Halt And Catch Fire: The Best Show You Haven’t Watched



Halt and Catch Fire is a show that no one knows. It seems to have come and gone as easily as the wisp of wind that caught the White Walker’s hair as Arya runs by in The Battle Of Winterfell.  But it’s also a show that is far greater than it seems. In fact, I guarantee you that it’s the best show you have never seen, and you should absolutely stop and watch it tonight. Here’s why…


“Let me start by start by asking you a question…”

Those are the first words, and last words, of this series. We begin where we end, and we end where we begin.

Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler.  This doesn’t ruin the show by any means.  Why? Because it’s the journey that matters most.

Halt and Catch Fire may have been conceived as a show about computers and the home computing revolution, but as it took us viewers on our journey that desired to tell, the show evolved with us.  It dared to ask us THE question.

What does it mean to connect with another person? What do you want to be? Better yet – as it says in the picture above, “what are you searching for?”.

First released in 2014, HACF was positioned as the heir apparent to the wildly popular Mad Men for AMC. Stacked with a cast that included up and comers like Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe and Lee Pace, the show had a timely setting of the early 1980’s in the emerging Dallas, TX landscape.  Joe MacMillan, played by Pace, was the enigmatic leader (think: Don Draper meets Steve Jobs) who has a mysterious background, and Cameron Howe (Davis), is the young rebel who knows computers better than anyone and can actually make MacMillian’s dream come true. Gordon Clark (McNairy) is a talented, yet underappreciated, computer engineer who is married to Donna (Bishe), and he is recruited by MacMillan, along with Cameron, to build what eventually amount to be the first laptop.

These are the humble beginnings of one of my favorite shows ever created.

I know it doesn’t sound like much. In fact, many viewers/ critics saw the first season as a derivative of Mad Men, and even a tad cliche.  Perhaps that was the goal – to show us a beginning that was unassuming and rather bland.  More than likely, however, that’s probably giving the showrunners (Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers) a little too much credit.

While I personally loved season 1, I can see why people were uncomfortable with the choices to have the male characters be the stand out leads instead of the women who were the true heartbeat of the narrative.   But I still hold out hope that the double C’s along with Zach Whedon (yes, the brother of Joss Whedon) had a really special plan for us the whole time because of this one scene from the first episode…


“Computers aren’t the thing.  They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”  How remarkable is that? Sure, it’s a great dramatic line that, of course, has to come from the mysterious leader of this merry little band.  The line is remarkable though because the show was telling us right up front that, yes, we are here with computers right now, but this isn’t going to be it. There is a larger goal at play

Any good drama is based on change. Good, bad, or ugly.

Because while all these characters have this idea to make the first “laptop” as we understand it, we slowly realize that the laptop, and the original hook of the setting is far from the purpose of what we’re watching. Each character is slowly revealed to be who they are, and how they navigate each other.  And as the show’s story evolves, we realize the narrative shifts not only from setting to setting, but also the characters growth.  This is exemplified by another one of my favorite scenes in season 1, when Joe realized that all of his hard work with is laptop project has ultimately meant nothing.  He sees the MAC for the first time and it’s breathtaking…


It’s at this point where the real narrative comes into focus. No, computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that get us to the thing. Human connectivity.


What does it mean to be connected? What does it mean to SPEAK to each other?

As each season comes into fruition,  we see the show progress in time, and play with the early beginnings of chat rooms, eBay marketplace, P2P gaming, and even the very fabric of the internet itself. But the focus still revolves around this group of people with whom we started in season 1, and how their travails within the super competitive world of Silicon Prairie and Silicon Valley, is just a stand in for how the connect with each other the whole time.

Instead of the men being the lead cast, the women emerge as the driving force and the story skyrockets in season 2. We explore the role of women in a computer industry tailored to men, how that effects friendships, marriages, and even tears down our main lead we followed in season 1. We learn of their backgrounds, what drives them, their vulnerabilities, and how their relationships evolve as the computer industry evolves with them.  The show may find it’s veneer formed by the computing world in general, but it always finds it roots in the characters we love in how they compete, collaborate, hurt each other, love each other, and grasp at anything to find their place in the world.

There’s massive success, total failure, heartbreak and even a scene where people just find it hard to speak because they’ve simply lost the ability to communicate with each other on any basic level.

Heck, there’s even an ENTIRE episode spent between two people talking on cordless phones with each other in two rooms like how you used to do with your old flame back when you were a teen in the early nineties.

Sure any good drama is about change, but every GREAT drama is about how relationships change.  The characters to each other, the show to it’s narrative, and even the viewer to the show itself.

And like the show, I can’t help but go back to the beginning at the end.

Halt and Catch fire may begin and end with the same question, but we see that it’s the journey of our characters that mark our investment.

The beautiful part is this question is asked by the same person in the same fashion, to a group of similar people. But the same question is separated by 11 years in time within the show, and we see that our character looks back on all they’ve accomplished and reflects on what matters most – their connection to their friends they’ve loved, lost, and even betrayed.

It may be the same question, but they’ve transformed into something else. Something that makes them better. Something that is totally different from how they began 4 seasons prior.

The series ends on one of the most poignant denouements I have ever witnessed, and it’s especially cathartic to look back on it in the wake of all the disappointment with the Game Of Thrones finale for the past month or so.

My most fond memory of HACF actually is the finale. No, nothing that happened within the story (although it is incredible like I just said) but rather my experience with the process of watching the finale. The final episode (Two Swords) sat in my DVR for over two weeks.  Despite the fact that it was one of the few shows that I HAD to watch the second it aired, I couldn’t bring myself to actually go through with it. I couldn’t let go of those characters. I had to talk myself into letting go.

So, let me start by asking you a question…

Do you want characters that you will LOVE, a story that is infectious, relationships that mean something to the narrative, one of the best scores in the history of television, choices that have weight, and the meticulous detail of the unique environment which will remind you of the CRAZY time that was the 80’s and 90’s? Halt and Catch Fire is absolutely the next show you have to watch and you can do it very easily.  Just get on to Netflix and search it. It’s right there.  Waiting. Waiting for you to watch, and discover who you want to be.

I’ll leave you with my favorite scene of the whole show – one that includes a line that I have chosen to live by in my 30’s – and one that seems to carry more weight with each day.




6 comments on “Halt And Catch Fire: The Best Show You Haven’t Watched

  1. Catherine Lowe says:

    I watched HACF after it ended in Netflix because I kept seeing critics I respect praise it. You nailed why it is so good. I can’t seem to talk people into watching it, though. Or Battlestar Galactica. I keep trying…

    1. Stephen James says:

      I hear you. I mention Battlestar Galactica or Halt and Catch Fire to anybody and I get glazed eyes or smirk for an answer. Two absolutly great shows.

      So say we all.

      1. Steven James says:

        I agree on both shows. fun fact, I like your name ha!

  2. Alex McHale says:

    Thanks for writing this. HACF is also one of my all-time favorite shows. It was nice to read someone who loves it as much as I do :).

  3. Stephen James says:

    I had heard of this show many years ago and gave it a pass. Finally I gave it a try on Netflix to see what it was all about. Within a week I had binged all four seasons.
    When Gordon died in Season four was when realized how much I had come to identify with each of the characters. I don’t think I have been moved by a TV series episode like that since Adriana got whacked in the Sopranos.

    Halt and Catch Fire should be on anyones top ten list of best TV series.

  4. I don’t know how I missed this show, probably because it wasn’t aired on Netflix UK, instead behind a per-series pay wall on Amazon, not even free on prime. I started watching it over Xmas and binge watched all 4 seasons.

    I loved the character arcs, the theatrical discussion about Phoenix and the ending. It’s also quite rare in that it managed to deliver equality in a natural manner. Some modern Netflix shows try too hard like they are playing equality bingo. This show had strong lead female characters and managed to show how similar everyone is regardless of gender or sexual orientation, everyone has their own emotional and mental challenges.

    Genius easy watching, albeit sometimes emotional show!

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