Why ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ is a Good Period Piece — But Not a ‘Mad Men’ Level One

At its best, this is a thoughtful meditation on how technology mediates human connection. At its worst, it’s “1980s 'Mad Men'.”

Like a certain other AMC period drama, on Halt and Catch Fire, work is never just work. It’s everything. HACF, which returns tonight for a third season, takes advantage of its 1980s tech industry setting to tell the story not just of personal computers branching out from the geeky margins into the mainstream, but of personal lives seeping into the office, and vice versa. Some people move across the country to be closer to a loved one; HACF’s brood of tech savants make the move from Texas to California to be closer to a mainframe.

At its best, HACF is a thoughtful meditation on how technology mediates human connection. At its worst, it’s “1980s Mad Men.” In many ways, the show is a continuation of Mad Men’s tale of the counterculture infiltrating the mainstream — and in the process becoming the mainstream. It’s the story of the death of a corporate culture we alternately lionize and bemoan — drinking and smoking at work, “nooners,” actually having an office with a door closes; but also, overt sexism and racism, a stifling atmosphere that demands conformity — and the birth of what is now ironically pigeonholed as the “millennial workplace,” a space where ping-pong and pool tables abound, employees are free to wear whatever they want, and the line between work time and personal time is forever blurred. It’s a familiar tale for anyone who’s received a dreaded Sunday-afternoon text from the boss.

In Season 2 of HACF, punk-rock programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) joins forces with engineer-slash-frustrated-housewife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) to launch Mutiny, a video game company and fledgling online community. At the end of the season, Donna convinces her husband Gordon (Scoot McNairy), also a programmer, to buy Mutiny’s independence by purchasing a clunky old mainframe and relocating to San Francisco — which is also where Gordon’s former partner, entrepreneur Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), decides to launch his new cybersecurity company.

Last season, the show hammered home its themes by tying its characters’ personal motivations firmly to their professional exploits. Instead of just creating games for like-minded geeks, for example, the socially awkward Cameron begins to see the benefits of a real online community. In Season 3, similarly, privacy becomes an obstacle both at home and at work. Several months after the move out west, Cameron is still crashing with Donna, Gordon, and their two young daughters; when Gordon argues with Donna in the office, she lowers her voice: “This is not something to discuss here, we’ll talk about it at home.” “What’s the difference?” he replies.

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The focus on user privacy is a natural step in HACF’s narrative of work culture encroaching on the personal realm, and vice versa. In the Season 3 premiere, Cameron meets with a Mutiny user in person and accidentally mentions something he told another user in a private message — technology facilitating and ultimately thwarting her attempt at human connection.

When Cameron and Donna notice users swapping items through chats, they steer their business away from an online community and toward a trading service. When they notice people aren’t just trading items but buying them, Donna wants to facilitate the exchanges through a credit card company, highlighting a central tension between the two characters: Donna wants to play in the big leagues, but Cameron doesn’t want to give up their independence. “Mutiny isn’t just my job,” Cameron tells her, “it’s who I am.”

If you can’t tell by now, I find Cameron and Donna far more interesting than Gordon and Joe. Gordon, who was diagnosed with a neurologic disorder last season due to long-term exposure to lead solder, has been aimlessly casting about for a new project since earning a healthy dividend from his former company at the beginning of Season 2. In California, at least in the first five episodes of the new season, he’s still feeling obsolete. “Why am I even in this meeting if no one’s gonna listen to a word I have to say?” he whines in the third episode; I found myself wondering why he’s on this show if no one’s gonna give him anything to do.

Joe has always been HACF’s least interesting character, a gloomy, humorless figure who apparently strolled onto the lot straight from central casting’s “anti-hero” division. On Pushing Daisies, Bryan Fuller’s sprightly mid-2000s fantasy series about death, Lee Pace’s air of interminable melancholy grounded the show’s airborne whimsy; but on HACF, a show that’s much closer to earth, his schtick is a drag.

Joe’s third-season transformation into a full-fledged Steve Jobs knockoff, complete with an Asian-minimalist office and a new pair of specs, makes narrative sense — he’s the wise sage envisioning a future in which user security will be a valuable commodity, something the folks at Mutiny are still figuring out. But even with the addition of a new character, Ryan (Manish Dayal) — a young acolyte who jumps ship from Mutiny to work for Joe — his Season 3 plot lacks the tension of Donna and Cameron’s venture.

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And yet their business efforts are more interesting for the parallels they draw to the characters’ personal lives than they are in and of themselves. The problem with Halt and Catch Fire is that as much as we might care about what happens to these people, in a bigger sense, we already know what’s going to happen. We know Donna and Cameron are on the right path with their online trading service, because we live in a world of eBay and Amazon and Craigslist; we know Joe is right to bank on the future of cybersecurity, because we lose a little bit of privacy with every click of the mouse.

Of course, Mad Men was marbled with this kind of dramatic irony, particularly in its first two seasons — smoking in doctor’s offices! Kids putting their heads in plastic bags! Beautiful families littering! But unlike the protagonists of HACF, not all Mad Men’s heroes were on the vanguard. They didn’t always have the wherewithal to call out misogynist behavior, or the foresight to understand the direction in which their industry would travel in the next decade plus. They didn’t always get it right. They were of their time, not ahead of it, and that’s precisely why they were so fascinating to watch.