“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” That’s a T.S. Eliot quote most readers will know from The Leftovers, and the aching piece of music by Max Richter that borrows from its title, or philosophy textbooks. For fans of the small screen’s best-kept secret, it’s a bitter-sweet encapsulation of what made Halt and Catch Fire the best TV series most people have never heard of.
The problem with a breathtaking thing many aren’t aware of is that you want to keep it all to yourself. Case and point: if I had to hear less brain-dead takes about House of the Dragon, I’d probably have a better time swirling in its vortex.
Alas, details (minor spoilers only) in this plea are to rope folks in because this series could use a little conversation. We — all five fans — can’t be selfish any longer. Halt and Catch Fire is the best drama series you’ve never seen.
What is it about? This shouldn’t be a difficult question, but it is: subtle storytelling is often betrayed by its simple logline. Despite HACF’s thrilling logline, it’s not really about what it’s about.
The series begins in the 1980s following a group of wannabe trailblazers in personal computing. Joe (Lee Pace) is a visionary, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is a high-strung engineer, his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) has a mind for hardware largely shelved because of motherhood, and Cam (Mackenzie Davis) is an unfocused but radically talented young programmer.
They fight, love, and fail in their dream of building the ‘Giant’, a machine that would revolutionize personal computing. As they reverse-engineer IBM systems and try to outpace market competition, it’s a feverish arms race.
Like many stories that continually evolve in all the right ways, the beginning is the weakest part. Season 1 is not bad, far from it, but it does inspire that woeful ‘Just wait till you get to the good part!’ speech from an excited friend that may put a person off.
But it’s true, Halt and Catch Fire kept getting better (every season’s Rotten Tomatoes rating climbed higher, ending with 100% for season 4) for a simple reason: every season the writers’ room shed the series’ skin and opened itself up to new lanes of storytelling.
By not grasping onto the original premise too tightly, the story ended up spanning two decades, taking its characters to brave places, and committing to authentic human drama.
One of the reasons the series had free reign was that its viewership was poor — season 3’s premiere drew just 385,000 same-day viewers. If you have hordes of fans, you may be scared to have two characters not end up together, kill off a beloved figure in a stony way that rings true of real-life loss, or refuse to tie their lives up in neat bows that would contradict reality.
Halt and Catch Fire may hone in on specific periods of progress and the clawing aspirations of characters, but its most distinguished quality was that it didn’t come across as a story that had an A to B. You could feel new paths being laid, brickwork popping up in unexpected places, and a refreshing non-committal attitude to any preconceived notions of where characters were supposed to end up.
If Halt and Catch Fire wasn’t actually about computers and the rebirths within an industry, what was its point? Well, people. It didn’t seem to fully know that when it started, but thanks to the aforementioned exploratory quality of the writing, it stumbled like a toddler learning to walk into a dazzling truth, which it landed on with a surprising amount of grace.
Instead of Joe, Cam, Donna, and Gordon becoming footnotes during historic moments like the birth of the world wide web, the historic moments became the context their lives were set against.
By season 3, our group of prodigies had, to put it bluntly, failed in almost every aspect of their lives. And aside from their dramas, every one of their professional projects has either died or been sold off. The show had turned into a battle of wills, burned former friends and co-workers embittered by personal and professional wounds.
Cam trusts only her own expertise and self-sabotages her relationships. Donna, who partnered with Cam in season 2 to form ‘Mutiny’ (changing the trajectory of the story and its female roles for the better), feels she’s always right about business and often goes rogue, betraying her best friend’s trust. Gordon struggles to keep Joe’s ambitions in Earth’s atmosphere while raising teenage girls. Joe is reckless, self-loathes, and often jumps ship when things get too intense.
Donna and Cam’s strain, in particular, becomes the focal point. Somehow, they’re the emotional anchor of the show after barely speaking two words to each other in season 1. It’s reasonable to say that having two female characters spend seasons arguing with each other when the narrative made clear how difficult it was for women in their field could have been a mistake.
It wasn’t, though. The way they ignite each other’s ambitions, hold each other to higher standards, and hurt each other in ways nobody else could drive home the series’ evolving thematic throughline.
They race toward greatness, always having it slip through their fingers or become unfulfilling in a way that makes them feel empty inside. Because their worth is counted in market capital, creative revolutions, and changing the world, they’re never satisfied.
They team up, compete with each other from different companies, and split into factions. They’re connected by the same goal, always in each other’s orbit, but miss the point of it all — something the final season makes clear.
Cam and Donna spend years attempting to balance each other out, Cam the untethered creative engine and Donna the more practical, hardwired yin to her yang. For every triumph, they hurt each other by failing to compromise. They seethe and yearn for the other with a lake of distance between them, stuck in a break-up make-up partnership that results in unfinished business every time.
Joe, who sees himself as a bit of a Steve Jobs, is tortured by his spiteful tendencies, a lack of a support system, and an endless hole he thinks can be fixed by the next big thing. Something always goes wrong, and he always presses a big red button at some point that sends shrapnel into everything and everyone in the surrounding area.
Gordon stays by his side, the two in a sort of brotherly relationship that reaches a place of symbiosis Cam and Donna never reach. But no matter how many times Gordon thinks it’s time to call a failure a failure and move on, Joe has a new idea.
They all, at some point, backstab one another. Whether it’s infidelity in Donna and Gordon’s failed marriage, Cam reducing Donna to her motherhood in verbal jousts, or Joe’s breakdowns when things go awry. In a lesser show, the endless cycle of idea > restless work > unsatisfying fruition might be exhausting. But here, it’s the soul of a story about why characters like these can never take their foot off the pedal.
The characters’ obsession with success becomes a veneer. Every action and reaction is blamed on how the group is trying to write themselves into history books, but the viewer understands what the characters aren’t ready to admit, at least not until the end of the series: they care far more about feeling left behind, unmoored, and without a village than they do securing a bright future.
Yes, they’re incredibly passionate about what they do, seeing the world in the language of code and invention, but the forward propulsion is what happens around all of that, not the work itself.
The characters, all loners in their own unique ways, concern themselves with things that pass the time and keep their motivation high. If they’re angry at each other, they aim higher.
If they’re beaten, they are inspired to outdo an old friend. If they fall flat on their face, they drag themselves to a familiar doorstep, asking for allyship and a chance to try and win again. They stray from their internal dynamics, occasionally, but always find each other again.
“We shall not cease from exploration,” the group, in various incarnations, think they’ve found the next great thing. “And the end of all our exploring,” that dream dies, often because someone feels compelled to hit the reset button. “Will be to arrive where we started,” they do it again because, in the words of the script, “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Sure, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but Halt and Catch Fire’s deft philosophy, which is defined naturally over several years instead of plotted out with stale certainty, is that the business was never the important thing. They pretend it is, they ceaselessly innovate, and then they reboot because if they don’t, the strive for greatness with people they’re tied to ends.
In an era of TV when so much of what is popular is stoic, plot-driven to the detriment of character writing, and feels strangely pre-determined by what the audience expects, it’s even more exciting to return to the kind of storytelling that would likely struggle to find footing now.
Hustle culture is teaching us all of the wrong things, and Halt and Catch Fire was a spoonful of medicine to treat the falsehoods of what legacy and greatness truly are.
The final season is perfect. With storylines wrapped up, characters are prepped to wander off into far corners, before one in a moment of breathless inspiration says, “I have an idea” to another — both of them now understanding their pattern of behavior yet not wanting it to end.
The decision is made to not let the audience into what the idea was because it doesn’t matter; the idea is simply doing something, anything, together. Also, the theme music is really good and Lee Pace is really tall. What else could I possibly say?
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