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Last summer, when AMC was airing season one of Halt and Catch Fire, the series was a bit of a joke. After all, this was a post-Breaking Bad AMC, with only one season of Mad Men left in the oven (ready for release in spring of 2015), and AMC was struggling to find its next hit. After half a season of Halt and Catch Fire, it didn’t appear that this was it. But then an amazing thing happened right at the end of season one: the show got good. And not just good, it was great. It became the best show on Sunday nights. And then, with season two, the series did something even more amazing: it completely rebooted itself.
The core cast was the same, but the show completely flipped its focus. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) were out as the central focus of the show (while they still factored into the main story, they were rarely, if ever, the focal point of an episode), while Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) became the show’s true stars. In all my years of watching television, I’ve never see a series recognize its problems and act so quickly and decisively to solve them. And solve them they did. Halt and Catch Fire is the best show on a major television channel that people aren’t watching.
Looking at the show’s paltry ratings, I’m guessing a lot of you have never seen it. Perhaps, like me, you heard bad things about season one and steered clear. Or, you thought it was Mad Men set in the 1980s. Or you decided watching True Detective was a better use of your Sunday nights (it’s definitely not, in case you were wondering). So, unlike a traditional season review wherein I assume you’ve watched the entire season, I’ll start this one off delving into what makes Halt and Catch Fire so good in an attempt to convert those who haven’t discovered this gem yet (the show hasn’t been renewed for a third season at this point, due in large part to its abysmal ratings, so any new eyeballs help things), then briefly touch on the highlights of season two itself.
So, why should you devote hours of your life to watching Halt and Catch Fire? Well, it tells the story of the early tech and computer boom in the 80s. Season one, which, honestly, you don’t need to watch (I have only seen the pilot and the final three episodes of the first season and I don’t think I missed anything all that important in light of the season two reboot), follows Joe and Gordon as they try to build a new and improved PC (Cameron and Donna help in various ways, but the focus is on Joe and Gordon’s relationship). It’s interesting, particularly the final three episodes where all four characters begin working together, but the show just doesn’t feel quite right. Characters aren’t used to their full potential and relationships aren’t deep enough to really resonate. But in season two, everything starts to click.
Season two provides both emotional and business stakes, but the joy of the series comes from watching how the personal relationships between the four central characters grow and change. Donna and Gordon are two brilliant individuals, but Gordon never chastises Donna for taking the lead as the working parent (which is really cool to see). However, there are a number of cracks in the foundation of their marriage that make sense and don’t feel contrived. The show willingly dives into them and resists painting either as the “bad guy” or “nag.” Donna and Cameron pass the Bechdel Test every episode without fail. And Joe . . . Well, Joe is on his own strange journey. Any comparisons to Mad Men begin and end with the character of Joe who is as close to a 1980s version of Don Draper as you can get- only this time, Don can and does get burned when his silver-tongued promises go up in smoke. Never once during the course of the second season of the series was I bored. And that’s about as high of praise as one can give a television show these days. It’s a taut and well-written series that deserves to have as much press as HBO’s clunker True Detective. Please, if you haven’t, give this one a chance.
Now, onto the season two review. Season one, as I mentioned, was generally hit or miss. But once the series found its true focus during its final episode, things really started to click. And season two took that to another level through the use of the brilliant time jump. While some have characterized the 15 month-long jump between seasons one and two as the show giving itself a clean slate, I think it’s more complicated than that. Sure, it does place the events of season one firmly in the rear view mirror, but the time jump really allows Cameron and Donna the time and space to turn Mutiny into something other than a young start-up. This may not be the thriving business it is by season’s end, but it isn’t just a new idea finding its legs. Shooting the story into the future also allows the show to gloss over elements that would drag it down. For example, it’s a lot more interesting to just jump to Joe getting screwed out of his share (like he screwed the company) than it is to watch him court Sara and float along in the breeze for months. I would rather watch a Cameron who has accepted Joe’s disappearance and betrayal than watch her wallow for a while. The characters we see at the start of season two are older and wiser (or, in the case of Joe, simply biding his time and pretending to be wiser), which gives us a better look into who they are and how the events from season one have shaped them (without needing to walk us through the minute details of what expressly happened once the cameras stopped rolling in season one).
But the best part of season two is Kerry Bishé and the evolution of Donna. Yes, there are hints going as far back as the pilot that there was more to Donna than one might first suspect, but season two places the main focus of its action on Donna and her journey. Does Cameron grow-up within season two? Yes. Does Gordon get a complex storyline? Sure. But it is Donna and Bishé’s work throughout the season that made me excited to turn in week in and week out. Unlike with other AMC shows, Donna is a wife who isn’t relegated to the role of nagging housewife. She isn’t the reason Gordon can’t achieve his dream (that reason would be, despite his own protestations to the the alternative, Gordon himself). In fact, she’s the success in the marriage and she is the one holding the family together while Gordon struggles with his own (hidden) demons. Donna is given the agency to make her own choices at work and at home (even making the controversial choice to have an abortion- something she still hasn’t shared with Gordon, which saves the show from painting her as the morally superior half of the couple), and while she makes mistakes, she is also unwilling to compromise her own vision. She isn’t a doormat and she’s just as able to play with the boys as Cameron is (while Cameron has been coded the “cool” one since the show’s inception, some excellent work is done throughout the season to make her a bit more tragic and conflicted). And that scene in the airplane bathroom. Amazing.
But all four leads were given a lot to do this season, from Cameron’s growth into a true leader at Mutiny (watching her slowly accept that her vision for the company wasn’t sustainable, and that Donna’s Community creation was the future, was a really wonderful character arc), to Gordon realizing (and chaffing at) his own mental and emotional limitations. Even Bos got his moment of clarity in the finale, and Toby Huss was an absolute joy to watch throughout the season. The only questionable element of the season was the Joe story, where Sara ultimately was simply a means to an end for the character to ultimately accept his black hat role within the story. Yes, Joe is more fun when he’s playing fast and loose with the rules, but the character has essentially completed the same cycle two seasons in a row. I would hope that, should the show come back for season three, there’s a bit more for him to do moving forward.
At its heart, Halt and Catch Fire is a series about chasing dreams. And what people do in response to failing to achieve what they sought to achieve, whether through their own hubris or the failings of others. Watching the different relationships ebb and flow throughout the show’s second season is an absolute joy, and a textbook lesson to other (lesser) writers in how to draw interesting and complex characters (Nic Pizzolatto, I’m looking at you). The conflicts feel real and never forced. The fear of failure is real and palpable throughout the season and the characters are flawed, but not fatally so. I would love the chance to see what these four brilliant individuals do when unleashed upon Silicon Valley, and I dearly hope AMC opts to give this show a chance to thrive in the wild wild west.