As promised I've finished watching Halt and Catch Fire now, and am happy to report that, as promised, it got better and better as our four main characters moved on from their first season efforts to make an IBM PC clone only better.
As Tom Armitage put it after he rewatched the show earlier this year:
It’s a funny show. It starts out… quite badly, wanting to tell one particular story, and the moment it starts swerving away from that, it becomes more interesting. That point isn’t the beginning of season 2, incidentally: it’s easy to hate on the messy first season, but rewatching it, it confirmed that it course-corrects fast and hard. Once Donna is brought up in the mix around S1E4 it starts showing hints of what it’ll be, and the last few episodes of season 1 – pretty much once Donna says “I’m coming with you,” and the gang drives to COMDEX, are it taking flight. The rewatch definitely confirmed you cannot pull the “Parks And Rec Manouevre” (“just start with S2”) with this show.
For my money, by far the biggest change in the show came a few episodes into season one, when Kerry Bishé's Donna levelled up from being the supportive spouse of one of our lead characters1 to the tech-savvy heroine who came through and rebuilt Cameron's backup after Joe had sabotaged it.2 A few episodes later Donna was much more involved in Gordon's work, and by the time the team went to COMDEX we had a show firing on all cylinders. It was lovely to see how (as I'd hoped) by the end of the show Donna and Cameron were back in partnership.
Writing this up, I now realise that in a lot of ways Donna's emergence as a main character is a sign of how much this show was at root good, old-fashioned competence porn. These four main characters, and also the people around them like Boz who stepped in to fight fires for them, were basically very capable in their fields and usually able to deliver on what they promised. The fun would come when they had to communicate with one another about the different directions their wider goals were leading them towards.
Especially from the second season, when the writers had learned to tone down the focus on Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan and his mysterious backstory, this left us focussing on the partnership between our two female leads: the problems they faced when dealing with vulture capitalists who saw two young female founders and refused to take them seriously; the fact that they were so dependent upon suppliers for bandwidth and computing power and lacked the financial muscle to get what they needed when they needed it; their different perspectives on how to get there and how to run a company where nominally they wanted to be open and democratic and yet Cameron wanted to stick to her vision of the company and hold on tight to every damned thing being done the way she thought it should be.
Over the four seasons they bounced off one another and went off in different directions, only to be brought together towards the end: partly by the way the IT business had changed, partly by changes in how the characters reacted to those changes and settled into their new roles, and partly by the death of one of our central foursome whose departure provided the impetus for a really solid wrap-up of the show's story. At the end, I loved the way the show gave us Donna and Cameron recognising how well they worked together and moving forward from there.3
Given that in the USA this was the show that inherited the timeslot of Mad Men I suppose it always had big shoes to fill. The subject matter (especially in season 1, following a story about Joe hijacking an old-fashioned company to move it into a new field) didn't offer audiences the sort of hit that Mad Men had of easy nostalgia, and for whatever reason it probably never had a chance even if the critics did eventually come to recognise Halt and Catch Fire as part of the age of Quality TV. For my money, it was a journey well worth taking. If the writers want to bring us a series about the adventures of Cameron and Donna in their next venture, or even of the Return of Joe MacMillan from academia then I'd definitely be up for that.
- Early on we learned that she was working for Texas Instruments as middle management and had been working with Gordon on his earlier, failed attempt to design and build a machine of his own. This was the point where we came to understand just how focussed and level-headed and just plain hyper-competent she really was when it came to technology. Prior to this we saw very little of Donna in her workplace, and her role was mostly writing reports to keep her boss up to speed on how their part of TI was keeping up. After this, Donna was increasingly sucked in to the world of Cardiff, then the work at Mutant, then finally making her way in venture capitalism and we got to see how capable she was. ↩
- First season Joe's urge to trick his colleagues into falling in with his plans earned him a huge amount of distrust for the next three seasons, and at times it looked as if Evil Joe had burnt those bridges. Again, by the end of season 4 everyone had moved past that. ↩
- I'd spent the last few episodes dreading that they were going to end the show with Cameron deciding to have children, so full marks for their avoidance of that pat ending to the story. ↩