June 1, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”



The first season of HALT AND CATCH FIRE realized late in the game that it had been telling the wrong story about the wrong characters, and tonight’s Season 2 premiere was burdened to an extent by the aftereffects of that fact.  The original protagonists were the very Don Draper-ish Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a brilliant but damaged and emotionally hollow salesman, and engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), his more prosaic partner, foil and often victim.  Their quest was the transformation of Cardiff Electronics, the sleepy Texas company where they worked in 1983, to a maker of personal computers, reverse-engineering IBM’s technology for their product.  As the series went on, though, its center inexorably shifted to its much more complicated and interesting female characters:  Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe), also an engineer, but more practical and quicker-witted than her husband, and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the brilliant wild child coder recruited by Joe, who turned out of all of them to have the most profound vision of what computing could become.  By the time the season ended, Cameron and Donna had gone off together to found their own gaming company, called Mutiny, which would live on a shared community of users that was still years away from being called the Internet.

Halt and Catch Fire probably has zombies to thank for the fact that its low ratings (and dreadful title) didn’t lead to its demise after a single season, since the mattress of Walking Dead money that AMC sleeps on allows it to be patient with series like Halt and Turn.  After a fake-out opening that featured Joe in full Master of the Universe regalia, the premiere, written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, jumped forward 20 months to mid-1985, and promised a new start for its narrative as well as its characters.  Pace and McNairy are still the top-billed leads, however, so we spent more time with them than the story really warranted, as we learned that Gordon has a coke problem and Joe moved to Austin after deserting the company at the end of Season 1, living with new girlfriend Sara (Aleksa Palladino).  The major story event for the men was the sale of Cardiff, which gave Gordon a big exit check but had an even bigger middle finger for Joe, who was told by the bitter owner to sue if he wanted his money.  It will be interesting to see how much Halt will have to contort itself if it’s going to continue to try to keep the two men heavily involved, since they’re now on the periphery of the real action.

That lies with Donna and Cameron, who have a troubled but fertile working relationship.  Donna is equipped to be the den mother for the lost boys (and Cameron) who make up Mutiny, but that’s not what she wants to be doing, and she’s the one who realizes that the chat boxes accompanying the company’s games may be their future.  Cameron is intuitive and improvisatory but also reckless, apt to bootleg electricity from a neighbor’s circuits and buy stolen (and counterfeit) equipment.  The two aren’t quite friends, but they’re believable as uneasy yet mutually appreciative partners–and the final scene of the episode suggested that an old friend from Season 1 may help with their day-to-day management issues.

Halt still needs to work out the balance among its characters, and it continues to have some of the shortcomings of Season 1, notably a faithful to the era but unexciting visual style.  But the birth of the internet is a far more intriguing subject than the birth of the personal computer business, and Cameron and Donna are distinct from all the other female protagonists on TV.  Computer systems get to do a beta release before exposing their content to the general public; TV shows don’t have that luxury, and Halt and Catch Fire‘s initial missteps were open to everyone’s eyes.  Its version 2.0, however, has a lot more promise.

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."