AMC’s period drama Halt and Catch Fire, which takes place during the ‘80s personal computer revolution, is close to the metal. The programmers and coders on the show care must care deeply about the hardware of their machines. The almost magic-like way technology functions in 2015 makes it hard to appreciate at the end of the first season, the audible gasp from a group seeing and a Macintosh computer boot up and say “Hello, I’m Macintosh”. Technology is ever present in the lives of the characters, as this is the life they’ve chosen, but this is still an age where computers aren’t in every home nor in every pocket. This isn’t a time of technological jadedness, as each year offers a new possibility for hardware and software, as if every week we discovered a new planet.
The first season positioned around the conflict of the hotshot salesman Joe McMillian (Lee Pace) and company-man Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) in their attempt to create a compact personal computer to compete with IBM. McMillian new to Cardiff Electric, where Gordon works, ends up completely restructuring the company through a series of self-created legal binds he places on the Cardiff to allow him to create this computer project. The company ended up gutted and rebuilt with Joe, Gordon and a college dropout programmer Cameron Howe (MacKenzie Davis) as the company’s soul.
The show is currently at the beginning of its second season and feels like a surreal version of the first season. Gordon remained at Cardiff long enough to see it bought out and get rewarded handsomely. He also picked up a cocaine habit as he’s currently unemployed, but not under stimulated. Joe found a new girlfriend, Sara Weller (Aleska Palladino) post-Cameron and appears to be plotting big plans even as he’s in a mental Chess match with Sara’s oil rich father. And Cameron went off to start a software development house with the former Cardiff programmers and Gordon’s wife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe), who through the show appears to be the smartest person at and away from a computer.
A lot of the first season traded too heavily with Joe’s mysterious backstory and felt a bit Mad Men-lite, but at its best the show undercut those tropes. Cameron constantly mocked Joe’s brooding self, the equally matched wits in the marriage between Donna and Gordon and John Bossworth (Toby Huss), the former Cardiff higher-up who ended up in jail to protect Cameron, revealed his softer side while quietly dealing with a divorce. The show focuses on Texan computer nerds and restrains from overstating the stakes, because the show’s main interests are far smaller. It’s to examine people with a great passion for their work trying to find a balance with people that share an equally great passion.
Donna and Gordon’s relationship revolves being supportive of each other, even if that is challenged by his mental breakdowns and her a brief moment of unfaithfulness.The same is true of the platonic connections between Bossworth and Cameron, who bond over their lack of respective homes and after Bossworth allowed Cameron to live at Cardiff; Cameron returns the favor to the recently out of jail and divorced Bossworth by offering him a space at Mutiny. And that connection between those two characters after a full season of small hints is only made explicit when a letter Bossworth wrote to her is taken by a group of programmers and read out in an effort to mock them. The show values the relationship between characters, but also understands the many ways that people can connect to one another beyond the bed or workplace.
In the second season, Dana notices that users of their Tank game were communicating with each other and she wondered outloud about spinning out this function into simply one-on-one human chat. Cameron was oddly dismissive of the idea, considering she pushed for a more human-like operating system with the Cardiff PC. But the show right now understands the value of that kind of human-to-human communication. These are not socially inept nerds, who only deal with screens in an effort to strive to avoid all physical interactions. Work arguments happen face-to-face and frustrations at relationship are met eye-to-eye; there is no digital divide here.