The first head scratching moment for the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire happens before the episode starts. That title, what does it mean? Nuclear attacks? Patient pyromaniacs? A fun new dance craze for the whole family? As much as I’m excited for the next Gangnam Style, Halt and Catch Fire is a drama series set in the 1980s that focuses on the personal computer revolution.
The opening scrawl of the debut episode, I/O (see what they did there?) explains that “halt and catch fire” was “an early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.” If your metaphor detector hasn’t exploded yet, the title refers to what’s going to happen in the show as tech giants and their personnel push themselves to breaking point for dominance.
Halt and Catch Fire takes the Mad Men approach of creating a fictional corporation called Cardiff Electric that is in orbit with real brands such as IBM. Immediately, this presents an intriguing premise to analyse the computer industry in the context of a pending boom that will either shape a meteoric rise or tragic fall.
In the opening scene we see Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) thrashing down the road in his Ferrari when an armadillo crosses his path and ends up meeting armadillo Jesus. Joe steps out of the car to review the damage and seems to be sympathising with his car and not the dead creature. Shortly after, Joe is giving a presentation at a college where he seems to be putting on his cap as an IBM talent scout. After quizzing the class on their capabilities, a female student, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), appears to be the only one with the skills Joe is looking for. In the next scene Joe and Cameron meet in an arcade where Joe reveals that he no longer works for IBM. Just when we prepare ourselves for the sex scene so common in cable television dramas with a slick male lead, it happens, but ends with Cameron humiliating Joe in a way that solidifies her character as not just a sexual conquest; she’ll be back later.
In a short space of time Halt and Catch Fire’s creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have established two intriguing characters but now it’s time to meet two more and indulge in a little Argo reunion. Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) gets picked up from the police station by his wife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé). Gordon is disappointed to find out that Donna has brought along their two daughters to witness their father’s misdemeanor; a tactic by Donna to ensure her husband thinks twice about getting arrested again. Something is not quite right in the Clark household and it’s revealed in conversation that Joe and Donna are both computer engineers/programmers who are under financial stress after a failed project. From Gordon’s downtrodden behaviour it’s obvious that the failed experiment broke his spirit and Donna is the one holding the family together. At home their daughters complain that their Speak and Spell is broken and Donna suggests that Gordon fix it, but he’s just not up to it, so she opens the device to give it a shot. Donna’s description of the circuit board in the toy shows that we’re not dealing with a long suffering housewife so common in cable dramas (see: True Detective).
Gordon fronts up to work at Cardiff Electric and finds out that Joe has parked in his car space. Let the agitation begin. Joe has started working at Cardiff Electric and has been hired by the company to make them more aggressive in the industry. One of the sales executives tells Joe that they only focus on creating software, which may not be “sexy”, but it makes money. Joe has bigger plans and an axe to grind with his former employer, so he begins to court Gordon to reverse engineer an IBM computer. Joe is aware of Gordon’s genius with computers and pesters him to help. Joe praises Gordon for the system he built that crippled his confidence and finances by siting an article Gordon wrote in a trade publication. Gordon attends a sales meeting with Joe and witnesses the man unleash a pitch that would make Don Draper weep. Joe tells a table of suits “You’ve made just enough safe choices to stay alive, but not enough to matter. You can be more. Are you ready to be more?” From this scene it’s clear that Pace has imbued Joe with the spirit of Draper crossed with the suited sinister of Jason Bateman from American Psycho.
Gordon finally finds the passion once more and agrees to join the reverse engineering project. He eventually fixes the Speak and Spell (using a can of soda) and programs the device to say his daughters’ names. The tech montage during this sequence is like a Rocky training sequence but with soldering irons, circuit boards and less of the dulcet tones of Survivor. In the meantime, Cardiff Electric and IBM find out about Gordon and Joe’s little secret and they send in the lawyers. The IBM head honchos also inform the bosses at Cardiff Electric that Joe hasn’t just left the company, he has been missing for years, and nobody has heard from him until he showed up at Cardiff. The news comes a little too late because Joe has forced the hand of his new employer to get into the business of building a computer and he needs a third party engineer to jump through a few legal loopholes so he calls on Cameron (I told you she’d be back). Joe was cleverly assembling his dream team the whole time, what a rascal, but the endgame is not clear yet. Gordon got his groove back, Cameron got a job and Joe stared out windows intently most of the time.
Halt and Catch Fire looks like a show that could stick for AMC and the computer industry is certainly in the sights of pop culture at the moment with Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley proof that the sector is ripe for the picking. The concept of two different types of geniuses is in sync with the duality of many significant tech companies. Joe and Gordon are very similar to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the former being the innovator who knew how to market, innovate and package the product, and the latter being the intuitive engineer. The entire cast is fantastic with Pace and McNairy make the perfect duo: sleek and the geek. The 1980s setting doesn’t go for the gimmicks of something like The Goldbergs but is more in line with The Americans in its stripped back approach.
Personally, as someone who messed around with a Commodore 64 as a child and used to attend computer fairs with my father to purchase spare parts, Halt and Catch Fire is right up my command prompt. After an impressive first episode it will be interesting to see if Cantwell and Rogers can solidify the 80s as the new go-to decade for retro drama.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW