Usually when someone says the phrase “period drama,” eyes glaze over and everyone pictures Jane Austen-era England. Thankfully, Halt and Catch Fire is not that. This computer-centric period drama begins in the 1980s and is, frankly, a wild ride.
The series illustrates a fictional experience within the personal computer revolution, starting in 1983 in Dallas, aka the Silicon Prairie. Season one hits the ground running when Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) a rogue entrepreneur who used to work at IBM, and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a talented computer engineer at Cardiff Electric, decide to work together. They want to reverse engineer an IBM computer, so they clone their own version of the personal computer—one that’s twice as fast and half the size as IBM’s.
Joe is the smooth-talking visionary who first comes up with the idea to build a better computer. And while Gordon is more than capable of reverse engineering the IBM machine and mapping out the assembly language in its BIOS, the two are still in need of a software engineer who can write a new BIOS. Joe then discovers prodigy coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and recruits her. Drama ensues when Joe tells IBM and gets the project legitimized by Cardiff.
The most exciting thing about Halt and Catch Fire is that its two creators—Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers—were always unsure whether or not they were getting another season, so they never held back. Where they could have stretched an arc across two seasons or held punches for a season finale, they fired at will and ultimately gave every episode all they had. As a result, the show is fast-paced and mesmerizing, with lots of dialogue and development; at the same time, it’s never rushed.
And while the tech drama centers around computers and is flush with the technical jargon that tends to come with the territory, it never feels over your head. Characters do a decent job of explaining difficult concepts in a simple manner without making you feel like you’re being spoonfed, and without ruining the mood for those who are knowledgeable enough to understand what’s happening. This even includes the show’s title, classic machine code that causes the CPU to stop all meaningful operations, forcing a restart (feel free to read further into that as you watch the show).
The show also has a fantastic score and is written by Paul Haslinger of legendary synth band Tangerine Dream, who did a stellar job capturing the moody essence of ’80s music. He used heavy synthesizers and focused on writing for each scene, rather than smothering the show in heavy-handed musical themes. Haslinger also made a conscious choice to avoid using popular tracks from the era within the show. This was partially due to how expensive licensing costs are, but he also didn’t want them to distract viewers from the show itself.
Haslinger’s friend Thomas Golubić, who was the show’s music supervisor, worked with AMC to create Spotify playlists for characters Joe MacMillan, Gordon Clark, Cameron Howe, and other characters that further rounded out their unique personalities. With all manner of artists on these playlists—including the likes of Joy Division, Dire Straits, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure, Run-DMC, Jethro Tull, Johnny Cash, The Psychedelic Furs, Elton John, and The Clash—the playlists are just as exciting and interesting on their own as the show is.
Halt and Catch Fire has something more valuable to offer than its fascinating storyline and flashy score, though: its characters. The way the writers weave them into the show’s narrative hand-in-hand with themes like failure, pressure, consequences, comfort zones, feminism, and interpersonal relationships is just as rewarding as any other aspect of the show.
In 1983, the tech world was still largely unpredictable. People knew what technology could already do and were starting to get a sense for how they could shape it for the future; they also knew they’d need to be the first to climb any particular mountain if they wanted to have any success. In Halt and Catch Fire, we see Joe wanting to build a smaller better computer that’d revolutionize the personal computer industry, but he knows he’ll need to work fast, be greedy, and probably even make some shady deals along the way to actually make it happen. He’s a visionary and a sweet-talker, but we also learn that he’s got some emotional baggage he needs to deal with while also convincing others his ideas are worth believing in.
Gordon is still beating himself up over a failed attempt to build a personal computer with his wife (who works at Texas Instruments). He’s given up and seems content in a dead-end job until Joe comes along and sparks his interest in computers again. Likewise, Cameron is also incredibly smart but at the same time, she’s an outcast, feral and volatile. All of them are a little screwed up and none of them really like each other. However, they are bonded together by the goal of completing this new computer and getting it on the market to great success.
As we see them move throughout the show’s 80 episodes, we (like them) know all of the risks they are taking, what it’s all costing them, and that it is pushing all of them out of their comfort zones. It’s endearing to see them keep trying, though, and to see them get back up when they’re down; we get to root for them along the way and celebrate their victories with them.
Halt and Catch Fire offers viewers a gripping historical journey through the technological advancements of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its writers created genuinely dynamic characters who have real goals and motivations and, as a result, we the viewers are doubly rewarded with a beautiful smart show that’s character driven in the best possible way.
I’ve heard many people call Halt and Catch Fire the best show that nobody watched. I, too, believe that it didn’t receive the attention it deserved while it aired or even now, which is why I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested whether or not you’re into computers.
The show originally aired from 2014-2017 is currently available to watch on Netflix. You can also pay per episode on Apple TV or Prime Video.
Halt and Catch Fire
Got Netflix? Good. Log on and watch this extremely excellent retro tech drama.