Review: HALT AND CATCH FIRE, Season 1

Instead of burning the house down, Halt and Catch Fire fizzled out and never became the great show it could have been.

You’re not the future. You’re a footnote. For a while you had me fooled. I mean, I thought I heard a heartbeat, but it wasn’t a heartbeat—it was an echo.

–Cameron Howe

That quote pretty much says it all. It comes during Joe and Cameron’s final scene together as he tries to salvage their relationship for the umpteenth time this season. They’ve split up again in the aftermath of Joe and Gordon removing her personalized interface from the computer to make it a viable product. Joe promises that he can change, and that they can change the world together. They can develop something great at Cardiff, or start a new company altogether – whatever she wants. He needs her, whatever the cost. But it’s too late. Joe’s slash and burn style of business has alienated almost every other character, and he’s left alone with a profitable, but unspectacular computer, that no one to lean on. Yes, they got the Giant to the market, and yes, he and Gordon negotiated an 8% share of the company for themselves, but Cameron is gone, and the company’s soul (plus the entire programming team) seems to have left with her. The man who arrived at Cardiff with sky-high dreams and a team of underperforming wunderkinds finds himself facing an uncertain future and an unfulfilling present.

Sigh. Yes, Halt and Catch Fire. Too late is exactly what it is.

Thus ends one of the most disappointing first seasons for a show that I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been so frustrated week to week watching a show that could have been great, maybe should have been great, but continually refused to be so. If you look back at my review of the pilot, I was so excited for this season. The dawn of the computer age remains a thrilling setting for a television show. The pilot had an unnecessary resemblance to Mad Men, but nothing indicated that Halt would run off the rails the way it eventually did. A Mad Men clone would have been infinitely better than what the show ultimately became: a parade of confused, directionless characters motivated by sloppy writing that constantly sought profound moments without ever laying the groundwork to achieve them.

There’s still an outside chance that Halt could be renewed by AMC, but I’m not counting on it. The show’s ratings haven’t been anything special, and, while great reviews can sometimes save a show from paltry viewing numbers (think the early seasons of Breaking Bad), Halt hasn’t garnered enough critical praise to merit a second season. Simply put, it doesn’t deserve one. But would anyone even want to watch a second season? Is anyone invested enough to go back for seconds?

None of the show’s three leads is really worth following anymore, and first and foremost is Joe MacMillan. Poor, poor Lee Pace. He isn’t a bad actor, but he’s been forced to portray an awful character all season. In the finale he continues his sociopathic tendencies by driving the first deliveries of Cardiff Giants into the woods and lighting them on fire. Why, exactly? Because he’s tortured by the way he settled for the Giant instead of meeting his pie-in-the-sky expectations, I guess? It also mirrors the way that Joe left his previous job with IBM by opening a water main and flooding the room. He cuts a wide path of company destruction. Having previously destroyed his career with water he set out to do it again with fire, as like the Christian God with the earth, maybe? Your guess is as good as mine. Like I said, it’s been a year of unearned “big moments,” ranging from Joe giving a speech about Sputnik and being an outsider in a parking lot to the revelation that Joe once had a long term affair with another man to Joe waving flashlights around outside in the middle of a hurricane. Like I said, poor, poor Lee Pace.

Cameron Howe hasn’t advanced, either. The writers remain at a loss for what to do with her. Sleep with Joe, get angry, break up with Joe. Next week the cycle begins again. The fact that she’s a punk girl and a computer genius remain her only identifying features. After quitting Cardiff in the finale she starts her own company building an online subscription gaming company with all of Cardiff’s “Coder Monkey” programmers. She names the company “Mutiny” and spray paints the word in red on the living room wall. Why? She’s a punk and she doesn’t play by the rules! Gag.

Gordon, becoming the head of Cardiff sans beard, is best left undiscussed. It’s a testament to the show’s sad state of affairs that two of the show’s minor characters, Kerry Bishé’s Donna Clark and Toby Huss’s John Bosworth quickly became two of its most interesting.

Halt and Catch Fire’s writing was often its own worst enemy. It spent much of the season trying to stuff Gordon and Donna’s marital problems down its viewers’ throats unsuccessfully, and trying to shoehorn in Donna’s near-affair with a coworker, but it never felt right. When Donna and Gordon finally had a touching romantic moment in the season’s penultimate episode, the writers made sure to destroy it moments later. And, again, for what? Donna and Gordon were back on solid terms in the opening minutes of the finale. The writers had again crafted pointless and unnecessary drama from their relationship. When the show introduced the coder monkeys at the season’s midpoint I hoped that it would be a much needed breath of fresh air and levity for the show, and their reception was good. So, of course, they disappeared for much of the season soon after. It’s like the writers can’t stay out of their own way. The season’s latter-half plot points aren’t even really worth mentioning.

The finale ends with Donna going to work for Cameron’s new company, Gordon seemingly lost at Cardiff without Joe and Cameron, and Joe wandering off into the woods to look for himself and find a mystery woman, presumably his mother. It’s a weak moment to end the season (and probably the show) on. We’ve spent an entire season watching Joe’s layers of mystery get pulled back, but there’s never been anything of note at the core. It wasn’t interesting in the tech world, and I’m not keen on continuing that same journey in the woods. The idea of Cameron working with the coder monkeys is intriguing, but I’ve learned not to trust the writers with what should be interesting developments.

It all adds up to what’s probably another one-and-done series in what’s becoming an unsettling trend for AMC. But in my heart I know it didn’t have to be this way. I’m still somewhat dismayed that a show with so much potential ran off the rails to its doom. For a show about innovation, Halt never did any of its own despite being planted in fertile ground. It had a great premise, solid cast, a strong pilot, and plenty of backing from the network. For all the hype, the final product was an empty nothing. We all got hoaxed. Is it any wonder the show’s fictional computer was called the Cardiff Giant?

Look at that quote at the top of the page again. It’s like Halt and Catch Fire is unknowingly writing its own critique. Intentional or not, it sums up the season perfectly. Halt, you had me fooled. When you premiered I thought you were the future. I thought you were going to be great, but, sadly, you’re only going to be a footnote.

Season Grade: C-

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