In the parking lot outside the Cardiff Electric offices, Cameron pauses, uncharacteristically unsure. She pulls a red sweater over her combat gear before entering her new corporate workplace for the first time. The conservative editing of this scene from the Halt and Catch Fire pilot hints at the series’ unusual commitment to including fashion and music in its narrative.
Cameron Howe is played by Mackenzie Davis on AMC’s '80s tech thriller, and the character is the most visually arresting part of the show. A take-no-prisoners college dropout, she's one of three central characters, but the one with the most to gain. She’s a prodigious coder who carries herself with contempt for anyone stuck in Ronald Reagan’s delusional Star Wars status quo. The character is less traveled terrain than the other leads, maniacal yuppie Joe Macmillan, and nerd hero Gordon Clark. Cameron's style is central to her expression and identity, more so than with any of the show’s other characters. But she can also at times appear to be a blank slate.
First discovered standing by a Centipede arcade cabinet, by the end of the first season Cameron's running an anarcho-startup of her own. Cameron's outsiderness is established from the pilot onwards by both the soundtrack and especially by Kimberly Adams’s costume design. Cameron's peroxided crop and fatigues set her apart visually from Joe and Gordon. Her outfits are at once utilitarian (she's nomadic and works for days at a time), a nihilistic statement, and revealingly comprised of family heirlooms. By Season 2, the punk gig posters and red spray painted “Welcome to Mutiny” on the walls of Cameron’s makeshift home office form an inescapable backdrop to much of the show’s action.
Punk is by nature largely non-futuristic. It wiped away current pop continuity but also idealized early rock 'n' roll. Starting from scratch before broadening out, punk’s anti-disco, anti- progressive rock pose can be construed as conservative with regards to technology. Like the internet, it was a movement drenched in revolutionary rhetoric that could mean many different things to different groups of people. The show's first two seasons have Cameron playing with her visual identity, working out how to adapt her rebellious edge to an office environment for the first time. The first season is set in 1983 when punk had long been declared dead. True believers pushed on, however, creating the culture of hardcore, while the punk ethos seeped outward into myriad other styles and movements. Cameron's tomboy-military-mishmash style reflects this expansive, liminal moment. Adams is quick to credit Davis with fine-tuning Cameron’s distinctive look. The star’s natural beauty also didn’t hurt: “There were always elements of men’s and boys clothing in her closet, but they somehow looked naturally sexy on her.”
AMC put this playlist together. Normally, we wouldn't be down with some promotional playlist with a 2-minute commercial at the beginning (skip the first track) but this is a pretty solid mix.
There’s a lengthy and non-straightforward history of subcultural use of military apparel. Early mods got hooked on the desert boots, field jackets and parkas of American G.I.s. Skinheads took the hard look of soldiers and criminals to its logical conclusion. Punks both American and British, possibly spurred on by David Bowie, used Nazi iconography as a shock tactic to repulse parents and the establishment. While Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux trolled onlookers with prominent swastikas, the Clash took a completely different approach. Wearing guerilla gear spoke to their relative sincerity, idealism and rebel identification.
The Clash is invoked more than any other band in Halt’s universe. Their tour poster takes up more wall space in the Mutiny headquarters than any other; the episode “Working for the Clampdown” is named after a London Calling song; their “Magnificent Seven” soundtracks one of Cameron’s early solo scenes, while “Police on My Back” plays at the first public Mutiny event.
From as far back as the pilot, Cameron’s early scenes link her with the idea of building an online network, rather than simply a new and improved computer model, like Gordon. She is shown as a criminal and a deviant, conning the arcade with her quarter on a string, then impulsively having sex with Joe. She’s portrayed as completely bored with the present, with no outlet for her intelligence and energy. Later on, pushed to find appropriate office attire, Cameron mocks current fashions in the dressing room mirror and resorts to shoplifting boys’ undershirts.
Midway through Season 2, it becomes clear to the protagonists that the future of computing is in an online network rather than in better games or incrementally smaller devices. The most recent episodes have gone further than ever in foregrounding the connections between community-building, social isolation, and the new technology. The thematic crux has gelled around the idea of the burgeoning internet as a progressive, redeeming refuge for social outcasts of all stripes and small town rebels. It’s a chance for youth to rewrite their story. The Mutiny staff and the viewer, finally meets the company’s subscribers, who all appear teenage and “alternative”, slightly before that lifestyle descriptor came into being. The thread of Mutiny designer Lev’s gay-bashing, the result of what he thought was a date arranged through online chat, underlines the gap between the current social norms of the heartland and the alternate/future world these kids are building.
If Cameron is in the process of re-inventing the world to better suit her and peers, she is not yet seeing the benefits. Her cutting, silent look of vague disgust is given an impressive amount of screen time for a TV show. This facet of her personality is amplified by the use of the Richard Hell & The Voidoids classic “Blank Generation” in Episode 2. The English theorist Dick Hebdige, in his seminal Subculture: The Meaning of Style, wrote about punk giving alienation an “almost tangible quality”. He notes “it gave itself up to the cameras in ‘blankness’, the removal of expression, the refusal to speak and be positioned”.
The English version of punk, as subversive as it was, was fashion-conscious to the core, essentially pieced together by designer Vivienne Westwood and her husband, shopowner Malcolm McLaren. The focus and name of their London boutique went through a number of changes as McLaren sought to capitalize on whatever youth trend was bubbling up at the time. Let it Rock (Teddy Boy revival) begat Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die (rocker wear) begat Sex (fetish chic) begat Seditionaries (punk proper). Scenester and shop assistant at Sex, Jordan, is said to have invented the quintessential English punk look. (She would later jump off the screen in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee.) The art critic Rosetta Brooks, applying Roland Barthes’s ideas about “the dissolve” in language to punk aesthetics, notes that “the seam in clothing is where desire and dread are both attracted. The seam is the necessary awareness of limits within the space of the unlimitedness of the commodity.”
As a time capsule from the recent past, HACF makes for a unique viewing exercise. At times it suffers from one of Mad Men’s annoying habits of overloading shots with historical signifiers, as though it’s afraid the audience will transpose the story into the present if it isn’t screaming “’80s!” at all times. HACF’s soundtrack smartly doesn’t overdo the chronological hints. It often includes songs that are a few years old, which would still be in rotation, especially for someone as young as Cameron who might still be discovering a lot of older music. The locale fits into this as well – UK postpunk likely didn’t hit Texas with a lot of impact the moment of its release. Cameron’s Walkman appears to be her only friend; the four year old invention’s leaky headphones are constantly painting in the character in the early episodes.
When contrasted with Joe singing along to classic rock in his car, Cameron blasting Husker Du feels vital and combustible. (Though Cameron represents the future, she interestingly is less concerned with the groundbreaking, electronic side of post-punk, preferring to stick with guitar bands.)
In Episode 3, there is an enlightening scene which situates Cameron’s identity even more precisely. She meets a group of street punks prone to drunkenness and DIY tattoos, and the two parties recognize each other as of the same clan but not quite on the same wavelength. Adams acknowledges that Cameron is far from a punk stereotype, describing how she researched Texas’s ultra-DIY punk scene specifically: “fashion didn’t spread as fast as it does in our internet age today…the punk looks were very different state to state. And it was important that she did not come across like an New York or LA punk.”
The popular conception that the second season is a vastly different and much improved show is dubious. But the changes to the characters between seasons, many of them visual ones, are interesting to track. Rather than being absorbed into corporate culture, the Cameron of Season 2 actually sports more capital P punk fashions than she did previously, shedding much of her standard issue gear. But in addition to tattered Ramones-ian plimsolls, destroyed tees and shredded jeans, she can be seen in wrap pants and kimonos. Adams explains that, during the year separating the two seasons, “running Mutiny and all the responsibilities of that gave [Cameron] confidence, and we wanted that to be reflected in how she dressed.”
Though she’s involved with technology that brings people together, Cameron seems to maintain her outsider status in all situations. Tested by the pressures of running a company, she realizes that democracy has no business in the Silicon prairie and that she has to truly become the boss. It’s a move that’s so un-punk it’s punk.