What You Need to Know About Halt and Catch Fire Before Season Two

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe, and her ragtag crew. Photo: RIchard DuCree/AMC/© AMC Film Holdings LLC.

Don’t know much about Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s 1980s Texas tech drama set in the quaint pre-internet age when personal computers were an anomaly and IBM was large and in charge? Reviews for season one were lukewarm, but critics have been effusive about what’s being hailed as a smarter, more dynamic new season. Here’s our system update before Sunday’s second season boots up. Spoilers for season one ahead.

About the title.
Yeah, it’s clunky, only computer geeks know what it means, and it’s been blamed for season one’s low-audience turnout. It refers to a now-defunct command that makes a hard drive self-destruct. Feel better?

Wait, why Texas?
While Dallas’s Bobby and J.R. Ewing were dreamin’ and schemin,’ North Texas, already home to Texas Instruments and Electronic Data Systems, was getting its share of tech start-ups — Dell, Compaq, Tandy Corporation. Apple and Microsoft had Silicon Valley, so the Lone Star State spot engineering a computer boom became the “silicon prairie.” Fun fact: Compaq really did secretly reverse-engineer IBM’s patented code, getting around the law just like Halt’s clone company Cardiff Electric does with its “Giant” PC.

A chance to relive the ’80s on a show that’s not The Americans.
Come for the crazy clothes, stay for the pop music. Hey, the Jennings aren’t the only ones who get to rock bad sport coats, ugly sweaters, high-waisted jeans, and questionable hair. And they don’t have Halt composer (and Tangerine Dream musician) Paul Haslinger’s retro synthesizer score. The first season’s punk and new-wave soundtrack included the Clash, the Vandals, and XTC. This season promises Art of Noise and the Icicle Works.

The show’s big players are brash, brilliant, and complicated.

Joe MacMillan: When we first meet the suave — some would say smarmy — bespoke-suited East Coast former IBM salesman, played by the gloriously eyebrowed Lee Pace, a fan favorite since Pushing Daisies, he’s recklessly driving his black Porsche as an armadillo gets lodged in its grill. This is to let us know the Steve Jobs wannabe will mow down anyone in the way of realizing his dream to clone Big Blue’s PC. But the mercurial man also says things like, “Computers aren't the thing. They are the thing that gets us to the thing.” Except by season’s end, he’s thrown a hissy fit, set Cardiff’s first truckload of Giant PCs on fire because they don’t have the software he wants, and stormed off to hike a mountain and stargaze. 

Cameron Howe: Mackenzie Davis is Halt’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an androgynous, fatigue-wearing, arcade-machine-scamming prodigy coder. See her write a program on a mirror with lipstick! Hear the punk rocker listen to X-Ray Spex’s “Germ Free Adolescents.” The all-around badass hooks up with Joe after he speaks to her college class. Then she agrees to join his ragtag band of renegades. “If it goes wrong, I’m a college dropout repairing VCRs for $3.25 an hour,” she rationalizes. Her novel ideas, including a personalized operating system, are met with resistance. And when she suggests naming their portable (15-pound!) PC “Lovelace,” the male engineers think Deep Throat, but she means Ada Lovelace, believed to be the first computer programmer. The season ends with the 22-year-old leaving Joe and Cardiff behind to form Mutiny, an online gaming collective, and setting her sights on being an online-gaming game changer.

Gordon and Donna Clark: Ever wonder what happened to the Argo couple played by Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé? A little visionary casting, and they’ve morphed into Halt’s husband and wife, who are college sweethearts and ace engineers. Gordon’s been hitting the sauce ever since the revolutionary computer he and Donna designed failed to boot up at a trade show. So Donna, who’s working a dull Texas Instrument job while Gordon clocks in as a Cardiff systems engineer, is a bit of a scold. But the mother of two tries to be supportive when Gordon becomes Steve Wozniak to Joe’s Jobs. And she’ll save the day more than once: retrieving vital code that Cameron’s lost in a power surge (that Joe orchestrated), chauffeuring the crew to the Comdex trade show in her Ford station wagon, and helping Gordon de-bug the Giant PC — removing Cameron’s innovative operating system — before its demo, and as Apple introduces its talking computer. When we last see the couple, Gordon is Cardiff’s CEO, selling a less-than-innovative Giant, and Donna’s jumped ship to join Cameron’s start-up Mutiny.

John Bosworth: Toby Huss rounds out the cast as Cardiff’s tough-talking SVP of sales, the only Texan who actually seems to have an accent. He’s hired Joe based on his IBM history and is initially clueless to his true intention to push the software company into the PC biz. The two butt heads constantly, but John's similar belief in the PC is revealed when he’s arrested for embezzling money — with Cameron’s help — from the corporate account to keep the Giant afloat. Now a father figure to Joe, he takes the rap for the crime.

Halt and Catch Fire’s second season premieres Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST on AMC.