Halt and Catch Fire and the storytelling of innovation

What is the common point between AMC’s excellent tv show Halt and Catch Fire and the MIIC ? They’re all about innovation and creation. So, as a MIIC student, I was very interested by what the show had to say about it. And after re-watching the whole three seasons (it’s ok, it’s for work), I wanted to discuss it on the blog.

For those of you who don’t know the show (please go and watch it):

It’s originally set in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1980’s. Through the story of Joe MacMillan, Gordon and Donna Clark and Cameron Howe, the show explores the development of Personal Computers, the birth of online games and e-commerce.

To innovate is to try

First of all, Halt and Catch Fire is not a show about Steve Jobs-like characters. It’s not the success story of people who had a grand innovative idea and who sticked to it, no matter what, until they made it big. In this show, they fail, they struggle and they make mistakes. Nevertheless, they never surrender and they always try to reach higher and go further. That is the show’s first lesson about innovation : to innovate is to try.

The ingredients of creation and innovation

halt-and-catch-fire-jo-macmillan-quoteThrough the different qualities of the characters, Halt and catch Fire tries to give the recipe of innovation and creation. The first ingredient, embodied by Joe MacMillan, is « a vision ». Joe is the character who does not have any technical skills in computer science. However, he has a real vision and sets the direction for the future. He disrupts the organized and boring life of Gordon and Donna.

hcf-s2-cameron-donna-800The next ingredient is talent. Cameron Howe represents this essential elements of innovation. She is the stereotypical figure of the genius : lonely, socially awkward and brilliant. The last ingredients, organization skills and opportunity, are presented through the character of Donna. She channels the vision and the talent of Joe and Cameron. But most of all, Donna is the one who seizes the opportunities that come her way.

As for Gordon, he is the anti-innovative character. He is a skilled engineer but he is content with imitating, he doesn’t like disruption and cannot handle the stress of creation. In season 3, he creates the first security software by accident and fails to see its potential.


Innovation is a lifestyle

Innovation is not just about having the right ingredients, you also need the right environment. In Halt and Catch Fire, innovation is a lifestyle and it can be seen through an analysis of the characters’s houses.

Joe MacMillan’s home is all about minimalism. He lives in an almost medical atmosphere.  So much so that, when Gordon visits his flat in season 1, he believes it is uninhabited. Joe is a visionary who needs a clean and clear space to think whereas Donna and Gordon represent another type of lifestyle. They are skilled, intellectually as well as manually, and it is shown in their place of creation: the garage of a suburban house (hello Steve Jobs). Finally, Cameron, the genius of the group, lives in a complete mess. At first, she does not have an actual place to live in.

The idea that innovation is a lifestyle is epitomized in season 2 when Cameron’s house became the office of her company. In Halt and Catch Fire, ideas emerge at home and in familiar environments not in the work place. In season 3, Joe secretly works at night, in his living room, in order to come up with his next big project.

To Innovate or to Die

In the show, innovation is closely tied to the notion of destruction. Cameron’s company, which is named Mutiny, is born on the ashes of her unsuccessful collaboration with Joe. The tension in season 3 is mainly created by the vital need for Mutiny to grow, develop and innovate constantly and at a fast pace. The threat of destruction is always casting its shadow over Cameron and Donna. To innovate or to die is the motto here. So, when Joe decides to stop working and live a quiet live, he quickly realizes that he can’t. Without the thrill of innovation and creation, he is as good as dead.


Now, to know who succeeds and who dies, go and watch the show !

By Alice Huot (M1)


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