On Halt and Catch Fire and the Show that Paved the Way For It

Halt and Catch Fire show has been criticized as a cheap rip-off of Mad Men, set in the ’80s, but the contrast between the two shows couldn’t be sharper.

While Mad Men was the story of a man whose entire life was a lie, trying to fit into a world overrun with corporatism and consumerism, Halt and Catch Fire is about people whose lives are anything but a lie, a cast of highly intelligent misfits trying to create a new world which fits them instead of conforming to a world in which they don’t fit.

While Mad Men embraced the glamor and romanticism of 1960s America while the occasional nods to the cultural and political turmoil of the times, Halt and Catch Fire almost entirely ignores politics and culture, instead putting its characters in the trenches and letting us watch as each of them battle society as it affects them personally, in the moment.

Both shows push concepts of morality. While the good guys on Mad Men would often lie — and once resorted to outright prostitution — to get a deal that might only last a few weeks (“The day you sign a client is the day you lose them,” Roger Sterling once quipped on the show.), the good guys on Halt and Catch Fire will steal computers out of the back of a van, steal electricity from their neighbors, and steal money out of someone else’s bank account in order to keep the dream at the heart of the show alive.

Mad Men celebrated a world of big business set against the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the ritziest seasides of Los Angeles, delving into the moral ambiguities associated with big business. Halt and Catch Fire, on the other hand, celebrates the kind of entrepreneurialism born in a garage, the ragged-edge scrap to make something from nothing, the kind of “ends justify the means” mentality that is celebrated in movies like PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY.

Like Mad Men, the writers on Halt and Catch Fire exercise a multi-layered approach to storytelling. Small, insignificant moments in one episode turn into major plot points episodes later. Both shows reward viewers who pay close attention, and both shows stand up well to repeated viewings.

Yet, while Mad Men had its own share of sparkling and hilarious dialogue, I could never imagine the following conversation being effective on Mad Men:

Joe: “Nathan’s making a mistake selling the company so soon, it’s worth at least twenty-percent more than this valuation.”

Gordon: “Yeah? Well I think it was a mistake to burn a truck full of our computers and then go running off into the woods.”

Joe: Pause. “Lot of mistakes, all around.”

According to the ratings, Halt and Catch Fire is a show nobody watches. That’s a shame. It’s not Mad Men, but it is its own show. It’s great in its own way.


Also published on Medium.