In 2014, AMC premiered a show called Halt and Catch Fire. Airing right after the mid-season finale of Mad Men‘s final season, the show began with a large number of viewers and dwindled down to almost non-existitent ratings within the course of 10 episodes. Most networks would have ended things then, but for whatever reason, AMC decided to give Halt and Catch Fire a second season. Ratings didn’t improve. Then they gave the show a third season on a different night. Ratings got even worse. Just when it looked like the show would meet its end, AMC surprised everyone by renewing Halt and Catch Fire for a forth and final season, which premiered August 19th, 2017.
What a season it’s been. What a series it’s been.
Thank you, AMC. Thank you, too, to show creators and show runners Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell for creating a television series that was (and is) unlike any other.
Years ago, I use to spend a lot of time around musicians, even though I’m musically ignorant. Often they would marvel at some group or song or album that exhibited a level of musical mastery that impressed them. Occasionally, I could appreciate the music with them, but those times were rare. More often than not, I didn’t get it. When I didn’t get it, they tried to explain the technical reasons why the music they loved so much stirred them. No matter how much they explained, it still didn’t stir me. What I came to realize is that they were appreciating the technical artistry beneath the surface while all I was hearing a form of noise, the art and artistry wasn’t as approachable to an outsider like myself. I either liked it or I didn’t. I have come to believe that Halt and Catch Fire is much like that, a story that storytellers can marvel at. It wasn’t meant to be that way — no television show or movie is meant to be that way — but that’s how it has ended up.
Collectively, the forty episodes of Halt and Catch Fire are be a masterclass in visual storytelling. Even with four episodes left unaired that I haven’t seen, I feel confident stating that. Everyone working on this show did so much right. From camera angles and editing, to dialogue choices and music curation. Even the series’ repeated time jumps were brilliant — why spend time showing things the audience already knows are going to happen when jumping straight to the aftermath serves to move the story along much quicker and, often, with a greater emotional resonance? Binge watching the show, one gets the sense that every moment on screen was chosen deliberately, carefully, influenced very much by things the audience hasn’t seen but senses in their gut.
Critics have pointed to all kinds of reasons why they don’t like the show. One frequent criticism is that the technical detail are inaccurate. While that’s true, Halt and Catch Fire was never meant to be a showcase for technology. In the very first episode, the character Joe MacMillan lays out the key to understanding the entire series in one often-ridiculed line of dialogue: “Computers aren’t the thing, they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
What is that thing? That ultimate goal? It’s people, connection, the feeling of working together. It’s a very human conflict hidden beneath the veneer of technology and computers. As television blogger Joshua B. Hoe (@OnPirateSat on Twitter) has often written in his episode recaps, these characters are a family — they just don’t realize it yet.
Throughout the series, these characters have made decisions that are downright baffling. Then, like a inexplicable magic trick, something organically happens in later episodes which explains past behavior perfectly. It wasn’t until I’d watched the second season that I could truly appreciate the first season. Even though I liked the first season, I didn’t love it. The character motivations that first season didn’t make sense until I had seen their journey in season two. In that way, I’ve come to see the entire series as circular, a story moving forward through time but best understood by looking back. Much like life.
In all four seasons, we’ve seen the same situations arise time and again and watched different characters react to those situations differently, the way real people react to similar situations so differently. Some have said that every season is the same plot, told over and over, and in a very general sense that may be true. But it’s simply amazing how the same plot plays so differently when the characters are moved like chess pieces to different positions. It’s also amazing to see both reprehensible behavior played out and also acts of grace and forgiveness played out, often by the same character.
At a time when AMC is criticized for relying too much on zombie shows and moving away from the type of complex television drama that redefined the expectations of what a television show could be, believing in Halt and Catch Fire enough to give it four full seasons was an act of grace itself. One that, I sincerely hope, pays off for the network somehow.
As far as I can tell, there’s no litmus test for Halt and Catch Fire. It’s fans are passionate because they strongly identify with these characters. Search for #HaltandCatchFire on Twitter as an episode is airing, and you’ll find engaged users fully immersed in the story. When big drama happens, such as season 3, episode 7, when the two main female leads forced everyone around them to take sides in a corporate squabble, fans react as though they’ve just experienced the same betrayal as the on-screen characters. They argue about who was right. They choose sides. They engage with each other. They cheer when a character rises above their past and their current position in life to do something great. They are disappointed when a character chucks all their potential out the window and takes a safe, selfish escape. After each episode, the fans discuss the show as if they’re talking about real people, because these characters are alive and vibrant to fans in ways that other characters on other shows aren’t.
The fans truly are a community, much like the fictional Mutiny community featured so prominently on the show’s second and third seasons. The end of Halt and Catch Fire is also the end of a fan community that many of us have never experienced before. And, yet, the connections made in that community will live on long after the series has aired it’s final moment.
I remember watching the first episode in 2014 and wondering why the show was moving so quickly, why the characters were behaving the ways they were. Coming off Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire felt so wrong. I believe that I, and maybe some others watching those first episodes, were looking at this world through the lens of Don Draper. In fact, most people seemed to assume that Halt and Catch Fire was a Mad Men clone in much the same way the show’s fictional Cardiff Giant computer was an IBM PC clone. And, maybe it was in the sense that the Cardiff Giant was designed to be twice as fast as the IBM at half the cost, and Halt and Catch Fire somehow told a faster story in fewer episodes that was just as complex as its more widely watched (and awarded) counterpart. Ironically, as Halt and Catch Fire closes in on its final four episodes, the series has covered almost exactly the same span of story time in four seasons and 36 episodes as Mad Men covered in 92 episodes spread over seven seasons. As fans of the show know, Halt and Catch Fire can move forward in time very quickly without sacrificing the story to do so. With four episodes remaining, the show could literally jump from the 1994 setting of the last episode to Y2K scare, or even to present day. Each episode is awash in possibility and creative energy.
I will miss this show greatly and, like Mad Men before it, it will shape me a writer. The journey these characters have taken has been memorable and unique. For those who don’t like the show, I get it. It’s okay. There’s no judgement for not liking the show. Not every show is meant for every viewer. But for those of us who have fallen in love with this show, and I believe that the most passionate fans truly have fallen in love with this show, the past four seasons have been a very powerful experience that we all are very grateful for.
Also published on Medium.