Despite the critical acclaim, Halt and Catch Fire is a criminally under-watched show. Many of the people I’ve spoken to about it claim that the first season didn’t grab them, which—while I did not share that experience—is somewhat understandable. Much has been written about how Halt and Catch Fire was, in its first season, trying to be AMC’s new Mad Men, trading advertising for the tech sector. This argument has some merit, especially when it comes to the show’s lead character, antihero Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). Season 1 Joe was, compared to later seasons, fairly one-dimensional. What makes Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 standout is that the show moved away from Joe and embraced the talent of the rest of the cast, especially the women.
The heart and soul of Halt and Catch Fire is in its female leads: Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé). While we get to know these characters in Season 1 (Cameron more than Donna), Season 2 brings them together, and that’s when the magic truly happens. Season 1 took place in the corporate world of Cardiff Electric, with sales wiz Joe teaming up with engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to clone an IBM PC. Joe brings on Cameron, a young coding genius, and the three of them work tirelessly to create a PC that is cheaper, faster, and more innovative than the IBMs dominating the market.
This, in and of itself, is not particularly interesting or relevant to the modern world—we are seeing the creation of what is now ancient computer tech. What makes Season 1 compelling, at least to me, is the characters and their relationships. Having watched the series in its entirely many times, it is hard for me to remember what it was like watching Season 1 for the first time. Rewatching it now, I see the seeds of everything that I know is to come, but for a first-time viewer, I can understand how it just may not be that intriguing.
One of the main issues I still take with Season 1 is that Donna Clark, who is (in my opinion) the best character on the show, is woefully underutilized. She is introduced as “the wife” character to Gordon’s engineering genius, and even though we see that she is far more than that at several points during the show’s first season, it pales in comparison to what comes later—especially in Season 2. In Season 1, it falls to Donna to juggle housekeeping, raising her two daughters, and her job at Texas Instruments, all while dealing with Gordon, who is far from the world’s best husband. Gordon is so caught up in his work at Cardiff—in his dream of building something special—that Donna is left to deal with every other aspect of their lives.
We do see, though, that Donna is much more than just a wife and mother. She and Gordon met when they were both studying computer science at Berkeley. She is just as smart and talented, if not more so, than her husband, and this is proven several times in Season 1. Donna is the one who comes up with the revolutionary idea that fixes Gordon’s hardware issue with the new PC (although he takes the credit for it, at least initially). When Joe manufactures a crisis at Cardiff (the complete erasure of Cameron’s code), Donna is called in to retrieve the data, which she does successfully. She is clearly more than meets the eye, but in Season 1 she is solidly in a supporting role and not given much more to do than save the day for Gordon.
Season 1 also presents the relationship between Donna and Cameron as antagonistic. Donna looks down on Cameron, and Cameron underestimates Donna. While the two eventually come to respect each other’s talents, there are moments in Season 1 where the two women are put at odds with one another for no apparent reason other than to create unnecessary tension. However, Halt and Catch Fire fixes its Donna/Cameron problem in the season finale, “1984,” when Cameron and Donna join forces to build Cameron’s new online gaming company, Mutiny.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 is leaps and bounds better than Season 1 precisely because the relationship (both professional and personal) between Cameron and Donna takes center stage. Gordon becomes the supporting character to Donna’s genius, which is an interesting role reversal and one that actually redeems the fact that Donna played that role in Season 1. As the focus shifts to the women, Joe is taken out of the equation somewhat. Towards the end of Season 1, Joe burned his bridge with Cameron by removing her operating system from the Giant in order to make it marketable. While, from a sales standpoint, this was the only move they could make to save the project, it absolutely devastated Cameron and destroyed their relationship (both working and personal). Joe completely self-destructed after things went bad with Cameron, burning a shipment of computers and running away from Cardiff and from Dallas.
Season 2 finds Joe in Austin, living with his new girlfriend (and soon-to-be fiancée) Sara Wheeler (Aleksa Palladino). He is seemingly a changed man after his crash and burn at Cardiff and is no longer the cold-blooded shark he was for the majority of Season 1. We saw little moments of vulnerability and character depth from Joe in Season 1, but Season 2—while it does move its focus away from Joe—makes much better use of his screen time in terms of showing us that he has the ability and the desire to be a different (and better) man. But enough about Joe (for now), because Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 is no longer the Joe MacMillan show, and that’s what makes it so good.
Cameron and Donna are hard at work building Mutiny and dealing with a house full of young male coders, who while all very talented are also not the most professional or mature people in the world. But this is the heart and soul of Mutiny; it’s part of who Cameron is, and she has tried to create an environment where everyone has a voice and can just be themselves—even if that means shooting each other with Nerf guns and shotgunning beers in the middle of a workday. There is no centralized leadership at Mutiny, although this is really just in theory because, when it comes down to it, Cameron tends to pull the “it’s my company” card and make unilateral decisions—something that continually puts her at odds with Donna.
Donna is really excited by the work they are doing and happy to be building something with Cameron, but she resents being forced to be “work mom” and dealing with all the responsibilities that Cameron tends to ignore. Cameron just wants to work on games, and so all the unpleasant realities of running a business tend to fall on Donna’s shoulders. This creates a very interesting tension between Donna and Cameron. Where the tension between them in Season 1 seemed unnecessary, their conflict in Season 2 is based on something very real and significant. They respect each other immensely, but they have completely different management styles and different ideas about the direction Mutiny should take. The conflict is rooted in their fully fleshed-out professional relationship, which makes it so much more interesting than the fairly pointless conflict between them in Season 1.
Besides for her issues with being “work mom,” Donna also clashes with Cameron over the importance of growing Community, an online chat feature that represents her major creative contribution to the company. As she tells Gordon, Community is her baby, and it is growing fast, but Cameron has a very single-minded focus on gaming and cannot (or refuses to) see the value of Community when it comes to growing the company’s user base beyond just gamers. Over the course of the season, Cameron is forced to acknowledge that Community is the more valuable and faster-growing aspect of Mutiny, and much of the conflict between her and Donna stems from Cameron pushing back against this.
The focus on online communication is what makes Season 2 much more relatable than Season 1. Even though it is still set in the ‘80s, the concepts of online gaming and chat are still culturally relevant. Mutiny is just a very early version of things that we still do today. The Giant, which was (in the words of Nathan Cardiff) “a doorstop of a computer with a fancy screen and no legacy,” was irrelevant almost immediately. Today, we can carry in our pocket something that is exponentially more powerful than the machine they were building in Season 1.
What Cameron and Donna are building with Mutiny in Halt and Catch Fire Season 2, however, is something that is still a part of our daily lives. For example, the idea that Cameron has for a new game, Extract and Defend, is a first-person shooter where users play against each other instead of against a computer. Today, there are still tons of games (both PC and console) that operate on this same basic premise. As for Community, the concept of chatting and creating friendships online is a huge part of how people interact with each other in the modern world. For some people, online friends are the only friends they have (or are better than the people they know IRL). At a party that Donna throws at the Mutiny house to thank their users for sticking with them, Cameron meets a young woman from a troubled home who found some much-needed support on Community; this young woman’s story demonstrates to Cameron how much Community really means to people. What Mutiny is doing on both fronts is truly innovative, and the fact that we know the future of online gaming and communication is what makes it so exciting to watch. Cameron and Donna are ahead of their time, and the viewer can’t help but root for their success.
Of course, there are many roadblocks along the way. One of the major problems with a start-up—especially one as chaotic as Mutiny—is that growth requires money. In this case, Mutiny simply does not have the infrastructure to support its growing user base, and nothing will kill an online gaming company faster than constant network lag or connectivity problems. Early on in the season, we see Donna and Cameron attend a meeting with potential investors, but they are not taken seriously because they are women. The man leading the meeting is far more concerned with their “biological imperatives” (whether they have or want children) than he is the finer points of Mutiny’s business model. The scene provides a much-needed dose of reality as we are used to seeing Cameron and Donna operate among men—the coders, Gordon, Joe, and John “Bos” Bosworth (Toby Huss)—who respect them and see how talented they are. While it is refreshing that Halt and Catch Fire isn’t a constant sexism-fest, it would be remiss not to point out the gender-based adversity that Donna and Cameron would face as businesswomen in tech in the 1980s.
Mutiny also has issues with users hacking the system without paying to play. Of course, the main hacker in question turns out to be Mutiny superfan Tom Rendon (Mark O’Brien), who was just doing it to get their attention so they would hire him—which Cameron does without consulting Donna. Over the course of Halt and Catch Fire Season 2, Cameron and Tom grow closer and eventually start seeing each other. After her toxic relationship with Joe in Season 1, it is refreshing to see Cameron in a healthy relationship. Cameron and Tom are able to be vulnerable with each other. Cameron trusts him in a way she could never trust Joe. Of course, she self-sabotages the relationship toward the end of the season, but things were good for a while. Joe may have been the bad guy in their relationship in Season 1, but Cameron has some major issues as well.
While Cameron and Donna are off innovating and building something of their own, Gordon—who received a large payout from the sale of Cardiff—is at home with nothing to do. After the excitement and stimulation of building the Giant, Gordon needs a project. He’s willing to take a backseat and let Donna drive for once, but he feels relatively useless without a project of his own. Gordon and Donna’s marriage is a huge part of Season 2. We see Donna hard at work while Gordon is mostly rudderless. We see the two of them keeping major secrets from one another: Gordon with his brain damage diagnosis and Donna with her pregnancy and subsequent abortion.
With everything going on at Mutiny and Donna finally happy with the work she’s doing, Gordon does not want to burden her with the news of his illness. Donna just doesn’t want to have another baby and start all over again, and so she doesn’t even tell Gordon about it because his opinion simply does not matter. She has made her decision, and she isn’t going to change her mind. When Cameron drives Donna to Planned Parenthood (which is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire series), Donna assures Cameron that her decision to terminate has nothing to do with work. It’s really about where she is in her life, and where her marriage to Gordon is. She has two children, and she doesn’t want any more.
These secrets take a toll on their marriage, and Gordon ends up cheating on Donna with his brother’s ex-girlfriend. He also royally screws up things at Mutiny and almost single-handedly tanks the company by accidentally introducing a computer virus he wrote, Sonaris, which wipes out the network. Part of Gordon’s cure for his boredom was to learn to code, and what he thought was a harmless piece of software to map Mutiny’s users ended up being a malignant virus that spread like wildfire.
Gordon isn’t the only one who screws Mutiny over. When Joe returns to Dallas to go to work for Sara’s father’s oil company, he gets the idea to timeshare the company’s mainframe. Of course, because he’s Joe MacMillan, he decides to do this without telling anyone, including his future father-in-law Jacob Wheeler (James Cromwell). Joe goes to Gordon to get him to do the hardware work necessary, and Gordon—in an attempt to make amends for the Sonaris debacle—cuts a deal with Joe: he will do the hardware work in exchange for Mutiny getting a good price on the network. Joe agrees to this, not knowing that yet another one of Gordon’s secrets will be to keep Joe’s involvement from Donna and Cameron.
Gordon and Joe’s deal does fix Mutiny’s network problem, but as always when Joe MacMillan is involved, things eventually fall apart. What is interesting about Joe’s arc in Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 is that he really is trying to be better, but things go up in flames around him anyway. His relationship with Sara falls apart after their move to Dallas, where she sees him in a new light: the old Joe MacMillan, wheeling and dealing and trying to claw his way back into tech. Sara also sees that, even though he does love her, he is still in love with Cameron.
The dynamic between Joe and Cameron in Season 2 is much different than is Season 1. At Cardiff, he was her boss and they were sleeping together. They were instantly drawn to each other, but they both had far too many issues for the relationship to work. In Season 2, Cameron is her own boss and Joe is the ex that betrayed her, now coming back into her life in a professional capacity. She doesn’t trust him one bit, but there was never any closure to their relationship so there’s a lot of unresolved feelings there. For Joe’s part, he feels bad for the way things ended and has no intention of hurting Cameron again, but that’s exactly what happens.
After Joe suggests to Jacob Wheeler that Westgroup acquire Mutiny, Cameron rejects the sale in an incredibly unprofessional way. The terms of the sale were actually very reasonable, and Donna and Bos felt that they should sell, but Cameron was acting on emotion (her hatred and distrust of Joe) and decided to give a stand-on-the-table speech to the coders about how they would be selling out if they accepted the deal. She misleads them and lies by omission regarding what the sale actually entails. Later, after the coders learn the terms of the deal and call for a vote, Cameron realizes that many of them do want to sell (including Tom who really needs the money). She is basically decided to sell until Joe, who has just found out that Jacob intends to get rid of the gaming side of Mutiny, warns her not to. Joe does the right thing here. He has already destroyed something she created, and he will not allow that to happen to her again.
But the damage has already been done, because when Mutiny doesn’t accept the offer, Westgroup decides to just steal their ideas and kick them off the network. They launch WestNet, which has the same interface as Mutiny had and all of the same features except games. They stole Community, which is what Jacob really wanted from Mutiny, and all of Mutiny’s users. Joe had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen; he has already quit Westgroup and he and Sara were about to move to California. But Cameron and Donna don’t believe him, and how could you blame them? Eventually they do come to believe that he didn’t know about the WestNet takeover, but that doesn’t stop them from blowing up his whole life by using the Sonaris virus on WestNet, knowing everyone would blame Joe.
Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 spends a lot of time watching the characters accidentally light fires while others desperately try to put them out. There is never a dull moment in the fast-moving tech sector, and you have to stay agile and adaptable or else you’re doomed to fail. A lot of the conflict in this season comes from Cameron’s stubbornness. Over the course of the season, she has to learn how to be professional and work well with others—and to some extent she succeeds—but it is very hard for her to deal with change, especially when it comes to things (i.e. her original games) that she has poured her heart and soul into.
Donna has conflict coming at her from all angles. She’s got professional issues with Cameron, marital issues with Gordon, and a distrust and dislike of Joe that is so strong it is actually destructive. One of the best scenes in the entire season is one where Donna and Cameron meet with Joe, who is trying to raise their rate on the network. Knowing their history and who they are as characters, one assumes that it is the more impetuous and hot-tempered Cameron who will flip her lid, but actually it is Donna who loses it while Cameron stays professional.
After the fact, we see Cameron furious at Donna, reverting to sexist attacks on her in front of the whole Mutiny team. Cameron mocks Donna for crying and suggests she must be “on the rag.” This is one of the rare times where we see internalized misogyny rearing its ugly head with our main characters, but it’s not entirely surprising that Cameron would weaponize Donna’s femininity to get in a dig at her. Season 1 showed us that Cameron is more than willing to use the whole wife-and-mother thing as an insult, though luckily this is something that she grows out of over the course of the series. It is important to remember that Cameron is significantly younger than the three other main players on the show, and a lot of her early character flaws are just a product of her age.
When I was deciding what season of Halt and Catch Fire to pick for this article, it took me a very long time to decide between Season 2 and Season 3. Ultimately, I chose Season 2 because it lays the emotional groundwork for everything that is great about Season 3 (and Season 4 after it). The last two seasons of the show take place in Silicon Valley (which was an inevitable move given that the show is about the tech world). We see Cameron, Gordon, Donna, Bos, and the rest of the Mutiny crew (sans Tom) leaving for California in the final episode of Season 2, and the transition to the California setting is absolutely seamless. The depth of character, the relationships, and the major plot points in Season 2 all set the stage perfectly for the show’s shift to Silicon Valley. From there, the world of Halt and Catch Fire expands even more, eventually moving into the ‘90s and the birth of the World Wide Web in Season 4.
Some of the most powerful moments in the show come from Seasons 3 and 4—especially those between Donna and Cameron—but those moments do not exist without the work that Season 2 did to get us there. We can’t care about their professional partnership and the future of Mutiny without Season 2 showing us how it all began and how hard they worked to get there. Similarly, we wouldn’t want a redemption arc for Joe without seeing him trying his best to be better and getting destroyed for it. Season 2 sets up Gordon’s illness, without which the Season 4 episode “Goodwill”—solidly in my Top 3 episodes, if not my Number 1—does not exist. For all these reasons and more, Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 stands out from the rest. If you’ve tried and failed to get past Season 1, try again. Season 2 (and all that comes after) will make it worth your while.