Like Silicon Valley, this show is a male fantasy that hinges on a group of guys hanging out together on a thrill ride of success, status and freedom.
AMC aired the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, and the second season kicks off this weekend. Like Mad Men, H&CF focuses on a specific and unique corporate and creative milieu (in this case, the computer hardware, software and semiconductor industry), in a distinct geographic locale (here, Texas), at a distinctive moment in history (the early 1980s). It shares Mad Men's high standard of set design and sharp eye for period detail—and, moreover, the disruption caused by a maverick with a mysterious past.
While Mad Men's Don Draper is, for all his talents, a pauper and pretender, H&CF's Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is the ultimate prince and insider. To-the-mansion-born, he's the son of a rich and powerful IBM executive, an echelon from which he is recently exiled. The exact circumstances of his rift with the company remain tantalizingly opaque, but the first season concern's Joe intent to get as far away from that world as he can.
But he can't do it alone, so the show presents four characters directly impacted by Joe's ambition, by his need to change the world.
(For those who haven't yet seen Season 1, be warned, there are spoilers ahead.)
At the start of season 1, Joe gives a visiting lecture, at a local college, to a group of young programmers. But the visit turns out to be a ruse to identify promising young programmers with the skills he needs. The stealthy recruiting maneuver unearths Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who impresses Joe with her outsize confidence and prodigious knowledge.
That she's as cynical about the status quo as Joe is a bonus. When he asks her what her plans are, she wants to know if it even matters: "This is an industry built on people ripping off each other's boring-ass ideas. SCP rips off CP/M, Microsoft rips off SCP. Oh, IBM rips off everybody, right?" A complex sexual dynamic takes shape between Joe, who we learn is bisexual, and Cameron, who, for all of her confidence with computers, may be out of her depth in love.
Soon after, Joe smooth talks his way into a sales job at Cardiff Electric, a local software firm specializing in enterprise systems. This starts his slow seduction of John Bosworth (Toby Huss), a tough-talking industry veteran. Huss has the wisdom to understand that while he might not be part of the future, he can at least stand aside and help it happen.
Later, after Cameron starts working at Cardiff and faces resistance from other engineers, it's Bosworth who consoles her with a reminder of just how potent a threat she poses to the status quo: "You're the future, and nothing's scarier than that."
At Cardiff, Joe zeroes in on and targets a sales engineer named Gordon Clark (Scoot McNary). Gordon happens to be the author of an obscure article in a tech journal that may have inspired Joe's quest in the first place. He moves like a wounded bird. He's hangdog and cut off from the world around him. Eventually, we learn that he's been on the cusp of great things before. Although he's a buttoned-down engineer and family man, it turns out he's got the same insatiable appetite for risk and innovation as Joe and Cameron.
Gordon's wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), is also an engineer. She works for Texas Instruments, where the good-old-boy culture exploits her exceptional talents while excluding her from its executive ranks. She's brilliant, but she's also saddled with the common sense that keeps the family afloat while Gordon floats between failure and fever dreams of success.
Gordon and Donna's marriage works because her practicality serves as a counterpoint to his vulnerability. Although she carries the brunt of their domestic burdens, their marriage is one of intellectual equals.
The tech milieu, though, what makes the show such a pleasure. We're so immersed in a world of sophisticated and quickly evolving technologies that this retrospective drama is a captivating reminder of the talent and sweat it took to make—and sell—these miraculous machines.
H&CF breaks free of formula by focusing on creativity, on the dramatic arcs between inspiration and failure or success. The second season promises a new selection of delicious period moments and set-pieces, but the complex characterizations are where the show's own fortunes lie.