How Halt and Catch Fire is taking on sexism in the tech industry
The tech startup at the heart of AMC's drama is different in one key respect — it's led by two women
As the second season of Halt and Catch Fire draws to a close on Aug. 2, the AMC drama — about a 1980s-era band of misfit programmers attempting to bootstrap their online gaming-social networking startup — has definitely caught fire with fans like Jason Hirschhorn.
Hirschhorn, a former co-president of MySpace, finds plenty that rings true in this season's storyline, which has tried to re-create the breakneck pace of startup life. The show tracks the two female lead characters — Cameron Howe, the brilliant, acerbic programming prodigy who supplies the vision and the code, and Donna Clark, her equally brilliant yet more diplomatic problem-solving partner — as they launch, build, and ultimately decide to sell their company Mutiny.
The show, which picked up an Emmy nod earlier this month, doesn't have the ratings or buzziness of, say, HBO's Silicon Valley. But Hirschhorn says Halt and Catch Fire gets the big things right: the exhilaration of building something from nothing, the creative and philosophical tensions that pit a company's founders against each other, and the existential crises along the way. And it does all this in an attempt to tell a larger story about the tech industry and American capitalism.
We see Mutiny hustle for everything, from its customers to its servers. One of the founders has a family. The other falls in love. At various times, their company's survival hangs by a thread because of coding snafus and rivals swiping their ideas. One employee laments the constant chaos that necessitates "eating three meals a day from a toaster."
That the show also puts two female founders at the center of the action — at a time when the real-world tech industry has been forced to undergo some soul-searching over the bro culture that suffuses it — makes it all the more distinctive and relevant.
"Obviously for TV, there are shortcuts," Hirschhorn tells The Week. "But I think they get the passion right."
The actresses who play the two female leads got the lion's share of attention this season — a departure from the show's inaugural season, when the plot centered around two men, a corporate dynamo and an awkward geek whose interactions at times seemed to be trying to re-create those of the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak). This season, though, the show clearly aimed for fresher territory. Clark, played by Kerry Bishe, is shown juggling administrative tasks as well as her identity as a wife and mother. She also prods Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis, to focus more resources on the social network aspect of Mutiny.
Davis' character, though, is having none of it. She's a coder, bursting with ideas for online games and struggling to compete with rivals like Atari and their deeper pockets. One story thread running through the season is Clark's focus on the way gamers stick around after playing to chat with each other via Mutiny's version of a social network. Howe can't accept it; she believes, never mind what the data says, that games are the company's core.
It's the same kind of push and pull that's played out at startups like Twitter and so many others — one founder is passionate about a certain direction, while the data and customer trends point another founder elsewhere.
"My shorthand for relating to the questions these characters are facing is to think about my life and my creative decisions when they're being challenged by business decisions and how painful and complex that all is," Bishe tells The Week. "That's a story I don't think is too often told on TV. We don't often get to see the idea of American capitalism, to see what it takes creative people to really be successful."
And not just creative people, but creative women leading a startup that operates from a house full of loud, loutish male coders. The house is something of a microcosm of the Silicon Valley of today, never mind that the show is set in Texas.
At one point, Howe and Clark take a meeting with a venture capitalist who asks Howe if she wants children. He tells her that he doesn't just invest in companies, he invests in people — and he needs to know whether she and Clark are fully committed, even over "biological imperatives."
This kind of attitude isn't all that far from reality, as evidenced by a report issued a few months ago by the organization Joint Venture Silicon Valley. It found that Silicon Valley has a pay gap between men and women who have at least a bachelor's degree that's wider than the rest of the nation's.
And that's not even to mention the toxic slew of headline-grabbing examples of sexism in the industry, like Gamergate, the Ellen Pao trial, and the pervasive alpha male culture at tech giants like Uber. All of this makes the premise of Halt and Catch Fire a refreshing break from the norm, to say the least.
Davis, for example, says she was attracted to the role of Cameron because it didn't seem like the character had some dark trauma in her past — "the trope of the punky hacker girl," as she puts it. "[Cameron] is always the smartest person in the room and a complicated person who doesn't always know what she wants, which makes her interesting."
Last season, one character passionately noted, "Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing." Davis' character has lived by that line of thinking this season, with both her and Bishe's portrayals telling us something about tech and startup culture in the process. How do our favorite apps, smartphones, and the like come into being? They do so not just because of the talents of brilliant and difficult men, but also thanks to women who don't always get enough chances or credit — but still manage to build something new and important anyway.