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Halt and Catch Fire Premiere Review - Capturing the Drama of the Early Computing Era

Elizabeth Harper | 4 Jun 2014 23:15
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We caught the first episode of AMC's new drama to try to decide if it can live up to our Mad Men expectations. Warning: spoilers for episode 1 follow!

Halt and Catch Fire is the latest drama from AMC, and in making it they're trying to recreate the period drama of Mad Men, but in a 1980s tale of the computing revolution. Having lived through the 80s, I'm not personally convinced that this is an era that will match Mad Men glamor, but AMC does have a good track record, so let's take a look at what the first episode brought us.

The series opening sends us straight into the heart of 1980s computing, with a monochrome computer screen that scrolls through some text, complete with a flashing cursor and typing noises. For those of you who didn't have a chance to use a computer in the 80s, this look may remind you more of War Games or The Matrix. Halt and catch fire, the mysterious computer text tells us, is a computer command that "sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once." When this happened, control of the computer couldn't be regained. Spoiler alert: I'm pretty sure this is meant to be a metaphor for the entire show.

hcf s1 ep1 macmillan cameron

Cut to an armadillo trundling its way across a highway, which is the show's way of telling us that we're in Texas now. Unfortunately for the armadillo, it's not going to be a recurring character: it's almost immediately hit by a speeding black Porsche. The driver is Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who steps out of the car and manages to look stylish despite the fact that he's stuck in the early 80s. The audience is grateful.

MacMillan is a former IBMer and, though we don't yet know why he left IBM or what he's doing now, he seems to be scouting for talent on a university campus. Here we meet Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a young woman with close-cropped hair, a perpetually playing Walkman, and a bit of an attitude. After impressing MacMillan, he follows her to an arcade where he hovers close - seriously, did they not have the concept of personal space in the 80s? - while they talk computers. "Computers could be more. They should be," Howe proclaims grandly. "But you build counting machines, the same thing you've done for the last 70 years."

That computer talk was apparently a lot hotter than it seemed, because it leads to the two of them having sex behind the arcade. "This doesn't mean you get the job," says MacMillan, who is officially the worst sweet-talker ever. Though he's well dressed - the style faux pas of the 80s don't even seem to touch him - and a smooth talker, MacMillan is clearly not the kind of guy you want to bring home to Mom.

But instead of seeing Howe slapping him like he deserved - a scene that would have been really satisfying to watch - we switch over to the story of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), an unenthusiastic engineer who's more than a little down on his luck. We meet him when he's being released from a drunk tank into the custody of his clearly long-suffering wife, Donna. "Remember at the demo when we went to turn it on and it wouldn't turn on?" Clark rambles drunkenly. "1979 was good but then 1980 came and it was like... whoa... what happened?" We wish we knew, Gordon. We. Wish. We. Knew.

hcf s1 ep1 gordan donna

MacMillan has, meanwhile applied for a job at Cardiff Electric - which just happens to be where Clark works. While the previous scenes haven't featured any heavy accents or odd dialog, now you can tell we're in Texas because there's no one at Cardiff who speaks without a southern drawl and plenty of good ol' boy manners. MacMillan doesn't impress this crowd - his slick style and manners might serve him well in corporate offices on the east coast, but don't seem to fit in with this Texas crowd. Still, MacMillan manages to land the job by showing his potential boss his previous year's W2 - remember to keep that tax paperwork, kids, because it could be important one day! - which he explains is what making 200% of sales quota looks like.

And MacMillan's first task, apparently, is to antagonize Clark by stealing his parking space and dragging him along to a meeting where he tremendously outclasses him. While MacMillan tries for a high concept sales pitch ("You can be more. You want to be more, don't you?"), Clark tries to add details about free installation, which results in MacMillan shouting him down in the parking lot. Who knew Lee Pace was so good at playing smarmy asshole?

It's an odd introduction for the two characters, since, as it turns out, MacMillan wants Clark to work with him - and might have come for this Cardiff job specifically to headhunt Clark, who once worked on a computing project that MacMillan declares was ahead of its time."Computers aren't the thing," explains MacMillan. "They're the thing that gets us to the thing." Clark turns MacMillan down, in no small part because that doesn't make any sense except to the audience living in 2014. We can only assume that Clark had no idea what MacMillan was on about, either.

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