Now entering its third season, “Halt and Catch Fire” has found plenty of drama to mine in the rise of the 1980s computer industry. This year, the show has made the bold move of transplanting its characters from Texas to Northern California, the heart of Silicon Valley, as Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Donna (Kerry Bishe) and Bose (Toby Huss) attempt to take their young company to the next level.
It’s a migration that feels all too familiar to Jim and Janet Miller, who first began working in the technology world in the early 1980s. After beginning their careers in Texas, they eventually decided to move to northern California to work for companies including Hewitt-Packard and Apple — bringing along with them their two children, myself and my younger brother Eric.
Jim and Janet are long-standing fans of the show and were once again generous enough to watch the Season 3 premiere, “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” and share their reactions with IndieWire. Below, they reveal what they think the show gets right (and what it maybe gets wrong), from the period details to privacy issues to the mention of iconic landmarks like Fry’s Electronics.
Some Initial Impressions
Jim: I liked it. I think it’s getting off to a good start. We’re getting appropriately reminded of who these people are and what was going on last time, and all of that. I think the transfer is working well, for me they’re hitting all the obvious points about the business move, the personal aspects of the move and the the growth of the company. The challenges that the company is having as they grow.
Is Mutiny officially essentially a CompuServe competitor?
Jim: Yeah CompuServe is mentioned, Genie is another timesharing service of that time, and Trilogy, which I think eventually turned into Prodigy. That’s the game they’re playing in, and I think that as they were saying, that’s the challenge that the company is facing. That they’ve got something good and useful going on here, and got a 100,000 users. As we learned on “Silicon Valley,” the number of users isn’t necessarily as important as how active those users are.
Anyway, they’ve got something of value, and it’s going well, and they’ve got a bunch of people working on it. Now what? They are significantly smaller than the other guys and so as we saw, it’s the search for what’s going to distinguish us from them? Especially for something involving this primitive form of social networking, why do you want to come to the place where there aren’t as many people as there are that other place? They’re working hard to find something to do it, and that’s a big challenge for the company at that stage.
Janet: What I saw was here’s this technology and they’ve reached this milestone, which is absolutely perfect. They did exactly the right thing there. They have the reporter who’s supposed to basically say something nice, hopefully, and does not so they’re all upset later on. They are in this space where they need to do something and they want to do something cool, and they’re forgetting about something else which comes up immediately, which is the whole privacy issue.
Is the word privacy at all something people are thinking about or talking about?
Jim: Not nearly as much as it is now.
Janet: Yeah, I think it’s really a big thing now. At the time, people didn’t think in those terms.
Jim: I am trying to think back to that point, and there were certainly chat rooms around, but the direction [“Halt”] was going with privacy was very much a modern one I thought. The notion of those communications that you thought had been private were leaking out.
It’s worth noting that if they had their terms of service put together by a competent attorney, they would not be in any legal difficulty. They could surely have gotten some terms set up, that would say we may look at your private messages for reasons having to do with improving the service or maintaining the effectiveness of the service, etc. All this sort of standard terms of service-type language. Which could have put them okay in a legal position — but still there’s a notion of when that stuff leaks out, and is being used by somebody like in the case of the joystick guy.
A couple of years ago, there was this thing about whether or not there were people at Facebook that could get in and look at anybody’s anything. Again, I think there is a modern take being offered on the privacy stuff.
The scene where Ryan (Manish Dayal) confronts Cameron and Donna over privacy — did that feel like a scene that would genuinely have taken place in 1986?
Jim: I think that’s another aspect that struck me about the growth and the evolution of the company. In earlier days and in smaller days Mutiny was essentially Cameron and Donna — especially from a technology perspective it’s Cameron. Yes, they were the people writing code but they were simply doing and were in large part happy to do exactly what Cameron says. That was fine, that’s where they were going and that’s what’s getting done.
Then what you start to see when the company gets bigger and you’re hiring more people is hey, some of them are pretty smart. They have good ideas, they’re coming at the problem from a different perspective, maybe one that you’re not seeing because you’re so focused on taking what you’ve got and making it more so. Now they’re having to face that this company needs to be something else, it needs to have additional features, possibly new directions. Yes, some of those ideas may not come from them, and it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Janet: One really key thing that Cameron said when she was trying to tell Ryan no we’re not going to do this, was you’re asking us to do something where our coders don’t know how to do it. Translate that: “I don’t know how to do it.” Cameron doesn’t know the language that this guy was talking. That, I was laughing the whole way through it because he was such a non-communicator.
Jim: He was definitely onto something, he had a point. That was not anything that you would say sure, go code that up because it was pretty clear that there were a lot of open questions. What might have happened could be hey, I see the overall point, let’s follow up and have some additional discussion about that. Because you could be onto something. As opposed to no, go back and put bow ties on avatars.
So from your side, this scene was an example of how badly sometimes engineers can communicate their ideas.
Jim: A brilliant depiction of that, but on the other hand, a lot of really significant things have happened, where the first expression of them was something very, very scrambled and incoherent. Again, what you need to do in that situation is to say okay, I don’t understand what you just said but I can hear that it’s something that you really care about, and I can see where it’s going. Let’s follow up and talk about that, and you get through another session or two, and then it does become clear. Everybody does understand what the challenges are, what needs to be fixed, how you might go about it and then something significant can happen.
Just a Few Nitpicks
Janet: Wait a minute — their server’s been down all this time because somebody put out a cigarette on a board? Really?
Jim: Yeah and also, as long as we’re going to note stuff like that, I don’t think people are going to be climbing around or on top of the mainframe cabinets, I don’t think that’s going to happen. And I’m pretty sure the big IBM mainframe is not running PC DOS.
What would that IBM mainframe be running?
Janet: Wasn’t it Emacs?
Jim: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve lost track, I have fortunately forgotten what sort of operating systems IBM mainframes may have been running in the mid-’80s.
While we’re nitpicking, let me ask you about the Tandy Shandy.
Janet: I used to joke about what I considered an engineer’s lunch — a six pack of diet Coke and a bag of Cheetos. I did have a manager’s version of that — that was a six pack of beer and a bag of Cheetos.
What the Production Design Got Right
Janet: My goodness, the house. The house was really very close to which might consider a suburban house. I haven’t quite figured out where they are in northern California. They’re in San Francisco obviously but that’s not a San Francisco house.
And there were Harvest Gold appliances, which I bring up because at that point in time Harvest Gold — that and avocado green — those are ’70s colors. By the time you get to the ’80s you’ve got the almond. This is a house with old appliances. This is a house with at least five- to six- to seven- to eight-year-old appliances in it.
Jim: About the joysticks, I may be a bad person here but it wasn’t clear to me looking at that chat room conversation — are they talking about joysticks or is this chat room euphemism for something else? I wasn’t sure what exactly Cameron was going out to meet this guy for.
Janet: I was really happy to see a joystick.
What’s Fry’s Electronics, And Why Was Mentioning It a Big Deal?
For people who maybe don’t know the importance of Fry’s within Silicon Valley, what would you describe it as?
Janet: An electronic store.
Jim: Heavens no. Fry’s is a way of life. Imagine a building the size of Costco, filled with everything from full-on computers and monitors, down to individual chips.
Janet: If you want to build a computer, you can go to Fry’s.
Jim: You can walk in and buy motherboards, and the processors and the memory chips, and the fans and all that stuff. You get this big shopping cart full of parts, you take it home and you slap it together, and you got yourself a computer. Those kinds of places just did not exist anywhere else, and anybody who worked in the Valley would have stories about taking some out-of-town visitor to Fry’s, and just watching their mouths gape open.
Do you actually remember your first time visiting a Fry’s?
Janet: Yes. I don’t remember the exact one, it was one of those oh my gosh moments.
Jim: There’s a lot of stuff here, and just the variety. Everything from computer chips to potato chips, and most things in between.
Does This Version of 1986 Feel Accurate?
Janet: It still feels a little on the early side, but maybe not. These guys have done their homework. March 31st, 1986, there was like a 5.7 earthquake.
I was watching that scene, I was like, “You babies, it’s not 1989” [the year a 6.9 earthquake tore through the Bay Area].
Janet: ’89, you were the age of about that little girl.
Jim: They got the freakout aspect of the quake nicely. Especially with the kids, that yeah. Kids could get totally freaked out about that, and understandably so.
In general I feel like the setting is okay. I do keep getting distracted a number of times, I’m seeing Cameron or somebody type into what I think is like a Commodore 64. I have to remind myself that those were still being used back then, especially in the gaming world.
Boys and Girls
So one thing I really like is that they don’t make a big deal about the fact that there are two female founders of this company, which is I think maybe not historically accurate in terms of how people would have actually reacted, but at the same time it’s still really great.
Jim: Yeah, and to further pull off that point. The other B or C plots of the episode, will Gordon find a productive avenue for his life? Will Bose connect with his family? Those are the kinds of subsidiary plots that in most TV shows are given to women. The gender flipping here I think is working in both directions, and that’s great.
Janet: Is this company going to suddenly have its employees show up and not get stoned on duty? It basically behaved a little bit less like a frat house.
In that early era of startups, was that frat boy culture something you guys observed?
Janet: I wouldn’t know.
Jim: I did not observe that. I can imagine that there were small shops that were pretty lively places.
Janet: All the companies I worked at, there were so many women in the group. There’s a joke around about women being a civilized influence.
Jim: It’s not a joke.
Janet: A company where you’re going to have people with families, with kids, with children and where there are going to be women is going to be a very different vibe from a bunch of young guys just out of school, who are spending all their time essentially at the company because they don’t have a life anywhere else.
“…and that, gentlemen, is how you jerk off a dinosaur.”
Jim: I want to know what the rest of that dinosaur joke is. It’s always hilarious — you just have to come up with the punchline for a really great joke. It’s got to be a killer punchline, but you don’t actually have to go through the effort of writing the rest of the joke.
Janet: Isn’t that what Bose always has done, is just always tell all these jokes?
Jim: He’s done that before, that’s true.
So Joe Is Now Steve Jobs?
In the episode’s final scene, Joe (Lee Pace) appears for the first time, giving a presentation on his new free security software — making a big impression on Ryan and sporting a somewhat familiar look.
Jim: I appreciated that they did not put him into a black turtleneck.
Janet: The little beard, the glasses. Joe doesn’t wear glasses.
Jim: Well, maybe he does now.
Janet: There was something very significant that happened with that particular presentation. It’s the introduction of free.
Jim: Well, he was still charging the enterprise customers. But there was going to be a personal version of this stuff for free.
Janet: For free. For Donna and Cameron — [Mutiny] is not a free business, this is something people are paying X dollars a month for. Today, you just go on Facebook and it doesn’t cost you anything. You’re paying for your internet connection, that’s it. Once you’re on the internet everything’s free. Almost everything’s free. This was brand new, the whole notion of giving away security software. Nobody would do that. Except this guy decides to do it.
Jim: That sort of software is generally still not given away. There are open source antivirus packages available, but the ones that are most commonly used are Norton and a couple of others. Thus the idea of giving it away for personal use is an interesting one.
It could be a a red herring, in terms of where Joe’s company is going to go. Is it to set Joe up as a massive inspirational Jobsian character, at exactly the time when Ryan is feeling shut out and undervalued by his current employers, Cameron and Donna? I won’t be surprised if the connection is developed. Whether anything actually comes of this particular software thing I don’t know. I’m currently inclined to think that it’s the way to spur, or it’s the writers way to spur a connection between Ryan and Joe. We’ll find out.
“Halt and Catch Fire” airs Tuesdays on AMC.