Midway through this season’s premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, a few of the geeky computer programmers at Mutiny have a debate: How does one pronounce the acronym GIF? Is the G hard or soft? And, as you might expect, they dont reach any sort of definitive conclusion.
This season, the AMC computer drama’s third, is set in 1986, so the characters could have no idea that their silly debate would continue to rage a full 30 years later. For creators and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the moment is the first of many winks in a season filled of allusions to more contemporary matters.
“The historical setting allows us in a less overt way to foreshadow some of the coming issues around technology and its issues in our lives,” Cantwell told Inverse last week. “You look at Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) meeting someone she met online. We get to do a bunch of firsts with that. The GIF is a funny example of things we can drop in. We can touch sexism in Silicon Valley and things like security on computer systems, and we can go after some of these loaded issues in a subtle way that the 30-year time difference definitely helps.”
The first two seasons of Halt and Catch Fire were set in early ‘80s Texas, placing a fictional drama within larger – but still mostly untold – true events. Bold, troubled, would-be visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) arrives at the sleepy Cardiff Electric, a fictional computer company, and tricks bookish Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) into reverse-engineering an IBM personal computer. Corporate copyrights and internal politics means the seemingly innocuous experiment sets into motion a dramatic series of events that include fights, firings, marital discord, technological breakthroughs, and finally, a new personal computer that should get them all rich.
After a moderately well-received first season, the show flipped the script and focused its second season on Cameron: the post-punk anarchist/coding genius struck out on her own to form Mutiny, which started out as an online gaming service. She took Gordon’s wife, Donna, herself a brilliant programmer, along for the ride, and the show soared as corporate politics took a backseat to the energy and enthusiasm of a young startup. Gordon and Joe hung around, and still got into plenty of trouble, but it was undeniable that the show had found its footing.
“I think a lot of people think the shift in focus was more deliberate than it was,” Rogers said. “By the end of the first season, the show was finding its legs as we found our legs as writers and differentiated our voice from our heroes: Mad Men, The Wire, the other kind of difficult men shows. We found this Mutiny thing, and Cameron and Donna’s partnership came to be the hallmark of what we felt what we had the most fun writing.”
The third season opens with Mutiny having made the leap from stewing on the Texas prairie to swimming with the sharks of Silicon Valley. In the first two seasons, Rogers and Cantwell had the handicap of having to explain every little piece of technology to the audience. The flipside was that few viewers knew the real history of that era, which made it easier to plop fictional characters into real events; it was unlikely that anyone was going to call out ways in which they bent history for their narrative.
Now, with the move to Silicon Valley, the fictional stories will be interweaved with more famous characters and resulting technologies. As Mutiny moves into the early iterations of e-tail (now known as e-commerce), it comes into contact with some of the legacy players.
“You know the names of the people that actually won these things in a big and declarative way, and Mutiny and Cardiff Electric are not one of them, Rogers admits. “But there’s always something between absolute victory and absolute defeat. Mutiny is modeled off so many companies, from Q-link (which became America Online) to the companies we’re having them to run up against this year, including Compuserve, The Well, and what would will become Prodigy from IBM and Sears.”
Success stories are inherently less interesting than tales about noble losers, and Halt finds itself firmly in that latter space (though there’s every chance its characters will wind up rich and happy, if not historically significant). It’s a careful balance; Donna and Cameron are in the mix as pioneers of internet chat, gaming, and retail, while Joe (by once again screwing over Gordon) has refashioned himself as a security software mogul. None of those fields are irrelevant or forgotten, which raises the bar of difficulty for writers who want to find a way to fictionalize events around their development.
“We want to make sure that the characters in Halt and Catch Fire don’t accidentally invent everything in technology, like Forrest Gump, but it’s no one singular person who suddenly wakes up, has an amazing idea, implements it, and is declared a winner of all computerdom, Cantwell said. “Various concepts float through the ether and people communicate about them and try to figure out what works and throw things against the wall. That kind of grasping in the dark also allows our stories to plausibly fit in the past next to the actual historical tech companies of the time.”
That the two main protagonist of the series are brilliant women creates a natural tension for the show; as Cameron and Donna work to put together much-needed financing for Mutiny’s ambitions, they run up against the sexism that was pervasive in Silicon Valley back in the ‘80s, and in many ways is just as prevalent today.
Cantwell recalls visiting with his family at Christmas last year, and fielding a question from his sister-in-law about the show.
“I thought she’d be asking questions about things she doesn’t understand in the show,” Cantwell said. “But she said, ‘Am I ever going to like Joe?’”
Through two seasons, MacMillan has been both the show’s protagonist and antagonist, an agent of change who charges through people’s lives on an unapologetic path of greatness. Equal parts visionary and insecure, MacMillan destroys the lives he builds up — torching a truck filled with computers and running away at the end of the first season, stealing Gordon’s antivirus idea at the end of the second — and it’s become quite hard to root for the guy. In reality, watching him cut through the tech world is a sort of wake-up call for those who lionize Silicon Valley pioneers. And unlike, say Walter White, there’s no desperate motivation to his sometimes-awful actions.
Joe’s complexity was “based on what we heard firsthand about what we’d heard about people like Steve Jobs,” Rogers said. “We wrote this script before Steve Jobs died, and I think it’s a big part of a reason it worked: we weren’t chasing a story of the moment. If one can be kind of over-lionized or over-chronicled, I think that’s happened to Steve Jobs. The story that emerges, some people have done a good job of showing there was a lot of light with a lot of dark, and some people we’ve spoken with in person have said there was mainly a lot of dark.”
The third season begins with MacMillan finally achieving his ambitions: He’s the CEO of a company bearing his name, is hailed as a visionary on the cover of Forbes Magazine, and has plenty of acolytes who believe in his grand plan. He’s still enigmatic — Pace imbues him with a cold stare and unreadable face — but Rogers promises a more lovable (or palatable) version of the character in the long run.
“For my money the third season is the most sympathetic and the most complete Joe, we’ve seen what I think is a synthesis of the first two seasons, Rogers says. “My hope is that by the end of it, even the biggest Joe doubters, to see this guy fall in love with the work he does, this lonely and nuanced guy, I think Lee hasn’t hesitated to play the more difficult notes of the character.”
The show’s roots in tech history means that Joe MacMillan can’t have a huge, obvious impact on the world, as is the case with the rest of Halt and Catch Fire’s characters. But making history is hardly the point; it’s exploring the messiness of the process that has always been at the heart of Cantwell and Rogers’ plans.
Season three of Halt and Catch Fire premieres at 9 p.m., August 23 on AMC.