AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire ended its second season — and I have to assume, the series — on a high note last night that both offered some closure and left open a storyline possibility for next year (record-low ratings for an AMC drama didn’t kill the series after its first season, so it’s possible that even lower ratings won’t kill it this year). Grading the second season overall, however, depends on the curve. Against most Sunday night prestige dramas, it’d get a solid B. Against the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, it’s an A+.
Notices for this season may have benefited from dramatically low expectations after a disastrous first season. Rookie showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, however, seemed to have learned from their freshman mistakes. They came into this season with an overall plan that was more focused on character development than the illusory appeal of duplicating Mad Men in the 1980s in the midst of the burgeoning computer industry.
The showrunners, however, did continue with the major theme of the first season — building upon, borrowing and stealing from existing technology to create better technology. They switched gears, however, from the upstart PC industry to the beginnings of the Internet, and most crucially, the series also switched focus from the two male leads (Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy) to the female leads, Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe.
The new focus not only allowed Halt and Catch Fire to introduce a feminist bent to the series, but more importantly, the pivot gave a stronger, more dimensioned voice to the series best two characters. Season one centered on Joe MacMillan (Pace) and Gordon Clark’s (McNairy) attempt to essentially clone an IBM computer and ended with Joe sabotaging the very company he helped to build. In the wake of his destruction, his girlfriend and genius computer programmer, Cameron Howe (Davis), decided to embark on a new venture, Mutiny, with the help of Gordon’s wife, Donna (Bishe).
In some ways, the storyline in season two mirrored that of the first season: Mutiny began as a small computer game company but eventually turned the communication between the computer gamers into the core of their new business, building an online bulletin board, an early precursor to the Internet.
Along the way, Joe — engaged and later married to the daughter of an oil and gas tycoon Jacob Wheeler (played by James Cromwell) — helped by providing them with server space he reallocated from his father-in-law’s company. That, however, proved disastrous when Wheeler decided to steal Mutiny’s ideas against the wishes of Joe and use his company’s resources to transform it into something even better.
That’s essentially how technology has always worked — building on the backs of others — but Halt and Catch Fire offered a unique perspective in that we were able to witness not the victors of the technology wars, but those who were essentially mind raped (to borrow a term from Silicon Valley). For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, there are dozens of uncredited people who surfaced the ideas or built the backbone to what would ultimately make their products successful. Halt and Catch Fire gave voice to them.
Ultimately, however, season two ended with Cameron and Donna’s Mutiny finding comeuppance. Cameron took advantage of Joe’s romantic fixation with her to slip him an early form of a virus, infecting the computer program of Jacob Wheeler’s new company during a key event. Stock in Wheeler’s company plummeted, and Mutiny was able to collect itself and restart with an eye toward moving their company to Silicon Valley, which is where Halt and Catch Fire will presumably take place in season three (in the unlikely event that it’s renewed).
Meanwhile, Joe — who spent much of the season attempting to redeem himself — was screwed over by both his father-in-law and Cameron, but he also ended up having the last laugh (after his wife left him). He stole Gordon’s idea and created a defense to the very virus that Cameron infected those computers with, coming up with a precursor to anti-virus software (and making out with a $10 million investment).
It was Gordon who came out the big loser this season, both in terms of storyline and his character. Gordon, for some inexplicable reason, caught a bad case of the brain damage. Literally. It was a minor brain tumor that had his character philandering, coming up with failed ideas, and eventually wandering around a parking lot for an entire episode. Ultimately, he agreed to use the money he secured in the Cardiff buyout to invest in Mutiny and come work for them in order to save his marriage.
Gordon was both sidelined and misused this season, and worst of all, they got rid of Scoot McNairy’s beard. It’s one thing to assassinate a character. It’s another to take away his sex appeal.
In the end, I enjoyed season two of Halt and Catch Fire, not only in relation to the first season, but as its own entity. That said, if it fails to get a renewal, it’s not that kind of show I’ll be heartbroken about losing. In fact, its cancellation may prove beneficial to the main cast: Bishe and Howe can land series that audiences may actually watch; Lee Pace can get out from under an unlikable and mostly static character; and Scoot McNairy can grow his beard back. It’s a win win for everyone, except the actors who play the Mutiny employees.