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When you watch the first season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, you can see why it’s no surprise that, early in its run, it drew multiple comparisons to Mad Men. Billed as a prestige office drama set at the dawn of the age of personalized computing in the 1980s, the show features talented-but-troubled men in a male-dominated profession, an industry on the brink of monumental change, and a drab office enlivened by the hustle and bustle of its main players. It’s rife with professional deceptions and ill-advised secrets and not-so-little tastes of workplace misogyny. Its erratic idea-man, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), is clearly the show’s Don Draper, if Don Draper had a Members Only jacket and a working knowledge of computers. Joe charms and lies his way into a position at Cardiff Electric, a mainframe software company in Texas’s Silicon Prairie, and there he recruits bored sales engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to finally do what Gordon failed to do two years earlier: upstage computing giant IBM.
Their ideas are revolutionary, there’s no doubt, but—surprise, surprise!—as the first season unfolds and each man’s genius suffers because of his personal demons. The women in their lives—Joe’s sometimes-lover, the rebellious coder prodigy, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and Gordon’s overworked, under-appreciated, tech-expert wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé)—initially suffer too, at the expense of each man’s dedication to success and under the burdensome realities of being women in a man’s world. But once the show shifts its focus to these two women, it becomes something great.
To me, Halt and Catch Fire always had a different tone and structure than Mad Men—it’s more frank, a little less precise, less enamored with the inane—but I wouldn’t blame anyone for getting caught up in the parallels. They’re there, on full display, for all to see. Even Lee Pace himself named Don Draper as an inspiration for Joe’s character. But hiding just beneath the familiar landscape of Joe’s Steve Jobs-wannabe speeches and Gordon’s spousal neglect, there’s a show about the joy of ideas and the virtues of failure, about finding humanity in computers and believing in something (or someone) against all reason. After the uncertain start of Season 1, there’s a love story—though maybe not the one you expect.
When they meet in the women’s bathroom at Cardiff Electric, Donna and Cameron are poised to be women at odds, and they are: Donna is a long-suffering housewife with too much responsibility, Cameron is an outspoken shit-stirrer with no responsibility at all. There’s a natural tension between them that seems destined to sour, especially when Gordon inexplicably lies to Donna about Cameron being a man (and on a lesser show, her character would have been).
But then Cameron loses all of her code to an electrical mishap—later revealed to be a deception on Joe’s part—and the only person who can save the project is Donna. They talk, trade decidedly misogynistic barbs. There’s no magical moment where all of their differences fall away (in fact, Cameron steals Donna’s car for a little joyride), but there is a moment in which they see each other and understand something. Cameron sees Donna’s expertise and offers to watch the Clark children while Donna works. Donna discovers that Joe lied about the incident and realizes that Cameron isn’t as reckless as she seems. “My code was never like yours,” she tells Cameron. “Yours… well, it’s like a piece of music.”
From that moment on, there’s a quiet trust between the two women, a kinship. It’s why Cameron asks Donna to join her at her new company, Mutiny, in the Season 1 finale, why the two women succeed in building a dynamic online community. They’re headstrong and passionate and brilliant. They’re equals. They’re both incredibly driven, not by the things that they make—which never enjoy permanent success over the course of the series—but by the connections they form in making them, both with others and especially with each other. They make sense to each other, against all odds. It doesn’t matter that Donna is compulsively forward-thinking and logistic, or that Cameron is impatient and operates almost exclusively on scorched-earth campaigns; somehow, they work.
That unlikely compatibility is addictive, to the viewer and to each other; I think often of the scene in Season 3’s “And She Was,” when Donna, on the outs with Cameron and away from home, gets high and hallucinates Cameron’s forgiveness: “How many times do you need to hear that I can’t do this without you?” It’s cathartic to know and be known; but what the show understands is that it’s also incredibly hard. Cameron and Donna know each other’s worst tendencies, how to hurt each other. Their work is stronger for their differing perspectives, but it’s also caught up in each woman’s sense of self, each professional move almost inextricable from their respective personalities. Everything is personal, even when it’s not. It’s exhausting, compatibility be damned. So it all falls apart.
This, however, is friendship; this is love. It is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing either woman has ever done. Cameron and Donna clash hard, to the point that it seems like they’ll never talk again, let alone work together. But through it all the understanding is still there, like muscle memory. They don’t need to speak—and for the majority of the final season, they don’t—in order to make sense of each other. Donna senses Cameron’s presence in some code written for a company she’s investing in; Cameron can tell that something is wrong with Donna when they meet briefly to sign some papers, though she doesn’t know what.
And then there’s Cameron’s game, Pilgrim, the one she wrote as a follow-up after her first successful foray into the world of PC gaming. Atari, her distribution company, decides to scrap the release after a scathing trade review, but Donna gets her hands on a copy. Episode after episode, she sits down to play, drinking her wine and watching her screen intently. It’s not a game with a clear objective, and it seems to actively work against her success; “It’s like homework,” her daughter Joanie (Kathryn Newton) complains. But Donna persists, and she solves it. “You made it hard enough,” she chides Cameron, who is surprised, but smiles despite herself. “Yeah, I made it for people like you.” After all that time, they still make sense to each other.
Halt and Catch Fire is good because it reminds us again and again of the nascent innocence of passion and invention; each character is constantly driven by the search for that initial thrill of pure creation, though failure or corruption of those ideas is almost inevitable. But what makes the show great is its understanding of the complexities of female friendship. Cameron and Donna spend a lot of the series not getting along, but they never hate each other. There is an instinctive mutual respect that comes out best in the technology that binds them. And in the end, we realize that the work never mattered, that their partnership will always be the best thing either woman ever did. It’s like Joe tells Gordon in the pilot: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Season 1 is all about computers. The rest is about Cameron, Donna, and their thing.
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Bailey Herdé is a culture writer from Virginia and a life-long student of all things pop culture. Her writing has appeared on The Cut and Bright Wall, Dark Room. The time she does not spend writing or watching movies and TV is generally spent, against her better judgement, on Twitter.
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