Rewatching Halt & Catch Fire

The first time

When Halt & Catch Fire first aired, I was lucky enough to clue in and watch it weekly on AMC. As a Texan with a dad who occasionally worked in or at least around tech, and then joined the industry myself, it captured the world I grew up in incredibly well. Starting out a little rough, it became a show all about family and how ambition can destroy everything. H&CF remains one of my favorite shows of all time, and despite it being entirely too emotionally intense to watch again before now, I happily tuned back in this past fall.

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A rewatch begins

I’d almost forgotten how hopeful the show began. Joe, Cameron, Donna, Boz, and Gordon all dove in and ended up going to an early CES—when AVN still happened next door. As I write this, CES is happening again in Vegas, but the dreams are smaller and the concepts more far-fetched. In the 80s of this show, the world was about to change completely. We follow a company at the time of IBM’s dominance, with a parallel but less successful track than Apple. Word processors barely existed, and computers weighed 30lbs.

What so quickly began as a dream to make the future of computing turned into just making another IBM clone. What stuck with me in this first season was the crushing sadness of mediocre money. When I watched season one, I was a younger woman with a lot of dreams. Five years later, I’ve had a fair amount of failure, and some great success. I work for an amazing company after our Mutiny petered-out. Unlike the Cardiff Electronics or McMillain Utility of H&CF, my next adventure is delightful.

I still haven’t seen another show that so fully captures how difficult it is to build something with the folks you love or how much it hurts to lose them. With a second watch, I brought my feelings and memories of all of the ups and downs, which compounded each wave. Everyone was so young. It felt like this show was about adults when I first saw it, but now they seem like me or even younger. This realization helped me have more compassion for the idiocy and backstabbing as I watched. Before I saw a thoughtless jerk, and now I saw the pain of making tough decisions. When I first watched this show, I had just moved to Portland, Oregon, and now that I’m watching it for a second time, I’m in the bay—the setting for most of the show. I see many of the backdrops that Joe and Donna see on a daily basis, and it really makes the show come alive.

A queer angle

From the first time I saw him on Pushing Daisies, I had a feeling Lee Pace was on my team. Last year in the NY Times, he confirmed it. H&CF showed a brief glimpse of the AIDs crisis, and one fleeting queer party at Joe’s house. I wish they’d let written the show with more queer characters, or done more too how the struggle of gay men in the 80s and 90s, but even these little bits were more than I ever expected from a show about tech. I hope one day a story like this can have queer and trans women too.

Donna and Cameron

By the second season, it seems like the show runners had the same revelation many of my friends watching the show for the first time have: this show is better when it’s about Donna and Cameron. The tensions between them, and the challenges of their friendship are the lifeblood of the show. Cameron needs Donna’s stability, and Donna wants the respect that everyone has for Cameron’s abilities. As Mutiny struggles, and Swap Meet kicks off the tensions almost destroy them, but by the end of the show, they’re ready to trust again. Their love and sisterhood are often sad, but ultimately an inspiring look at how two women can go beyond a competition to something lasting.

I haven’t seen Kerry Bishé in much since H&CF, but it seems like she’s been busy with big film projects. Meanwhile, Mackenzie Davis was in an incredible episode of Black Mirror, the upcoming adaptation of Station Eleven, and the ridiculous new Terminator film. I don’t know if they’ll ever work together again, but they were incredible together in this show.

The tech

Most of the first few seasons were populated with technology I never got to use as a kid, save for the Apple IIe, but by the third season I saw myself in Donna and Gordon’s daughter’s eagerly waiting for a chance to play the NES. My parents used to bogart Super Mario Brothers just like Cameron and Gordon did as they played it on their new projection screen. My dad was never a HAM radio guy, but the single-minded love of hobbies mirrored Gordon’s. I remember Lotus software, and the rise of laser tag, the thrill of dialing-up to the burgeoning world-wide web. I wish anyone on this show had learned how to touch-type.

I don’t fondly remember the rise of security software, but hey, neither did the show. Watching this show, I saw myself as a kid around with a big set of headphones over my head, and a walkman on my belt. Those were the days. The community of Mutiny was what I found eventually on forums and in queer chat rooms and that too fly true in this show. I even love some of the cars—RIP Joe’s 944.

Halt and Catch Fire is incredible

This rewatch was inspired by a newsletter I read, wherein the writer is afraid to finish the show completely. I understand this feeling completely, as I find myself slowing down while I watch in order to savor every episode. I’ll probably rewatch this show a few more times this decade, and I can only hope someone else one day makes a show I’ll love as much as this one.