which one I’m referring to here.

During the heyday of Mad Men, I remember talking with my aunt during a family gathering at one of those reliquary chowderhouses that has survived decades of rapid and disjointed economic transformation in the Seattle area. A child of the 50s and 60s, she had singled out AMC’s acclaimed drama as one of the few worth allotting time for each week. Ever the skeptic, I was politely waiting for her to make her case, as I’m prone to treating just about everything immensely popular with a matching distrust. For her part, it would have been easy to say that the times and circumstances were formative and familiar. Surely, we can expect that same law of attraction to hold within the limited bounds of a generation or a region, but what she said as a secondary point was what I found most compelling.

For her, the draw of the series was that it was reparative. It was more about recognizing the Peggies and the Joans of the era who had struggled and fought against the entrenched Old Boy’s Club to claim a piece of their own. It wasn’t as much about reliving the history as doing something better by it. As the afternoon drew to a close, I remember her staring over the boatyard and the locks, sighing, and saying that while it was always nice to return to Seattle from the Bay Area and to see all of us, the Seattle that she had known and loved was long since gone.

While the appeal of any drama is obviously going to vary from individual to individual (my distance from Mad Men has to do with its advertising bent, which as a non-materialist, I find repugnant), we might be able to use the basic premise here to differentiate between period pieces. There are some that prove inert and self-indulgent and those that might be pursuing a different kind of project in exploring what they do. While it’s beyond our power to alter the course of the past that we all live with or what was influential in the making of it, one way of changing the way history descends to us is to reconceptualize it in ways that might render it more inclusive and instructive even in the present moment.

I’ll admit at the outset that the appeal that Halt and Catch Fire held for me was partially one that had nostalgic roots. I grew up in the 80s, had done a fair amount of time with early computers and nearly became a programmer myself, and I had an affinity for loud and fast music as a teenager, and let’s face it, Mackenzie Davis playing one of the leads is the kind of girl you’d want to sing Dead Milkmen tunes to. A variety of checklist passes had been made to at least get me to scope it out, but what I found in its execution would appear to be a show very much grounded in its temporality while speaking to issues that resonate with our experiences now.


[Reason #1: The Plot Momentum is Essentially Feminist in Nature]

The technological community has long been in a position of needing to explain itself for its lack of gender inclusiveness. At its worst, its led to such malicious nonsense as Gamergate, the misguided reverberations of which sadly persist. Setting the show up in Dallas on the Silicon Prairie, basically Ground Zero for Old Boy’s Clubs, the show risked lapsing into affirming such positions if it didn’t handle itself well at the outset. However, even though there is a cast member who staunchly represents that entrenched ideology, played by the marvelous Toby Huss (whom you may know as Stumpy from Carnivàle or as Artie, “the strongest man… in the world!”), one notices fairly early on that the dudes of the show are rarely portrayed as capable and competent individuals unto themselves.

Proximity via network has led to the facile claim that Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan is merely a derivative of Don Draper, ergo, Halt and Catch Fire is trying to capitalize on some miraculous Mad Men formula. There are compelling similarities between the two one can admit—attire, pigmentation, an affinity for making grandiose speeches that are ultimately hollow—but to do so misses out on very apparent distinctions. For Draper, the skillset was ideal: He worked in advertising and could translate that ability to trying to sell people things by appealing to their emotions.

For Joe, it’s representative of being the 80s guy that’s all about upward mobility and changing how business is done. It can get him in the door and amp people up, but his industry is computers and his position at IBM, attained through family connections. As great his capacity is for making bullshit oratories (they are glorious), as enthusiastic as he is about imagining where computers could take us, as badly as he wants to be “the guy” in the mold of Jobs or whomever else you can think of, Joe has almost nothing in the way of practical skill. He can talk the talk and is familiar with the terminology. His inability to program or engineer much of anything surrenders the production role to the whim of others, whom he usually only temporarily convinces and often alienates. His detractors go so far as to accuse him of being a “tall dark mannequin with delusions of grandeur,” which isn’t inaccurate, as you can usually use his clothing choices as a litmus for where he is personally at any given moment. To deem him a “mannequin” slanders his motivations, and yet it remains somewhat faithful to how he comes across.

Or consider Scoot McNairy’s Gordon Clark, whose first appearance has his wife, Donna, bailing him out of a police drunk tank, whose choice of music—contrasted with Joe’s New Wave and Cameron’s punk—is romanticized working man fare, an early preview of what kind of circumstances he came from and the attendant anxieties. Gordon is the hardware guy and, having helmed a few failed projects, he begins the series at Cardiff Electric as a sales associate, one his few avenues of employment.

Joe can easily and readily appeal to Gordon’s desire to do more challenging work and pursue that dream of what the industry could make possible (Joe does, as early as the pilot), but Gordon is habituated to defeat, easily manipulated, and unable to manage the stressors in his life—as marked by his frequent refrain, “I’m having kind of a day here.” Even if he shares in some aspects of the fantasy and has written, eloquently we are led to believe, on the possibilities of open architecture, he’s out of his element managing people and self-doubt often intercedes and forces him to make less ambitious decisions in the name of security.

So where does that leave us as far as plot momentum being carried forward? Often on the strength of its female characters. Cameron Howe, who takes the role of lead programmer, is among the more fascinating studies in character development I’ve seen on TV in years. In short, it’s as if the workshop dictum of “show, don’t tell” had been carried out to its most logical conclusion. Cameron is averse to exposition and, being independent and anti-authoritarian in nature, most of what she does get in dialogue often takes the form of calling someone out.

How to understand her as a character then? Simple, watch her actions. Watch what she does and how she chooses to represent herself. The Walkman perpetually playing noisy punk rock. The outsized army fatigue pants. The military grade backpack. The bus trip to Dallas. The pierced quarter-on-a-string that she uses for arcade and vending machines. Sleeping in the office and stealing supplies when people are fired. Shoplifting of relatively ordinary baseball jerseys. The elation of the first paycheck, which she promptly spends on food before finding and getting wrangled in with some fellow punks and finding their company wanting as the music is right but she just isn’t into the dance (a delightful doubling: The tattooing of the Black Flag logo seems to remind her of something in a chipset). The fact that she punches when the gender role demands a slap. Her avoidance public gatherings while being fluent with the language of machinery. Cutting out what she cannot easily compromise on. Cameron will almost never tell you outright where she comes from or what she’s all about. Yet, watching her in action and how other characters respond to her code, nonetheless creates a surprisingly rounded and compelling character.

On the other end, we have Gordon’s wife, Donna. One unfortunate feature of the first season is that she has a tendency to come off a bit shrewish in her dealings with Gordon. Having partnered with him (on her parent’s money) in a computing venture that failed to boot on stage, she’s often forced into the role of the angel on his shoulder advising more modest decision making. Yet Donna, it is quickly demonstrated, exceeds Gordon in ideas about engineering and hands-on practice. There are multiple instances where the initial development of the Cardiff computer runs into a snag and Donna is the only one with the know-how to resolve the problem.

The first season shows her managing both home life for the family and working at a job beneath her skill level in quality assurance for Texas Instruments. The second season breaks her out from that initial role in helping Cameron’s new venture of online gaming, a realm that she is able to see the social utility in before anyone else has the vocabulary for it. The two of them manage the equivalent of a frat house of programmers and the show starts to pass Bechdel Tests left and right as their focus is increasingly on just what this proto-internet might be good for and how to manage the finances of their fledgling company.

Though not present in the initial season, Sara Wheeler, played by Aleksa Palladino, serves as a valuable added voice in the second. Catering to Joe’s more idealistic and artistic sensibilities, she nonetheless frequently has to moderate the flippant attitudes he’s habituated to. Pulling him aside during a small dinner party in episode three, she calls him out for reverting to his earlier S1 behavior and diminishing the more modest circumstances he now finds himself in. While Sara’s impact long-term is yet to be determined, her presence as a kindred spirit, brought up amidst wealth and security and rejecting both in favor of more meaningful and human work, serves as a useful foil for Joe’s continued development. In certain events during S2, her absence is made conspicuous by how it contributes to certain lapses of judgment for Joe, as he defaults to more ego- and capital-driven behaviors.


[Reason #2: The Show Features Gender and Sexual Identity Issues]

An added layer of the mystery inherent to Joe MacMillian is that he’s attracted to and has relationships with both sexes. You get something of a hint towards this in the pilot, “I/O,” but the full sense of it doesn’t settle in until a particular incident in episode three, “High Plains Hardware,” where a bawdy pun might certainly be intended. Later, of course, there is follow-through involving the appearance of one of his old flames who might be able to help them in computer design, played by Buffy and 24 alumnus D.B. Woodside, which means that you’re going to get an interracial gay relationship to boot.

This may not seem initially all that important, but the culture at large is still struggling to know just what to do with people who identify as bi, being more comfortable with “one or the other” distinctions when it really falls along a spectrum. To have the lead embodying such issues of identity and playing them out, with support and disbelief from the extended cast, allows Halt and Catch Fire to speak in ways the are still relevant in how we discuss gender and sexuality.

Added to that, one of the programmers who works with Cameron’s group is gay. A major plot point of season two involves him being the victim of a hate crime while attempting to meet up IRL with someone he first encountered in a chat room. The event is moved through a bit too quickly, one of the side effects of having a season compressed to ten episodes, but given that we rarely know who is on the other side of the screen, it too has ramifications in the present moment and the difficulty in comprehending that such individuals are out there and willing to violently act out their prejudices.

The show has already paid a small amount of lip service to the AIDS epidemic, but given who it has among its primary characters, with their sexual identities and occasional drug uses, I’d be pretty astonished if the show completed a planned run without eventually having AIDS as a central plot point within a season. We’re entering the fall of 1985 in series time and while it’s a bit late to talk about the infamous responses by Reagan’s press secretary, we’ll still be reliving that presidency for a while.

Season two also features a visit to a Planned Parenthood facility. Tell me that isn’t still topical.


[Reason #3: The Show is about Dealing with Failure]

Another pitfall inherent to the period drama genre is that there’s only so much history you can make before slipping into “what if” alternate reality scenarios. Adhere too closely to the record, and you might be burned up by the cumulative firepower of tradition and lose what tension you have. [i]Halt and Catch Fire takes the middle course, moving the center of its attention away from Apple vs. IBM and positioning the company as an also-ran in the battle for computer domination, made all the more so by having the first two seasons in Texas instead of Silicon Valley.

History is written by the victors, as we all well know, but the substance of it is mostly failure, both recognizable and those we couldn’t see coming. Joe wants to get in on computers at a time when they haven’t saturated the public, but enthusiasm is waning and the major players have been, to everyone’s estimation, decided (the occasional litany of tech heavyweights provides a charm in what we know and they don’t). The only solution is to do the recognizable thing differently enough to carve out a market.

In doing this, the Cardiff Electric team is at least somewhat successful, but as the company’s namesake would suggest, the question of whether success will be lasting or merely one peculiar incident hovers over the show and its progress. During one of the pivotal moments of season one (and my favorite of the series to date), demands for competitive processing speed require that they belatedly remove one of the machine’s more novel features. This is revealed to be a mistake before the episode is through. Throughout season two, being near enough in history to the 1983 video game crash, everyone can talk about computer gaming as the future while at the same time having the Clark family’s daughters testing out an NES in the other room.

It would be a decent if uninspired allocation of resources if all the drama were of the “I know something you don’t know” variety. Fortunately, it isn’t. Just as some of the individual character writing improves in season two, so too do the plots improve and become more nuanced situations of characters making decisions based off of the information they have. Just as minor coding glitches could lead to large-scale system failures and security flaws, so too do lapses of communication and misinterpreted intentions ever risk spiraling outward into disorder and chaos.

To highlight one of S2’s finer moments, one such debate at Mutiny Games headquarters involves the issue of software copy protection. Cameron is on the side voicing a need for greater security while Tom Rendon, an S2 addition, points out that it was the ability to go through the back-end and fiddle around with the parts that brought him and others to the company in the first place. Elsewhere, they might have felt the barriers to entry impenetrable and not worth investing the time in. Through each debate over simple design processes, the rationales supplied are so plausible that neither side seems to have earned the right to come out decisively on top, rendering the failures or successes of that result more bittersweet than they might be elsewhere. In moments, the fleeting victory of bringing a key piece back into the company fold is tempered by the realization that, in the long view, history might doom the project to failure.

Business being what it is and never without those who make their living by it, there are character-based appeals to the situations and their consequences. While Cameron can claim that what affects her at Mutiny hits harder than for anyone else, for she has no home to return to outside of work, we can see similar premises enacted further along as John Bosworth, the consummate Texan businessman of the first season, spends the second reckoning with how his devotion to making a living for his family has alienated him from them, his contribution to the family having long been mostly financial. Likewise, Donna and Gordon spend season two adjusting to a shift in roles, with Donna busy at Mutiny and Gordon trying to be an entrepreneur and a stay-at-home dad. Time spent apart in separate realms results in certain rifts in their relationship, some presently addressed and others waiting to be.


[Is The Show Perfect?]

Herein lies one of the pitfalls of attempting criticism on anything. Those of us eager enough to try to “sell” people on any series are inherently going to be excited about its successes and more forgiving in assessing its faults. I’ve attempted to be pretty transparent about what brought me to the show initially: Computers, punk rock, a feminist-friendly approach that feels refreshing. I’d prefer to focus on what the show’s doing well, but as has been the attempted case in my Twin Peaks reviews, I can’t totally ignore lapses either, so it behooves me to acknowledge potential criticisms that could come up. An easy one would be to note certain liberties taken with technology and slight anachronisms that would prove irksome to historical purists (S2 ends on one), but in its storytelling, which is of deeper import to me, I can also find slip-ups.

Having touted the inclusiveness of Halt and Catch Fire, I can’t claim it as exemplary on every front, as there are always exclusions and blindspots if you know where to look. The season one cast is predominantly white. There’s no real getting around that. Lev and Yo-Yo, holdovers from S1, have the appearance of being outside cultural norms, but the new coders brought in for S2 that get most of the screentime are as white as the early cast. There’s Arki, who hails from somewhere in the Eastern Bloc, Tom, who is deeply significant to the Mutiny operations and Cameron’s character arc, and Bodie, whose main role is to bring an Animal House vibe to the coding workplace, although he does prove himself to be not entirely one-dimensional. When adding some Asian coders to the mix, the result is often that of comic relief, with them behaving in socially awkward manners and pitching ideas that are transparently flawed. There’s one African-American coder in the group whom I can’t remember uttering a single line.

Likewise, having jumped in to promote the show’s deftness and discretion in dealing with its female protagonists, I’m slightly loath to acknowledge that throughout the first season, Cameron often appears at risk of sliding into manic pixie-dom. While she’s never presented purely as the means to another man’s power fantasy and staunchly, almost to a fault, sticks to her guns in any argument, she often has sex to clear her head when she hits programming roadblocks. The obvious hazard there is deflecting attention from said computer work and back onto the business of the bed. These flings are only supposed to be a means to an end and offer little promise of an enduring romance, but it’s a teetering balance they strike between maintaining her personal autonomy and rendering her presence more symbolic in nature. To those ends, I’ll also give a nod to the fact that some have cried foul, merely because they presume she’s too attractive for this line of work. I can only really shrug and acknowledge that if people get stuck on the whole “cute girl” thing, yeah, that’s a bit of a snag, but the show does the good service of almost never talking about how Cameron looks and instead focuses on how she thinks.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is, as is the case with many American-born series, it just can’t find its groove on season length. Where AMC’s famous zombie drama is a notorious ditherer when adapting from its comic source, with long stretches of nothing punctuated by planned climaxes, Halt and Catch Fire has been running on ten-episode orders for its existing lifespan. It’s enough to maintain momentum and ensure that there’s always something happening, but it’s not long enough to make all of that development feel natural. S1 can be dogged by jargon to such an extent that it loses some of its immediacy. Surely, there’s only so much BIOS coding and hardware development that an audience can conceivably take, but there’s also the matter of there being so little identifiable “action” in how those issues are resolved. S2 remedies this by dropping the emphasis on terminology and pushing more collaborative and active approaches to problem solving, but there are other larger-scale problems that can manifest as a result of the compression.

The first season is structured in such a way that you always have the “goal” in mind of where everyone is trying to get to: Building a computer. As a consequence, the variables of the project can become a little “monster of the week” in orientation and too neat and tidy in their resolution. Whether intended or not, this also prioritizes the plotting of the show, which the writers are merely good at, while distracting from their superior skills in character and dialogue development. To insert a curious admission for one trying to sell you on the show: Halt and Catch Fire didn’t “grab” me until either episode eight, “The 214s,” or episode nine, “Up Helly Aa.” I had enjoyed the previous episodes, if somewhat passively, but it was only as the first finale was on the horizon that it dawned on me that I could be watching potentially “great television.” The show had done itself a disservice by encouraging the viewer to attend to the element, plot, that by nature of its very parameters, it was going to have the greatest difficulty in pulling off.

The limited space and sometimes lengthy in-series time gaps within episodes also kind of glosses over events otherwise highly important to the second season’s development. While they do try to make a point with it, addressing the climate of the times and playing it up for poignancy on the individual character level, you feel as if the denouement might’ve been brought about more naturally. These are risks involved in continuing on with the series: You want Halt and Catch Fire to go to bigger places and do bolder things, but pulling those off in a narrower timeframe is potentially quite challenging.

At its best, Halt and Catch Fire shines the spotlight is on its characters. It sidesteps discussions of “right or wrong” in favor of wading through various grays and having its characters struggle to make decisions that are, from their own vantages, justifiable. While the “bad news” is that the self-containment of early plots can give a false impression that character action is likewise constricted, the “good news” is the show is oddly rewarding to re-watching. I’ve viewed the first season three times and the second season, twice. Each time I’ve embarked on a re-watch (ten sessions of 45 minutes or less hardly feels like a massive investment), I’ve left with a greater appreciation for the kind of character work that’s laid out because the thrill of guessing at the outcome is no longer of interest to me. Instead, I get to see the accumulations built into the development. Episodes that previously grated on me as seeming heavy-handed (“High Plains Hardware,” for one), now stand out as some of the better entries in the season.

Season two ended with a number of significant pieces in the air and, without spoiling much of the events, the move to the Bay Area has the potential to shake up a number of the existing character dynamics, notably because Gordon originally hails from California. While there are tech developments already telegraphed as being important to the S3 thematics, the show would be best served, now that the co-creators have ascended to the showrunner positions, adhering closer to the season two model and not overtly building up to a big finish. If they keep it honed in on having plots only in service of the character (The CT Gold Standard), then the next season should prove to be a good one. The summer scheduling, if nothing else, leaves it capable of standing high among the rest of the offerings. A giant, if you will.


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6 thoughts on “Get Onboard: Halt and Catch Fire”

  1. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 31, 2016.]

    Well done, Jay. This is the kind of boost that will hopefully help people get past the rather tepid early episodes.

    I’m two episodes into the second season, and the show’s really growing on me. As you say, the gender-shifting adds a new level of interest to the story, as well as the characters themselves.

    I’ll probably post more thoughts once I’m all caught up.

    Like

  2. [Note: Jay posted this comment on March 31, 2016.]

    Thanks, Jeremy. Our little back-and-forth in the forum ended up being really helpful to me in figuring out how I needed to structure the final section of the piece. I had been stuck for a while on “excited” after re-watching the second season and had forgotten that my own early response was more lukewarm, which appears to be a fairly widespread phenomenon.

    I do think that it’s a side effect of a flawed plot construction though, as the final few episodes of the first season, freed of the construct of needing to figure out how to build a computer, generate a greater sense of urgency in trying to determine what they should do with the computer. Once it got past that major S1 benchmark (I suppose you could also call it a “Macguffin” although it’s more material than most Macguffins), there were a lot more openings for the story to spread out to where it needed to be.

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  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 31, 2016.]

    Yeah, the show gets a lot more interesting as soon as it moves beyond its initial computer-building premise. Which, in retrospect, makes Joe’s “thing that gets us to the thing” line all the more prescient.

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 31, 2016.]

    Also, props for mentioning Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Truly a memorable role for Toby Huss.

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  5. [Note: Jay posted this comment on April 1, 2016.]

    Artie is definitely a character role to hang one’s career on as a highlight, for the sheer uniqueness of the personality. That said, Bosworth is great and well-used in season two, going from peripheral heavy who was slowly encouraged to believe in the computer business to integral piece in the Mutiny operations and his own character. It didn’t fit with the narrative I was trying to create, but Boz is definitely a S2 highlight.

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