Amazon Prime UK TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 2
James R | On 17, Nov 2015
“I don’t know know who Salieri is,” someone tells Gordon (Scott McNairy) at the beginning of Halt and Catch Fire’s second season. “That’s the point,” he replies. “He’s not Mozart.”
That brief joke tells you all you need to know about AMC’s computing drama: Season 1 was the story of Salieri, the artist nobody appreciated, stuck in the shadow of the flashier, cooler alternative.
It’s a position the programme has sadly occupied both on and off-screen. In a crowded sea of TV competitors, Halt and Catch Fire failed to find a sizeable audience in the wake AMC’s Mad Men. Meanwhile, as 1984 ushered in a new era of computing on-screen, Apple’s Macintosh became the Mozart Joe (Lee Pace) and Gordon were hoping to build with “The Giant” at Cardiff Electric. The show’s fate was, rather poetically, sealed.
Commissioning a second season, though, turns out to be the smartest move AMC has made since it first gave the world Don Draper. It arrived this year just as Steve Jobs’ story was making its way to the screen – a timing that is rather fortuitous. While Season 1 proved the perfect prologue to Danny Boyle’s biopic of the Apple icon, taking us right up to the launch of the first Mac, Season 2 of Halt and Catch Fire sits in Steve’s wake, as the PC world enters a period of flux and rapid advances.
Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers – taking over showrunner duties from Jonathan Lisco – react accordingly, recalibrating the show’s core code and shifting its central commands. Gone is the downbeat story of Joe and Gordon. In its place? The story of Mutiny, the tech start-up created by their partners, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé).
That slight shift gives the entire operating system a sudden burst of power: we’ve moved from aching anti-climax to exciting talent. If Season 1 was the elegant tale of failure, Season 2 buzzes with potential.
The new leads slot into their sockets with all the precision of an iMac. Mackenzie Davis, after a scene-stealing turn in The Martian and reported screen tests for Star Wars, is surely one click away from stardom. She’s magnetic to watch as Cameron Howe, a rebel-turned-leader of her own company where coders sit around eating pizza all day and coming up with cool ideas for games. She switches from wounded animal to intimidating alpha in the blink of an eye. Kerry Bishé is just as gripping as the one who drags her into the reality of the industry, dressing up for business meetings and trying to plan budgets and infrastructure. They’re a perfect double-act, one edgy, one calm, both delighted to be doing their own thing.
The men, meanwhile, are trying to find their place – and themselves – post-Cardiff. Pace is as absorbing as Cameron’s polar opposite, his eyebrows and slicked hair screaming Top Dog, even as he finds himself scrabbling at the bottom of the ladder. He finds himself dating Sara Wheeler (Aleksa Palladino), a relaxed hippy who couldn’t care about chips or money, but he’s inevitably drawn back to the world of boardrooms and backstabbing; he’s a shark, only capable of living when moving forwards.
James Cromwell’s guest turn as Sara’s father-in-law, Jacob, who offers him a lowly basement job at his oil company, is a reminder of just how well-cast the whole series is: Cromwell oozes corporate slime as he looks down on Pace’s Joe, who glares back with equal threat.
“You strike me as the kind of person who isn’t ever hungry,” declares Jacob. “You aren’t happy. I can turn that into money.”
Gordon, on the other hand, can’t quite compute the idea that he’s no longer the main character – a fact that is almost literally causing his hardware to short-circuit. McNairy is scarily earnest as the desperate engineer, who’s happier piecing bits together in his garage than negotiating company politics.
There’s a Jobs-versus-Wozniak feel to the partnership Gordon has left behind – and our progression from that arena is a joy to behold, not just as the women fight their own way through a male-dominated sector but as they break down technological barriers too: after Season 1’s determined push and ultimate bust, the awkward clash of ego and pride, Season 2 captures the joy of natural evolution. We move from disenchantment to inspiration – something that’s easier to watch and far more consistent in tone.
The worry of clunky practicalities is nudged along the workbench to be replaced by emotional problem-solving. Products are replaced by people. It’s something that Halt and Catch Fire has always excelled in, not just because of its performances, but because of its writing. In between the hospital appointments and infidelities, the show knows how to make room for supporting characters with real depth: take Toby Huss as Bos, the former head of Cardiff, who returns here as a shell of a boss, less a fast-talking salesman and more a slow-talking father, the kind of dad who thinks his son’s wedding rehearsal night is the occasion to reconnect, but skips the big day.
That understanding of personal interaction becomes the key to Mutiny’s success too, as Donna sees the value in chatrooms over puzzles. Talking on the web drives their growth even more than the prospect of shooting friends in the face – and so Halt and Catch Fire becomes an exploration of those fledgling steps of dial-up innovation, not just in terms of bandwidth and floppy disks, but in terms of communication. Even Cameron finds a bond with programmer Tom (an enjoyably obtuse Mark O’Brien).
There’s a subtle intelligence in this parallel between virtual and real life. Directed with nuance by a diverse team – each episode has a different helmer, four of those 10 women – they repeatedly mine that balance for golden data. Major breakthroughs lead to relationship crises and vice versa, a never-ending, fascinating cycle. “Is everything ok?” Cameron asks Donna, halfway through. Just as she begins to reply, Joe walks in and everything goes on hold. (It’s telling that as Gordon finds his place supporting Donna, Joe stumbles through deception and hacking into the world of PC security – a place where trust and detachment are essential.)
The result is a marvellous piece of television that takes the way we now live our lives with Apple devices in hand all the way back to the early days of simply connecting to others. Steve Jobs is already an “old chestnut” among programming circles – a legend of creativity and talent that people aspire to. But after tracking the pitfalls of pressuring oneself to achieve that same status, Halt and Catch Fire finds its feet as a warming tribute to creativity as a process of collaboration and friendship. Like Mad Men, it’s a group piece that only works because all the people fit together. Unlike Mad Men, its period workplace dramatics are all of its own. With a third season on the way, Season 2 confirms Halt and Catch Fire is one of AMC’s best. This is a TV show everyone should know about, whether they’ve heard of Salieri or not.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 to 4 is available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – until 16th October 2020.