Midseason Check-In: HALT AND CATCH FIRE

A smart refocus and a heavy dose of girl power has saved the once floundering tech drama.

Halt and Catch Fire is doing something I’ve frankly never seen before. Given a second chance at life after a wildly uneven first season, Halt has actually managed to fix many of its problems and transform into an excellent series. Second chances aren’t wholly uncommon, but it usually involves a change in talent, creative team, or network. Halt has changed none of the above. Instead, and with a vote of confidence from AMC, the show has refocused, and is smarter, sharper, and simply better for it.

Mutiny

With Cardiff Electric bought out and dismantled in the premiere, the unifying force that held the characters together in Season One is now gone, and the show needed a new central focus. Enter Mutiny, Cameron’s tech startup. I often complained last year that Halt was making a mistake by focusing on Joe and Gordon. Cameron, Donna, and John Bosworth were the show’s most interesting characters, and they were often left in the background while the two leads battled for alpha male status. Season 2 has turned that entire situation on its head. At Mutiny, Cameron and Donna are now the heads of their own company with Bosworth acting as a trusted advisor.

Mutiny is a better focus for the show for multiple reasons: first, it puts the show’s best characters front and center. Secondly, it allows Halt to focus on the often under-represented role of women in the tech industry. While struggling to keep the company afloat, court investors, and worry about downsizing – all the normal needs of a start-up – Donna and Cameron also face a world unprepared to do business with a tech company run by two women. Investors seem less interested in their business pitch than whether either of them is expecting a pregnancy.

Yes, it’s a downright sexist question that both women attempt to deflect, but while Cameron is busy confronting the difficult balance of dating an employee, Donna does indeed find herself dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Questions surrounding a woman’s ability to be both a mother and a professional aren’t groundbreaking in 2015 (hell, it was the entire focus of the god-awful The Mysteries of Laura), but Donna’s reluctance to broach the pregnancy with her stay-at-home husband and an abortion storyline that ended in unexpected territory even managed to make that blasé storyline interesting.

One additional thing that the Mutiny storyline has forever proved is that all shows about tech startups should take place in chaotic home offices. Much like the similar Silicon Valley, the frenzied atmosphere of employees working of the bleeding edge of technology (when they’re not too busy playing, that is) is simply more interesting than the stiff professional confines of a company like Cardiff Electric. Sure, Cardiff had infinitely more resources and security, but the “kill or be killed” nature of Mutiny, where employees are asked to take stock options and differed salaries in lieu of paychecks, feels infinitely more dangerous. Cameron, Donna, and their coder monkeys have no choice. It’s innovate and succeed, or starve. It’s a hard choice that not all of them are willing to make.

But on the other hand, Cardiff could’ve never given Halt a storyline where this band of misfits revolutionizes the internet and gaming through playful experimentation. Customers stay online and talk even after the games crash? Maybe these “chat room” things might have a future. Lev woos a fellow player over flirty conversations about Ozzy Osbourne and invents online dating in the process. A game of nerf guns in the dead of night inspires Mutiny to develop the first-person shooter. Is it too much for one group of goofballs to do all this? Of course it is, but not every genius idea leads to success, and it’s worth it to understand that these coders, freed from the shackles of 9-to-5 jobs, have the smarts and ingenuity to change the world. If they can focus and quit re-watching The Terminator, that is.

Realistic Character Changes

The worst part of Halt’s first season was how limited and two-dimensional the characters were written. Joe McMillan was a genius sociopath, devoid of warmth and constantly making destructive decisions. Cameron was equally destructive and always angry. She was a “punk” and that’s how punks are, don’t you see? Gordon suffered from an inferiority complex and constantly compared himself to Joe. It’s no wonder that Donna and Bosworth were the best characters. They were the only “real” characters that the show had to offer.

Season Two has changed that, moving the characters into places of uncertainty and revealing their humanity in the process. Cameron still has an angry streak, but she also has an additional range of emotions to go with it: doubt about Mutiny’s future, sympathy for Donna’s unexpected pregnancy, and even sadness. When Cameron found herself heartbroken in “Extract and Defend” and actually teared up in loneliness instead of lashing out in anger, it was a huge development for the Halt’s long-term success, and one of the best moments that the show has ever had. Similarly, John Bosworth’s decision to gift his son his beloved Mustang as a wedding present, hoping to start a relationship with the boy he often ignored in favor of work, was a pleasure to watch.

But no change has been as positive as the get-back slap to Joe McMillan and his outsized ego. The dressing-down that he received from his former Cardiff bosses in the premiere can be interpreted as a mea culpa from showrunner/writers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers to the show’s fans, detailing all the mistakes that they made in Season One. Seeing Joe knocked down from his perch as a technological visionary to having to work in his father-in-law to-be’s data entry division actually worked. The struggling Joe, much like the scrappy Mutiny, is the best version of Joe, and the idea that he’d be willing to demean himself professionally to earn the favor of the father of the woman he loves was actually a breath of fresh air. It also gave him a chance to do some of the innovation that he’s always claimed to possess in spades, recognizing an un-utilized company resource and turning it into a moneymaker – by leasing unused server time to Mutiny….

It’s an interesting way to bring our characters back together.

The Future

All of this is not to say that Halt and Catch Fire is now a perfect show. Episodes often feel wildly disjointed with characters working towards vastly different goals. Gordon’s quest to find himself in California in light of his brain damage diagnosis (while things unravel at Mutiny back home) is a perfect example. It’s is also another example of Halt hewing too closely to Cantwell and Rogers’s previous employer: Mad Men.

The revival of Old Joe in the most recent episodes is also a huge cause for concern. A Joe who fights for Mutiny with Jacob Wheeler, but humiliates Cameron and Donna during public negotiations, is a painful throwback to the sociopathic Joe of old. Lee Pace has the starpower and charisma to carry a show, but Halt often seems hell-bent on making him as frustrating as possible. It’s never a good sign when a drama functions best when its lead star is on the sidelines. Lee Pace deserves better, and so do we.

But I’m here to praise, not to bury. Compared to Season One, the current series is a major improvement, and I’m actually thrilled to watch it every week. As a critic who often campaigned for the show’s (deserved) cancellation a year ago, I couldn’t be more happily surprised. The promise of greatness that greeted viewers in the pilot has finally returned to Halt and Catch Fire, and it’s once again a show worth watching. If you gave up a year ago, now is the time to get back on board. After a season of frustration, Halt has finally begun to catch fire.

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