The era of the television anti-hero may have begun at HBO with Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty, but it evolved at AMC with Walter White and Don Draper. But those who question whether television's golden age of the anti-hero will have passed once Don takes his epic tumble onto the street—or whatever horrible outcome surely awaits him—can rest easy: AMC's newest show, Halt and Catch Fire, finds a way to breathe new life into the archetype of the hard-to-root-for, hard-to-root-against protagonist.
That's no mean feat, either, as the backdrop for the show isn't as sexy as the mob, or a doomed police force, or the swingin' '60s, or the drug trade of the Southwest: Halt and Catch Fire is set in the deeply unsexy early '80s, in the deeply unsexy world of early computer design and programming. The story revolves around three tech workers in a Texas computer company looking to clone a computer to disrupt the IBM-dominated landscape. When your setting is all Speak and Spells and clunky machines that contain a fraction of a fraction of the processing power of the oldest computers at your local public library, you've only got one place to turn to captivate your viewers—your characters.
That's something that Halt and Catch Fire showrunner Jonathan Lisco—who came to the show after the close of TNT's Southland—knew from the very beginning. "I had just come off running Southland, which was a really tiring show to do," he says. "These are all life-consuming, life-obliterating endeavors, and I thought, 'I love this pilot, but I'm not organically a person who fetishizes tech, and loves tech at every level.' I like it, and I style myself an above-average user and enjoyer of this stuff, but am I really the person to knock this one out of the park? But I came back, looked at the pilot, and we did some re-shoots. We wanted to make it a little more jagged, a little more ambiguous. We wanted to play with the plastic ideas of whether or not the character of Joe MacMillan is a visionary or a fraud. We wanted to give the character of Cameron a little bit more edge."
Joe MacMillan is the name of a character who—based on the pilot—could soon be wearing the Don Draper/Walter White crown. But Lisco says that getting the audience to ask questions about whether or not his lead is a visionary or a fraud is only the start of creating an exceptionally compelling core of characters for a series without the obvious entry points of AMC's other famous shows.
We've seen the anti-hero archetype so many times that yet another take on it could feel played out—and the television graveyard is littered with the bones of leading-man jerks who failed to capture imaginations the way that those of the Big Four did. So Lisco aspired to subtlety. "A lot of people watch the pilot, and they don't realize the nefariousness that is going on here," he says, speaking of MacMillan's plot in the first episode to reverse-engineer the best computer on the market, and force the unsuspecting company that's just hired him to defend it legally or risk losing everything. "That's probably an exaggerated way to put it, but think about it: They're reverse-engineering it to essentially rip it off, and Joe MacMillan is not a sweet old salesman. But to put it in context, in that time period, everyone was doing that. He steers this mid-sized company into a new business line, and he's doing it by duplicity—and the thing that we're keen on investigating is, how do you make that guy sympathetic?"
So how do you make that guy sympathetic?
"You have to realize that the guy is wearing masks for a reason, and you have to figure out a way for that to resonate with your audience. 'Oh, I know Joe could be better. I don't think he's this venal. I want him to be the better version of himself. Why can't he make the better decision?'" Lisco laughs. "If you have that level of discourse with your audience, then you've got 'em hooked—all of us do things that we're not proud of. All of us have made the wrong decision."
Part of the thrill of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos was watching the characters control their environments. If Walt's going to stroll into Tuco's office with some fulminated mercury, the thrill is the explosion that follows. And Lisco finds that a character who's always in control is less interesting to him than one whose survival is less assured. The comparisons to the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of the world—while obviously flattering—also seem to set Lisco on edge.
"Let me tell you how he's different," Lisco explains. "Those characters have been viewed as very calculating. Machiavellian alpha males. Joe is not quite as calculating in as many respects—he's crafty, but he's the most compelling when he's reactive. Not when he's preternaturally brilliant in predicting every move, not when he's thought four or five chess moves ahead. He's a guy who predicts the first move and the second move, and then you realize he did not have a third move left."
For Lisco, the goal isn't just the audience to be entertained at MacMillan process of dominating his environment—it's for them to love him as he tries. "We're going to see that he has to backpedal and figure out in real time how to solve problems. And I think it's in real time, as he's reacting and realizing what he's wrought, and the consequences of what he's wrought, that you're going to start to love him more."
There's legitimate criticism to be leveled at some of the finest shows television has ever produced. The Wire had arguably one female character of note, and Breaking Bad rarely gave Skyler or Marie any of the best moments. But in the very first episode of Halt and Catch Fire, we're introduced to more than one woman who has agency and brilliance of her own. This is still a show about visionary men, but the women here aren't secondary characters.
"That's something that I am constantly focused on," Lisco says. "I can not stand television shows where the women are mere accessories to the male story lines. That's not okay. Now we had a bit of a challenge in this show, because it's not hyper-realistic that there were hundreds of women who were in the engineering field at this time—but what does that mean? It means you can't make the characters archetypal. You've got to make them extremely specific."
Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé star as Cameron Howe and Donna Clark, two engineers who don't fit any mold of the early-'80s computer nerd—but the level of investment that Lisco and his team put into creating complex characters means they fit in to the world of Halt and Catch Fire. "I hope you'll find as you watch the episodes that Cameron is extremely specific—all sorts of vulnerabilities, passions, and volatility that you won't be able to predict," he says. Donna Clark, meanwhile, is the wife of one of the two male leads—and Lisco looks forward to introducing her to the audience. "She's not going to be merely an accessory to Gordon's story. She's one of the most dynamic characters on the entire show, and we're deeply focused on that."