Early in the new season of “Halt and Catch Fire,” AMC’s drama about daddy issues, 1980s home decor and the beginnings of the computer industry, the action takes place mostly in a beat-up Dallas house furnished with water guns and pizza crusts.
It’s the headquarters of Mutiny, a nascent company offering early versions of online gaming and chat rooms, whose corporate structure consists of two more or less mature women trying to wrangle a herd of childish young men: Prodigy crossed with “Animal House.”
Season 2, which began Sunday, has been praised for its shift in focus toward the two female leads: Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), the femme-Nikita-like maverick programmer, and Donna (Kerry Bishe), the young mother and hardware whiz.
In a genuinely unusual move, the show’s producers appear to have flipped the dynamic among their central characters, after a first season that focused on two men: the engineer Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Donna’s husband, and the salesman Joe (Lee Pace), who used to share his bed occasionally with Cameron.
It might be best, however, to take a wait-and-see attitude. Across the season’s first four episodes, Joe and Gordon gradually work their way back into the center of the story, as Joe recruits Gordon into another ambitious, clandestine scheme, this time involving renting time and computing capacity on unused mainframes.
And if you look more closely, the changes in the narrative aren’t necessarily as female friendly as they might seem.
Cameron and Donna may be enacting their own version of Joe and Gordon’s quest from Season 1, when the two men, with the women’s crucial help, developed a sleek new clone of an IBM personal computer, but they’re doing it as squabbling den mothers, not as raging visionaries.
Joe and Gordon were going to change the world by making the power of computers personal and portable; they were building machines. Cameron and Donna are doing it the soft way, designing games and, in Donna’s case, building communities. (Did anyone actually say that in 1985?)
In future episodes, their arcs will develop in family- and child-oriented ways that may be perfectly realistic, but won’t win any points for breaking down gender stereotypes.
(One positive note: So far, there hasn’t been a recurrence of last season’s motif of Cameron’s needing to hop into bed with the nearest available man whenever she faced code-writer’s block.)
What’s more interesting, in terms of how the writers and producers tackle the show’s particular dramatic challenges, is how the work being done inside that Dallas house is presented.
“Halt and Catch Fire” never gets into the tech too deeply. When the characters discuss the specifics of what they’re building, they tend to talk faster, as if they’re hoping we won’t be able to make out what they’re saying. But one thing you can count on is that the biggest issues in personal computing in the mid-1980s — desktop publishing, say, or semiconductor design or the introduction of Windows — will rarely come up as more than asides.
The issues that do get prominence — startup culture, networked gaming, first-person shooters, chat rooms as a precursor of social media — have something in common: They weren’t at the top of many minds in 1985, but they all resonate with the Internet culture that was still a decade away and that can’t, with any credibility, be worked into the story.
The birth of personal computing seems like an easy subject for drama, but throughout the run of “Halt and Catch Fire” it’s felt as if the show’s creators and writers have been shying away from the real history they’ve taken on. And maybe they’re right to do so; the Internet has so completely supplanted our consciousness of the previous stage of technology that the PC era seems to have taken place in some strange time warp, more ancient than “Wolf Hall.”
The answer, then, is to play down the science, which might have been the answer in any case, and play up the “Mad Men”-style period soap opera.
“Halt and Catch Fire” has mostly been a domestic drama about absent 1960s and ’70s fathers and their broken children who find solace sitting up all night during the ’80s solving technological puzzles.
The good news about Season 2 is that it’s loosened up a little, letting more humor into the mix, and that it’s kept around one of those father figures: John Bosworth, the good-old-boy mentor to Cameron and Joe, who, as played by Toby Huss, makes the show feel 50 percent more real every time he’s on screen.
Whether the women or the men are running things, it’s Boz who might keep you watching.