AMC's Halt and Catch Fire may be the best show on TV you're not watching.
Despite early superficial comparisons to Mad Men ( it's a period drama led by a guy in a suit with identity issues) and a tiny viewership, by the end of its freshman run, the knockout ensemble cast came together in the most amazing way — just as everything the characters had built fell apart. After mystery man Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) stormed into Cardiff Electric and recruited engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and rebellious programmer/girlfriend Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to build the next great personal computer, he was crushed by the launch of the superior Apple Macintosh. As a result, Joe symbolically burned the first shipment of his computers — and his bridges with Cameron and Gordon, whose wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) went to work with Cameron launching a new video game company called Mutiny — and set out to find enlightenment at Fiske Observatory.
Season 2 continues the momentum and picks up 20 months later in 1985, when Cardiff is being sold off to a foreign investor and Mutiny is struggling to grow and expand its services fast enough to keep up with user demand. But more importantly, all of the show's major characters — including Cardiff boss John Bosworth (Toby Huss), who went to prison for embezzlement while trying to make Joe and Cameron's dream come true --are somewhat isolated from the world around them and looking for the "next big thing."
Who will find it first, and can any of them find out without each other? Read on to see why Season 2 is worth your while and let creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell tell you what to expect.
1. Joe McMillan is as fascinating as ever. The super-cool guy who spent his nights hitting baseballs into windows in his apartment is nowhere to be found in the early episodes of this season. Instead, Joe has settled down with Sarah Wheeler (new series regular Aleksa Palladino), whom he knew from his past and re-connected with at Fiske. But when you learn that Sarah's father (James Cromwell) is a billionaire, it's hard not to wonder if Joe is setting up his latest con.
"We know Joe is a man who can adopt identities, and it's hard to break through those identities and find who's the real man — even for the man himself," Cantwell says. "In Season 2, we're going to find Joe operating from a much more human and authentic place, but at the same time we know how the character operates. We know it's in his DNA, and there will be plenty of instances where we're going to question what his true motives are. And I think even he will have a hard time questioning what his true motives are in any given situation."
2. Personal computers are out; online gaming is in. One of the major advantages of jumping the story ahead in time was to get our characters closer to the technology that changed all our lives. "It allowed us to parachute into what is the dawn of the proto-Internet," Cantwell says. "We're joining Mutiny as it's an up-and-coming dial-up service, which are the services that existed before there was one unified network." And in today's world of Internet trolls and hateful YouTube comments, it's hilarious to see how earnest the characters are about the value of online community.
"The feeling at the heart of it — connecting people who maybe think they're alone, weird, or different, and making them feel not alone — is a hopeful one," Rogers says. "Whether or not technology is a tool that brings us all together or pushes us farther apart is totally at the heart of Season 2. What level do we connect with each other and what's keeping us apart?"
3. The ladies are in charge. While Joe and Gordon plot their respective next steps, Donna and Cameron have no time to rest. They're trying to bring new games to the marketplace and keep their network from crashing under the weight of its users. But that's not as glamorous as it sounds. "Cameron and Donna are a year into their startup and they're reaching a really interesting crossroads with the company," Cantwell says. "It needs to legitimize or maybe go gentle into that good night." Adds Rogers: " Mutiny is engaged in asking itself, 'What is our product?' At the beginning, it seems very clear that their product is games because it's what Cameron sees as the hardest and most difficult to pull off. I think the question we want to be asking is: Is sometimes the simple elegance of a thing more important than the thing that is a technical challenge?"
That's what Donna believes once she notices that some users aren't playing games at all, but rather carrying on conversations in chat rooms. As Donna pushes for more community features, that naturally creates conflict between the women. "They both have their own great idea in Mutiny, and it's not a question of who's right and who's wrong, but rather who's right right now," Cantwell says. "The company is pushing in both directions, but it can only straddle those for so long, and it's going to be an interesting tension between the two of them."
And even before that debate, the duo is already at odds about how the business should be run. "We're super-interested in this idea of the commodification of punk rock or being disruptive," Rogers says. "What happens when the rubber hits the road and it's time to become a real business and make money and manage people? Can you be equal to your ideals when you're someone that stood up at the end of Season 1 and said this is a company where no one has a boss? The division between Cameron and Donna is less a generational one and more one of equity. ... So, what they're trying to find is a power structure that allows them both to do that without having Cameron be the one that flies off the handle and Donna be the one that has to fix things."
4. Gordon is adrift — and playing househusband. With Donna working, Gordon takes on the role of making peanut butter sandwiches and dropping his daughters off at school. And after cashing out during the Cardiff sale, Gordon has enough money and time to finally create something of his own. But that may be easier said than done. "Gordon's story is really interesting to us because here's a man who 'succeeded,'" Cantwell says. "At the end of Season 1, he's at the head of that table in the conference room asking his engineers what's next? Now that he's moving on from Cardiff, he's asking himself that question, and does the money help or make that problem even more exacerbated for him? It's not that he doesn't have the means to pursue his dreams, it's a question of what his dreams are."
And although Gordon resorts to some creative (and potentially troubling) ways to kick-start his mind, inevitably he will be drawn back into his working relationship with Joe. "Joe and Gordon's rather unholy marriage in Season 1 was really potent for both of them," Rogers says "Joe is trying to find himself, Gordon is trying to find himself, and they both find themselves lacking that spark for the next thing. They're looking, they're searching, and of course they're going to come back into each other's gravity. Underneath the tension and the problems they have with each other, they cannot resist the pull of the other."
5. As always, this show isn't really about the technology. Although there is plenty of tech speak and competition to launch the next great product, the show is much more interested for the role these machines play in our lives. "What makes Joe unique in his vision is, while he may not be able to articulate the exact technology that's coming down the road, he knows and understands that it's technology's impact on humanity and relationships that is the juice," Cantwell says. "That's what excites him and that's where he realizes the power is. I think all of our characters are starting to realize that as we go into Season 2."
Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday at 10/9c on AMC.