Review: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ upgrades in a big way for season 2

“Computers aren't the thing,” Joe McMillan promised in the very first episode of AMC's “Halt and Catch Fire.” Instead, he insisted, “They are the thing that gets us to the thing.”

This was a prescient look at both the personal computer boom of the early '80s – which was really preparing us all for the Internet boom of the late '90s – and at “Halt and Catch Fire” itself. Last season, it turns out, wasn't the thing, even though it had its moments. It was the thing that got us to the very wonderful thing that is “Halt and Catch Fire” season 2, which debuts Sunday night at 10.

Early in its first season, “Halt” felt every bit as reverse-engineered as the IBM clone laptop that Lee Pace's Joe and Scoot McNairy's Gordon were racing to build. It was a show that in broad strokes was about teaming up Don Draper (dapper, enigmatic Joe) and Walter White (brilliant, aggrieved Gordon) in a new setting, right as AMC was preparing to be without either of its signature anti-heroes. Rookie creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, along with veteran producer Jonathan Lisco, didn't seem entirely sure about how the show should be paced, or structured, or why this story of two men pushing themselves (and risking the jobs of everyone in their company) to build a footnote to history would be compelling enough subject matter for an ongoing show. And they leaned way too heavily on Joe as a cliched wild card cable protagonist to keep generating tension.

At the same time, the four lead performances – including Kerry Bishé as Gordon's wife Donna, technically adept in her own right but taking a professional backseat so she could also care for their kids; and Mackenzie Davis as antisocial young coder Cameron – were all terrific. The show looked great and made fine use of songs from the period that haven't been featured on dozens of soundtracks yet completely evoke the time and the fascination with new technology. And the last stretch of episodes – in which Donna joined the group, and Joe had to grapple with the realization that his dream project was pure hackwork – made “Halt” finally feel like a television show, rather than a collection of interesting ideas and actors in search of a reason for being together(*). Finally, the show had a bounce in its step, and even a sense of humor at times.

(*) Inevitably, a review like this will lead to people asking, “So, can I just jump in with season 2, or do I have to watch the whole thing?” The vast majority of the time, I'm a completist: you can't fully appreciate the improved version of the show without seeing the episodes that laid the story and character groundwork for it. That said, I recognize that people's time isn't unlimited, and if the choice is between an abbreviated catch-up and not watching at all, I would say you can probably start with the last four episodes of season 1 and be okay.

The first season ended with what felt more like a series finale, as Joe ran off to the desert (but not without first throwing a hissy fit and burning the first truckload of laptops, because he couldn't stand being associated with a mediocre product), while Cameron and Donna teamed up to start a primitive online gaming company called Mutiny. In a way, that episode was the end of the show “Halt” used to be. Now it's essentially “Halt and Catch Fire 2.0,” with all the bugs worked out so that it can function exactly as it first promised. It's terrific, and a classic case of hope-watching paying off.

Last year's focus on Joe was so frustrating in part because Cameron and, especially, Donna felt like much more complex and original characters, and it seemed a disservice to both them and the show to have them exist largely in reaction to the erratic men in their lives. In season 2, they and their company are front and center, as the primary subject of “Halt” becomes the nascent days of what we would come to know as the Internet, as well as the many ways two equally gifted and driven women can come into conflict even as they're collaborating in a male-dominated field. Donna – whom the writers and Bishé have turned into a marvelous rebuttal to the plight of the cable drama wife, and how those characters are defined only in relation to their husbands – already had to deal with a partner at home who assumed she would handle all the detail work, and now she realizes that her partner at work expects the same from her.

“I don't want to be the mom here!” she argues, to seemingly deaf ears from Cameron.

The show's impressive lineup of directors (early episodes this season were helmed by Juan Jose Campanella, Phil Abraham, and Kimberly Peirce) have a lot of fun filming in Mutiny's frat house headquarters, just as the writers are clearly enjoying this glimpse of an Internet most of us never knew. Almost by accident, Donna discovers the appeal of chat rooms, and as she begins researching online interaction, she's almost giddy at discovering the existence of flamewars. (Oh, Donna: so smart, but so naive in this area.) The producers wisely find a way to work the once-slick, now-humbled former executive John Bosworth (a Texas spin on Roger Sterling, but given enormous charm and humanity by actor Toby Huss) into what's happening with Mutiny.

Joe does not remain in the desert, but the new season picks up long enough after the events of the old one that he's not quite the master manipulator we remember. And the show takes advantage of the time jump to give Gordon a new problem that would have been less interesting if we'd had to witness it in real time from the start.

This evolution from season 1 to 2 is the kind that ideally should be possible for any show with good raw materials but no clear plan how to use them, and I'm glad that the power of “The Walking Dead” gave AMC the wiggle room to keep a promising but marginal performer like this one around long enough for it to find itself. But in this quality drama glut, it can be perilous to start out as the thing that's going to eventually get viewers to the thing. Those who stayed patient with “Halt” season 1, or those who come to the show now that the quality has gone up significantly, will be rewarded, but it's hard to blame those who didn't want to bother with the growing pains when so many great viewing options, past and present, are only a click or two away.

Though if AMC can keep “Halt” alive long enough, I'd dearly love to see a season where a middle-aged Donna tries to convince Netflix that DVDs are dead and streaming is the future.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at