This review covers the first season of “Halt and Catch Fire”. My thoughts on the second season are in this post.
Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.
– Joe McMillan
Halt and Catch Fire is, at the surface, a concoction of what’s been playing on the TV landscape. It contains the period nostalgia of the 1980s (The Americans), the exploration of the computer industry (Silicon Valley) triggered by a mysterious handsome protagonist (Mad Men) whose arrival strains existing relationships between characters to breaking point (Manhattan).
Lee Pace plays the Don Draper role of Joseph MacMillan, a salesman formerly of IBM who barrels into the offices of Cardiff Electric and badgers systems engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to create a revolutionary new portable computer. He reminds Gordon of an inspired article Gordon had written in a computer journal – how can Gordon give up his dreams of greatness and innovation to be a middling engineer in a dead-end company?
Joe gives genius prodigy hacker Cameron Howe (MacKenzie Davis) the same pitch, inviting her to be part of computing history by writing the BIOS code for Joe and Gordon’s new computer. He convinces Gordon to reverse-engineer an existing IBM computer. And so the merry band is formed – Joe the visionary, Gordon the hardware builder and Cameron the software coder.
An average Joe
Then we get to the second episode, and things start to go weird fast.
The chief reason for that is the character of Joe MacMillan, who is suave, persuasive but a cipher of a person. He swings between personalities like a metronome, being manipulative, vulnerable and cocky across scenes. I have no issue with that in itself – there have been TV characters who have pulled off a cocktail of traits (Walter White and Tony Soprano comes to mind) – but when it muddles with the motivations of the character, he ceases to be a person rather than a plot trigger.
Throughout the first season, Joe’s motivations are spotty. He is pragmatic yet idealistic, ruthless yet kind. He strongarms the Cardiff Electric management to creating a new department to house his computer project, acts with petulance towards his father (an IBM executive), has a great time playing with Gordon’s children, hooks up with Cameron, seems to be in love with her and then we find out that he has had at least two male lovers. It all gets convoluted beyond belief, and more importantly, it does not seem to lead anywhere at all.
The other characters step up
The show gets far stronger when Gordon or Cameron are on screen. Gordon struggles with the pressure of balancing a family life with his dreams of innovation. His wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) knows his dilemma well and does her best to support the family, but their relationship creaks as Gordon is weighed down with the pressure of delivering the computer on time. Donna is a systems engineer too (at Texas Instruments), and has to step in to help when Gordon breaks down.
Meanwhile, Cameron is a free-spirited college dropout who believes in creating a truly revolutionary product that she can be proud of. This philosophy creates a massive conflict between Gordon and her when she proposes a Siri-like interactive interface for the computer that Gordon objects to because the hardware requirements would be impractical. As the team prepares to launch their product at a computer exhibition, they must decide if to stick with their revolutionary interface or remove it. Does the world need a faster, more reliable but boring computer or a computer that does new, previously unimaginable things?
Of course, this dilemma has played out in the computer industry in the past 30 years. And it is through our knowledge of what has happened that makes Halt and Catch Fire work so well when it explores these different ideologies, and a greater dilemma for all creative projects – where do we compromise on perfection for adequacy, and is achieving perfection worth the immense sacrifice?
Perfection, and innovation
The second half of the season explores this theme, and the show is stronger for it. Furthermore, we learn that IBM has joined in the race to develop a computer similar to what Joe and company are building. The legacy of our heroes are trying to achieve becomes even murkier, and it comes down to the deeper problem of what innovation is. Is it the idea behind a new product, an idea that is only innovative until another competitor copies it? Or is it the fact that the product is first of its kind on the market? What difference is there, then, between that product and a similar product a competitor is developing but couldn’t release in time?
It is this complexity that gives Halt and Catch Fire its flashes of brilliance. There is a good show hidden under the weird Don Draper-Walter White persona that goes by the name of Joe MacMillan. Computers aren’t the thing, and they lead us to the other thing – Halt and Catch Fire just needs to bring that thing to its fore.