August 3, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”


A serialized drama without major stars, a familiar genre or a grabby premise simply can’t afford to take half its season figuring itself out.  (Having a title that says absolutely nothing about what the series is about doesn’t help either.)  That almost certainly sealed the fate of HALT AND CATCH FIRE–although it’s AMC, so who knows–a series that improved greatly over its 10-episode run, but too late to affect ratings that started out mediocre and turned much worse.

Without being present during series development, it’s impossible to tell whether the biggest fault of the early Halt episodes came from the show’s writer/producers (series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and showrunner Jonathan Lisco) or from the network itself.  It’s suggestive, though, that the problem was the series’ stubborn insistence of building itself around its own proto-Don Draper, computer marketer Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace).  Joe was brilliant and enigmatic, soulful and superficial, a womanizer (and in his case… man-izer?) who was brutally cold to his lovers, possessed of a mysteriously dark past of which he wouldn’t speak–it was all very familiar to AMC viewers.  But in this case, Pace and the writers never managed anything close to the alchemy achieved by Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner, and rather than being fascinating, Joe was off-putting and not all that charismatic.

Halt and Catch Fire improved when it spent some time on a relationship that had nothing to do with Joe:  the quiet bond that started to build at once-sleepy Cardiff Electric, the Texas electronics maker that Joe threw into the PC business, between Joe’s punky software whiz kid and lover Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Cardiff’s old-line operating officer John Bosworth (Toby Huss).  The two of them had nothing in common but a shared respect for principles and the seriousness with with they regarded their work, and when Bosworth embezzled money from the company in order to fund the computer operation and was carted off to jail, Halt found an emotional key it hadn’t hit before.  While that was happening, the show’s other characters and relationships were becoming more satisfyingly complicated as well among Joe, Cameron, chief engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe), an engineer in her own right.  The story Cantwell, Rogers and Lisco were telling about the start of the personal computing industry opened up to become a saga about the interplay between creative genius, production expertise and salesmanship, principles applicable to any business (including the making of TV shows).  Joe, it was increasingly clear, was at least as pathetic as he was clever, Cameron had a hard core of ethics and idealism under her eternal scowls, and Gordon and Donna had an unstable marriage pitted with landmines and bad history.

By the last few episodes, which had the team (Donna unofficially included, even though she didn’t work for Cardiff) going to Las Vegas to sell the brand-new Cardiff Giant computer at a trade show and finding their way past obstacle after obstacle, Halt was a genuinely satisfying piece of work.  It was able to make use of character-based humor as well as the surprisingly sharp drama that resulted when Joe and Gordon had to make the decision to rip out Cameron’s signature piece of brilliant programming, one that anticipated the interfaces of modern devices, because it took up too much memory, slowing the machine down and increasing its cost.  The plotline did exactly what the show meant it to, illuminating all the characters while making sense in the context of the real-life computer industry of the early 1980s.

Tonight’s season (and probably series) finale, written by Cantwell and Rogers and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, leaned a bit in the old direction of treating Joe as an icon (the last we saw of him, he was tramping through the forest, apparently in search of his long-lost mother–after he’d set fire to the first shipment of Giants), but made up for that with the contempt the other characters felt for Joe by this point, and with the painful revelation that Gordon, excellent craftsman that he is, probably couldn’t run the Cardiff computer division alone–and especially with the unexpected but very promising new team of Cameron and Donna, formed when the latter joined Cameron’s new Mutiny company, which was on the trail of the what was shortly to become the internet.

Whatever the shortcomings of Pace and his character, Davis, McNairy and Bishe were superb, bringing their game up each time the writers did the same.  Halt‘s visual style wasn’t as remarkable as AMC stablemates Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but it was intelligently put together, and made good use of subtle period detail.

Given the ratings, one won’t really be able to argue the point if AMC pushes the “Delete” button on its keyboard for Halt and Catch Fire, particularly since the series never developed any sizable buzz, and it’s hard to predict the numbers would be much better going forward.  Then again, the network that renewed The Killing, Hell On Wheels and Turn clearly believes in second chances.  On its merits, Halt deserves a version 2.0.


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."