If anything can be said about the first season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire it’s that it ended strong, turning in its best work when it mattered the most — during its final two episodes. Thankfully, the creative forces behind the show, creators and head writers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Roberts, along with showrunner Jonathan Lisco, are able channel that momentum and make the second season premiere something of a blank slate for the series, allowing the characters and the audience to start fresh.
As much as the show would like to think that the main thematic element of the premiere is “making contact” (thus the episode title “SETI”) the more compelling theme running throughout is the idea of being the boss. Where some characters balk at the thought of wearing the mantle, others yearn for the days where they called the shots, always leaving the audience wondering if it’s worse to be forced into leadership or forced out of it.
Over at Mutiny, the start-up company headed up by Cameron and Donna, things are going well enough to be going terribly. Operating out of Cameron’s not-zoned-for-commercial-use house, the amount of electricity and equipment required to keep their burgeoning online-gaming enterprise up and running is more than can be managed, leading to lag, lashing out, and a neighborhood power outage. It’s Donna who’s handling most of the managerial burden at this point, but only because there’s no one else to do it. Though she complains to Cameron about being tired of cleaning up after everyone else’s messes (both literal and metaphorical), Cameron rightly, if unfairly, points out that no one asked her to do so. But Donna has a point — if she isn’t the one handling these things, who will? Certainly not Cameron, who balks at the very idea of getting on the phone with the power company. The company must upgrade its infrastructure and its user base if it wants to avoid faltering like so many similarly sized start-ups, and it must do so quickly. But if no one is holding the reins, then how will Mutiny ever stay on the path to success?
It’s a refreshing change of pace to watch a story unfold featuring two women in positions of power in a historically hostile industry, arguing over who should have to be the boss. Neither wants control just for control’s sake, but more than that, neither of them wants to give up getting their hands dirty down in the trenches. For Cameron, that means coding and concept generation. For Donna, that means system building and, most interestingly, investigating a hunch she has about the viability of some sort of community that allows players to interact with each other outside the games.
The Donna-and-Cameron relationship as a whole is one of the single strongest elements of the series. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lisco talks about how despite each of the characters being feminist trailblazers, there’s still an element of friction between the two, as the age gap means that they’re too close, yet too far apart in age for Cameron to see the efforts that Donna’s generation made in the feminist movement as a whole. It’s a fascinating dynamic made even more incisive by how resonant it is to the struggle of modern activism to unite its adherents under a single banner.
Meanwhile, the men of Halt and Catch Fire are struggling in significantly different ways than their female counterparts. When last we saw protagonist Joe MacMillan, he was setting the first truckload of Giant computers ablaze as some kind of penance for his absent soul before running away to the nearest planetarium and hooking up, apparently, with his college sweetheart Sara. In “SETI,” Joe and Sara have set up house in Austin, where she announces to friends that upon receiving Joe’s money for the sale of Cardiff, they’ll be relocating to Silicon Valley where Joe will endeavor to set up his own company.
Cardiff’s sale means, of course, that both Joe and Gordon are about to become very rich men, an opportunity that Gordon means to take and use as an excuse to get back to his garage and start creating again. Either that, or he’s just going to sit around the house, parent his girls, and do a bunch of cocaine. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see! Which is to say that Gordon seems rattled at the idea of not being a part of something big anymore, even as he’s despondent at the fact that neither Giant, nor the computer they produced the next year, were particularly innovative. He’s suffering from a hazy sort of malaise made all the worse because he can’t pin it down.
This malaise likely isn’t helped by the return of Joe into Gordon’s life, who appears in Dallas to get his cut of the sale money and feebly asks Gordon, “Did you get my letter?” as though such a missive could possibly have excused Joe’s abandonment of their friendship and the company they were to run together. Joe seems like a changed man — more humble, more serene — but that doesn’t stop him from grousing about how it’s a mistake to sell Cardiff, as it’s worth at least 20 percent more than they’re taking for it. As it turns out, however, it doesn’t really matter how much the company is sold for because Joe isn’t getting anything after all. Thanks to his disappearing act, the Nathan Cardiff denies him his check and sends him packing, leaving Joe no choice but to go home and propose to his girlfriend, who one assumes is paying all the bills.
Joe and Gordon both seem a bit at loose ends without the rigors of regular deadlines and responsibility to anchor them in this plane of existence. Cameron and Donna seem unduly burdened by the idea of management and the thought that their creative process is stymied by the responsibility of the bigger picture. All are primed and looking to the future, and it’s just a matter of time before they all make contact.