Oct 16, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Halt and Catch Fire"

Scene from Halt and Catch Fire
Back in 2014, the AMC network was in a bit of a transition. Their most acclaimed series, Breaking Bad, had its finale the week before and its flagship series Mad Men wasn't far behind. Their choice to focus on genre shows lead to an identity crisis period with poorly rated series like Low Winter Sun. From the ashes of this awkward period came Halt and Catch Fire: a series that was sold as Mad Men 2.0, focusing on the computer industry during the 1980's. To drive home comparisons, it even had an opening title card explaining the show's name. It became the underdog show that many predicted wouldn't last. Yet after four seasons, it managed to defy the odds by working out its first season kinks to create a powerful drama that brought to life an era when technology was different. The series became better as it understood what it should've been, and its finale confirmed how assured their thinking was. It may never be AMC's most remembered show, but hopefully it will be in time one of its best cult shows.
Even early on, Halt and Catch Fire showed a specific confidence that AMC's more genre-leaning programming didn't. It was about the power of innovation with four different egos clashing to create the ideal computer. It was going to be the invention that defined them. In some ways, it could be argued that the early episodes were plagued with manic writing, odd soundtrack choices, and the confusing sense of why the tech industry warranted a drama like this. After all, Joe (Lee Pace) wasn't a grounded character despite being the business man who made bad choices. Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) was a former punk rocker whose coding skills were initially her only charm. Even married couple Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kerry Bishe) had spats that showed this show's desire to be about personal drive as well as professional. In some ways, the first season needed to be disjointed for the sake of creating a starting point that showed growth. These were dreamers who had the same goal, but approached them all so differently.
What followed was a maturation of a group. It was when these four began to work together and create antivirus start-up Mutiny that the show began to find its footing both in characters and in technique. The camera became more adventurous, opening a season with a long take through the raucous hall of the start up where everyone loved to create chaos, as long as the work showed for itself. The show also developed textural cinematography; finding rich imagery within different color pallets that elevated the drama into art. As the show continued, it became more aware of how to create stimulating imagery to compliment the concepts discussed within episodes. By the final stretch of episodes where characters were in the 90's and reaching a new juncture of their life, Halt and Catch Fire became one of the most emotionally rich shows, turning Gordon's death into a beautiful, symbolic farewell that caught the audience off guard. For a show that started off on rocky ground, the final stretch represented just how much growth every aspect of the show had made.
This was largely thanks to the central cast, who formed unexpected relationships. Initial enemies Donna and Cameron would form a female friendship that shined through to the finale. Their former businesses now laid in ruins, leaving them to come together over an unexplained "idea." It summarized how the show started, but this time it feels like the experience will lead to greater results. They will not fall victim to Yahoo! and instead become a power house thanks to their known abilities to take hard work. Meanwhile, Joe is educating the next generation, suggesting that it all begins with an "idea." Joe's struggle to find the right idea eventually leads him to help others instead of being selfish. In the 80's, computers seemed like a foreign affair. By the time the series ends, it's understandably the future. While none of these four end up as the leaders of the industry, there's a bond that forms and develops over the seasons. 
The show's gradual shift reflected the struggles of these characters in meaningful ways, whether it be a falling out between Gordon and Joe, or Cameron's ongoing issues with her father. These small moments became inherent to why the show worked. It wasn't just about how computers connected everyone, but how the passion connected humans. The final season showed how this impacted their eventual shifts into different positions of power, though it was always most heartwarming when they came together to reflect on their careers. Early phone calls with Joe and Cameron captured a nostalgic but heartfelt desire to rekindle those early years, no matter how hectic they were. Even the death of Gordon brought forward emotional growth for everyone, unsure how to evolve past a man whose role in their careers seemed small at first but had deeper psychological impact. They created a family, and one that learned from each other to be better programmers as well as better people.
There is a poetry to how the show ended as Peter Gabriel's "Solsburry Hill" played. It was the moment where the cast of Halt and Catch Fire found ways to live again in the wake of failure. The show may have ended on this sad note, but everyone gained a confidence to move forward. The show had an incredible run over four seasons that built from a silly 80's drama to something far more rewarding. It may never get credit for being one of AMC's best dramas, but the fact it finished on its own terms is a success story within itself, giving these four character actors a chance to turn in powerful work on a weekly basis. As AMC moves further into The Walking Dead, Badlands, and Preacher-type shows, it's going to be sad to think of this as the end of an era. Maybe it won't be the last drama that they produce, but it may be one of the last times that a great one is born unsuspectingly on the network and be mistaken as a misfire. One can hope to be wrong, because shows should always strive to be this good and hopefully Halt and Catch Fire will have a great second life through Netflix binging and critical reassessment. One can hope.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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