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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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But MacMillan isn't willing to take no for an answer and fires up his stalker skills to track down Gordon and his family at a movie theater, which was probably a heck of a lot harder before Twitter and Foursquare came along. MacMillan puts on the charm, showering Gordon with compliments in front of his wife and daughters, but Donna's smile is, understandably, strained. For all she knows - and all we know, too, for that matter - MacMillain is a crazy stalker.

Still, she seems eager to get the kids away and when MacMillan and Clark are alone the other shoe drops: MacMillan wants to reverse engineer an IBM PC, because, he explains "I wanna build the machine that nobody else has the balls to build." This may sound like the show's taking the fast train to snore-town, but bear in mind that this kind of thing was a long way from legal - and, if discovered, could land the two of them in a boatload of legal trouble. If the potential for landing in legal trouble isn't enough drama for you, though... well, you might want to stop watching, because that's all we're going to get.

The punchline here comes from Clark: "Apple, IBM, they have the market sewn up. Plus you've got Commodore, Tandy, Texas Instruments... I'm sorry, but you missed it. We all did." And though this whole conversation seems like a gag today, that was the lay of the land back then. It's moments like this that give us insight into how much technology has changed over the years - though this story isn't set all that far in the past, it's already so different from the world we know as to be incomprehensible.

Even though Clark has turned him down, he comes around quickly enough: the next time we see the two characters together, Clark has an IBM box in the trunk of his car and the two of them spend a weekend in Clark's garage - his wife is out of town with the kids - taking it apart and painstakingly trying to figure out how it works. It's pretty dry technical stuff, which is probably why the show glosses over it, cutting quickly to Donna arriving home, less than pleased by the scene before her. "Please tell me you didn't buy this stuff," she says, indicating the pricey IBM hardware spread in pieces over the garage. With a mortgage and two kids to feed, the family can't afford another failed computer project.

And this is where the show actually starts to coalesce into something interesting: MacMillan's boss at Cardiff gets a phone call from IBM, which already knows about the reverse engineering project. MacMillan is cool as the boss shouts about how IBM to ruin the company and get millions in damages because MacMillan and Clark were employed by Cardiff when they reverse engineered IBM's tech.

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Why's MacMillan so cool? Because he called IBM and told them, of course. This was all part of his plan from the start to force Cardiff into supporting this project - because if Cardiff was independently working on PC development all along, they're not just stealing IBM's technology. The snag, however, is that they need someone other than MacMillan and Clark - both in legal hot water - to build a prototype.

Surprise: this is where MacMillan - ahem - befriending Howe at the beginning of the episode comes into play. What isn't a surprise is Howe not being eager to get back into bed - literally or figuratively - with MacMillan, but the ever-suave MacMillan manages to talk her into it with an offer of twice the regular starting salary. Though it looks like this plan is crazy enough that it just might work, Cardiff is none too happy to be stuck with this situation - they can't fire MacMillan or Clark without admitting guilt and they're going to need them if they start building their own PCs.

By the time IBM shows up on the scene with a veritable army of lawyers - think 300 but with lawyers - MacMillan's gotten more than a few threats, and with his charming attitude we're sure it's not the last time this season that his coworkers will wish him bodily harm. "What are you trying to prove with all this?" asks Clark, and we've all got to wonder... but for answers, we're going to have to tune in next week.

This first episode is gorgeously shot with great sets and costumes that will make you forget just how hideous the 80s could be. The acting is top notch, too, making even the unlovable MacMillan interesting to watch. What might leave you in the cold, however, is the story - because if you don't already have the technical background to understand what's happening, it might not make a ton of sense. However, first episodes are always tough: the show had to introduce the whole cast of characters, set the tone, and set up the premise for the entire series. Once it had managed to do that, there was only time left for a tiny hint of the drama that might be to come.

If you're a fan of computer history, I'd rate this a must-watch. Even though it's a completely fictional story, it's an interesting look back to the days of early computing. For anyone else, it's more of a wait and see. The end of this episode definitely hints that this series could turn into a meaty drama... whether you care about computers or not.

If you'd like to catch the series for yourself, it airs on AMC Sunday at 10/9c. You can also stream the latest episodes at AMC's website.

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