‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Is the New ‘The Wire’
A spoiler free plea to watch 2017’s best television show.
When HBO’s The Wire finished its run in 2008, it became a topic you couldn’t escape at parties. Inevitably, some dude would walk up to me and we’d start talking about prestige television and they’d ask if I’d seen The Wire.
“No,” I’d reply and they’d get this look in their eyes. It’s not the incredulous look I receive when I tell people I don’t watch Game of Thrones. (Note, I watch Game of Thrones . I just like to mess with people at parties.) When I told people I hadn’t seen The Wire, they’d get excited, as if they were about to reveal a great and primal truth.
“What’s it about?” I’d ask.
“Everything,” they’d say, unhelpfully.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire just finished up its fourth and final season. The whole show is now on Netflix. Prepare yourself. It’s the new The Wire. This is the show that frenzied and desperate fans will posteltyze after they corner you at a party. They will tell you it’s about everything. It’s going to happen. Do yourself a favor and watch it now before you start to avoid the show out of spite because it’s actually that good.
Halt and Catch Fire is an hour long period drama that starts out in the Silicon Prairie of the 1980s. In the popular mythology of tech, California is the central hub of computer innovation. But that’s not true. The Dallas Fort Worth metroplex gave rise to dozens of tech companies that rivaled anything happening in Palo Alto at the time.
My dad was an engineer at Texas Instruments and I had a front row seat for the DFW tech boom. I remember our home computer starting up with the IBM logo being slowly devoured by Pac Man. The show was an easy sell for me. But Halt and Catch Fire, unlike so many other modern prestige dramas, doesn’t stay in one place. It has the courage to grow, change, and develop along with its characters. It’s always trying to get to the next thing.
On the surface, the show is about computers and the people who built the world we now live in. Each season tackles a different tech innovation and focuses on the work it takes to get it out the door. The first is all about creating the laptop, the second about building an early gaming network. IBM, the video game Doom, and Nintendo all make an appearance and computers are constantly changing the character’s lives.
But the show’s Don Draper stand-in reminds us early that “computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing,” and that’s what Halt and Catch Fire is about—the tangle of five human lives as they live and work together over a period of two decades. That’s what makes it exciting and wonderful television. The tech is beside the point. It only exists to connect people.
Lee Pace’s who plays the incredible Joe MacMillan starts at the center of the story. The show lures the audience in by setting him up as the typical prestige drama anti-hero. In the beginning, he’s a smart guy in a nice suit with a mysterious past. He doesn’t play by the rules and that’s why the audience is supposed to love him. It’s not true. Unlike other brooding male anti-heroes (see: Tony Soprano and Walter White) MacMillan is capable of profound and interesting change. This isn’t just another story about an asshole dude with a dark backstory who always gets what he wants in the end.
In the orbit of MacMillan is visionary engineer Gordon Clark and his smarter wife Donna, smooth talking Texas business executive John Bosworth, and a genius coder Cameron Howe. Over the course of the show’s four seasons these five people become a family. Sometimes they love each other, sometimes they hate each other but they’re always—at their core—a family.
Halt and Catch Fire is also an LGBTQ positive show, but it’s not about the LGBTQ community. It has important things to say about women in tech, but it’s not exclusively about women in tech. It’s about computers, but only because they’re the thing that gets you to the thing.
That’s why the show is so important. We need it right now. This year it felt like tech was a driving a wedge between us. Families turned against families and friends found out their friends were scumbags. Countries weaponized social media against the world in a war against truth itself.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do better. We can build something better. These characters aren’t perfect—they fail repeatedly, hurt each other, and lose sight of what’s important. But they always change and do better. There is always hope, something that the world is in precious need of right now and they always know that this hope comes from their connection to each other, not from the machines they used to forge that connection.
I didn’t watch Halt and Catch Fire when it was on the air and, according to some, this was a cardinal sin. But it doesn’t matter that no one watched it when it aired because we live in a binge watch culture and the whole thing is out there, ripe for the streaming. You can watch it right now and you should before some asshole at a party ruins it for you.