Halt & Catch Fire

An underappreciated gem of a TV show and a great history piece for the evolution of computers

Published on August 18, 2018

About 6 minutes read


I want to share a few thoughts on an (in my opinion) unappreciated gem of a story and TV Show named Halt and Catch Fire.

Halt and Catch Fire is an American TV Drama that aired on the AMC network. It ran for four seasons from June 1st, 2014 to October 14, 2017. The show is set in the 1980s and depicts the rise of the personal computing industry. It centers around 4 main characters: Gordon, Donna, Cameron and Joe. Each season is very different in both tone and feel, although there is a narrative and visual consistency maintained throughout the show.

"HACF: Halt and Catch Fire. An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained."

What is it about?

It is a story of how the Personal Computer ended up in every person's home. It is a story about the people that made that possible. In its heart, it is a story about change and and how humans adapt. It is a testament to how difficult change is most people, from very small changes to world altering changes. It is a show about human beings co-existing or trying to find ways to co-exist. Living with your mistakes, fears, doubts, aspirations, while trying to find ways of understand those of others too.

The one constant throughout its four seasons, is the reality of the struggle of living that these people go through. This is not a wartime show, where people have to physically kill each other in order to survive. This is a time where people understand that they are in a position to "kill" someones' dreams, visions or hard work, in order to achieve their aspirations and move up the societal ladder. This is what makes the actions of the characters much more visceral and savage. The writing on that part was spot on, especially given the meaning of the computer command Halt & Catch Fire (the quote above). It is a show about growing up, maturing in character, thinking clearer and finding one's self. Every character's arc is such that you can feel the change, you can understand the reasons behind their choices and sometimes feel the weight of them. It is a show that made me feel and that meant a lot to me. It made me feel happy, sad and ultimately made me think why I felt like than. That is truly something in today's TV show arena, where most shows are created and aired just to please their audiences and let people pass the time without thinking too much.

Close your eyes. Does anything feel weird? Cause that's what this is. Feeling weird is how you know you're still here. All right now, when was the last time you ate? Because all a human needs is food, water and rest. You've got to remind yourself that you're just 160 pounds of goo in the middle of a very big universe. So whatever's burning you up right now, just know that it'll fade. Every problem feels big in the moment, but, Gordon, you know better. So... focus on being, being. And then try to look up from your computer every once in a while. - Gordon, talking to himself

Plot Points

I am not a fan of spoilers, so I'll do my best to not provide any, in case you haven't seen the show yet. I will try to convey what I think this show is about and what I liked about it, while trying to not give too much away. Some of the show's most interesting points lie in the drive of the main characters to create. Products, companies, communities, relationships, etc. They go through cycles of creation and destruction, often ending with very spectacular results.

Each of the characters feels like an actual person, never perfect and always relatably broken. You could picture yourself going through similar motions if you were in their shoes, something that created an important connection to the characters for me. Even characters I did not particularly connect because of how different I am as a person, I could understand the mentality behind most of their actions and that made it very enjoyable to watch.

The show's creators wanted to take us on a ride on the tech train of the 80s and 90s. We see how the Personal Computer wars were waged against IBM and how the PC Compatible market was created. The show doesn't focus on all tech aspects from those years, but primarily highlights the breakthroughs that took place during those years. The IBM PC Compatible, portable computers, the rise of Apple and Microsoft, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and the creation of the Internet, console gaming and multiplayer gaming, the browser wars, the search engine wars, etc. Each event is shown through the personal experiences and motivations of each of our four protagonists and it's something that adds to the illusion of reality of the show. It feels that it's you that's there in 1988 going through the same thing.


I love to pay attention to the photography and direction of movies and television shows. This show's visual aspect changes from era to era, reflecting the changes in 80s and 90s America, both in terms of set design, as well film grain and color grading (slightly more yellow in the 80s era, to slighty more blue in the 90s era shots). Most of the show is shot using set shots, with only a handleful of sequences shot on handheld cameras. The handheld cameras added an air of urgency and movement to moments that were right for it, whereas the set shots, allowed focus to be placed on the performances that the actors brought to the set.

Soundtrack and Music

If you enjoy music from the 80s and 90s, you're going to have a lot of fun! The show's soundtrack is filled with beatiful, earie and suspensful tunes as well as very angsty, teenage punk and rock music from that time. As the characters progress, so does their taste in music, something that is reflected on the soundtrack choices.

Official Soundtrack

Unofficial playlist of songs from the series

A real dreamer is someone who makes something out of nothing. But that takes hard work.

Who is this show for and why should it interest me?

There are millions of stories out there, in myriads of formats. Why should you spend your time watching this one, instead of [insert other TV show, or book here]? I'm not the one to tell you how to invest your time, because it is ultimately a very personal matter. I fell in love with the show and I've watched it twice so far. It is a story that resonated in me, mainly because I saw a small part of me in each of the main characters and because the subject matter of the show was of interest to me. That may not be the case for you, but it's up to you to find out if it is. Watch a couple of episodes if you can and decide for yourself. That's part of the fun after all. I'll just leave you with the trailer to give you a taste: