Episode 2 brings more of the same… but are good performances from the lead actors enough to make up for the repetitive technobabble?
Last week on Halt and Catch Fire we saw Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) maneuvering everyone else into place so the he could push Cardiff Electric, his new employer, into building a clone of the IBM PC. He’s formed his dream team of the rebellious Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Unfortunately, IBM’s none too happy about this and they’ve sent in a fleet of lawyers to try to shut the project down… but Joe has a plan to outsmart them.
This week’s episode features more prescient technobabble, plenty of office politics, and Joe wrecking havoc on an electronics store for no apparent reason. This latter seems to be a theme with Joe, who last episode smashed up his apartment when he was frustrated. Though some of the shine is starting to wear off of the premise – and some of the drama feels exaggerated – it’s worth watching for the solid performances of the main cast… and I still have hopes that the show might be heading somewhere good in future episodes. However, it’s probably not the best hour of TV you’ll watch this week.
If you want to catch up before reading this review, Halt and Catch Fire airs on AMC Sundays at 10/9c and you can stream the most recent episode on AMC’s website. Now, on to dismantling the episode.
The story opens where last week’s left off: an army of IBM lawyers has defended on the Cardiff Electric offices, posturing and threatening. Joe, however, is confident, and in his usual smarmy fashion tells them they have nothing on Cardiff and may as well go home. (Spoiler: this does not happen.)
Once the lawyers are gone, it’s time to get talking about what they’re going to build – which feels a bit late considering they’ve already told IBM they’re building it. Joe writes on a whiteboard “2 X FAST, 1/2 PRICE” and noisily recaps his pen to punctuate what he feels is clearly very important point. And here’s the conflict: Gordon says it’s impossible while Cameron thinks it isn’t nearly audacious enough. Computers, she pronounces, should have photorealistic screens and be able to beat her at chess – and the audience knows she’s on to something there, but everyone else thinks she’s nuts. “So we’re just building another boring beige box?” Cameron asks. But even the conflict seems to please Joe, who walks off with a self-satisfied grin. After all, they’re at least actively engaged in solving the problem, even if this does mean a technobabble-filled argument.
Once they get down to business, Cameron is separated from Gordon and the rest – the deal is she has to develop the BIOS on her own without seeing the product of Gordon’s reverse-engineering. While she works, a lawyer babysits her to make sure there are no outside influences. Cameron doesn’t fit here – though considering what we’ve seen of her so far, it’s possible she wouldn’t fit in anywhere. While everyone else is straight-laced and formally dressed, she wears camo pants and t-shirts and sleeps on her office floor at the end of the day. She couldn’t be more out of place, which is perhaps one reason she’s starting to have doubts about her new gig. IBM’s lawyers taunted her by saying Cardiff only needed her to finish this project and would then let her go and considering that no one seems to trust her or even like her – even though she’s crucial to the project – her position seems awfully uncertain.
Joe, meanwhile, is announced as Senior Product Manager of Cardiff’s new Personal Computer Division. He hasn’t been here for long, but his plans already seem to be coming together nicely. He gives a big speech about his rules for the new PC division in which he says he wants them all to have a lot of fun and make a lot of money. It’s a speech that could have been cribbed entirely from Wall Street, but since that wasn’t released until 1987 the words must sound new to him…. even though they seem less than revolutionary to us.
But while it took Joe and Gordon a whole weekend to reverse-engineer IBM’s BIOS, they clearly expect Cameron to work faster: she’s been on the job a day before Joe shows up shouting at her about looking at their reverse engineered BIOS – even though IBM’s threatened to send her to jail if she does – as a basis of her own. Joe throws the BIOS information down on her desk when she won’t look at it and storms off. But, unfortunately, team dynamics are about to be the least of Joe’s problems.
With IBM unable to get legal traction against Cardiff because of Joe’s maneuvering, they’re going about things differently: raiding Cardiff’s client list and undercutting them to steal their business. It’s a big success for IBM: Cardiff loses 15 accounts, accounting for over 68% of the company’s core business. With losses like that, Cardiff won’t stay running for more than two months, leaving the whole office without a job. Gordon expects Joe to have a plan for this – he’s had a plan for everything else – but apparently Joe hadn’t considered this possibility and storms off, which he’s doing a lot this episode.
At home, Joe is confronted by his former IBM boss, who offers him a job if he comes back on the plane with them tonight, but Joe just says he likes it here. We still know almost nothing of Joe’s past, except that his departure from IBM was sudden and probably not entirely on the up-and-up, but this conversation insinuates something much worse – Joe mentions millions in damage to an IBM datacenter. What sent Joe on this crazy quest? Here’s to hoping we find out eventually, because I’m awfully curious.
Long after everyone’s left, Gordon’s sitting in the parking lot at the office when Cameron – who’d gone off on a shoplifting spree only to get offered a job by IBM – really – returns. He jumps out of his car and confronts her about where the BIOS code has gone – when she and the code vanished, Gordon and Joe feared the worst. She accuses him of meaning to fire her once she finished the BIOS, which he denies – despite having talked to Joe and his wife, Donna, about doing just that. Fortunately, Joe drives up and interrupts this reunion before anything gets violent. He speeds into the parking lot and leaps out of his car, saying “Portability! People need to be able to take it anywhere! It’s going to have a handle!”
Most people would be worrying about Joe’s sanity around now, but Gordon and Cameron are clearly already in this too deep to question Joe’s grip on reality – Gordon finds the suggestion ridiculous while Cameron still thinks they’re not going revolutionary enough. In the ensuing shoving fight between Gordon and Joe, Joe’s shirt magically rips open (it has to be magic, because it really wasn’t much of a fight), revealing Joe’s chest is covered in scars. “Holy shit,” is all anyone seems to be able to say to this, while those of us in the audience are still wondering how the hell Joe’s shirt came off in the first place. Hollywood magic at work!
But fortunately, this leads to exposition… sort of. Joe explains that some kids chased him off a roof when he was nine because he was more interested in watching Sputnik than a baseball game. And, though it’s a bit of a stretch, he ties this event back to Gordon, who he’d seen at Comdex when his computer project failed – Gordon, too, had been chased off a ledge. “We’re all unreasonable people and progress depends on changing the world to fit us, not the other way around.” It’s a weird speech, but Lee Pace delivers it with a lot of heart and we want to think Joe is having an honest moment with everyone… until Cameron corners him later and explains that the dates he’s given for the baseball game and Sputnik launch don’t work out…. so Joe made it all up.
Still, it seems to be enough to convince everyone to show up to work the next day – even though they seem to be the only ones at work the next day – which means we get another drama-filled episode (whether we want it or not).
Though this show is a long way from being bad, the way the main characters are able to see the future of computing by virtue of the fact that their dialog was written thirty years in their future has already gotten tiring. Listen, I know you’re supposed to be smart – you can stop making brilliant technological predictions between every commercial break. Though the acting is good, the drama feels, at times, like something from a reality show, and though drama is great, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing – especially when the characters are bouncing off the walls in ways that don’t logically flow, as when Gordon is seen searching through Cameron’s bag (presumably fueling his argument that they can’t trust her) or when Joe is shouting at Cameron’s unsatisfactory job performance even though she’s only been working for a day.
Overall, this is worth watching until something better comes on… and with a great cast, we might see the show’s quality leveling out as the season progresses. And even in a worse case scenario, you’ve got Lee Pace to stare at.