Halt and Catch Fire: Silicon Prairie Meets Silicon Valley

By Brandi Jones

The AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire, now in its third season, has been useful because it informs us if we didn’t know, or reminds us if we did, that there’s more to “Silicon Valley” than Silicon Valley itself. The series begins in 1983 in Dallas, with the coming together of a small group of characters who are either working to create a new personal computer or indirectly supporting the cause through a job at a major manufacturer. Whether this has struck anyone as far-fetched, I can’t say, but Dallas is better known for oil, finance, football, and right-wing grouches — and still, I imagine, for a certain swashbuckling businessman named J.R.

The nice thing about the show as a viewer watches from season to season is that, in typical AMC fashion, the stakes gradually rise. Season 1 was an accurate well-told story with characters that screamed relatability; however as the season wore along, the stakes and conflict for each main character seemed minimal at best. Season 2 drastically improved in this area as more chips were pushed to the middle of the table with each twist and turn. Midway through season 3, this trend is only growing and making it more enjoyable with each new episode on Tuesday nights.

Halt and Catch Fire may seem to be modernizing history by placing women among its engineers: not so. True, women often were employed in roles so traditional they could have been copied from the ‘60s. As a woman who formerly worked in the Dallas/Silicon Prairie tech world of the early ‘80s, I can say this was unfortunately rarer than I would’ve liked it to be. It was tough sledding for a woman to climb the brass ring ladder that was originally promised. However, with Halt and Catch Fire, a different image is portrayed which is a refreshing surprise.

Getty Images

Getty Images

For the show’s second season, the creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers wisely shifted the narrative focus to Halt’s female leads—Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé), two coders trying to start an online gaming business called Mutiny in Texas’s Silicon Prairie, circa 1985. The show’s brilliance lay in its intertwining of the technical and the personal: as Cameron and Donna struggled to keep their friendship afloat, they realized the biggest appeal of Mutiny lay in communication and letting users chat with each other while they played games. As they tried to understand each other, they almost accidentally invented instant messaging; but for the viewer, the triumph of that discovery was compounded by the simple joy of watching Cameron and Donna learn to work together.

The first season prominently centered on the two main characters Joe (Lee Pace) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Donna’s husband, who displays unease about Joe’s ambitions and goals.  Together Joe and Gordon created a two-person vision to create a computer that was unfathomable in efficiency and creativity even to the highest Apple employees. What they have found on their three-year odyssey is that a vision is just that: a vision. Joe and Gordon struggle with the manpower and resources of the larger Silicon Prairie tech companies as well as the ego/alpha male tactics that both display in their never-ending tug of war. 

Though it usually gets the facts right, Halt and Catch Fire’s broader relation to history isn’t so simple. Mad Men was oft-discussed as if it aimed to duplicate the ‘60s, allowing a few commentators to complain about this or that box on the list going unchecked and many others to praise its accuracy. This show really should catch your attention: the music, consumer products, clothing, attitudes are all very ‘80s. They nailed it with the exception of a few commonly used phrases from today. I think they are trying to show how technology happened at that time and it seemed like they were trying to parallel leading characters and happenings from Apple, yet they actually acknowledge Apple at a couple of points, so they are not trying to tell the Apple story. Having worked in the industry during these times, consumed some of these type of products, knowledge of them...it is kind of cool to see this story in retrospect.