The AMC period drama “Halt and Catch Fire” has a small but loyal fanbase, which includes anyone who remembers the days of the 1980s computer revolution, like tech industry veterans Jim and Janet Miller, who were among the many thrilled to hear today that the show was renewed. Season 3 of “Halt and Catch Fire,” according to Variety, will follow a trajectory similar to the Millers’ own lives: After living and working in Texas for several years, the Millers moved to Silicon Valley in 1988 to work for companies including Hewlett-Packard and Apple. They also continued to raise two children — myself and my brother, Eric.
READ MORE: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’: Mom and Dad, Two 1980s Texas Tech Veterans, Review Season 2
Right after the end of Season 2, I spoke with Jim and Janet via Skype to get their read on the season and find out what we might expect from Season 3. Below, they voice their love for their favorite characters, detail the real-life issues facing the computer industry in the late 1980s (especially in Northern California) and point out the parallels between the characters of “Halt” and the real-life story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak.
[Spoilers for “Halt and Catch Fire” Season 2 below.]
We first talked when Season 2 was starting, but we didn’t know what direction things were going to go. So, in your guys’ words, what happened at the end of Season 2?
Janet: “Move west, young man.” [laughs]
Jim: It’s like we said in the previous one. You can be out in Texas doing really great work and having really great colleagues and all of that, but there’s still the feeling: What’s going on in California? And sometimes it’s just sort of an abstract, “Oh, there’s all that stuff going on out there, that must be interesting.” And then sometimes it’s really concrete. Hey, there’s somebody who you’d like to hire, but they don’t want to move to Texas. Or, there’s somebody who’s got a mainframe that you’d like to pick up, it’s exactly what you need for your company, but it’s in Daly City, and getting it to Texas is not an option. So, yeah, it was just… the inevitable draw of California at the time is– I found it to be a very strong and a real thing at the time and yeah, it was a good depiction of it. And certainly the whole thing about, you know, Joe is moving to California for the entire episode — or the entire season, it seemed like, or at least he’s talking about it — and it wasn’t till the very end that he actually made it. But, you know, he was just this poster child for, “Oh, imagine how wonderful it would be in California.”
I mean, of course, it being “Halt and Catch Fire,” will that actually be the case? Will everything be hunky-dory once you get to California?
Jim: Oh, of course not!
Janet: No, because no matter where you go, you are still there. Joe’s biggest problem is him. But with the two failures he’s got currently under his belt, he’s got a pretty good chance, given the location of that office of his. That new building overlooking the bridge.
So, every character is moving out to California at the end of this season, essentially.
Janet: Except for [Cameron’s] boyfriend.
Jim: Well, we don’t know.
Janet: We don’t know.
Jim: He did not make the plane trip, but–
Janet: Well, he was given six hours to… “Oh yeah, tell your mom you’re leaving and pack.”
Jim: Well, yeah, that wasn’t a driving factor. In the context of the show, it was, you know, “Am I going to go or not?” And, yeah, you know, a little “Will he show up later on?” That, of course, remains to be seen.
If “Halt and Catch Fire” Season 3 is all set in Silicon Valley, does that make sense to you guys? Does that work?
Janet: I think so.
Jim: Yeah. It would lose the Texas component, but that was never a really huge thing in the show, beyond the initial sort of stage setting. It was growing out of this existing Texas company, it got them connected to Bos, and so it all made sense in the beginning, but no, I think they can move it out to California easily. I don’t know there’s a whole lot in this last season that was really screaming “Texas” to me, beside from the odd t-shirt or poster or something.
In Season 3, in the 1980s, what should our characters be expecting from Silicon Valley?
Janet: Well, they’re still not into broadband.
Jim: Yeah, we still don’t have internet yet.
Janet: Well, we don’t have home internet yet.
Jim: Right. So people are still doing dial-up in one service or another. Windows is about to catch on as being a viable sort of thing, as opposed to very, very early versions of it. Um… late ’80s… [muttering] what was going on then?
Well, what was something that struck you when you guys first moved out there?
Jim: Well, I think it was just the immersion. “Oh my god, we’re in the thick of it.”
Janet: Yeah. If you didn’t like your job, “Oh, there’s another company two blocks down.” Price of housing was like triple what it was back in Texas.
Jim: You know, it will be interesting to see how they deal with that, because, finding this big ramshackle house in Austin– Trying to replicate that out in the Valley is not going to be an easy thing.
They’re probably back to actually getting real office space?
Jim: Oh, that’s not much cheaper, you know? [laughs]
Janet: Yeah, well, we know that Gordon has still got some money.
Jim: Well, no, Gordon’s money is gone.
Janet: Oh, that’s right, he–
Jim: Gordon’s money is going to the mainframe.
Janet: Well, where’s the mainframe?
Jim: Daly City.
Janet: Okay, so they’re going to be in Daly City.
Jim: But, well, it can be moved within the Valley, but picking the thing up and moving it to Texas was another matter.
Jim: The job availability thing cuts both ways, of course. That one of the advantages of running a company out in a somewhat far-away area is that your people are a little more locked in, and the good news is that Mutiny can start to look to the Valley as a recruiting area where they couldn’t really do that before. The bad news is that, you know, things go bad, some of their people might start to waver. They can be the ones to go another exit down the freeway and find a new job.
Janet: The Valley was a little less populated. The prices of houses were more expensive than they were back in Texas, but it wasn’t that much more. I mean, the characters, when they go out looking for places to live, are going to have sticker shock. But not the way they would today. There was still affordable housing here.
Jim: It seems like that ’87, ’88’, ’89 — you know, wherever we’re looking towards — it was sort of an in-between time. The shift that you saw happening in the ’90s was where the computer companies said, “Hey, we don’t need to make our own operating system, we’ll just go get Windows.” “We don’t need our own database, we can just go get Oracle.” That sort of shift toward software that ran across a large number of platforms, that was yet to come.
Janet: The other thing was common languages. You still had a lot of people programming in Pascal or, oh goodness, COBOL. COBOL of all things! But people would program in FORTRAN they’d program in COBOL, they’d program in– Well, C came out, and C is actually more friendly to being moved around. You could write a program in C and be able to compile it to run on this system, or on that system, or on that system. But you still had operating system specificity. As time goes on, more people program in a single language. For a while there was — well, still is — Java, actually, but Java starts up in the ’90s. That’s a whole notion of, “Hey, why don’t we all program in one language?” And then being able to write once and run everywhere. That was actually one of the key phrases of Java.
Yeah, the question of proprietary vs. open source, it’s always such an interesting one to observe happen.
Janet: It almost always is a result of “Gee, we would like to make more money. How can we best do this?” It’s the balance of wanting to own something such that nobody else can get to it except through you, vs. “Well, gee, but if we do it this way, then we can basically ship to everything.” The whole thing that Cameron and Donna were struggling with — at least Cameron was struggling with at the beginning of the show — was the whole, this is about, “Well, yeah, you’re only running on a Commodore, which is a system that’s not going to be around forever, and you’re going to have to port it to another system.” Okay, so what are we going to port to? Well, in a few years, the obvious answer is going to be, you’re going to port to Windows.
But that’s not an answer in the late ’80s.
Janet: When Java comes out, Java is this whole other idea. Let’s write one language, program it once, and then all of the operating systems, with their special devices to run the graphics, the graphics card, the sound card, the disc… All of that speaks its own language, but then they are responsible for building a driver that Java understands. It has a Java interface. So you write once and then you just compile across the board and everything suddenly understands your language.
Jim: We’re getting really deep here.
Janet: Sorry. [laughs]
Jim: I would, I think, edit some of this….
Janet: Oh, I suspect she’ll edit a lot of it. [laughs]
[After some edits…]
For you guys looking forward, what would you want to see happen in Season 3?
Jim: You know, one thing that struck me about Season 2 was, I kept coming to episodes saying, “Is this the episode where Donna and Cameron are finally going to let Bos run the company?” And that never happened! And I just had this feeling that a lot of the bad things that happened to Mutiny in Season 2 might not have happened if Bos’s experience had been coordinating what the company was doing in a slightly different way. So I can definitely see a path going where, yeah, let’s say Mutiny is successful and Mutiny takes off and it then becomes– I mean, this is a long-standing question about startups: Is the person who drove the company to its initial success the right person to turn it into a $100 million company? And in many questions, the answer to that question is no.
Janet: In many cases, yeah.
Jim: And so one — not that I’m sitting in the writers’ room — but, you know, one direction I could certainly see them going is that, yeah, they’re successful and now how are they going to grow beyond a cute, little bunch of scruffy misfits that are making up Mutiny today.
That seems like a story that a lot of startups, overall, face.
Jim: Yeah, absolutely, that was my point. Whether Bos is the person to do that, or if they start going looking for investment, you can certainly imagine some VC people saying, “Well, we’ll give you the money, but we want to have someone else running the company.” And Cameron will, of course, freak out, as will all founders who haven’t thought it through, but does that work? Do they do it, do they not do it? Don’t know.
Janet: The other thing is, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen here because with Gordon, and the use of his program as a firewall program–
Jim: Well, it was an antivirus.
Janet: Oh, I’m sorry, an antivirus program, that’s right. [laughs] And then he discovers that Joe has taken that and run with it. Now, to his credit, Joe tried to keep him involved, but–
Jim: Yeah, I actually had some issues with that thread.
Janet: Well, yeah. It sort of felt crammed in there.
Jim: It’s one thing for Gordon to have written this bunch of code that would undo this stuff that the previous version had done. It’s another thing to suddenly, magically generalize that into a universal antivirus system, which is kind of what I thought they were suggesting, given the amount of office space that Joe was buying.
Janet: Joe’s never really a guy who builds anything, Joe’s a guy who exploits things.
That’s sort of a valuable skillset.
Janet: It is an incredibly valuable skillset.
Jim: Well, you know, they’ve been drawing on the whole [Steve] Jobs/Wozniak history throughout the show.
Jim: And there are lots of examples of Jobs not being as respectful, financially or otherwise, to Wozniak as he might have been.
Janet: So the question would be whether or not Gordon actually does anything about it.
That’s definitely a really interesting direction for the show to take. In retrospect, looking back, what would you grade the season?
Janet: B+ at least.
Jim: Yeah, I was going to say A-, B+. I thought that some of the things with Joe and Gordon kind of went off in ways that I didn’t think was the most productive from a story perspective, but I very much like the focus on Cameron and Donna. This thing coming out of the first season, I remember both of us here saying, “Well that was pretty good, but I’m really interested in what happens to Cameron and Donna.” That seemed like a much more powerful aspect where they were going.
Janet: They built very tastefully, for the most part, with situations with Donna, and with Cameron. Cameron, she’s a little shrill at times – I’m not sure that’s the right way to put it. She seems a little chaotic, I’ll put it that way. She’s a bit of a chaotic character, that sometimes she gets very upset about stuff. On the other hand, Gordon does the same thing. What Gordon was doing, it seemed less interesting somehow. I was getting very tired of Gordon and his bad choices. You have two kids, I love that you’re being supportive of your wife, but then you go and pull that stunt back in California? And then lay it on her, “Oh it’s your fault because you weren’t there.” Sorry, you don’t get to play that game.
Jim: I continue to enjoy the show, regardless of any sort of history. Having a tech background certainly doesn’t hurt in watching and enjoying the show. As before, they did a good job of folding in lots of actual kinds of stuff, so if you’re playing the name the application game or name the poster, it did well there. Bonus points for music. I’m struck by them and “The Americans” and “Deutschland 83.” Hey, music in the ’80s was a lot more interesting than I remember.
Janet: Well, we were busy in the ’80s.
Jim: Yeah, things came up.
Janet: You, your brother.
Jim: Distracted us.
Janet: Moving, changing jobs, finishing up degrees. There was a lot of stuff going on in the ’80s.
Jim: Well, that’s still no excuse for paying attention to bad music.
We’re not talking about Steely Dan of course.
Janet: No, no, no, no, no. Never, no, never dissed him.
Jim: I will still maintain my love of Steely Dan, but the people making the song choices in these shows have been really good. So it’s an opportunity for me to go back and reflect on that.
Janet: Yeah, and I will watch the Donna and Cameron and Bos Show anytime. They can dump Gordon and Joe into a big pit somewhere and just continue on with Mutiny and its madcap adventures, and it would be a great comedy show! I like those characters.
That goes a long way.
Janet: I mean I like Donna. I like Cameron. I think that they’re funny, interesting people. Bos is a joy.
Jim: I just wish they’d let Bos run the damn company and let Donna and Cameron get all of their time focused on what they really want to do.
Janet: Bos said he didn’t want to do it!
Jim: He needed to be asked.
“Halt and Catch Fire” Season 3 will premiere sometime in 2016.
READ MORE: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Showrunner Jonathan Lisco on Season 2 Changes and Joe’s ‘Fluid Sexuality’