The opening credits of Halt and Catch Fire play out like a beautiful idea. A series of gleaming signals race across a retro-futuristic landscape of red neon, running hotter and faster until one takes the lead, shatters a gleaming barrier, and lights up an LED bulb that feels as big as the world.
The AMC drama, which came to a close last weekend, traces the modern computer age from the early 1980s to the dawn of the internet in the mid ‘90s, a time when the tech industry felt like a heady mix of meritocracy and magic: have the right idea at the right time, and you could remake the world, forever changing the way people talk, work, think, and live. “I know that something’s coming,” says one young programmer on the show. “Something big, like a train, and all I want is to jump on board. But it’s getting faster and faster and I’m terrified I’m going to miss it … I don’t want to get left behind.”
The heroes and antiheroes of Halt and Catch Fire can see the future barreling down the tracks and are just trying to stay out ahead of it. But while this is ostensibly a show about technology, focused on people whose lives revolve around boxes of circuits and wires, their story—and the story of technology—always circles back to that most basic of human emotions: the desire to connect with people. “Computers aren’t the thing,” says one character, more than once. “They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.”
If Joe is Steve Jobs, conducting every conversation like an Apple keynote address, then Cameron is the woman with a bleached blond pixie cut throwing a sledgehammer in its “1984” commercial as the men around her watch, their mouths agape.
The early days of Halt and Catch Fire are packed with archetypal Silicon Valley figures like Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a salesman-cum-confidence man who looks and sounds like a venture capitalist pitch in human form, full of the arrogance that would come to define the tech industry’s charismatic, self-styled geniuses. The real creators of vision and code, however, are the nebbish Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), his long-suffering wife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the punk prodigy who can see into the future of machines like an modern-day oracle. If Joe is Steve Jobs, conducting every conversation like an Apple keynote address, then Cameron is the woman with a bleached blond pixie cut throwing a sledgehammer in its “1984” commercial as the men around her watch, their mouths agape.
Again and again, Halt’s four protagonists see the future coming long before it arrives, and set out to lead the way—with laptop computers, online gaming, internet commerce, and the World Wide Web. Their prescience seems destined to make them the CEOs, “thought leaders,” and revered geniuses of tomorrow, but as the series progresses, it tells a different story: one where the shimmering meritocracy of Silicon Valley reveals itself to be a mirage, and no amount of beautiful ideas can shield them from the larger corporate forces that so often doom them to failure.
While the tech goliaths they face are ruthlessly concerned with their own bottom lines, the protagonists’ optimism leaves them with blind spots of their own. When the internet first arrives, conveyed by the digital rickshaws of caterwauling modems, it seems like an inherently humanistic endeavor. Giving their users a way to connect outside of physical bodies and physical space, Joe claims, means liberating them from the narrow and often oppressive constraints of the “real” world, “reaching thousands and thousands of isolated users across the world and making them feel less alone.”
At a user meetup for Mutiny, an online gaming company founded by Cameron and Donna, one young woman tearfully thanks Cameron for creating a service where she met people who helped her to escape her horrible home life. “I didn’t have anyone to talk about it until I found Mutiny,” she says, wrapping Cameron in a hug. “There are a bunch of people dealing with the same sort of stuff and they helped realize that I could walk away. That there wasn’t anything wrong with me.” Unfortunately, not all connections forged on the internet are so positive; when one of Mutiny’s programmers, a queer man named Lev, finally goes on a date with a man he’s been flirting with on the company’s chat service, he ends up brutally beaten by homophobes who had been posing as his “friend” the entire time.
It’s a moment that foreshadows the dark future ahead for the anonymous and unaccountable corners of the internet, the places that aren’t escapes from harassment and abuse but rather places where harassment and abuse often cannot be escaped. Its fundamental lesson is all the more grim two decades later: Every tool can be a weapon if you allow dangerous people to wield it like one.
Its fundamental lesson is all the more grim two decades later: Every tool can be a weapon if you allow dangerous people to wield it like one.
One young programmer, who ultimately kills himself, offers a prescient warning in his suicide note: “Beware of false prophets who will sell you a fake future, of bad teachers and corrupt leaders and dirty corporations … But most of all beware of each other, because everything is about to change. The world is going to crack wide open. The barriers between us will disappear, and we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable and we’ll pay the price.”
Although the show’s starry-eyed innovators, and particularly its female game developers, never encounter the hate mobs and harassment that await them in the future, they all end up paying a personal price in one way or another for their work, especially as the industry they created begins to leave them behind. When the 1990s arrive in the final season—and they arrive in their 30s and 40s—the future of computing has finally come to pass, though not entirely in the way they had imagined.
Cameron, whose clever adventure games were once so beloved by early computer adopters, finds herself increasingly obsolete in an industry where violent splatterfests like Doom and Mortal Kombat dominate. Speaking at a panel titled “The Future of Internet Gaming,” she futilely insists that first-person shooters are cheap, manipulative flashes in the pan, little more than blood-drenched slot machines. “They’ll keep you coming back, but they’re not going to fulfill you in any way,” she says. “You have to respect the player.”
Unfortunately for her, appetites have changed; her newest work, a pensive, solitary exploration game called Pilgrim, is brutally panned by a gaming magazine as “ponderous,” and shelved as commercially unviable. “It feels like homework,” says one teen playtester, when every path he takes in the game seems to loop him back to where he started. “What the hell, we’re back at the beginning! This is bullshit.”
All of it worked for a while, all of it was a beautiful idea until it ended, and the next thing began. It’s easy to call these failures, but they’re more like iterations in the lifelong experiment of trial and error that people hope can lead them closer to what they really want, and closer to themselves.
It’s a feeling all of the characters on Halt and Catch Fire experience more than once as their brilliant ideas soar, crash, and burn time after time, leaving them back at square one. The show’s premiere defines the term “halt and catch fire” as “an early machine command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all conditions to compete for superiority at once,” but the Wikipedia definition of the term is equally relevant: code that causes the CPU to “cease meaningful operation, typically requiring a restart.”
The cycle of passion, loss of control, and hard reboot runs through not just every business endeavor but nearly every relationship on the show. When the on-again, off-again love affair between Cameron and Joe finally falls apart, she tells him, “I wanted us to work. And we did, for a while.” It’s a sad moment, but not one that negates the value of the time they spent together. Their work at companies like Cardiff Electronics, Mutiny, Comet, and even Gordon and Donna’s marriage—all of it worked for a while, all of it was a beautiful idea until it ended, and the next thing began. It’s easy to call these failures, but they’re more like iterations in the lifelong experiment of trial and error that people hope can lead them closer to what they really want, and closer to themselves.
“There’s this thing in compsci that I remember,” Cameron tells her friend Bosworth in the finale. “Recursion, where a specific function calls upon itself repeatedly in a program. So to solve the big problem, it uses the same small problem over and over as the solution to increasingly complex solution. That, my friend, is how my software runs.”
When Bos tries to boot up Pilgrim, he feels as confused as its teenage playtesters about what he’s supposed to do, or how to escape the programming that keeps looping him back at the beginning. “Hell, it’s like you can’t even win,” he says, in his Texan drawl. Cameron smiles. “Maybe that means everything,” she says, “and now you can approach the path you take in an entirely new way.”
Computers were and are nothing more than tools, boxes of beautiful ideas that are only as valuable as they are human—ones whose connections can destroy us as easily as they can draw us together, if we are not careful.
The only person who manages to finish Cameron’s flawed, misunderstood game is Donna, who guides its gangly, alien avatar towards a bridge that promises an ending—only to have it explode just as she’s about to step forward. It’s a fitting image for a show whose characters often seem hell-bent on burning bridges, and whose successes always seem crumble right as they stand on the cusp of triumph. But instead of giving up, Donna looks down, and sees a glowing portal looming in the chasm below. She dives in, and instead of taking her back to the beginning, her leap of faith finally takes her somewhere new.
The last image we see of Gordon, who ultimately succumbs to a degenerative neurological disease, is a flashback to the early days of his marriage with Donna. After an argument, he returns alone to a cliff they had once visited together; while Donna cartwheeled into the water below, he had been too afraid to take the plunge. But in this moment he leaps, throws his entire self over the edge, and surfaces whooping with exhilaration and utterly alive.
In one of their final conversations, Gordon asks Joe if the world of 1994 is what he had imagined 10 years ago, when they went digging into the guts of an IBM computer, looking for the next big thing. “It was never about where it ended up,” says Joe. “It was about how it felt … I knew how it would feel to build something with you.” But now, perhaps for the the first time, Joe finds himself at an impasse: “I don’t know what comes next.” Gordon laughs a little and welcomes him to the human race. This is not a failure either, he suggests, but part of being alive—the not knowing, and the leaping anyway. Forget the future, that distant country you will never arrive at: “All there is is now.”
As the show closes, Cameron is preparing to leave San Francisco and head east; although she and Donna contemplate starting something new together, their brainstorms come up empty. Then in the final minutes of the show, it happens. Donna glances across the room and the light bulb turns on; she races out to the parking lot, stopping Cameron’s exodus with four simple words: “I have an idea.” You can feel it, in that moment, the frisson of excitement that is not about what they might make or earn or even how they might change the world, but how it feels to be two points of light racing towards an unknown horizon—how it feels to do this with someone you love.
“Computers aren’t the thing,” says Joe, in his farewell to Cameron. “They’re the thing that gets you to the thing. You were the thing.” Human beings are the signal, and everything else is just noise. This is Halt and Catch Fire’s most radical message, the one the tech industry would do well to heed as the online world grows more toxic and depersonalized with every passing day. Computers were and are nothing more than tools, boxes of beautiful ideas that are only as valuable as they are human—ones whose connections can destroy us as easily as they can draw us together, if we are not careful. But at their best, they can connect us with the thing that really matters: the people who will stand with us on the precipice of our lives, gazing down at the chasm of the next challenge, and hold our hands as we jump into the unknown.