Halt and Catch Fire’s final episode probably aired last night, unless AMC has more faith in the show than its meager audience would suggest and renews it for a second season. I can’t say I’m heartbroken. The finale has all the frustrating aspects of a typical Halt and Catch Fire episode: overwritten speeches, inconsistent characters, disappearing stakes. And yet, as it has several times over the past ten weeks, the show shuffles the deck and sets itself up promisingly for the future. So, though I doubt we’ll get to see how Gordon handles being CEO of Cardiff, or how Cameron and Donna work together running their internet gaming startup, or if Joe reconnects with his absent mother who’s living in the woods (that’s what’s happening, right?), I would watch it. A second season would probably be just as much of a mess as the first season was, but maybe they’d pull it together once the Giant hits the shelves.
The entire season of Halt and Catch Fire has existed in a sort of parallel universe 1983. The fictional Cardiff Electric crosses paths with real companies like IBM and Texas Instruments. Various characters mention Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but the show hasn’t been too clear about how close it is adhering to the historical timeline of the development of the PC. The final scene of “Up Helly Aa” makes it clear that they are living in the real world, where the introduction of the Apple Macintosh is soon to blow up the emerging PC market and relegate all competitors to also-rans, at least until Microsoft Windows eclipses it in the early 1990s.
This is getting to be a frustrating pattern. Each time Halt and Catch Fire seems like it’s getting on the right track it airs an episode like ‘The 214s”, illuminating everything that’s ludicrous and boring and stupid about the show. The “Cameron and Bosworth hack a bank” plot is terrible for many reasons. First of all, none of it is shown onscreen. Maybe the writers think the surprise of watching the police raid Cardiff distracts viewers from questioning if any of it makes sense. Because it’s one thing for a cocky young hacker to want to impress her boss by doing something dumb. But it takes an incredible suspension of disbelief to buy that a businessman like John Bosworth, who has been shown as professional, relatively risk-averse, and not even really on board with the whole PC project, would jeopardize his entire career and company – not to mention his personal freedom – by robbing a bank.
On this episode of Halt and Catch Fire we get the return of Susan Fairchild, Donna’s kick-ass alter ego. Not only can Susan recover (allegedly) lost programming code, her talents include some professional level piano playing and a glorious misread of flirty signals from her boss. Susan is fun, spontaneous, and intelligent without taking herself too seriously. She isn’t afraid to make mistakes or too proud to learn from them. At its very best, Halt and Catch Fire is a little like Ms. Fairchild. It tells a story about computer programmers and software engineers swiftly and confidently, adding humor, some melodrama, and more than a little weirdness to a potentially dry subject. This good version of Halt and Catch Fire, the Susan version, has only been seen sporadically over the past seven weeks. Too often the show is bogged down by misplaced ambitions, trying to manufacture meaning and depth that just isn’t there. But slowly, tentatively, the ratio of Susan to Donna seems to be on the upswing.
If last week’s Halt and Catch Fire built up some momentum by focusing on the show’s strengths – computer talk and over-the-top drama – this episode drains the life out of itself by keeping those things to a minimum. Instead we get lots of character exploration and symbolism. “Landfall” opens on Joe and Cameron in bed, never a good sign. She asks him about his scars, and he lies, and she knows he’s lying. Great. We already know Joe is a liar, and we still don’t learn the truth about his scars until the final scene. Apparently this story, about his mother doing drugs and letting go of him on a roof so he falls three stories into a fence, is the truthful, correct story. A sad anecdote about Joe’s childhood dragged out for six episodes, and for what? So Joe becomes sympathetic? We don’t need Joe to be sympathetic, we need him to be brilliant and charismatic. That’s what makes a compelling television character.
It’s possible that my expectations have been lowered significantly after five weeks of watching Halt and Catch Fire, but I think this episode is a lot of fun. In the last decade, AMC has built its brand on “quality” television, producing shows dealing with difficult characters and complicated themes. But what if this show is actually a soap opera and everybody involved is starting to figure that out? And I’m not trying to disparage Halt and Catch Fire by labeling it this way. I just mean that the joy of this kind of show relies on anticipating what the characters do, not exploring why they do it. With skilled writers and charismatic actors, this type of TV can be compelling, even addictive. I fell in love with television on Monday nights after middle school watching Melrose Place. I delighted in watching those characters fight and sleep with and backstab each other every week. In its best moments, “Adventure” captures some of that excitement.
While “Close to the Metal” doesn’t contain anything as bizarre as last week’s random same sex revenge hook-up, it continues Halt and Catch Fire’s pattern of lengthy exposition, clunky dialogue, and extreme, unmotivated emotional swings. These characters are looking increasingly out of their depth week by week, and any sane person would have little faith that Cardiff can actually produce the magical PC they promise.
Halt and Catch Fire, Ep. 1.03, “High Plains Hardware” takes place in Dallas, but does it want to be ‘Dallas’?
Is this show getting silly or is this show getting silly? I’ve been optimistic about Halt and Catch Fire based more on its potential than its first two episodes, which have been pretty inconsistent. It has a fantastic setting and shows a slice of recent history that hasn’t been depicted very often on screen. It features some great music and some good acting. And dramatizing the dawn of the computers is not an easy task. To take a subject this intricate and specialized, a subject few are conversant in even as we use the machines themselves almost constantly, the writers seem to have two choices. They must either commit to exploring the actual process of building a PC, which is a tall order, but if done well could be really rewarding and unlike anything else on television. Or they can use the setting as merely background to tell a story about these characters and their relationships with each other. Unfortunately, they aren’t doing a very good job of either.
Joe MacMillan has lots of secrets. Last week it was revealed that he disappeared after quitting IBM and wasn’t seen for over a year. This week scars are revealed, literal scars all over his torso, which are uncovered after Gordon tears off his shirt in the middle of a fistfight. While this revelation primarily calls into question Gordon’s unorthodox fighting technique, it also prompts Joe to improvise a story about how, as a nine-year-old, he was mercilessly bullied for being way too excited about Sputnik and was pushed/fell off a roof. Which gave him these scars. And made him miss the greatest football game of all time.
Last fall, AMC tried to launch a new show in the hour after Breaking Bad, hoping that the millions of viewers watching and tweeting about Walter White would keep tuning in. But Low Winter Sun was a bonafide flop, a critical and ratings fiasco, and the name itself became a sort of punchline to certain snotty TV viewers. Rather than helping launch the new show, its proximity to Breaking Bad only magnified Low Winter Sun’s shortcomings. It became the poster child for poor quality “quality” television, the skeleton of a dark cable drama with none of the skill or soul needed to sustain itself. The network is taking a different tactic with its new drama, Halt and Catch Fire. By debuting in Mad Men’s timeslot after the veteran show wraps up its truncated demi-season, the newbie can live or die on its own merits rather than forced comparisons to one of the greatest shows of all time. That being said, the fact that this is a period piece and a workplace drama is no accident, and I think Halt and Catch Fire’s superficial similarities to Mad Men might entice viewers hungry for more Don Draper but resigned to the fact that they won’t get him for another year.