HALT AND CATCH FIRE: “SETI”

A second season readjustment has AMC’s tech drama showing signs of life.

Scott Fitzgerald once famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but does the same apply to American cable network dramas? That’s one of the questions that Halt and Catch Fire is looking to answer as it begins its sophomore season on AMC.

After an exceptional pilot, the 1980s computer drama took a quick turn for the worse during its premiere season, and despite the near omnipresent advertising campaign by AMC, never managed to grab hold of either an audience or strong critical reception. Halt, rather than catching fire as its title promised, simply fizzled out and was largely forgotten by both critics and the public alike. Plenty of shows survive one of those obstacles, but few survive both.

The problems weren’t ever hard to see, and that’s a large part of what made the show so frustrating. For a show about the age of computer revolution, it was never… well, revolutionary in any way. Its main protagonist, Joe MacMillan, was an obvious Don Draper clone/heir in a long line of cable TV’s “difficult men” – always the cockiest man in the room and a self-assured wunderkind in his field whose enigmatic past held a (lame) dark secret. Problematically, he was also a sociopath who never cared about the lives he destroyed in the process. How could such a man be such an a-hole and also inspire devotion in his employees? I don’t know, and neither did the writers.

The show’s decision to bog things down at Cardiff industries, as Joe and Gordon Clark strove to develop a “better” desktop computer while constantly wrangling for dominance, shoved its best components to the back burner. Female prodigy coder Cameron Howe was often literally relegated to a dank room in the basement to work while the men snipped at each other from their offices. Relegating their most interesting character to the sidelines deprived Halt of the chance to examine both the shadey origins of many of our technological breakthroughs and the already marginalized role of women in the tech industry. Furthermore, Cardiff’s “revolutionary product” was never particularly exciting. It was just a cheaper desktop computer. Throw in a half-baked Joe/Cameron romance, and the show seemed headed for cancellation.

Despite its lukewarm reception, Halt was renewed for a second season, and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have smartly taken it as an opportunity to fix their series. Call it a reboot, retool, debug, or whatever computer term you like, but Halt and Catch Fire has returned, and the results are a dramatic improvement.

The premiere, “SETI,” jumps 20 months into the future from the Season One finale, and largely focuses on Cameron and her startup, a pre-internet subscription game service called Mutiny. The haphazard company is a loose collection of former Cardiff coder monkeys all living together in a house that’s not large enough for either them or their tech. The introduction to both the company and the Season 2 storylines is a four-minute tracking shot through the entire house as Donna Clark weaves in and out of rooms solving problems and observing the chaos. The entire house is a mess of computer parts, crisscrossed cables, and anarchy, which establish the Mutiny House as a living, breathing organism run by mutineers.

When cable storage problems arise, one of the coder monkeys simply decides to cut into the walls. When they blow the entire block’s power, they just run extension cords to outlets elsewhere. It obviously isn’t a sustainable business model, but Mutiny’s slapdash environment offers something that Cardiff never did: a feeling of risk and innovation. Mutiny’s biggest problem is their inability to keep pace with growing demand, which is a great problem to have. Their service is wildly popular, and there’s a constant feel that Mutiny is working on the bleeding edge of something new and exciting. It might be a little on the head that Mutiny’s introduction is coupled with camera work as kinetic as the aforementioned tracking shot, but it’s entirely forgivable. The shot works, and it stands in stark juxtaposition to the often labored pace of Season One. At last, the show is trying to break beyond the stoic formula of a cable drama.

Whereas the Halt premiere focused on Joe and Gordon, “SETI” keeps its attention on the women. Cameron isn’t an ancillary character used for diversity and romance anymore. Mutiny is her and Donna’s baby, and it’s they who are out on the new frontiers of technology while Cardiff is busy closing its doors across town. Cantwell and Rogers wisely don’t use Cameron and Donna’s coupling as a “girl power vs the man” opportunity, either. They aren’t blindly sisters in arms, but neither are they constantly fighting. Early indications are that they’ll be a little of both, as coworkers often are. Donna has the maturity and business savvy that Mutiny needs to offset Cameron’s unrestrained creativity. They’re equally excited to see that players are happy to simply use the game space as a chatroom when the game’s functionality locks up, but Donna is also tired of having to act like the motherly problem-solver to everyone else in the company. Their joint computer theft in response to being hustled by a back alley tech salesman in the closing minutes of the episode is another strong, kinetic moment for them and the new-look series as a whole. They have a real-world working dynamic, and everything about it crackles with life.

While Donna and Cameron are busy with their new venture, Gordon and Joe are putting a bow on their old one. After a season of talk about the Giant’s revolutionary prowess, Cardiff was only able to deliver a single derivative next model before being acquired by an overseas competitor and closing their doors. All that’s left is for Gordon and Joe to collect their part of the buyout and move on with their lives. Gordon seems to have done a solid job guiding the computer division through the Giant Pro era, but was never able to escape the looming storm of irrelevance that their product was always facing. In the end it was just another IBM clone, and Gordon could only do so much to save the sinking ship. Their purchaser really only wants the acquisition for their patents. Gordon finds himself with nearly a million dollars in his pocket, no sure direction, and a burgeoning cocaine habit for his troubles.

Joe, meanwhile, seems to have moved on from Cardiff a long time ago, apparently having never returned after his walk into the woods at the end of Season One. Instead, he met a journalist named Sarah (Aleksa Palladino) who was researching an article about extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the two moved to Austin together. Their first scene features a loving embrace at their calm, woodsy home, and she obviously represents an anchor and stability to Joe’s often volatile nature. It would be easy to write all of this off as another of Joe’s impulsive life changes if it wasn’t for the tranquility of Lee Pace’s performance. For all of his desire to use technology to change the world, Joe seems to have finally found his place in it in this rustic setting. “I thought I was unhappy with the project, but in hindsight I guess I was unhappy with myself,” he says while enjoying a homey bonfire with friends. It’s one of many lines in the episode that sound like an apology from the writers to the audience itself.

But even if he turned over a new leaf, Joe can’t completely escape the wake of destruction he left at Cardiff, getting a brusque greeting from Gordon and a total dressing-down from Nathan Cardiff, who’s quick to remind him of the projects and lives he destroyed. He presents Joe with his share of the buyout money before tearing the check to shreds and tossing it on the table. “You left us with nothing but a doorstop of a computer with a fancy screen and no legacy!” he huffs, representing the company and, again, the audience.

It’s here that a piece of the old Joe surfaces, unable to resist the opportunity to tell off his old boss one last time. “It’s good you’re getting out now,” he says. “Something’s coming, and it’s gonna be big, and it won’t include this place, and it certainly won’t include you.” Perhaps it’s a reference to Cameron and Donna’s work at Mutiny, and the unspoken-of specter of the coming Internet. Perhaps it’s about what Joe’s planning to do next. But whatever it is, either jointly with Gordon or separate, I hope it takes them back to the unadorned garages where Halt has always found its surest footing.

It’s too early to tell if the Season 2 update will save the show for good, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. It’s one thing to survive bad ratings, but it’s wholly another to readjust the focus of your entire show. The reception from those who’ve seen multiple episodes is largely positive, and I certainly hope that’s true. Cameron’s decision to pick up John Bosworth from jail in “SETI’s” final moments hints at positive things. The episode title references the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, echoing its audience’s search for signs of life on the show. Mea Culpa accepted, showrunners. Halt has a heartbeat after all.

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