Most film and TV stories about innovation suggest that technological progress is the product of isolated, great men — almost exclusively men — working on fresh ideas, undeterred by the sweep of history or their peers’ small-mindedness. Consider The Social Network, The Imitation Game, or any of the world’s surplus of Steve Jobs biopics, which perfected this narrative. They all focus on misunderstood geniuses, asking, “Are they alienated because they’re brilliant, or brilliant because they’re alienated?”
Halt and Catch Fire knows this is bullshit. The AMC series, which begins its fourth and final season on August 19th, is the best depiction of technological innovation on television, because it focuses on collaboration rather than constraint, problem-solving over vision, and people instead of potential Academy Award trophies. Halt and Catch Fire fleshes out its characters, and shows how their personalities supplement their work, instead of servicing it.
The show begins in 1983, with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) assembling a team to reverse-engineer a new PC from a proprietary IBM design. That team, and the rest of the show’s main cast, consists of genius coder Cameron Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis (the internet’s girlfriend in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”) and married engineers Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé).
The series focuses on collaboration rather than constraint, and problem-solving over vision
Halt and Catch Fire’s first season is rocky. It’s heavily indebted to Mad Men, and it relies on Joe’s “mysterious” charms as the sort of enigmatic, brilliant figure who would be the center of a more conventional tech biopic. But beginning with the second season, the show shifts its focus to the partnership between Donna and Cameron as they become the co-stewards of Mutiny, a gaming company that later expands into other early internet ventures, like Chat and eTail. It becomes about the way its characters work together, rather than — or in addition to — the ways they butt heads.
Joe, admittedly, assumes a largely nefarious role throughout the series, and the Steve Jobs parallels are impossible to ignore. He wears a lot of sweaters, gives cryptic speeches to the press, and spends a lot of time posing for magazine covers. He’s a face, but he’s also a deconstruction of the myth of the misunderstood, erratic genius that surrounds Jobs and similar types. His primary benefit is to see where the world is going, and push the other characters in the right direction.
Cameron has a propensity for vision in line with Joe’s, filtered through her confidence in her own ability to code and a steadfast conviction that her ideas are always the best ones. Her chaotic energy and anarchic tendencies let her harness the frat house energy of Mutiny’s younger coders, who are prone to throwing fireworks around the office, squirting each other (and their equipment) with water pistols, and lighting up at all possible opportunities. She is stymied when it comes to translating her ideas into business success.
Each of the character permutations has its own kind of energy
In turn, both Joe and Cameron are constrained by the Clarks’ practical nature. Gordon is a pushover with the technical skill to actualize the vision of the Camerons and Joes of the world. Donna is a born executive capable of shepherding Mutiny into being a real company. Gordon and Donna are often pushed into being parental figures for the other characters: Gordon’s the doofy dad who’s wiser than he seems, while Donna’s the tough mom holding her rowdy coding children to account.
Each of the permutations has its own particular energy. Joe and Gordon are an effective team, during the rare moments when they’re on the same page. Joe and Cameron’s connection is like a creative rocket, until their partnership implodes. Gordon and Donna’s practicality makes their relationship solid, until they start struggling. And Donna and Cameron’s partnership is the most powerful of all, pushing through all of the problems that would normally hinder women starting a tech company in the 1980s.
When the fourth and final season begins in 1994, the cast is scattered to the winds: Cameron is working remotely from Tokyo, Joe is in isolation in a basement surrounded by Post-Its, and Gordon is running an internet company himself. Donna is now the villain, having made partner at a venture capital firm and chosen fancy juices and board meetings over grimy mainframes and hastily assembled wiring. But Halt and Catch Fire is never that simple. She has to deal with workplace sexism that would make her the uncomplicated hero of any other period piece.
As the series heads toward the finish line, the characters begin to aggressively ask, “What projects are worth our time? Have we chosen well?” Joe, Cameron, and Gordon are set to race against Donna’s firm to, essentially, invent Google (or “index” the web, as they put it), a project with nebulous practical applications in the moment. Joe and Gordon butt heads over the project, while Cameron is apathetic at best. Gordon makes an extended analogy to Thomas Edison in which he describes their safer, more utilitarian work as running a power company.
To its credit, Halt and Catch Fire refuses to take seriously the argument that “non-creatives” exist solely to stifle the visionary inventors. When Cameron makes the game of her dreams, no one wants to play it — and the show suggests that it’s fairly obtuse. Joe’s manipulative tendencies are, if not necessary for his big-picture obsessions with new, open forms of communication, at least an unfortunate side effect. Donna’s talent for micromanaging is extraordinarily useful when it comes to running a company and keeping Cameron on track, but it also accelerates the breakdown of her partnership with Cameron and her marriage to Gordon.
The cast of Halt and Catch Fire is truly formidable when they work together as a team, which only strengthens the show’s unintentional, central dramatic irony: no matter how successful they are, the characters will never manage to accomplish anything truly innovative. Because the series is ostensibly set in the “real” world, the former Mutiny team is constantly circling around actually getting to be the people who come to the big conclusions, and make the big bucks. They will never accomplish their professional goals, at least not in the ways they expect.
But success on those terms isn’t really the point, Halt and Catch Fire suggests. The show has always focused more on the process. Its visual style manages to charge meetings, coding sessions, or a group of people standing in front of a whiteboard with creative potential. The opening shot of the season premiere is quieter than True Detective’s much-lauded tracking shot, but it manages to use sustained camera movement to follow not a physical space, but the passage of time. The team’s warehouse office goes from an empty room full of pencils and coding books to a bustling hive of activity, even as Joe has clearly remained in stasis.
Rather than just doing one innovation-drama story — Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs — Halt and Catch Fire has done all of them, and, most impressively, suggested that they aren’t over. One focus of the season appears to be Donna and Gordon’s children, now rowdy, rebellious teenagers capable of engaging in their own coding projects. Will they learn from their parents, whose greatest accomplishments come in moments of collaboration and openness to other perspectives? Handing down a point of view, rather than an idol — a work in progress, rather than an eternally finished project — might be a start.