August 3, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”


HALT AND CATCH FIRE is in part a show about the cold realities of business, and business logic suggests that a third season for the series is unlikely.  The ratings, cool in Season 1, were icy this year; the show neither occupied the zeitgeist nor found any love from Emmy voters; AMC’s recent renewal announcements for Humans, Turn and The Making of the Mob (the latter two of which also have marginal ratings) were loudly silent on Halt.  If that turns out to be the case, though, series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and their fellow showrunner Jonathan Lisco, can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that they diagnosed the flaws in the initial version of their series and cured them to an extent unusual in this business, taking a promising but uneven series and turning it on the fly into one of the strongest dramas currently on the air.

The trio changed the entire focus of the series, including who its main protagonists would be.  Season 1 was the story of two men, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and their campaign to build a personal computer business at a sleepy mid-1980s Texas electronics company.  Building on the strengths that became evident during the second half of that round of episodes, Season 2 centered on Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) and Joe’s ex-girlfriend Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who started Mutiny, a company that started out as an online gaming service and along the way discovered social media.  Donna and Cameron, and the dynamic between them, were far more interesting than their associated men (not to mention brilliantly performed by Bishe and Davis), and unusual even in the context of 2015 television:  there are plenty of female leads to be found, but they mostly anchor soaps, romances and genre sagas.  A pair of smart, complicated women trying to establish a business, their gender less important than their skills and ability to roll with the economic and emotional punches, are still an oddity despite all the dramas now populating TV.  (Halt, in a way, became the show for those who always thought that Mad Men should have pushed Don Draper into the background and concentrated on Peggy and Joan.)

The season finale, written by Cantwell and Rogers, and directed by Phil Abraham, did a superb job of leaving the door open for a Season 3 while providing some closure in case this turns out to have been the end of the story.  Cameron, the coding genius and creative sparkplug of Mutiny (even though it was Donna who first realized the potential of chatrooms), determined that the company needed to relocate to California and establish its own network instead of being at the mercy of suppliers, and Donna, badly in need of a reboot to her own life, agreed.  She and Gordon at least papered over the myriad problems of their marriage (his brain damage due to illness and apparent bipolar condition, the strains of her job and the abortion he doesn’t know she had) to relocate the family.  Joe, the show’s favorite cockroach, whose career seemed decimated when Cameron suckered him into running a virus-laden software that ended his job and his marriage, bounced back with anti-virus software (invented by Gordon, who blindly turned down the offer to partner with him) that put him back on top.  Even salesman extraordinaire John Bosworth (Toby Huss) returned to Mutiny, which will liven up Season 3 if it happens.  The only real shadow on the season’s ending was the failure of Cameron’s boyfriend Tom (Mark O’Brien) to join them on the westward-bound plane.

Even in its new and improved edition, Halt and Catch Fire was still imperfect.  The writers contorted themselves in every possible way to keep Joe in the picture, if no longer at its center, and he’s just not nearly as interesting a character as they think he is.  (The time spent on his failed marriage and attempt to turn over a new leaf was particularly unconvincing.)  The Tom character never really came together–his nice-guyness was so bland that every so often it seemed like the show was planning to reveal him as having a dreadful secret.  (It didn’t.)  Gordon had so many misfortunes heaped on him that he seemed to be dwelling in the Coens’ A Serious Man.  As much as the decision to avoid visual flashiness was admirable in the abstract, it made the show look bland compared to other A-level series.

But all of that was far outweighed by what Halt has been doing right.  Donna and Cameron are rich characters, and their interaction, sometimes supportive and sometimes furious, has no trace of cliche.  The history of the beginnings of the online world where we now live are fascinating.  Cantwell and Rogers treat business with a seriousness and depth rarely seen in pop culture.

With the move to Silicon Valley, Halt and Catch Fire has plenty of potential for a third season and more, and in its two protagonists, it has characters worth following there.  However, commercial TV shows need to have viewers, and a renewal by AMC would amount to an act of charity.  Of course, this is the network that has vaults stuffed with zombie money, and perhaps some of that can be thrown Halt‘s way.  The series deserves to be a survivor.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."