It seems fitting that my final television review of the year should be for Halt and Catch Fire (2014-2017), AMC’s period drama about the dawn and rise of the personal computing revolution in the eighties and nineties. In my darker moments, watching it late in the year, an unflattering alternate title for the series popped into my mind: The Road to 2017 — A Secret History of How We Ended Up in This Mess. But that’s an unfair, politicized summation of an otherwise lovely and elegiac series about the ambitious visionaries — or, at any rate, some fictional versions of them — who imagined and built the Information Age.
Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillan, a slick-talking tech industry dreamer who takes a job at Dallas’ Cardiff Electric and immediately disrupts the company by shifting it, against the will of its chief executive John Bosworth (Toby Huss), into becoming a player in the nascent personal computing industry. Serving as his chief collaborators are talented engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and hot-shot coding prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Their frantic, focused efforts to develop and market an early PC lead to a certain level of success, but friction within this group of forward-looking creatives — which also quickly embroils Gordon’s savvy wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) — soon spins them all down separate, unexpected, constantly evolving career paths through various start-up projects, over the course of a turbulent decade.
Halt and Catch Fire begins as what appears to be a wily attempt to mimic the successful prestige drama formula of Mad Men; it’s a period piece drama infused with thorny gender politics, featuring a persuasive, Don Draper-like antihero(ish) driving the narrative. And yes, in some ways, it could be seen as a thematic descendant of Mad Men, since both shows take place in industries where aggressive capitalism and social engineering intersect. Jon Hamm’s smooth-talking ad man and Lee Pace’s silver-tongued computer visionary are men of a piece, similarly gifted and similarly troubled.
But ultimately, Halt and Catch Fire — like the richly developed group of characters at its center — blazes it own unique trail. This becomes especially evident in season two, when the focus shifts away from Cardiff and into a new online gaming start-up called Mutiny run by Cameron and Donna. As the show reorients more pointedly on the people, the series becomes a triumph of nuanced character interactions, as Joe, Cameron, Gordon, Donna, and Bos take turns being good guys and villains as they all work to find a place in the future they’re building. The waves of technology innovation — personal computing, online gaming, social media, IT security, search engine optimization — are always there, but conveyed largely in well structured shorthand that serves mainly to throw the principles into conflict and inform the themes. Differences aside, the five of them ultimately form something of a family, a network of strivers trying to find their place at the lucrative table of a new industry. They’re likable but flawed, infuriating but charming, and their personal and professional struggles form a compelling tableau.
Be forewarned, it is an intensely sad show — ultimately, I think, sad in a good way, with many moments of humor and grace, but sad all the same. In that regard, it’s not unlike the similarly understated Rectify. The characters of Halt and Catch Fire are aspiring groundbreakers always struggling to stay one step ahead of a competition that continually outdistances them, and it’s all too easy to empathize with their setbacks. But theirs is a relatable struggle, which most us share: to drive to succeed and thrive, stand out and find fulfillment in a world defined by its unjust focus on winners and losers, success and failure, privilege and poverty. As such, the show serves as a subtle but potent condemnation of winner-take-all capitalism, even as it celebrates the inner strength and emotional heroism of the people forced to live and succeed in such a society. As the intertwined stories of these five characters came to their elegantly crafted close, the extraordinary performances of Bishé, Davis, Huss, McNairy, and Pace won, broke, and pieced back together my heart. Exceptional, underrated television.