Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
Not to oversell it, but I think Halt and Catch Fire’s turn from “above-average television drama” to “unbearably poignant dissection of fallible human nature” started with the Super Mario Bros. episode. In Season 3, Episode 6, computer programmer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) kicks his kids out of the house and into the fresh air so he and his co-worker Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) can buckle down, without distraction, and save the Princess.
The first two seasons of the AMC show — which ran from 2014 until 2017 — are about lives in the days and weeks; the final two are about lives over the years. Starting the timeline in 1983 and ending up a little more than a decade ahead, we follow Gordon and Cameron as they build a computer with the help of Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), a fellow tech visionary who just so happens to be married to Gordon, and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), whose Season 1 characterization is something you’ll just have to get through before those final 15 episodes when the show pulls back, aims for the solar plexus, and nails its target.
If you’ve seen American Psycho, your brain presents you with no other choice than to compare sales executive Joe to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman: Both characters are pried from the same basic 1980s Suave Businessman mold. (That is, stock villain.) Like Bateman, Joe possesses tools of manipulation including suits, haircuts, intonation, jargon, height and firm handshakes you can believe in. But the superficial similarities are only superficial. Bateman is nothing but artifice (and also, probably/maybe, a murderer); Joe isn’t bad, he’s just drawn that way.
But really, that’s mostly just the first season, when all of the characters are fairly broad. Cameron is a reclusive genius/antisocial nerd. Donna, would you believe it, wants to be appreciated for her skills beyond mothering? With Cameron and Donna you’ve got stories about women in tech, women in business, in the (relatively) early days at that.
Halt and Catch Fire never quite ended up as the capital-P Prestige Drama it was clearly intended to be, and by all rights should have been at the end of its run, and I think a big reason is the name. I didn’t watch while it was on the air, and in fact, I somehow got it into my head the show was about spies. The opening credits are meant to depict an “idea” spreading from character to character, but at some point I saw this and thought it was a bullet. So I invented, totally out of thin air and based on my own misunderstanding, my own explanation of “Halt and Catch Fire”: You have to keep running or you’ll get shot.
So I was very wrong — the show is very much About Tech in a way that’s as nostalgic as the sets and costume design. The sounds of certain old machines firing up, the core four gang’s ideas (plus Toby Huss’ John Bosworth, Texan and father figure extraordinaire) are always either right at, or years ahead of, the big waves in tech: PCs, chat, pre-Google search engines. They know the stakes: Google-like power (or IBM-like power, from their early perspective) with the money and ability to change the future of tech, and therefore humanity.
Luckily for us, our heroes are idealists. And also luckily for us, the show is fairly clear: The computer is not the thing — it’s the way to get to the thing. The idealists want it to be connection and community, and they know it’s possible, because they’ve experienced it. Also luckily for us, our heroes are human. No one is evil: Cameron is impulsive, Gordon can be smarmy, Donna says some real mean shit, Joe and Bos are in sales. They all make boneheaded decisions, and when they’re fighting with people they care about, say cruel things in the heat of the moment. They fight about who gets credit for what, and money.
The Super Mario Bros. episode is one of the first times Gordon and Cameron talk to one another as friends: They gossip about work a little, but share personal stuff about relationships and illnesses. It’s sweet, and moving, and of course hits that nostalgic, melancholy Mario ache — remember being excited over this? Gordon leaps to the floor and stands intently, controller in hand, “Oh yeah, it’s on now,” and there are 15 episodes left after this one, and the show jumps ahead in time, four years here, six weeks there, what’s another three years? Remember when we worked that job together, building a computer in 1983, and now we’re here together playing Doom? The last season was in 2017, about three years ago. Remember three years ago? Were people here, then, who are not, now?
Halt and Catch Fire is an example of what television drama is capable of: It grew, evolved, followed the interesting characters and let everyone’s personalities play out to their natural conclusions. There was breathing room, quiet moments. Why do you watch shows? Is it entertainment, storytelling, character? Is it the thing, or the way to get to the thing?