‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Is a Spark in the Arid Texas Heat

[22 July 2014]

By Miles Layman

The business of television is ever changing in the dog days of summer. Producers will jockey with network execs for renewal, showrunners will settle into the fateful writer’s room to shape their show’s future, and Jack Bauer is now opting to save England from annihilation—but still somehow doing it with only a flip phone and concealed pistol at his disposal.

As tumultuous as the summer season is though, it leaves the medium’s newcomers room to develop in a less crowded pool of talent. Both of TV’s Sunday night giants, Mad Men and Game of Thrones, have come to a close. AMC, ever the proverbial ad man even after Don Draper and Co. have hung up their jackets, has given its latest rookie drama its fair share of flashy promos. Halt and Catch Fire is AMC’s latest attempt at developing a series that can fill the void left in Breaking Bad’s meteoric wake—and, more importantly, its most inspired.

Summer is more or less the offseason for major networks, and they will scramble to get any new summer shows to stick in a network landscape where heavy series turnover is the norm.  Now, even as the industry’s scope continues to grow, Halt and Catch Fire, lauded as AMC’s new heavy hitter, is primed to capitalize on the premier real estate that’s available at this time of year. Fitting, then, that its pilot sets the stage for our players to upend the balance of the personal computer industry.

Led by Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy, Halt and Catch Fire recounts the battle for supremacy that emerges when our antiheroes find out that IBM is using dirt-cheap parts in their computers to make billions. McNairy’s Gordon Clark is a fragile, damaged Walter White type who’s been spurned by the industry and boxed into a corner as a lowly engineer until Pace arrives in the offices of Cardiff Electric to revive his career. For now, he’s morose and emotionally toned down, but McNairy is capable of owning a screen with a more volatile performance—one need only look to his part in Non-Stop, where he amps up the narrative along with Liam Neeson. Clark seems interested in blowing up the business of personal computers, even if he has plenty to lose in the fallout.

Pace’s sleek, undaunted Joe MacMillan speaks volumes even when McNairy is getting more screen time. Pace is able to do plenty with relatively sparse material. He is a focus of the show, but he haunts corporate dinners in downtown Dallas with a stirring, quiet intensity while seething at home in an apartment empty even by Rust Cohle’s standards. Pace can deliver a sharp, chilling monologue, and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers aren’t afraid to let him loose in that regard. 

Mackenzie Davis plays Cameron Howe, a student both hit on and recruited by MacMillan in the pilot. Howe is less seasoned than Clark and MacMillan, but just as chemically unstable and catalytic; she fits right in as a cryptic wunderkind programmer. There’s an obvious conceit in Halt and Catch Fire in that there’s more lurking under the surface of these people and that they’re on their way to Zuckerberg-level avarice once business begins to boom, but so far their portrayal is compelling even absent the trappings of wealth. Davis’ Cameron Howe is a fiery college dropout who absorbs herself in the display of her Commodore 64 screen and avoids people in general, but as she clacks away at her keyboard you can see a wedding ring glisten faintly. MacMillan, Halt and Catch Fire’s ever-prescient salesman, even has his very own “you know how I got these scars?” moment, and milks the pitch for all that it’s worth.

Set in the early 1980s, Halt and Catch Fire follows in the footsteps of upstart series like The Americans and Hannibal in allowing us to know how the story will end before it begins. Sensationalism and mystery still dominate television, but there’s a real trend towards shaping worlds that we already know a lot about. Hannibal immerses us in Dr. Lecter’s ethereal therapy sessions long before the FBI ever captures him. The Americans exposes us to the lives of Soviet spies who are deep undercover in the nation’s capital just as the motherland is about to disintegrate. Weiner chronicled this trend with Mad Men, where he continues to envelop the audience in a very familiar era in US history.

The question always remains then: are we watching a unique story, or a foreboding eventuality?  Weiner often shows us both, with Draper trying to drink himself to death even while he is patching things up with his daughter. And now, with the narrative colored before the first frame appears, Halt and Catch Fire has begun to hum along as smoothly as the computers its main characters are banking on. That is, until they rip them apart.

There’s also something to be said about a show that can revel in its own glory the way Halt and Catch Fire can. Howe channels her inner Will Hunting by leaving behind coding masterpieces on the white board of her dingy basement office while Clark and his wife configure the innards of computer real estate like they’re playing Tetris. The show’s visual style is certainly rooted in Mad Men-like sensibilities, but it has plenty of wrinkles, some of them seamed in clothing and doused in sweat. Among the period perfect beards and tailored suits are thick drawls and bloated corporate execs aplenty. The camera is still enough to make the sets feel lived in, but the offices of Cardiff Electric are lightly cooked in a yellow tint.

The show has a definite sense of urgency, and it helps when each character looks like someone just locked them in a microwave.  Often when there’s an abundance of light in a shot, it’s coming from the imposing Texas sun; when it’s not, it’s fueled by whirring of computers and dim light installations of stuffy offices. Our leads don’t have to try too hard to appear oppressed. When the trinity of scorned techies is approached at the end of the pilot by phalanxes of IBM lawyers, there’s a definite sense of momentum infused into Halt and Catch Fire. The tech mecca of Dallas can get plenty hot too, and its summers are rapt with just as much intrigue.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/183768-halt-and-catch-fire-is-a-spark-in-the-arid-texas-heat/