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What Halt and Catch Fire understands about men and women that few other shows do

Cameron (Mackenzie Davis, left) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) have been at the center of Halt and Catch Fire's superior second season.
Cameron (Mackenzie Davis, left) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) have been at the center of Halt and Catch Fire's superior second season.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the middle of "Working for the Clampdown," the seventh episode of AMC's 1980s tech drama Halt and Catch Fire's stellar second season, wunderkind programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) is told she makes too many of her decisions for her fledgling online gaming company, Mutiny, based on her emotions. She's not seeing clearly, nor logically enough, and she's ignoring the greater good of her employees, based on a personal vendetta against ex-boyfriend Joe (Lee Pace), who wants to acquire Mutiny.

What no one in the show seems to acknowledge is that Joe's desire to purchase Mutiny is just as driven by emotion. Sure, he can make an economic argument about the growth of the online sector. Yeah, he can back up some of his points with data. But what's ultimately at the bottom of his desire — what he barely wants to acknowledge to himself — is a desire to be back with Cameron, even if not romantically. And if she won't come to that arrangement willingly, then he'll just have to purchase her company — and her with it.

This is what Halt and Catch Fire understands better than few other shows on TV — and what has made season two so very good. Yes, on a surface level, the show is about the slow rise of women in leadership positions in the workplace. But it's also about how our perceptions often change based on the gender of the person we're dealing with. Every decision anybody makes is driven, on some level, by emotion. But when the person making that decision is a woman in the workplace, on Halt and Catch Fire, as in life, it's all too easy to write off that decision for being "emotional."

How the characters' journeys mirror the real tech industry

Halt and Catch Fire

Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) has struggled with people writing off her decisions throughout the season as "too emotional." (AMC)

When I interviewed them for an upcoming feature, the show's creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, said that at least some of this was very intentional.

In fact, they found they had often placed Cameron and her friend and co-worker Donna (Kerry Bishé) into situations very similar to ones Joe and his partner (and Donna's husband) Gordon (Scoot McNairy) when they were attempting to build an industry-changing computer in season one. And in so doing, they were interested to see how the other characters — and audience — reacted to two women being at the center of a story like this, instead of two men.

Halt's second season has gotten lots of praise for the way it's placed Cameron and Donna and their often contentious, fiercely loyal partnership in the spotlight. And that's worthwhile in and of itself. So few cable dramas of Halt's quality level have room for the emotional lives and desires of women, but Halt subtly retooled itself to place those two characters — instead of Joe and Gordon, who were season one's focus — at its center.

But the entire season saw both women wrestling with and considering their own emotions — and figuring out how to trust or ignore them — in the course of making decisions.

Cameron started the season wanting Mutiny to be a pseudo-socialist collective, where nobody was anybody's boss, and ended it making broad, sweeping declarations in which she really only took the advice of a couple of trusted colleagues, because she decided to trust her gut, instead of what everybody else was telling her. Similarly, Donna ultimately decided to abort an unborn child she simply couldn't see as a part of her life. It was a decision both emotional (clear from her distress over her pregnancy) and logical (clear from how well-reasoned her arguments for doing so were).

But both Cameron and Donna are written off at various times by the show's men as being too emotional or unreasonable, and Mutiny doesn't really start to take off until they bring in John Bosworth (Toby Huss), a former colleague, as someone else to sit in the room with them in meetings and seem appropriately male. Both are implicit commentaries on how hard it can still be for women to rise in male-dominated industries — like the tech business.

In our interview, Cantwell and Rogers said they'd also hoped to depict how in the mid-'80s, the computing industry slowly began to push women out. Cameron and Donna they described as "unicorns" — unusual figures for their time — but in the reactions the two women receive, the writers make clear the trends that led to the current tech industry's gender disparities.

The show is very smart about men's emotions, too

Halt and Catch Fire

Lost in a parking garage, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) reaches his nadir. (AMC)

What's even more interesting about Halt and Catch Fire's attitudes toward gender is how it plays the flip side of these moments, too. In season two, both of the show's leading men end up struggling because they can't express their own emotions and get stuck in bad patterns.

Joe has always been someone who seems like a shark, in some ways, coolly gliding beyond the emotional wreckage he leaves behind. But he's terrible at realizing how this wreckage impacts his own emotions, or the state it leaves his soul in. By all rights, Joe should have left Gordon, Cameron, and Donna far behind him after season one, but he keeps getting drawn back to them, intractably. The three are the closest he's ever come to actual human connection that we know of — but he seems incapable of admitting this to himself, which causes him to betray them over and over again.

Gordon is even worse off in season two. Through an escalating series of reveals, the show depicts the way his erratic behavior — which leads to him cheating on his wife and getting lost in a parking garage overnight — at first seems to be driven by drug usage, then by brain damage, and finally by a mental illness he's struggled with his entire life. But he clamps down these thoughts and emotions, not even talking to Donna about them, until they come bursting out at inopportune moments.

Both Joe and Gordon treat their emotions as weird mysteries they dare not explore, but it's not as if this makes their emotions cease to exist. The bad decisions the two make throughout season two aren't because they somehow became irrational or illogical. No, both have very good reasons for doing what they do in almost every instance. Instead, the show argues that by not incorporating their emotions into their decision-making, Joe and Gordon are unable to operate as effectively as Donna and Cameron can.

There's no such thing as "pure reason," Halt and Catch Fire argues. There's simply the level to which you pretend you can hide your emotions from yourself. All four main characters on the show are as equally driven by love and hate and resentment and fear as they are the knowledge and raw talent they possess. But it's the characters who acknowledge the former can be just as useful as the latter in making decisions who go furthest — while everybody else is left trailing in their wake.

Halt and Catch Fire ends its second season on AMC August 2 at 10 pm Eastern. The first season is available on Netflix, while previous episodes of the second season are available on AMC's website and for digital download.

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