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AMC’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Highlights Sexism in Tech

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMCMackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark in AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire."Tina Rowden/AMC

It’s 1986. A crew of engineers are crammed into a San Francisco basement. They work for a Texas-born startup named Mutiny in the early days of chat rooms, the pre-Internet days on the heels of the personal computer revolution.

As Halt and Catch Fire, a two year-old AMC television series, headed into its third season this week, its fictional startup, Mutiny, has moved to the Bay Area to pursue greater success than it could in Dallas, Texas. The new season’s first episode unexpectedly hit the airwaves over the weekend, introducing us to a new character, Ryan Ray, a Mutiny engineer who has new (or in Silicon Valley parlance, “disruptive” ideas) about how the company should evolve its chat rooms.

His ideas fall to deaf ears, mostly because founders Donna Clark and Cameron Howe are both focused on the company’s business and are weary of radically changing the service. But it becomes clear that Ryan will be a troublemaker as the season continues.

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On Tuesday evening, the second episode aired, and some important themes to watch are emerging:

The startup fundraising process is painful—and sexist. As Donna and Cameron hit the fundraising circuit for their new idea, a peer-to-peer marketplace, their experience is pretty typical: constant rejection from investors. One investor complained that they had pitched him last. Now that every other investor in Silicon Valley knew about Mutiny, he’ll have to compete with them for the deal, which is not something he wants to do (in the 1980s, a boom in venture capital funds created the competition we still see today).

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And then came a rather awkward and outrageous, though not surprising, dinner with a VC firm partner and his associate (a junior employee tasked with vetting prospective investments). As the partner tells Donna and Cameron that he won’t be able to invest the entire $1.4 million they want to raise, it all starts to unravel.

“Let’s take a beat, enjoy our meals and see how the evening goes, and then maybe I’ll cut a good-faith check in the morning,” he tells them, making his sexually charged expectations clear.

Worse, the associate seemingly blames this “misunderstanding”on the women. “I’m sorry but nobody wears that shade of lipstick unless they have come to play,” he says.

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Joe MacMillan isn’t going anywhere. Joe, the former IBM executive who previously started a company with Gordon Clark, Donna’s husband, and hired Cameron, has fallen out with the rest of the characters—but they’re not rid of him yet.

Not only are Gordon and Joe in a legal dispute over intellectual property, but Joe’s also moved to San Francisco to run his own startup focused on antivirus software. And, as we see in this episode, he ends up hiring Ryan away from Mutiny. Sooner or later, he’s bound to cross paths with the Mutiny crew, and if his blatant offer to Gordon during his deposition to come work with him is any indication, they’re likely to join forces down the line.

Joe’s company will also be important as the tech industry inches toward the revolution that the internet eventually brings. At the time, computer viruses were mostly transmitted via floppy discs, but communication technology and tools emerge, and this will become a very real threat to personal computers.

The double-edged sword of an ambitious (and borderline arrogant) employee. On one hand, Ryan is brilliant and passionate about Mutiny. But on the other, he’s a bit arrogant, which can influence his judgement. He faces a common employee frustration: He’s got some great, if self-proclaimed, ideas but his bosses aren’t taking him seriously.

What’s more, he’s growing frustrated with having to deal with John “Boz” Bosworth, Mutiny’s business chief, who’s supposedly not as technical as the engineering team. So it’s no surprise that Ryan becomes enamored with Joe’s company and stalks him until he gets a meeting to ask him for a job. Despite initially rebuffing him, Joe eventually hires Ryan, much to the surprise of Gordon, who had previously decided to work closely with the young engineer to keep him motivated at Mutiny.