Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire and Humanizing the Void


             You could be forgiven for dismissing Halt and Catch Fire as second-rate Mad Men. You might even be right. After all, the sophomore AMC drama created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers is hardly the masterpiece that Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed, seven-season meditation on the American Dream was even in its youth, and its resemblance to the latter borders on suspicious at times.

             To start with, it’s a period piece, though 1980s Texas doesn’t quite have the exotic, jewel-toned glamour of ‘60s Manhattan. Joe MacMillan, the central protagonist played by Lee Pace, is basically a mid-level Don Draper – a debonair, silver-tongued genius tormented by his enigmatic past; he even ends the first season by ditching his job and disappearing into the backcountry, a move not dissimilar to Don’s cross-country odyssey in the last act of Mad Men. At one point, Cameron sums Joe up with the barbed observation: “You’re just a thousand-dollar suit with nothing inside.” Sound familiar?

I mean, come on.

Speaking of Cameron, she’s the Peggy Olson of Halt and Catch Fire, an idealistic young prodigy who the hero takes under his wing; her alternately affectionate and resentful interactions with Joe recall Peggy and Don’s volatile relationship. Donna initially occupies the obligatory neglected wife role, though unlike with Betty Draper, the other characters soon learn to recognize and appreciate her value, and in a pleasantly surprising reversal, the second season has positioned Gordon as a bored house-husband while Donna gets absorbed in her work. Both shows even include amusing side-stories involving typically straitlaced women trying marijuana.

Yet, after a rather uninspired beginning, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Halt and Catch Fire as I binged the first season on Netflix (for me, “binging” means consuming 1-3 episodes a day, which I guess for some people is known as “watching TV”). I couldn’t help but succumb to Lee Pace’s haughty charisma; the dysfunctional, frequently hostile relationships; the pleasure of seeing Donna upend everybody’s expectations, including the audience’s; the coolly retro soundtrack and credits sequence. As much as I love Game of Thrones, there’s something to be said for a show that creates tension out of lost computer files.

In a way, it turned out to be the perfect rebound, filling, however incompletely, the gaping hole left in my TV-viewing heart by Mad Men. For all the aforementioned similarities, I would argue that Halt and Catch Fire is not, in fact, a cheap knockoff of the seminal ad agency drama but a rejoinder, approaching the same problems – how are people shaped by society? Is happiness possible? What is our purpose in life? – from a radically different angle.

             The difference is ultimately a matter of time. Mad Men takes place during the 1960s, just barely spilling into the ‘70s. This was an era defined, at least in popular memory, by social and political turmoil, as women flooded the workplace, the Civil Rights Movement burst into mainstream (aka white) consciousness, and anti-war protests raged across college campuses. Although Mad Men focuses mostly on the lives of sheltered elites, the underlying unrest seeps through its structure (e.g. episodes revolving around John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations), internal conflicts (e.g. Don struggling to cope with his growing irrelevance), and tone, which could skip from introspective to surreal in the blink of an eye, reflecting the characters’ inability to make sense of their rapidly changing world.

Never forget.

Halt and Catch Fire picks up a decade after Mad Men ends. The Vietnam War is over; the trauma of Watergate is fading into history; the economy is recovering from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. A new normal has emerged, and it looks markedly like the old one: whatever progress feminism has made, women are still expected to take care of the home while their husbands pursue greatness. Given the notorious conservatism of the time period, it’s fitting that, aside from a couple heavy-handed attempts at symbolism (broken-winged bird = vulnerability, hurricane = inner chaos), Halt and Catch Fire eschews Mad Men’s flights of fancy in favor of something more literal and austere. This is a society that’s bought what Sterling Cooper sold – things make your life better.

             It’s not shallowness or cynicism so much as practicality. At the climax of episode nine, “Up Helly Aa”, Joe explains to potential suppliers why they should buy the Giant computer even though Cameron’s interactive OS was removed:
Unique? Interesting word choice. What are you really asking for? Give me something special, something warm, something fuzzy? This is a machine. It’s not your friend. It’s your employee; it works for you. And the way it should be evaluated is thus: how well and how fast does it do the things I ask? Answer: instantly. Anything less is a waste of your time. What is the margin of error? Answer: zero. Anything more and you fail. Here’s another one, one that’s infinitely more important than “unique” will ever be: speed. Let’s cut through the bullshit and act like adults. You want speed. And this machine is the fastest one for you, period. You want to play a game with your kid? Join him for craft time at preschool. You want a buddy? Buy a dog. You want to chase rainbows, tilt the room? Walk outside. There are a hundred casinos built for delusional people like you who think the world is going to change so easily. You want to get something done? Buy one of these.
The pitch is ruthless in its candor, the anti-Carousel. It points to a fundamental difference between Don and Joe: they are both salesmen, but whereas the former is selling an idea, the latter is selling a product. In fact, Joe would most likely scoff at Don’s penchant for nostalgic sentimentality and existential angst. The age of digital technology has no room for doubt or idealism; you live like there are only tomorrows, like your very survival depends on moving forward at all times, because one look back means you’re left in the contrail. The past has become not only unpleasant but irrelevant, a jumble of mistakes, failures and disappointments, best forgotten as soon as possible. It’s little wonder people so quickly lost interest in space exploration: after the initial thrill of Neil Armstrong’s historic feat, you realize nothing’s actually changed. We’re still stuck on the same boring, messed-up planet. Mad Men asked, “What if we go to the moon?” Halt and Catch Fire asks, “What if we go to the moon and all we find is a giant rock?”

             Later, Joe comes to regret his decision to sell the Giant without Cameron’s OS. His victory feels empty, insignificant, mediocre. At heart, Halt and Catch Fire is about the dichotomy between technology and art, which isn’t so different from the age-old debate between science and religion: one, according to traditional wisdom, is cold, calculating, concrete, only interested in finding the means to an end, while the other is passionate, irrational and abstract, concerned with things that may have no end. And despite its affection for geek lingo (as in the title), the show winds up siding with the latter. It is, after all, television, an artistic medium, crafted by writers, artistic people, and the best way for artists to understand technology is to imagine it as a kind of art. Hence Donna complimenting Cameron’s code by calling it poetry.

Jodie Foster can relate.

             There’s a reason pop culture is so fascinated by mad-genius scientists and artificial intelligence. They transform the mundane (builder, metal box) into the miraculous (creator, metal soul), lend humanity to the inhuman. As it turns out, we’re not satisfied with just a machine or just code. We want something poetic, something with a touch of mystery and beauty, something we can fall in love with. If Mad Men strives to strip away our myths and uncover an underlying truth, Halt and Catch Fire provides an argument for the necessity of myths. Beneath all the characters’ talk of progress and the future lurks a nagging fear – where do we go after we succeed? What happens when the unknown becomes known?

             Answer: nothing.

Screenshot from AMC’s Mad Men, episode 6.1 “The Doorway”
Screenshot from AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, episode 1.6 “Landfall”

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