A few weeks ago, hours into the bittersweet afterglow of the Mad Men finale, I saw some of my fellow pop culture junkies joke on Twitter that AMC would be just fine, because it still had Halt and Catch Fire to fall back on. Without thinking, I leapt to the show’s defense, assuring them that it was better than they remembered, and that the upcoming second season would prove that. I remember, at the time, not even being sure why I was doing that, but now that Halt is back and well into its second season, I have no trouble figuring it out: Halt and Catch Fire was good before Season 2 began, but now it’s reaching for greatness in ways so exciting that it just might get there.
The first season of Halt and Catch Fire arrived last year at a time when AMC had already begun its search for a new prestige drama to fill the holes left by Breaking Bad and Mad Men (Low Winter Sun had already come and gone), and at the time it seemed to be setting itself up almost as the Mad Men of the ‘80s. It even had its own Don Draper: Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan, a handsome, smooth-talking former IBM executive who found his way to the “Silicon Prairie” of Texas and charmed a Dallas electronics firm into letting him build and sell their first personal computer, something that could compete with emerging giants in the fledgling industry. Once in Dallas, Joe teams up with Gordon (Scoot McNairy), an engineer still starry-eyed and nostalgic over his own past brushes with PC glory, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a damaged but brilliant renegade coder who blares punk music into her headphones while she types, and eventually Donna (Kerry Bishe), Joe’s wife and former engineering partner who’s been slaving away at a corporate job. Season 1 is framed around their collective efforts to create a PC and the resulting obstacles, including Joe’s personal secrets and tricky contractual background with IBM, Cameron’s erratic tendencies, and Gordon and Donna’s stagnant, often tense marriage.
Season 1 is, though enjoyable, quite a slow burn, and I can’t blame some viewers for turning it off midway through, disappointed that these volatile characters weren’t creating enough interesting chaos onscreen, but it all eventually pays off. As the season nears its end, it becomes clear that the story was never about the computer, nor was it about the vision of the characters and their drive to create something original. It was about these four people forming a collective powder keg. By the end of the season you’re just waiting for it to go off, and then it does, satisfyingly blowing up Season 1’s premise and setting up something new.
Season 2 began, a few weeks ago, with loads of potential. Gordon and Donna had a potential new start, Cameron had a new and exciting direction, and Joe was attempting to reinvent after an exile of his own making. This time around, the show has no single guiding character, whereas Season 1 was often dominated by Joe’s moody antiheroism. Everyone feels like they’re on equal footing, and that makes us not only care about each lead that much more, but it keeps us guessing. These are, as Season 1 taught us, all characters with something to say and something to prove, but they’re also all people capable of dramatic and spectacular acts of self-destruction. All that volatility from Season 1 is still there, with new delivery systems to guide it, and that makes a for show brimming with unpredictability at its best.
The series has always been driven by a great cast, but this year everyone seems to have stepped up their game. Pace brought every ounce of charm he had last season, but now it’s layered in with even more vulnerability, fear, and self-doubt, even as he pushes forward with another Big Idea. McNairy’s a man without a particular cause this season, and that makes him the show’s most unpredictable and possibly dangerous player, while Bishe seems to be its moral core, trying to keep multiple ships from sinking while also looking for ways to secure a personal sense of fulfillment and happiness. Then there’s Davis, who’s harnessed the dangerous, sexy energy she brought to season one and focused it into an all-or-nothing character. This show cannot, and does not work when we can’t care about these people, and though it did work from the start in Season 1, it works even better now, when even the supporting players are absolutely firing on all cylinders.
What’s truly given Halt and Catch Fire such growth for Season 2, though, is that its writers (led by creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers) seem to know better than ever what kind of show they’re making. Season 1 was dramatic and interesting and capable of real surprises, but its focus on a single mission for most of its characters made it lag a bit, until those characters finally – directly or indirectly – started to turn on each other. Season 2 is free of that. It’s a show about people now, about individuals with often conflicting goals and desires, and just like Mad Men was never really about selling advertising, Halt and Catch Fire is no longer really about the tech revolution.
Last Sunday’s episode featured two key moments that harness this sense of direction: First, when Cameron finally cuts loose and has a NERF gun war with her co-workers in the style of what we now know as first person shooter gaming. And second, when Donna realizes that the connection between people provided by chat rooms (an ancillary component of what she and Cameron are really selling: online gaming) is actually beginning to take on a life of its own, beyond people trying to shoot each other in a rudimentary tank simulator. Just like that, the show has captured both the energy and release of immersive gaming and the longing for closeness that so many people see fulfilled through the internet now. It’s not about the technology but about the lives surrounding it, and how they change and grow, layered with the knowledge that the people we’re following on this show will never actually become the visionaries they hope to be (in the world of the show, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak have already done that).
Halt and Catch Fire — like Mad Men and, to some degree, Breaking Bad before it — is providing its own bittersweet dose of Americana at a very particular time, while also saying something sobering and exciting about how we live now. It’s an upgrade that I didn’t see coming, but if Season 2 keeps running this smoothly, it might not be the last upgrade the show gets.
Halt and Catch Fire airs Sundays at 10/9C on AMC.