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Halt and Catch Fire Was the Most Quintessentially Gen-X Show on TV

Photo: AMC

The term that inspired the name Halt and Catch Fire is defined in the show’s very first episode as “an early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once,” which meant that, “control of the computer could not be regained.” In other words, the computer must be shut down and rebooted in order to work again.

That is essentially what the four principal characters did over four seasons on this glorious, dearly departed AMC drama, which ended on Saturday. They raced after the next big idea — whether it was a faster, more efficient PC, an online-gaming and chat-room experience, or a new internet search engine — while often competing against outside forces and each other. Eventually each of them would hit their respective entrepreneurial walls, shut down, and then reboot so they could bolt forward with their next idea.

By the time Halt and Catch Fire reaches its conclusion, which lands near the end of 1994, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) has passed away and Joe (Lee Pace) has moved back to New York to become a professor, leaving Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) as the only ones still in California, chasing after the next potential game-changer. But they’re also interested in mentoring other women to rise up in the tech world, and encouraging younger people — specifically Donna and Gordon’s daughters, Joanie (Kathryn Newton) and Haley (Susanna Skaggs), who are like nieces to Cameron and Joe — to fearlessly pursue their dreams, too.

After watching the finale, this idea of making room for the next generation emerges as central to the lasting message of the series. In the last scene, Joe once again stands in front of a classroom, as he did in the pilot, addressing students who may aspire to do what he’s done. “Let me start by asking a question,” he says, repeating the same words he utters in the very first episode. The difference is that back then, he was a guest speaker who arrogantly thought he knew all the answers. By the early 1990s, Joe seems to realize he might have something to learn from his students’ responses. In an understated way that matches Halt and Catch Fire’s understated sensibility, this moment and others strongly imply that the show is ultimately about a group of Baby Boomers slowly learning to pass the baton to — or at least share it with — Generation X. For several reasons, Halt and Catch Fire may actually be the most Gen-X show on recent television.

From a nostalgic point of view, Halt and Catch Fire aimed right for the Gen-X sweet spot, setting its action between 1983 and 1994, and fully capturing the vibe in its spot-on production design, costume design, and especially its music choices, which were often wonderfully surprising. Extremely obscure bands like Crippled Pilgrims were featured, as were deep-ish cuts from Peter Gabriel and a Tribe Called Quest, and well-known classics by the Clash or the Breeders. I especially loved how mainstream ’80s music was dropped into the final season during moments of heightened emotion or nostalgia: The extended sequence in which the group cleans out the late Gordon’s house while “So Far Away” by Dire Straits spins on the turntable is just perfect. Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t just “get” the ’80s and ’90s, it immerses the viewer in those time periods.

The final season also makes a point of reminding us of the characters’ ages, which highlights the generational connections within the story it’s telling. In the first episode of season four, Gordon celebrates his 40th birthday, confirmation, in case we forgot, that he was born in the 1950s. The dialogue in the last couple of episodes also notes that Cameron is now 32, which puts her date of birth in 1961 or ’62, the tail end of the baby boom.

While the show’s core quartet may be Boomers, their professional experiences — which usually involve getting very close to achieving something revolutionary, then getting beaten to the punch, and/or receiving little credit for their work — are more emblematic of the stereotypical Gen-X identity, one rooted in being dismissed because of the larger, louder generations that flank it. Gordon, Joe, Cameron, and Donna are intelligent, talented, and determined, and they all achieve their share of success. (By the end, with the exception of Cameron, they also all live in pretty sweet, seemingly pricey homes.) But they never quite get to the next level in terms of making their marks. They race, they lose control of the computer, and they have to reboot, over and over again.

The benefit of 21st-century hindsight enables us to understand just how close they come to inventing technology or platforms that will eventually become part of the fabric of our daily lives: Google, eBay, Facebook, even the internet itself. (Al Gore may not have invented the internet, but I am pretty convinced that Cameron, Donna, Gordon, and Joe did.) But they miss it by that much because of bad timing, rotten luck, and chips on their shoulders that hold them back. As an Xer myself, that all sounds pretty Gen-X-ish to me.

Eventually in season four, Joe — the same guy who tried to engineer a supercomputer using the guts of an IBM PC in season one — starts looking to the future for inspiration. Which is why he recruits young Haley — who’s 15 years old in 1994, which means she was born in 1979, making her a bona fide Xer — to build the infrastructure that will become the Comet search engine. In classic child of the ’70s fashion, she has zero patience with Joe basically transforming her hard work into his own creation. “You’ve taken this thing that I made and now it’s yours and all you want is to make money off of it,” she tells him in what could very easily be a line from Reality Bites.

Joe also convinces Cameron to get her hands on the code for this new-fangled thing called Netscape and preemptively make sure Comet can work within its interface. But yet again, he realizes someone else has already gotten to the default search-engine finish line. “What the hell is Yahoo!?” Cameron asks as she and Joe stare at the beta version of Netscape, dumbfounded.

Halt and Catch Fire never specifically addresses what comes next in the story of the internet. But we know what does: Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, the iPhone, and Twitter, all creations either invented or partially developed by Generation Xers. (Okay, fine, Mark Zuckerberg may straddle the much-disputed line that divides Xers from millennials.) In the end, there’s a sense that the old guard is ceding territory to that unseen new one: Gordon is gone, Joe is in New York, and the now-retired Bos (bless the forever folksy Toby Huss) is out of the Silicon Valley picture. The finale also gives us a hopeful hint that the new guard may be more female, as evidenced by Donna’s and Cam’s interest in launching a venture together and inspiring younger women to do the same.

“One of the many things I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, somebody is around the next corner with a better version of it,” Donna tells a group that gathers for a “women in tech” party at her house. “And if that person is a man, it might not even be better. It just might get more attention. And sometimes that person is you, the you that’s never satisfied with what you just did because you’re obsessed with whatever is next.”

Halt and Catch Fire was always obsessed with what came next because its characters were energized by the same prospect. It highlighted something that, in retrospect, too few companies acknowledged in the early 1990s: You can’t move forward if the veterans don’t listen to the motivated young visionaries who could become future industry leaders. It was a thoughtfully directed, observant gem of a drama that was unjustly, completely ignored by the masses. Which, actually, makes perfect sense.

Being completely ignored is exactly right for a TV show that, in so many unexpected ways, understood Generation X.

Halt and Catch Fire Was the Most Gen-X Show on TV