It premiered as something of an underdog, but after four seasons the AMC drama “Halt and Catch Fire” emerged as a cult and critical favorite, mining unexpected depths of drama from its depiction of the computer industry’s nascent days. And two of its biggest fans, from beginning to end, were computer experts Jim and Janet Miller, who had an intimate connection with the world depicted by the show — because the show’s journey directly tracked with their own lives.
Jim and Janet began their careers in Texas during the early 1980s, AKA the “Silicon Prairie” era, before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1988 to work for companies including Apple, Hewitt-Packard, and SAP. (Along the way, they also raised two children: my brother Eric and I.)
As they’ve done for previous seasons, Jim and Janet (who still live in Silicon Valley) agreed to share their thoughts on the end of this fascinating show: What “Halt and Catch Fire” got right, what moments they loved best, how they felt about the depiction of women in tech, and why they’re glad the show got to end on its own terms.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers for the series finale of “Halt and Catch Fire” follow.]
Entering the 1990s
IndieWire: The second that Donna mentioned “Star Trek: Generations,” I was like, “Oh, we’re definitely in the year 1994!”
Jim: I was going to date it by when Netscape came out, but understood.
IndieWire: When the show moved to the ’90s, the show moved to startup culture in that era, which you guys were a part of. What do you feel like they really got right?
Janet: Pretty much everything. It’s easier to figure out what was wrong.
Jim: They were pretty obviously recreating the Yahoo thread versus the Google thread. Comet was all about, “We’re going to curate these things. We’re going to come up with lists of things that you would want to look at. We will be your view into all the stuff on the internet.” Rover was saying, “No, no, no. There’s too much of this stuff. You’re never going to be able to build a complete index of it or it’s just going to be too big, so we’ll just mechanically index all the stuff and we’ll give you a search engine on top of it.” Well, Google won. Search won. Even Yahoo had to get away from just being a collection of a large number of links and go towards search. But of course, now we’re finding, well, how much can we trust that search engine, the search processes, those algorithms? Are we going to go back to an approach that is much more curated?
What It Means to Say Goodbye
IndieWire: In the grand scheme of things, how do you feel about Gordon passing away?
Janet: It worked. He was part of the glue that was holding everything together.
Jim: Gordon is one way that things end, because they do. Startups sometimes don’t get past the startup phase and they end that way. Childhood ends. And then Comet comes to its conclusion. Having closed up a couple of those houses, yeah, that’s not a fun thing to do either.
Janet: I really liked Donna and Cam in the old Comet building, fantasizing about how Phoenix would work. That, in a nutshell, is the lifecycle of many, many startups. I worked in that world for three years, something like that. It was one of the best times of my life and my career. There were times when it was just outstanding. There was so much energy and you so felt like you were part of something that was going to be so great.
Jim: It was very theatrical. You just had this master shot of the two of them center stage looking out into the audience, going through this exchange between their different views of the startup. The thing at the top of the shot almost was like the top of the stage as you’d see in a small theater. It just felt very theatrical, thrown into the middle of a TV show. It was nice.
It sort of, for a similar reason, brought to mind the episode of “BoJack Horseman” this year where BoJack has gone back to his family’s summer house and they’re sort of cutting back and forth between BoJack in present day and then in the same house, but many years in the past, his mother’s family. It had a very “Our Town”-ish sort of feel.
Nitpicking California Living
IndieWire: Mom, you mentioned that it’s almost easier to identify the stuff they didn’t get right. Is there anything that really stood out for you?
Janet: Well, their view of the Bay Area is kind of interesting, in that it’s very clear that they are supposed to be somewhere on the Peninsula, but Joe’s apartment was very clearly in San Francisco somewhere. And then Gordon’s house was surrounded by landscaping that I have not seen around here.
Jim: Oh, but you know, it’s no different than LA shows where a car is clearly driving down Ventura Boulevard and they make a right turn and all of a sudden they’re in Santa Monica. This happens all the time.
IndieWire: But it’s interesting to notice when shows do get it really right.
Jim: Yeah. There’s a real quick reference to where Cameron’s land was — “oh, it’s just a few miles west of Bonny Doon,” which is indeed a place up around Big Bear, sort of between where we are and Santa Cruz. That looked very location-appropriate. Now, that’s more than a short drive from there to San Francisco, but whatever.
Janet: I also kept wondering how Cam was still getting her utilities. She must have really good electricity to run all that satellite stuff. Where was the water coming from? There must have been utilities on the property.
Jim: Picky, picky, picky.
The Reality of Women Working in Tech
IndieWire: One of the things I’ve really loved about the show, but also found myself vaguely conflicted by, is it really has celebrated and promoted the idea of women in tech. But for some reason it always bumps me, to some degree, because how realistic is it?
Jim: Because reality is Ellen Pao.
IndieWire: Yet at the same time, the reality is also Mom. Mom has worked for decades in this industry. And I’m sure not every day has been a picnic, but…
Janet: In ’94, I almost always worked with as many women as men in the groups I was in. I had female managers. The upper management was usually men, but women were in the company and women were a respected part of the company. I won’t say we got total parity, but you rarely ended up having to deal with sexism.
Jim: Explicitly. Sadly the talk that Donna gave [at the women in programming party] could just as easily have been given today and would be just as in need of being given today as it was then. Are we any better off than then? I don’t know.
Janet: Well, we are better off. We’re better off in the sense that when it comes to light that things aren’t the way they really should be, people come down hard. The society in general does not tolerate it or will at least give lip service to not tolerating it.
A Billion Dollar Idea
IndieWire: Officially, Joe gets the last word in the series finale, but you have that scene with Cameron and Donna where they’re like, “I have an idea.” In 1994, very specifically in that era of Silicon Valley, how important was the concept of a great idea?
Jim: The canonical story that you hear is always, “Ideas are cheap.” Anybody can have an idea. An idea is five percent of success. The rest of it is actually building the team and deciding how you’re going execute and then actually executing and have it come off.
I was going to get cranky about Donna coming up with this unknown idea, because all through the show and, in fact, through the finale, there’s always this very strong distinction, especially between Donna and Cam: If you go back and look at the Phoenix story, all of that was Cam talking about building this and doing this and constructing this thing and Donna was all, “Oh, then we get our series A and then we did this financing thing.” It was very clearly Donna who was focused on the business side of things, which is great.
Janet: This was also the way it’s been all along.
Jim: Exactly. And so for suddenly Donna to be the one who comes up with the idea, like I said, initially I was feeling, “Wait a minute. That’s not what she does.” But, okay, no, this is a shift in the character. Donna has made the leap from somebody who is just a business-y nuts and bolts person to somebody who can look at that scene in the diner where out of 1,000 people, most people would look at this and just see, oh, there are people there drinking coffee and eating their eggs and talking to the waitress and all that, but Donna sees something. She has become one of those one people in 1,000 or 10,000 or whatever who can look at stuff that none of us would understand at all, but suddenly say, “Oh my god, I just saw a billion dollar idea.” Of course, we don’t know what that idea is, nor should we. It doesn’t matter what the idea is. It’s that it happened and off they go.
Regarding The Song Choice for the Final Scene
Jim: It was relatively time-appropriate, I guess, so there’s that.
Janet: And it’s well known, no matter what it is. Anything is better when it has “Solsbury Hill” in it.
IndieWire: Wow, “Solsbury Hill” was actually 1977.
Jim: Oh, it’s that old? Oh wow. Okay, then. Well, it was time-appropriate for people making fun of tagging “Solsbury Hill” onto everything.
IndieWire: Do you feel like you have a favorite season of all four?
Jim: Eh, not really. I enjoyed all of them. I find it hard to pick one versus the other.
Janet: I really liked … There were things in all the seasons I loved. I loved Mutiny. I loved this season with Comet versus Rover and the characters. I loved the whole COMDEX thing in the first season where Donna and Gordon take their show on the road. That was hilarious.
Jim: Yeah, I think the first season, to the extent I can remember it at this point, there were a lot more sort of computer things, industry things: “Oh, I remember. Hey, look at that machine there. We had one of those. I remember that thing. Oh, look they’re talking about COMDEX.” Those were sort of fun callouts. I felt there was less of that in this last season, but I was totally fine with it. I was happy to have less of that and more of the focus of these people as people, because they were really interesting people. Good for the writers, good for the actors.
A Final Note
Jim: This has been a good year for shows coming to an end under their own terms. I’m thinking both here and “Episodes,” which we both liked. We really liked the “Episodes” finale. It’s kind of nice that these shows are being given a chance. They say, “Okay, we’re going to give you one more season and that’s it, so we’re giving you a gift. We’re letting you approach this whole season from the perspective of wrapping it up.” As opposed to discovering that you’re not getting picked up and so you’ve got to rewrite the season finale and turn it into a series finale. Both of those shows did a really nice job, I thought, of bringing the story together.
IndieWire: This is the third time, I think, we’ve done one of these chats, and every time I’ve really enjoyed doing it.
Jim: Same here.
IndieWire: I’m sad that we’ll have to find new reasons to talk about ’90s technology.
Janet: We need another retro computer show.
“Halt and Catch Fire” Seasons 1 – 3 are streaming on Netflix. Season 4 is available for purchase on iTunes.