When you’re a TV critic, one of the hazards of the job is that a show you adore might be one nobody else has heard of. If I go to a dinner party and people inevitably ask what’s worth watching, I’ll probably get one or two shows deep before somebody says, “Oh, what’s that about?” and I have to try to find a way to distill some show I love into a sentence or two.
So it’s always been with Halt and Catch Fire, an AMC drama I came to love in its second season, that grew into one of my all-time favorites over the course of the next two seasons. Its series finale aired just last night, and its quiet affirmation of everything the series had been about only made me love it all the more.
The show — about the intertwined lives of four people caught up in the ’80s and ’90s tech boom — was never outwardly flashy or obviously self-impressed. It had a low-key confidence in itself, and it was as well-made as anything on TV, even if its visuals rarely offered, say, an undead dragon tearing down an ice wall. It was always more interested in navigating the vagaries of its characters’ relationships, betrayals, and reconciliations, in a way prestige drama has struggled with of late.
But it’s also the rare case where I feel like in telling you about the show, I’m giving you a rare gift. Maybe you’ll hate it — I can’t possibly know. But I’m betting you’ll love it as much as I do.
And I can’t wait.
Halt and Catch Fire does a rare thing in TV — it retroactively justifies some of its worst choices
The knock against Halt and Catch Fire — like the knock against The Leftovers or The Americans — is that its first season is a bit rough. It doesn’t always know what it wants to be, and it occasionally feels as if it’s fetishizing the idea of a white guy antihero. Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace) is more a collection of character twists and quirks than an actual human being in the first half of season one, and the show’s other characters often feel like they’re placeholders, meant to be filled in later.
The series figured itself out pretty quickly. By the back half of season one, it’s already turning into the show it will become in its last three seasons, and the ninth episode of that inaugural season is one I’d stack up against the series’ very best, in part for a beautifully handled twist ending that recontextualizes everything that has happened so far.
On the other hand, those early episodes (especially the handful of hours immediately following the pilot) are rough. Even those who worked on the show seemed aware of this. They were proud of the episodes, sure, and they could see the good intentions involved. But they also knew that their intentions didn’t always match up to their execution.
What’s amazing, then, is how Halt and Catch Fire reinvented itself in season two, focusing more on its two most prominent women: Mackenzie Davis, as the genius but antisocial programmer Cameron; and Kerry Bishé, as Donna, who started out as the standard “prestige drama wife” and then turned out to be far more complicated than that. Instead of an antihero drama, the show turned into a workplace ensemble show — sort of like The West Wing, but with computers.
It has that political drama’s same sense of optimism, and the same sense that its characters can be at odds without wanting to literally kill each other, but it saves itself from sentimentality by always feeling shot through with a bittersweet melancholy. At all times, as the characters slowly work their way toward our current internet era, there’s a sense of everything gained by their technological advancements, but also everything we’ve lost in the wake of packing up our psychological baggage and moving it online.
Halt and Catch Fire is about four people — Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Scoot McNairy’s Gordon — who start the series longing for connection, then find it with each other (and others) in various permutations, then try to spread that feeling of connection to the rest of the world. It’s telling that the foremost innovation any of them come up with is, essentially, an online message board system, which allows various members of a gaming community to talk about things other than video games.
By recapturing those early days when it seemed as if computers might give us the world, instead of slowly seal us off into our own bubbles, Halt and Catch Fire invites viewers to reexamine our own relationship to technology and each other, and how often we try to let our online selves stand in for the people we really are. Presenting a happier life than the one you’re actually leading for the benefit of social media followers isn’t exactly an undiscussed phenomenon, but Halt and Catch Fire captures beautifully just how old this impulse is. We’ve always tried to use computers to buff off our rougher edges. Then again, we’ve always tried to use everything to make ourselves seem cooler, or better looking, or happier than we actually are.
But this focus on connection and dissolution, present from the first moment of the first episode, also means that the final three seasons of Halt and Catch Fire somehow manage to make many of the worst moments of those early episodes seem better than they came across at the time. Particularly in the show’s fourth and final season, it revisits the dynamics of season one — especially by exploring a business partnership between Joe and Gordon — but with the benefit of added character development.
Now we see the woundedness in Joe, and not just the wounds he shows to the world. Now we see how hard Gordon was trying to be someone he wasn’t, and how much happier he is when he embraces a truer self. Cameron’s flinty brilliance, Donna’s need to chart her own course, even the aching longing for family of bossman Bos (Toby Huss) — they were all there in season one, just a little harder to see.
One of the big ideas of Halt and Catch Fire is one it shares with AMC’s earlier drama Mad Men, an obvious inspiration: We all keep repeating many of the same mistakes, because of our own internal logic that we can’t entirely fix or escape. Halt expresses this in the idea of iterations — the idea that a computer program can slowly become less buggy over time, can smooth out flaws. Nobody in Halt completely becomes whole, perfect. But they all do become better, as they endlessly iterate themselves. To put it in a religious sense, none of them achieve nirvana, but all of them get a little bit closer by being together.
For a show so filled with conflict and sadness, it was also a series filled with hope and beauty, with the idea that everything might be okay if you find your people and stick to them like glue.
It was a great show. I hope you’ll come to love it too.