AMC only sent one episode of Halt and Catch Fire to critics to preview. Now we know why.
Two things destroy businesses – mediocrity and making it about yourself.
— Joe McMillan
I was really excited when Halt and Catch Fire premiered this summer. It had some problems, most notable being it’s resemblance to Mad Men and a need to better flesh out its protagonists, but they looked like natural growing pains for the series – things that could be easily fixed. Besides, Halt crackled with life. The early days of personal computing are good territory for a series, and fertile ground for our characters, geniuses typing and soldering away in small, poorly lit rooms, waiting to change the world. The cast was promising, too. Especially Lee Pace as Joe McMillan, the classically tall, dark, and handsome techno-business wunderkind with a mysterious past. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but the pilot had lots of potential, and I was ready for more.
So what went wrong, and how did it happen so fast?
Maybe I should have known better. It wasn’t a secret that AMC only previewed the pilot episode for critics. The other episodes were kept under wraps by the studio, and that’s usually not a good sign. When they should have been building hype for the show, they were keeping it under wraps instead. Just what problems were they hiding? Let’s take a look.
1. Joe McMillan is a sociopath
The parallels between Joe McMillan and Don Draper are inescapable. They’re both tall, dark, handsome, and look great in a suit. Both are masters in their fields, and geniuses in the board room, easily commanding the attention and respect of a gathered crowd. The difference is this: Joe McMillan might be a sociopath.
Joe has manipulated and lied to his team of coworkers with no regard for the impact it will have on them at least three times in the first four episodes. The only reason Cardiff Electric is into personal computer development at all is because Joe forced the company’s hand. By revealing his and Gordon Clark’s (Scoot McNairy) illegal cloning of an IBM computer to IBM, he forced Cardiff to claim the activity as an official development project or risk being sued into oblivion by the computer giant. Thus Cardiff, a software company, is suddenly thrust into the world of PC development whether it wants to be or not. Worse, the move angers IBM who intimidates all of Cardiff’s business contacts into abandoning the company. The clients’ withdrawal costs many of Cardiff’s employees their jobs, leaving dozens of families without any sort of income, and it’s all directly tied to Joe’s PC development dreams. Too bad Joe wasn’t thinking about the impact his dream would have on countless other careers.
And it wasn’t just that one time. This kind of thing keeps happening. Joe completely fabricates a story about being assaulted and savagely beaten by a group of other kids as a child because he cared more about Sputnik than football, and he uses the story to instill a kind of “us against the world” ethos in his employees. Remember, this is the early 1980s. Computer nerds weren’t cool yet. Being a tech savant was geek, not chic, and Joe wants his staff to embrace that outsider status and change the world. The problem is that the story is a complete lie. When Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) points out that the timeline of his story doesn’t add up, Joe just knowingly smiles. Again, he’s manipulating to get what he wants.
Finally, and maybe worst of all, is the stunt he pulls with Cameron in “Close to the Metal.” With Cameron close to completing the BIOS code necessary for their PC, an electrical problem erases most of the code from her computer, and Cameron’s shoddy backup work leaves the computer development in serious jeopardy. On the verge of project collapse, it takes a team of workers (including Gordon’s wife, Donna, who has two children to take care of and who doesn’t even work for Cardiff) an entire day and night to solve the problem and recover the code. Unfortunately, this problem, again, is falsely manufactured by Joe. He purposely caused the electrical problem just to create an interesting angle for an article being written about the company. Furthermore, he had backups of the lost code. The project was never in danger. He simply wasted everyone’s time – especially Donna and her children’s – and frayed the nerves of the coding genius he’s depending on for the project to succeed in order to get some good press. Halt’s writers continue to make Joe a manipulative jerk just so he seems like he’s the coolest guy in the room, despite the havoc it wreaks on the people around him. He’s not just an anti-hero. He’s a sociopath.
2. Cameron Howe’s lack of development
One of the most interesting ingredients in the premiere was Cameron Howe, the female coder brought in to develop the BIOS code for Cardiff’s PC. Unfortunately, I had some issues with her development, and they haven’t been fixed since. Cameron is the stereotypical “hacker girl,” a female computer genius in a man’s world. She’s a misfit who doesn’t play by the rules, refusing to dress professionally or even wear a bra in the workplace. Her workstation is a mess littered with soda and convenience store food, and she does her best work while blasting punk rock. You can find versions of the same character all over pop culture. Think Abby Sciuto in NCIS or Angelina Jolie’s character in Hackers. Unless Halt can develop her character further, she’s just a stereotype. And that development hasn’t happened yet.
Cameron should be one of the show’s central characters, but she hasn’t exactly had much to do yet. Even after five episodes we hardly know anything about her or her motivations. Instead of expanding her character, the writers just reinforce her stereotype. When she’s mad at Gordon she goes to his house to spray paint graffiti on his living room walls. She spends an entire episode drinking and partying in a hotel room with some nihilistic punk drifters. It’s just lazy writing that doesn’t take her character anywhere. She claimed in the premiere that she wanted to help change the world with computers. How is that ever going to happen if all she does is hop in and out of bed with Joe McMillan (again, why?) and does sloppy coding work? It isn’t enough for the other characters to occasionally call her a genius. She needs to show us something.
3. Sloppy, sometimes inane, writing
The writing for Halt and Catch Fire has been inconsistent at best, as I’ve already somewhat pointed out. A lot of the tech world and boardroom scenes have been wonderful, but when the show leaves the Cardiff offices things tend to run off the rails. Weirdly, its symbolism seems to revolve around killing animals. When slick Joe McMillan runs over an armadillo in his equally slick sports car during the premiere’s opening moments, it’s an obvious signifier that he’s in Texas to play by his own rules. It’s also incredibly heavy-handed. So is Donna’s killing a bird with a shovel when the Cardiff PC project is struggling to get off the ground. So is the Cardiff owner shooting a lame horse when the company struggles to find funding. The writers can do better.
The show’s most egregious moment comes in the third episode, when Joe and Cardiff boss John Bosworth (Toby Huss) seek funding from a wealthy female investor. She offers Cardiff a paltry $10 million in funding in exchange for 80% of the company. Joe is disgusted at the offer, but Bosworth, the controlling financial head of the company, feels compelled to take it. To prevent that from happening, Joe makes romantic moves at her husband to anger her into recalling the offer. Wait, what? Where did this “Joe will seduce men to get what he wants” storyline come from? It’s incredibly stupid and slightly offensive. The show didn’t need to stoop to this, and it only reinforces Joe’s worst traits since it leaves the PC project unfunded (see point 1: Joe McMillan is a sociopath). It’s maddening.
Where does the show go from here?
So what does Halt and Catch Fire do now? Though it has its problems, the show hasn’t been all bad. Like I said, the tech aspects of the show crackle with life, and the story itself is pretty interesting. There’s some solid acting, too. Joe McMillan has his problems, but most of them aren’t Lee Pace’s fault. If Joe is written as a smug, smartest guy in the room a-hole, Pace does a good job portraying him as a smug, smartest guy in the room a-hole. I also really like Kerry Bishé as Donna, Gordon’s wife, mother of two, and a skillful tech wizard in her own right. She’s arguably a better female role model than Cameron.
If there’s any hope that the show might eventually find its footing, it came in this week’s episode, easily the best one since the premiere. The addition of a group of gifted young “coder monkeys” instilled some much needed humor to the show. Joe even made some decisions that worked to everyone’s benefit, and no animals were killed in the name of heavy-handed symbolism. In other words, the episode eliminated many of its worst features while emphasizing the aspects that really work. That’s the show I want to see going forward. But it’s hard to ignore that time might be running out for the show. The ratings have been lackluster, and I’m not sure it has the critical reputation to save it either. With only four episodes left in its first season, it has to stay on course and finish strong or there may not be a season two. Hopefully we find ourselves discussing a show that turned things around at just the right time a year from now, not discussing how Halt and Catch Fire wasted its huge potential and ran off the rails into oblivion.
Episodes 1 & 5, B+
Episodes 2-4, C