Synopsis of the series Halt and Catch Fire from my ISP’s Website: A trio of renegade techies in 1980s Texas launch a risky project amidst the personal-computer boom. I wasn’t writing for Psycho Drive-In last year when AMC presented the first season of Halt and Catch Fire. If I had been, I probably would have reviewed it. Instead, I’m reviewing the second season that debuted on Sunday, May 31, 2015. In preparing to watch and review the second season, I contemplated re-watching the first 10 episodes and writing a mini-review of each of them. However, I didn’t have time to re-watch that first season. I then decided to give a quick overview of the first season in which I would not reveal any major spoilers. Minor spoilers are unavoidable in an overview of an entire season of a TV series, but I was determined not to reveal any major aspects of the season’s plot in order to entice my millions of readers (Hundreds? Dozens? One or two?) into watching the series beginning with the first season (which is available on Netflix). The first season was fairly self-contained in the way it ended, as it seemed unlikely that the series was going to be renewed for a second season. Thus, it’s possible to begin with the first episode of the second season and not feel very lost—to feel as if the story is intentionally being told in medias res. However, I still recommend watching the first season before beginning the second; it’s only 10 episodes. Take a weekend to binge on it. However, if you don’t, or if you watched the first season and want a quick refresher, here’s what you need to know to about the series. The meaning of the title Halt and Catch Fire was explained in the opening sequence of the first episode of the first season when green characters were typed across a black screen—which is the way computer screens around the world looked during the Stone Age of computer technology before Apple debuted its original Macintosh on January 24, 1984 (Microsoft debuted Windows as a graphical operating system shell in November 1985). The operating system that ran IBM computers from 1981 to 1995 was MS-DOS, which is an acronym for Microsoft Disk Operating System (as opposed to other forms of DOS that ran on other computers—such as the “Apple DOS” that Apple used before developing Macintosh). To run a disk operating system on your computer, you actually had to have two floppy disk drives for your computer. In one drive, you would insert the DOS floppy and in the other you would insert the floppy for the software program you wanted to use. If you needed to switch to a different software program, you had to close out of the one, eject that floppy, put in the floppy for the other program, and then open it in DOS. Yes, it was a pain in the butt, but computer users actually had to have more of an understanding of the commands the computer needed in order to function. I have long ago forgotten everything I once knew about how to use DOS—how to type orders in DOS language for the computer to do what I wanted it to do— but I actually did have a reasonable understanding of computer code at one time thanks to the long-forgotten DOS days of my misspent youth. When that opening image of the green letters on the black screen was presented in the first episode of the first season, I didn’t realize it was doing more than defining the term that was being used as the title of the series. It was also a symbolic summary of the series. In fact, it only dawned on me as I typed the previous paragraph that “halt and catch fire” is a computer term that actually applies to the social interactions of the characters in this series. The computer company at the center of the first season, the fictitious “Cardiff Electric,” went into “a race condition” when Joe MacMillan began working there. He sent it into that “race condition” in which he and several other characters (the other two main characters, Cameron and Gordon, along with a few peripheral characters) all began “to compete for superiority at once.” In the end, they lost control of their company. Thus, I suppose this second season is going to be about whether they are able to regain control of Cardiff as well as regain control of their own lives. Based on the definition of the term “halt and catch fire,” I’m going to guess they will ultimately not be able to regain control. The series opened with Joe (who we later learn is Joe MacMillan, Jr.) addressing a computer programming class at the University of Texas as a guest speaker. He is essentially there as a junior IBM executive, but he is really there to scout talent to take with him to Cardiff Electric, as he had resigned from IBM a few days earlier. Joe did not yet have a job at Cardiff, but obstacles like that don’t matter to him; he’s a marketing genius who has the ability to do what all marketing geniuses can do—manipulate others into doing what he wants them to do. In this case, he manipulates a young, punk rock woman named Cameron Howe into joining him at Cardiff. (She is a computer programming genius who knows more about computer coding than do her professors at the University of Texas.) After securing Cameron (and having sex with her in a scene that was so clichéd it nearly caused me to stop watching that very first episode at that point), Joe then manipulates a top executive at Cardiff, John Bosworth, into hiring him to develop an IBM clone—which can be accomplished legally because all of the hardware IBM used for their early personal computers came from mass produced electronic components that were sold nationwide through stores like Radio Shack. The only proprietary component of the early IBM PC’s was the BIOS that the hardware what to do—which is why Joe needed Cameron. She had to design the BIOS for Cardiff’s IBM clone, and she had to do it without any specific knowledge of how IBM’s BIOS was coded because IBM would surely sue for copyright infringement (since Joe was a former employee). Thus, Cameron had to be able to “show her work” to prove she did not copy IBM’s code. The final piece of the three-protagonist series is Gordon Clark—a hardware engineer at Cardiff who had designed his own personal computer for the company a few years earlier. His “Symphonic” was unsuccessful after it failed to boot up at COMDEX, the annual computer trade show. However, even if Gordon’s Symphonic had booted up when it was on stage at the show, it probably would have failed in the market because, if I remember correctly, the interface was a piano synthesizer keyboard rather than a typewriter-based keyboard. I may be misremembering the details, but I recall the user had to play musical compositions on the keyboard to run the computer—something like that, anyway. I know a piano-synthesizer was somehow involved—so it’s understandable why Gordon’s computer was an embarrassment for the company in two ways. Thus, when Joe arrived at Cardiff, Gordon was the poor schlep who everyone else snickered at behind his back. However, despite its odd interface and boot-up problems, Gordon’s Symphonic was supposedly a brilliant piece of hardware engineering. Essentially, the fictitious Cardiff Electric is a hybrid of two actual Texas electronics companies—Texas Instruments (which we also see in the series, as Gordon’s wife, Donna, works for them) and Compaq Computers. In real life, the founders of Compaq all came from Texas Instruments, and Halt and Catch Fire is basically a fictionalized account of how Compaq developed the first IBM clone as a “suitcase computer”—the earliest form of a laptop computer. (Compaq’s name comes from their computer being a compact IBM clone). Throughout the first season, we see Joe, Cameron, and Gordon struggle to develop Joe’s vision of a portable computer. In the end, they succeed, but the damage to the relationships—personal and professional—is what the series is actually about as we watch the fictionalized history lesson of how Compaq began. (The Compaq Portable was released in January 1983, and TI’s Compact Computer 40 came out just two months later in March 1983. Halt and Catch Fire fictionalized this industrial espionage situation in the first season when Donna’s boss quit his job at Texas Instruments to develop his own compact computer after stealing Gordon’s designs that he had faxed to Donna.) Okay, so that’s what the series is about, and that’s where I’ll leave my summary of the first season. I wish I had the time to re-watch it, but I don’t. Now I’m off to watch the first episode of the second season. I’ll let you know all about it when I return. Okay, I’m back. Well, that wasn’t entirely what I expected! Some of what I had anticipated was in this first episode of the second season, but a few plot points were completely unexpected. The episode opened with Joe getting dressed for work as he listened to a radio report on the damage that Hurricane Alicia had caused Galveston and Houston. He then went into the living room of the house where we see Cameron playing a video racecar game on the television—undoubtedly an early Atari system that connected to the television console. (I once had an Atari 2600 that allowed me to play Pong and a very primitive Superman game.) At first I thought Joe had returned from his quest to find his mother, had reconciled with (and moved in with) Cameron, and had gone back to work at Cardiff. It wasn’t until I watched the episode a second time that I realized this scene was a flashback to a time before Joe had quit his job at Cardiff (after setting a truckload of computers on fire) to go find his mother where she lived and worked at an observatory in some mountainous desert area.* From that scene that flashed back to August 1983, we suddenly flash forward to March 1985—which means just as approximately nine months have passed for us between episode 1.10 and episode 2.01, approximately nine months have passed since Joe went off in search of his mother in “1984” and the beginning of the second season. However, the producers need to brush up on their math skills, as 20 months after Hurricane Alicia struck the Texas coast would place us in the last half of April 1985. In the approximately nine months that have passed since Joe went searching for his mother, the following has happened: Cameron and Donna’s start-up online gaming company, Mutiny, has grown too large for the infrastructure they have created in Cameron’s house. Their systems keep crashing and they are blowing out the local power grid. Their company is another example of the series taking a historical company and fictionalizing it. In this case, it seems to be a fictionalized version of MUD2, but with Mutiny providing a variety of online games rather than just one game. As president of Cardiff Electric, Gordon oversaw the successful launch of the “Giant Pro”—Cardiff’s desktop computer that directly competed against IBM’s desktop computer. Essentially, Cardiff’s Giant Pro is the fictionalized version of Compaq’s Deskpro (my first Windows-based computer was a Compaq Deskpro 6333, which was such a revelation from my previous MS-DOS computer). Due to the success of Cardiff Electric under Gordon’s leadership (he really wasn’t much of a leader, he just continued along with what Joe had started), Nathan Cardiff sold his company to a Japanese corporation—which earned Gordon over $800,000 for his share. Finally, we also learn that Joe met a former college classmate when he went searching for his mother at Fiske Observatory, Sara Wheeler, with whom he is living somewhere in the Dallas area. Once he collects the money for his share of the Cardiff sale (equal to Gordon’s minus the cost of the truckload of computers he set fire to at the end of the first season—so a little over $600,000), Joe and Sara plan to move to California to start up a dot.com company in the Silicone Valley. When I learned that the title of this episode was “SETI”—the acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence—I expected the episode to open with Joe finding his mother at the observatory and learning about her role in the SETI program. Instead, we learn that Sara is a journalist who was sent to Fiske to get a story about the SETI program, which is where she re-connected with Joe. I suppose the title of the episode is ultimately an allusion to how alien all of this computer technology was to most Americans (let alone the world) back in 1985. Cameron is still a punk rocker—though in this episode she is listening to “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” by Icicle Works** rather than her steady playlist of Sex Pistols, Ramones, and The Clash from the first season. Overall, “SETI” was a satisfying re-introduction to characters I haven’t seen for nine months. The episode is designed to allow viewers to catch up with what has been going on in these characters’ lives, and it sets up a few situations that will undoubtedly become some of the major plot points of the second season. One of these plot-point set-ups surprised me. I went into this episode expecting one or two of the characters to have a major health problem. Specifically, I expected either Joe or Cameron (and probably both) to have be showing signs of AIDS, as both characters engaged in behavior during the first season that could have caused them to contract HIV. In episode 1.03, “High Plains Hardware,” Joe engaged in gay sex with the boy-toy of a wealthy woman from whom he was seeking a financial investment into Cardiff Electric while simultaneously Cameron was sharing a needle with a group of heroin junkies she met. Thus, I expected to see a major health problem develop in Joe and/or Cameron this season. Instead, Gordon starts bleeding from the nose while he is eating ice cream with his daughters, and he is still trying to get the blood to stop several hours later after his daughters have gone to bed and he is reading Neuromancer by William Gibson while waiting for Donna to come home after working late to try to repair the Mutiny network with stolen servers. (And if I heard them correctly as they were discussing the servers, Cameron and Donna stole two servers that wouldn’t actually exist for another 15 or 20 years—but I’m not going to re-watch the episode again to figure out exactly what type of servers they stole from a fence who originally sold them counterfeit servers from China. It did seem to be an anachronism, though. Similarly, Gordon seems to be reading an edition of Neuromancer with a cover that does not exist in our world.) Thus, it looks like rather than Joe or Cameron developing AIDS, we are going to see Gordon be diagnosed with either leukemia or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as it seems unlikely that his spontaneous bloody nose was simply inserted for the sake of verisimilitude. For instance, while I have frequent nose bleeds when I live in arid regions (which are my favorite regions of the country to live in), I do not have leukemia or Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Gordon could be like me, but I doubt it. Instead, I think we will see his $800,000 from the Cardiff sale get used up as he undergoes treatment for whichever type of cancer he will be diagnosed with. I’m looking forward, but with anxiety, to finding out what’s going to happen in this season. Oh, and the episode ended with Cameron driving a great distance to pick up a member of the cast that has been missing for quite a while. It’s good to see him returning. * While it is referred to as the “Fiske Observatory” in the show, it is clearly not the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado. It may have been in either west Texas or New Mexico where Joe went to find his mother at the fictitious observatory in the final episode of the first season—episode 1.10 “1984.” ** Depending on the country in which the song was released, it is also titled “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)”—for reasons beyond my understanding. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... 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