The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire
So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?
Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna
HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.
A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.
In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.
In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.
But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.
But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.
I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.