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Halt And Catch Fire wasn’t Mad Men, it was Six Feet Under

Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC

This article discusses plot points from both Halt And Catch Fire and Six Feet Under.

When Halt And Catch Fire premiered in 2014, the show seemed like little more than an attempt to, as our review put it, “reverse-engineer” a Mad Men replacement for AMC’s soon-to-be-exiting hit. It was a pithy summation and not an inaccurate one: From its period setting, to its characters chasing a future that we can judge smugly with the certainty of hindsight, to a protagonist who was also a charming, enigmatic lothario—a confident salesman who’s equally adept at smooth-talking his way into boardrooms and bedrooms, but mostly he’s selling the lie of himselfMad Men comparisons were inescapable. They were also damaging. Audiences who were turned off by what seemed like a pale imitation of that show never returned, even as Halt And Catch Fire underwent one of television’s all-time great creative resurgences, and those now-chastened early critics began to sing its praises.


It also didn’t help that Halt And Catch Fire presented itself as about something—namely, about the ’80s/’90s technology boom, and the circuitous journey taken by the myriad engineers and entrepreneurs in first North Texas’ Silicon Prairie and later Silicon Valley. That very premise portends something self-inflated and boring, promising episode after episode of people typing dramatically into boxy computers, perhaps while crowing anachronistically amusing lines about floppies and 2400-baud modems. (I’m the son of an engineer who built Tandy Computers in ’80s Dallas; let me be the first to tell you, his story would make for dull television.) If you were at all ambivalent about technology, you’d have been forgiven for rejecting a show that was ostensibly about its history.

Still, what Halt And Catch Fire proved, from its revitalizing second season through its moving series finale, was that it was never really about computers. Sure, its storylines were propelled by big inventions—by its characters always chasing the next big thing, only to discover that someone else got there first. Or more often, to implode thanks to their own selfish impulses. But if the show does bear another resemblance to Mad Men, it’s in its similar use of its characters’ professions as a manifestation of their brokenness: Just as Don Draper’s skill for manufactured images was born of a desperation to conceal the truth of himself, Halt And Catch Fire’s players fumbled their way toward building the internet out of a need to connect with others. That focus on personal relationships, and all the tiny ways in which they stumble and fall apart, gave Halt And Catch Fire an unusually novelistic depth that went well beyond the basic trappings of its plot. By the end, the show it most closely resembled wasn’t Mad Men; it was Six Feet Under.

This became especially obvious in Halt And Catch Fire’s final run, where the death of Gordon (Scoot McNairy) mirrored that of Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) in happening several episodes before the finale, which forced those around him—and the audience—to spend our last few hours together coming to terms with our grief. But in both series, those crushing final moments were really just the culmination of a mutually shared underlying melancholy that defined their overarching moods. Both shows were portraits of perpetually uncertain, unsatisfied people, always believing that their next big life-changing leap will finally be the thing to make them feel whole. Both shows were about how their search for that fulfillment causes them to shut out and repeatedly hurt the ones they love. And both were dramas that overcame their somewhat gimmicky premises—a family who lives in a funeral home; a mysterious yuppie helping geeks build a computer—to find their greatest resonance in small, quietly devastating, human interactions.

There are other, more microscopic parallels, if you really start digging into it. Gordon dies of chronic toxic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder that, like Nate’s AVM, lurks as a silent threat throughout the series’ run. Both live in utter denial of their diagnoses; both initially deal by seeking comfort in impulsive sex with women who remind them of their youths (Lisa for Nate; his brother’s high school girlfriend for Gordon). By the end of Halt And Catch Fire’s run, Gordon had even acquired Nate’s knack for giving tidily reassuring speeches, as when he reminded a suddenly lost Joe (Lee Pace), “Most of us in the human race, we don’t get to know what comes next. We just feel shit as it’s thrown at us. This, right now, is all there is.” It’s a little bit of zen wisdom that could have come straight out of one of Nate’s speeches to a crying widow, right before he used it as an excuse to cheat on his wife.


Although it wavered a bit in later seasons, there’s obviously some of Nate’s overconfidence in Joe’s own propensity for pithy spiels as well. The early dynamic between Joe and Gordon, as Joe muscles his way into Cardiff Electric and Gordon’s territory, evokes the bristling between Nate and his brother, David (Michael C. Hall)—the clash between the classically trained guy who’s suddenly being bossed around by the brash, unskilled egomaniac. And there’s a little bit of both Fisher brothers in Joe when it comes to his romantic entanglements: Joe’s longing to settle down and have kids with a reluctant Cameron evokes David’s desire for the same with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick), though Joe’s entire relationship with Cameron (Mackenzie Davis)—from their hooking up mere minutes after meeting, to their repeated rendezvouses in between serious relationships with other people, to Cameron’s general, guarded flintiness—also closely recalls Nate and Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). Certainly neither Cameron nor Brenda make it easy.

Cameron’s a bit like Claire (Lauren Ambrose), too, with both characters evolving over the course of their series from sardonic, self-sabotaging punks to more open, emotionally complex adults. Though that could broadly be applied to any young character on this show; after all, there’s also some Claire in the smartly nonconformist Haley (Susanna Skaggs). What both shows more generally have in common are these sorts of strong female characters, messy and unbound by traditional archetypes. Donna (Kerry Bishé) may have started off as the stock “unfulfilled wife,” but she underwent a dramatic reinvention to become the show’s most compelling figure, with her growth into a powerful entrepreneur—and many manipulations, betrayals, and wine-soaked fuckups along the way—offering a complicated portrait of a woman who had felt forgotten, and who was now finally forging her own identity. In this, Donna has a lot in common with Six Feet Under’s Ruth (Frances Conroy) and her own journey toward self-actualization. Hell, Donna and Ruth both even had drug-induced vision quests where they processed lingering emotions about those they’ve left behind (mushrooms and Cameron for Donna; ecstasy and her dead husband for Ruth).


But again, those are the little details. (A few more: Both shows’ first seasons featured big, bonding road trips to a convention in Las Vegas; that scene where Donna finds Gordon digging a huge hole in their backyard is a lot like Ruth’s discovery of George’s bomb shelter—and hey, speaking of which, both shows had James Cromwell!) Where Halt And Catch Fire most closely mirrors Six Feet Under is in its larger exploration of that big, existential question lurking at the root of of the human condition, made explicit in Joe’s ad for Comet: “What are you looking for?”

In Six Feet Under, the gentle irony of the Fishers’ conundrum is that they’ve repeatedly suppressed that question, putting it off despite living their lives surrounded by death. In Halt And Catch Fire, it’s that they’re all figuring out how to help others answer that question through technology, which only waylays answering it for themselves. In both series, the lesson is that what matters most is who we are and who we are with, right now, while we’re all still doing the looking. They’re both richly, uncommonly human dramas about recognizably flawed people, and if you’re a fan of one, it stands to reason you’d be a fan of the other. Maybe spread the word to those lingering skeptics.


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