Gaming the system: Halt and Catch Fire's fun, slightly unfocused second season

Halt and Catch Fire invades video games, but it's not sure what to do with them

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Warning: substantial season one spoilers ahead, as well as mild spoilers for the upcoming season two.

My hope for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire — the ‘80s period drama that begins its second season this Sunday — is that it will live long enough to work its way through one of the most pivotal periods in modern computing, from the rise of the PC to the explosion of the internet. The show won me over by lovingly exploring the world of IBM clones, and if the first four episodes of season two are any indication, its characters are doing their best to catch the technological zeitgeist again. But as they do, the series risks losing the focus that’s made it great so far.

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was built around the Cardiff Giant, a potentially revolutionary laptop designed in the shadow of IBM. Its world wasn’t much larger than the confines of fictional mainframe company Cardiff Electric and the prickly relationship between its four main characters: embittered engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), his wife and former business partner Donna (Kerry Bishé), punk wunderkind Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and manipulative visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). By the end of the arc, they had both beat the odds and failed miserably, releasing a decent machine but losing sight of the dream behind it. Then Joe lit their first shipment on fire and disappeared on a stargazing quest. It is not a particularly subtle show.

The latest season takes place a year later in 1985, at Cameron and Donna’s fledgling online games company Mutiny. Where Cardiff Electric was a staid beast that ended up being acquired and all but dissolved, Mutiny is an anarchic startup that literally can’t keep the lights on, and a great vehicle for the show’s two female leads. At Cardiff, Joe and Gordon drew easy comparisons to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (They’re now, respectively, starting a fly-by-night time-sharing service and recovering from months of cocaine-fueled crunch time.) No matter how important female programmers and designers have been in the real world, a two-woman partnership just isn’t part of our technological folklore, and Halt and Catch Fire is all the more interesting for exploring it.

In the first season, Donna was a deft subversion of the "killjoy wife" stereotype, and here, she’s resisting being typecast as the sensible office mom. Cameron increasingly comes off as the conservative one — a woman once seen scamming arcade machines with a string and quarter is now furious when freeloaders sneak onto her network. One of Halt and Catch Fire’s greatest strengths is that it avoids pigeonholing its characters into nerds or smooth operators, pragmatists or dreamers. They’re defined by their intense dedication to building something great, whatever that might be, and they’ll work around each other to achieve it.

Here, the showrunners are trying to move that intensity from computers to video games. In some ways, they’ve beaten the BBC’s upcoming Grand Theft Auto drama to the punch. Instead of breakthroughs in LCD screens, characters are figuring out chat rooms and networked first-person shooters. It’s much more immediately relatable — even if nobody is still using ‘80s PCs, you could boot up Zork right now. The overall melodrama has been toned down, but the bombastic moments that remain (including Donna and Cameron stealing servers for Mutiny off the back of a van) are still pretty good.

Ironically, though, the show itself feels less comfortable in its new territory. Compared to the incredible detail around Cardiff, characters are strangely disconnected from the rest of gaming and web history, especially considering how much was going on at the time. Atari and the home console market had just collapsed, companies like Sierra Online were shipping groundbreaking computer games across the country in plastic bags, and online bulletin board systems were already proving that people would pay to hang out with friends.

Mutiny’s flagship title, a fantasy adventure called Parallax, would have been hard-pressed to stand against Infocom’s increasingly sophisticated work. When Cameron envisions a "totally immersive" shooter that lets you fight your friends, she’s imagining a genre that would blow up a decade later… but she’s also just described the ‘70s ARPANET game Maze War.

Halt and Catch Fire Season 2

Exact historical accuracy is a bad goal for fiction, and it’s better to give too little detail than turn the story into a series of pop culture references. But whether or not Cardiff Electric was really inventing the future, Halt and Catch Fire’s passion for the world of Silicon Prairie always made us feel like it might be. Now, we just aren’t getting enough fictional background to understand why Mutiny is prescient.

The first season partly got away with bending history because its characters had shut out the rest of the world. PCs were developed under tight secrecy, and while the threat of competition was always there, Cardiff itself was self-contained. Here, though, it’s opening up in more ways than one. Joe and Gordon are trying to adjust to life outside the walls of corporate computing — Joe, particularly, is trying to build real relationships after years of ruthless, rootless careerism. Mutiny’s gaming network and Joe’s time-shared mainframes democratize things that were once reserved for big businesses and university campuses, making them vulnerable in the process. It’s a smart metaphor for the entire world of tech, just one that characters could engage with more.

The foundation of Halt and Catch Fire, like its fellow AMC dramas Breaking Bad and Mad Men, is craft. The human drama grows out of watching characters excel at something that most people will never try. Even if their explanations are basically gibberish, it feels like being inducted into the secret club of meth cooking or cigarette advertising or making double-sided motherboards. If there’s a single problem with the latest season so far, it’s that it spends a little too much time on concepts and not enough on how brilliant, complicated people make them happen.

If there’s a salvation, it’s that Halt and Catch Fire is also about the fact that being brilliant isn’t enough. Unique ideas turn out to be common, or they’re shamelessly ripped off, or they just get derailed by bad luck. Unless it evolves into outright alternate history, the ex-Cardiff team can never displace Steve Jobs or Lord British. They’ll make their small dent in the world, watch someone else make a bigger one, and move on. And right now, I can only hope everything comes together before history blindsides them one more time.

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