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

Halt and Catch Fire poster

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.

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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.

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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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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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