“Halt and Catch Fire” Is The Best TV Show You’re Not Watching (Yet)

I can’t find your sweet sweet tweet anymore, dear mysterious stranger on twitter who asked me a month ago if we’d be covering the lesbian storyline on Halt and Catch Fire, but if you’re still out there and you’re reading this — thank you.

Friends, it’s not often that I offer heartfelt gratitude to a human who tipped me off to a lesbian “storyline” that did not appear until midway through the fourth f*cking season of a television show and, when it happened, was perhaps the very definition of “low-key.” Furthermore, I’ve had to watch Season Four on Xfinity OnDemand, which means I’ve seen the same commercial for Climb Cart, a gadget that helps you haul bags upstairs instead of carrying them, at least 200 times, which is enough to make me want to throw everything I’ve ever owned down a flight of stairs.

But Halt and Catch Fire is so f*cking good. I didn’t even need lesbians! Because instead I had powerful women in tech, and sweet sweet ’80s and ’90s nostalgia and damn fine writing and stories that bounce in unexpected directions, driven by big concepts that rarely get such a compelling dramatic treatment on contemporary television.

Halt and Catch Fire traces the rise of personal computing and the internet from 1983 to 1994 through the stories of four characters who intersect and break apart through ventures small and large, starting out in Texas and eventually ending up in, of course, Silicon Valley. It’s loosely based on all kinds of true stories which means it’s constantly tapping right into the world I was tapped closely into growing up ’cause — surprise! — I’ve been glued to a computer screen since I was approximately 6 years old; playing games, writing novels, finding community. I have deep affection for computer games that require switching out floppy disks every ten minutes. Halt and Catch Fire is about ideas, about a team of wicked smart humans who turn hazy visions of a connected future into a tightly coded reality, knowing always that somebody else out there might be riding the same melt and could beat them to beta. It’s about the thought experiments behind the big-deal ideas we now take for granted, from the internet itself to online retail, search engines, layman-accessible chat rooms, internet security and web directories. And OH, the nostalgia, my friends! The intense, pitch-perfect, playlist-ready, of course Cameron listens to Bikini Kill, get me some of that throwback fashion pronto nostalgia! Listen: there’s an episode called “Tonya and Nancy.”

I’m getting ahead of myself — let’s go back to the bones of this thing and the four main characters I mentioned several ecstatic sentences ago.

There’s Joe, the cocky salesman and visionary with a keen aptitude for sniffing out talent, innovation and really good ideas. (He’s also bisexual, and although his character falls into the offscreen-boyfriend onscreen-girlfriend trope, the way he owns and navigates this identity still felt oh-so-refreshing for a male bisexual character.) Gordon, the technically brilliant computer engineer who Joe yanks out of the resigned tedium of his unchallenging office job into a new project building — !!!! — a portable computer! The Intel blog describes Joe as “acting as the Steve Jobs to Gordon Clark’s workhorse architect Steve Wozniak,” so, there’s that for you.

Then there’s Donna, Gordon’s wife, who starts Season One working a comfortable job at Texas Instruments, actively fighting any lingering wistfulness for when she and Gordon built a machine together they hoped would change their lives and the world. They’ve got two daughters, bills to pay, and boxes of computer parts gathering dust in the garage. But before long it’s clear that the other protagonists need Donna’s talent to make their dreams come true and by Season Two, she’s a boss bitch, for better and then sometimes for worse. If you fell for Joan Harris, you’ll fall for Donna.

And then there’s Cameron (Black Mirror‘s Mackenzie Davis), who plays the type of character I used to always fall in love with and now I often still do, but with extended caveats. You know — the scrappy, prideful, misunderstood genius with Daddy issues and a lesbian haircut who is somehow against all odds heterosexual.

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe, Season One (Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC)

Cameron is a student who talks back to Joe when he lectures at her college, and gets pulled out of that life and dropped into Cardiff Electric because she’s the best coder ever and is repeatedly everybody’s only hope for success. By Season Two, she’s running gaming/chatroom pioneer “Mutiny” with Donna and the young guns they recruited from Cardiff. The Donna/Cameron friendship and workship is downright unprecedented and I am so so very much HERE FOR IT.

I’m not a fan-fic reader, but you do enough television writing for a queer audience, you learn to recognize the types of intense female friendships that inspire shippers sailing seventy-thousand seas and writing reams of sex scenes. I figure Cameron and Donna are among them, although the show deftly and smartly avoids any sign of queerbaiting.

Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe – Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Gallery (Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)

AMC is known for its prestige dramas. Mad Men shares a visual sophistication with Halt, stylized emotionally, shots like paintings and fashion so carefully evocative of every era it crashes into. When I think of AMC I think of Mad Men, and I think of Breaking Bad, which were shows with dynamic female characters but truly an overwhelming number of men.

A story about tech, I assumed, would be similarly raining men, and it definitely is, but they’re more often in the background than up front. I don’t know how this’ll play to you if you go in knowing this, but for me, going in knowing nothing, I almost cried tears of joy when treated to a montage of two female CEOs in the ’80s seeking venture capital from a series of men who don’t take them seriously enough because damn I don’t see that very often, you know?

Because Halt and Catch Fire is Cameron and Donna’s story. Fun fact: “as late as the 1960s many people perceived computer programming as a natural career choice for savvy young women.” Apparently there were more women in computer science programs in the late ’70s early ’80s than there are today. “When I graduated from Berkeley with a computer science degree in ’75, nobody batted an eye,” Donna tells a gathering of women in tech in Season Four. That changed when jobs like “coder” and “engineer” became “important jobs” and when the popular image of who “did computers” became an image of geeky guys in basements and misanthropic boy-geniuses building tech companies in their garages. Although Halt fails to populate the early teams Donna and Cameron direct with a realistic number of women, having them at the helm was an authentic and important choice.

That’s it. That’s all I’m gonna say ’cause if the ABSOLUTE RADIO SILENCE from y’all to me regarding the existence of this program is any indication, most of you haven’t seen it, and I want you to have the pleasure of discovering it for your own self. If you have seen it, please tell me all your feelings ’cause nobody else I know has even heard of it and I need you to fill the chilling emotional void left behind when you finish an intense television marathon. You know what I mean.

Seasons 1-3 of Halt and Catch Fire are on Netflix. Its fourth and final season concluded last night and is available through your cable provider, on AMC for paid subscribers or Amazon.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2743 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. 1) Joe is the best bisexual male character i’ve seen in ages

    2) the character development on this show is absolutely breathtaking

    3) season 4 has me crying EVERY SINGLE EPISODE, it might be a perfect season of television. Why more people aren’t watching this perfect show I’ll never know! I’m so thankful we actually got four season and that they can do what they want with the story.

    • YES! It is SO RARE for the final season to be so cleanly constructed and to wrap things up without doing just straight-up fanservice or that weird thing showrunners do where they like to dare their audience to appreciate the artistry a totally fucked up finale unfaithful to their characters’ journeys.

  2. This show has been on my list for the longest time! I’m someone who’s very fascinated/wary of Silicon Valley and the “possible worlds” being developed there. Of course, the gender roles involved in the process peak my interest, even it it’s not, at the moment, the center of my research (by the way, thank you for linking to the Stanford research. It’ll come in handy). It reminds me of the book “The Sex Revolts”, which details how rebellion/couterculture, which is the basis of Sillicon Valley and, like you said, the “boy-geniuses building tech companies in their garages”, is constructed as a masculine thing and the feminine is built as the mainstream/counter-revolutionary/”agents of castrating conformity”. Anyway, I’m not sure if the show adressess these things at all, but it seems like there’s an opening there, there’s potential. Hopefully this show will get the recognition it seems to deserve, I’ve heard a lot of people saying it is extremely underrated… I’ll make sure to get it and watch it as soon as possible. Will use the thesis I have to write as an excuse.

  3. I’m planning to mainline season 4 as soon as I get a chance.

    I didn’t even know there was upcoming gayness or TONYA (!) referencing so I suspect this was a case of my three-years-ago self having excellent prophetic powers (I’m a weirdo geek that actually started watching it for the computers).

    I still can’t get over how Bechdel-test-on-acid-passing Donna and Cameron’s relationship is. Like, has there ever been so much drama between two unrelated women where it’s never even slightly been a thing that they want to sleep with the same dude, or each other?

  4. Yesssss I love this show so much, I’m only halfway through the first season but I came very close to drunkenly submitting my feelings about it to the A+ inbox the other day but then decided that no one wanted to hear that. To me, Cameron is that perfect example of the “do I want to be her, or be with her” dilemma. I’m so happy that other people love this show too!!!

  5. Also what’s hilarious to me is that I first heard of this show in Parade magazine, that goofy magazine insert that comes in the Sunday paper with the coupons and the Kroger ads and has updates about what specific actors are up to these days. I read the description and got so excited that I got out the scissors and cut out that page of the magazine.

  6. I have held off on watching this show for so long because one of my parents was part of one of those true stories that the show draws inspiration from, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel watching a fictionalized version. But this sounds so much better than I expected, and I definitely will watch it now – thank you!

  7. I’ve enjoyed each season as it showed up on Netflix. Now, thanks to this review, I may not be able to wait for season 4. Amazon thanks you. (:

    There are some shows I’ll watch because they’re done really well and some shows I’ll watch just because they’re different than what I normally see on TV. This show manages to be both. I’m glad to hear it gets a proper conclusion.

  8. This show is the best, even though you admittedly caught me in the middle of my season four catch up. I’ve been trying to get my friends into this show for years. I was hoping after Scoot McNairy had a small role in the messy Superman Vs. Batman people might discover him and, through that, this show, but nope, still no one. Every season after season two feels a little more like an epilogue, but it’s hard not to love and root for these characters. Joe’s bisexuality is part of him, and it comes up in certain stories, but it’s never the only thing he is. The only thing I don’t think the show has such a great history of is its depictions of WOC. I think season four was the first time an African American woman was a major character, which seems like such a missed opportunity. This article doesn’t mention it, but there’s a lot of great actors in the smaller roles like Annabeth Gish (Agent Reyes!), Toby Huss (from Pete and Pete), and D.B. Woodside (Principal Wood from Buffy). Can we have a follow up article (or twelve) when everyone gets a little more of a chance to see it and digest it? (I’ll write ’em if nobody else is keen.)

  9. I started watching this when it first came out, this was before I realized I didn’t like Walking Dead, so I saw the commercials, and as a computer geek myself it seemed like the perfect show for me

    I was watching it week to week, and I honestly think I got like 5 episodes into the first season, I wasn’t enjoying the story with Gordon intimidated by his wife, and yeah I think I wanted something gay so I gave it up, I always meant go back and binge it, but never remembered guess I should.

  10. I watched S1 of Halt and loved it, but am supposed to be watching it with someone and we rarely get the chance so my progress with the show is very slow, got to improve that! V excited to hear that there’s a lesbian character.

  11. I first tried to watch this show when it came out, but i couldn’t get past how artificial and badly written Joe’s character was, i found Gordon very annoying too and even though I loved Cam from the moment i saw her i thought the show wouldnt go anywhere so i quit on the 2nd or 3rd episode.

    but after reading positive reviews about the final seasons and knowing that the relationships between the women became important to the show i decided to give it another chance. and what a great surprise it was, i think it was nice going in knowing how big donna’s caracter was gonna be (i didnt knew much i had only intuited this from seeing how prominent kerry bishé was in interviews and reviews) because i made it a point to pay extra attention to her from the beginning.

    and the journey was totally worth it, it was so good to see cam and donna grow and navigate each other, and the amount of love and trust and hurt, it felt so real and the actress are splendid! they both reacted and acted in such a natural relatable way. gordon eventually won me over too, scoot gave a nuanced performance and i came to care and understand him. and the peripheral characters like their girls and bos, were always interesting and so good to watch.

    but even though he improved a bit throughout the seasons i’ve always felt Joe was this show’s biggest weakness, i just couldnt believe him, i think lee pace struggled to find the right tone, i personally feel he was really the weak link but i also think the creators are at fault too, the tragic backstory felt forced, whenever i saw joe i was jolted back to reality because everything he did was so on the nose. i could never care or buy his relationship with Cam, even though Mackenzie did try to make it feel real. there were moments in 3 where i would just do something else whenever he was on, bc i simply didnt care one bit to what happened to that character. lee seems to be a great guy and i loved him in pushing daisies, and it would have been so nice to have a bi male character to root for, but it really didn’t work here.

    anyway, i still think its really worth the watch, im recommending it to my friends, id love to rewatch it now again, but i’d probably skip the rest and only focus on donna and cam’s story, what a ending that was too! im so happy.

  12. I don’t know if you still read any of these comments Riese, but since i read this article I finally just managed to finish watching the whole show and I’m so glad I did, it was brilliant. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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