Last year, on June 1, 2014, I was caught up in the sweltering, swirling, and captivating freshman period drama, “Halt and Catch Fire.” After an aggressive marketing campaign, which I was subjected to with nearly every preview before the movies, a commercial running during every other segment on television, and billboards on the sides of buses, subways, and cabs; it was hard to escape the alluring title “Halt and Catch Fire” and thanks to the smart usage of “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, everything about the new AMC series seemed like a must watch, even with little idea of what the series was about.
On June 1, 2014, my summer would be changed! So would my understanding of the title. Halt and Catch Fire or (HCF) refers to “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.” The series, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, is set during the early 80’s. In the early days of computers, IBM seemingly has the market of innovation cornered, but for three individuals, whose spirit of innovation and vision is alive, they attempt to reverse engineer a PC. The show, upon concept, may sound uninteresting or boring for those uninterested in technology. But not watching and giving the series a look would be a grave mistake as the richness of characters, plot developments, and personal relationships is just as intriguing as some of the best of AMC’s “Mad Men” had to offer.
Here are a few words offered by those involved in the project:
“It’s about three outsiders who are trying to find their way into something that could change the world.” – Melissa Bernstein, executive producer
“This is a story about speed, greed, and shady deals.” – Christopher C. Rogers, co-executive producer/co-creator
“It’s a sex charged, spy thriller.” – Mackenzie Davis “Cameron Howe”
“I/O” – aired 6/1/2014 – (5 stars)
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
Written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers
It’s 1983 and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) arrives in Texas, speeding in his sports car like bat out of hell. It’s a fast and furious entry for MacMillan, which soon comes to a grinding halt after he hits an armadillo crossing the street. He gets out of his car to inspect any sign of damage and takes a glance at his new city. Every bit of a conqueror and a titan could be found in his glance; could MacMillan be television’s next Don Draper? He arrives at a Texas college and is introduced as someone who has played an instrumental part in the world debut of the IBM PC. In a classroom filled with youth waiting to be shaped and eager to follow the cookie cutter measures to American innovation and success, MacMillan quickly weeds out those with question after question on computers. Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a young, punk rock, anti-establishment student who appears as a reject from the Angelina Jolie movie “Hackers”, immediately grabs MacMillan’s attention with her lack of interest in his swagger. He mentions very-large-scale integration to which Cameron immediately scoffs at. She doubts his credibility and understanding of what that is, but he immediately responds with “VLSI.” She’s not quite impressed, but she starts to believe that there may be more to the mysterious IBM suit. They exchange a few impressive words regarding computers and what technology will accomplish one day which brings them to a dive-bar/arcade later on in the night. We learn that Cameron graduates from college this year (it’s 1983) and that she is extremely anti-IBM and American corporations. MacMillan teases her with the idea that he could be scouting her and that this “date” is a sort of impromptu job interview. She doesn’t want to work for IBM and while she’s immediately dismissive of MacMillan’s presence, he catches her off guard by telling her “I don’t work for IBM.” He smiles and it brings to mind the charm and sweetness of Lee Pace’s cult-favorite character Ned on the short-lived “Pushing Daisies.” Be warned, this is not Ned. In the following scene, bringing to mind a number of infamous Don Draper moments from “Mad Men”, Cameron and Joe have a forceful, rough tryst in what appears to be a storage area of the bar. It’s an adult scene of an adult situation. It’s not about love, it’s about pleasure, feeling. Not connection. After MacMillan finishes, he tells Cameron “This doesn’t mean you get the job.” She pushes him away and sarcastically asks “Wow, you mean we’re not in love?” and leaves. The shot lingers on MacMillan for just an uncomfortable amount of time to surmise that something isn’t quite right with the ex-IBM employee/ hot shot. He seems legitimately disappointed in how the night turns out and hurt by how Cameron just left him. Cue the opening theme.
With that opening credit sequence, I was immediately entranced by everything AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” had to offer. (The opening theme, a version of Trentemoller’s “Still On Fire” has been my ringtone since last June)
We are next introduced to Gordon Clark, played by Scoot McNairy of “Argo”, “Gone Girl”, and March 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (theories peg him as either John Corben or Jimmy Olsen.) He’s released from the Dallas County Sheriff and has definitely spent the night on the sauce. He’s hungover and driven home by his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe of “Argo”) with their two daughters in the back seat. He tells her that he’s had “one too many drinks” and that “it got away from me.” While on their way home, he drunkenly recounts of COMDEX, a Las Vegas computer expo held from 1979 to 2003. “1979 was good, but then 1980 – woah, what happened!?” We aren’t given specifics as to why Gordon is speaking of COMDEX and Donna’s father, but we get the idea of some sort of past failure.
“Same Suit. Different Tie.”
And, boy is John Bosworth (Toby Huss) right. It’s one of the sharpest comments he makes regarding Joe MacMillan during Joe’s interview at Cardiff Electric. We learn that MacMillan hails from Armonk, New York and that he didn’t even bring a resume to the job interview. It’s definitely an arrogant and risky power move on his part, but it does work when he shows Bosworth his W-2. Joe MacMillan says that his W-2 form shows what 200% of quota looks like and refers to “the golden circle.” He promises that he’ll break numbers and so Bosworth hires him, jokingly saying “We’re married.”
So let’s take a moment for that comment. Joe MacMillan is presented as a smooth talking, sharply confident, suit. He has “East Coast corporate” written all over him according to Bosworth and let’s not forget that super fast sports car he drives. The “different tie” comment is an excellent and clever observation which alludes to the later development of MacMillan’s Don Draper-ish quality he projects. He’s a carbon copy of a powerful figure. You could shake his hand, feel his flesh, but is there a heartbeat? I’m personally thinking of any number of quotes regarding the character of Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho” right now.
Later that night, in his apartment, MacMillan overlooks the Cardiff Electric corporation overview. We are informed that John Bosworth is the Senior Vice President of Sales. Gordon Clark, #A16, is one of Cardiff’s sales engineers. It doesn’t mention that he’s a drunk though. While Paul Haslinger’s score quietly sets the tone for the scene, MacMillan reclines back in his chair. His apartment is barren, his shirt is open, and what’s the deal with the four scars on his chest? His shirt is unbuttoned just enough for an eagle-eyed viewer to catch another puzzling characteristic of the enigma that is Joe MacMillan.
The following morning, MacMillan takes Gordon’s A16 parking spot and shows little concern when Gordon confronts him on it in the parking lot. Some time later, MacMillan calls to A16 so he could bring him as his S.E. on a business call. “We’ll take my car. It’s closer.” The following scene brings to mind some of the most captivating and hypnotic of moments from Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” as MacMillan pitches a group of businessman on moving to Cardiff Electric. He tells them of how he worked and grew up at IBM. In full Don Draper mode, he says stuff like “Just enough safe choices to stay alive, but not enough to matter”, “You can be more. You want to be more. Don’t you?”, concluding with “This is about you finally having the confidence to walk out on the ledge and know you’re not going to fall.” Gordon interrupts the intensity and power of MacMillan’s salesmanship by offering “free installation.” Ultimately, the business lunch concludes with a “I’ll think about it.” which to MacMillan is a nail in the coffin of his pitch. The moment greatly renders our understanding that MacMillan isn’t the seemingly invincible and all-powerful closer like Don Draper of “Mad Men” or Harvey Spector of “Suits.”
Outside of the following scene, which finds Gordon moping around at home while listening to “Lodi” by CCR (“Oh Lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again.”), Gordon seems as if he feels stuck in a rut. He sits at his cubicle and comes across as one of America’s drone workers, destined to be stuck at the last stop on the train. As he’s almost lazily resolved to his lot in life, MacMillan drops the magazine/ technological journal “Byte” on his desk. Gordon wants to ignore him, but MacMillan insists that he turns to page 33. “You wrote a treasure map.” We see an article entitled “The Future of Open Architecture” by Gordon Clark and he’s instigated into speaking with MacMillan. He tells the sales engineer that he wants to work on a special project with him and delivers one of the series trademark lines which was played in nearly every promo – “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Later on, while Gordon, Donna, and their two daughters get ready for a night at the movies (“Return of the Jedi”), MacMillan calls. Donna tells him Gordon isn’t around and that they’re leaving at his signal that he’s not taking the call. They watch the third (Episode 6) of “Star Wars” and while walking out of the theater, MacMillan approaches them while eating a bag of popcorn. Straightforward, bold, and direct, MacMillan says “Reverse engineer an IBM PC with me.” It surprises Gordon and he instantly recognizes the outlandishness of MacMillan’s “special project.” Gordon tells him “I’m sorry, but you missed it. We all did.” MacMillan attempts to talk Gordon into the idea, but he doesn’t budge, citing his family as a reason he can’t get involved in the highly illegal plot. He asks MacMillan if he has a family, to which before he could answer, responds with a “I didn’t think so.” In the car, Donna asks her husband what MacMillan wanted and brings up how crazy he is as he essentially stalked their family to the movie theater. Gordon tells her what has MacMillan so fired up and she is immediately concerned after he tells her of the plan to reverse engineer an IBM PC. She brings up how they once tried to build a PC and of how it failed. Their computer was called the Symphonic and according to Gordon, it’s “the best thing [he]ever did.” So now we know what Gordon has been so hung up over.
“Complicated Game” by XTC
There’s something about AMC, but the majority of their series make great usage out of fantastic, hidden gems of songs. “Halt and Catch Fire” for the most part is very era accurate with its soundtrack. The song “Complicated Game” by XTC plays over the following scene that presents us with a very haunting, intimidating, and damaged Joe MacMillan. So, he’s definitely not Don Draper. There’s something much darker about him and XTC’s song amazingly captures an authenticity of the emotion Lee Pace conveys. MacMillan picks up a baseball bat with a plaque that reads: Swing for the fences, son. He then picks up a baseball and hits it into the apartment window. We see that he is as destructive as he is charming. But is MacMillan even charming, or are we just lost in his allure? Jace Lacob of BuzzFeed wrote: “Though his mysterious past remains as such throughout the episode, we know that Joe is a dark and potentially malevolent figure. For one, there are the scars on his chest, which point toward… well, I’m not sure what yet. And then there’s the fact that he wrecks his brand-new apartment early on, picking up a baseball bat that holds a telling inscription from his father (daddy issues!) and connecting it with a ball thrown in the air. Smash. Boom. Crash. As the ball careens around the glass-enclosed apartment, we see the damage Joe is doing, not just to his surroundings, but to the people he’s encountering on his curious mission. It’s no coincidence that Joe is introduced to the audience as he runs over an armadillo, trailing destruction in his wake, wherever he goes, not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper before him. (That he appears to be a complete fraud — or at least, a bald-faced liar — adds a layer of depth to a character that is inherently not as confident as he appears to be.)”
The title of Lacob’s review for “I/O”, the pilot episode of “Halt and Catch Fire” is AMC Has Found A New Don Draper And He’s Ginsberg’s Worst Nightmare. This is what becomes so intriguing about HACF and Lee Pace’s character by this moment in the series. We see shades of Jon Hamm’s iconic anti-hero in Joe MacMillan, but there’s such a sense of danger to him that we begin to question if we could even refer to him as an anti-hero. There’s a very true feeling that MacMillan might be bad. We’ll have to continue watching in order to learn more about an entertainingly ambiguous beast known as Joe MacMillan. With “I/O”, there are only 9 episodes left in AMC’s freshman period drama and possibly new prestige series.
MacMillan heads to work the next morning and finds Gordon parked in his rightful A16 spot. MacMillan, at first seems perturbed, but is immediately excited once he sees why Gordon is there. Gordon has an IBM PC in the trunk, his wife and kids are away, and he has all the time in the world to begin reverse engineering it with Joe. While inside Gordon’s garage, both men begin searching for the ROM BIOS. We learn that all IBM essentially owns is the BIOS and contents of the chip; everything else is basically ripped off from other manufacturers, hence the idea of “open architecture.” They spend the weekend fixated on the BIOS, transcribing 65,536 bits of computer lingo, and soon forgetting that Donna will be returning home on Monday. MacMillan maniacally laughs and announces that their BIOS is “a treasure map” and of how they found a needle in a haystack. The fun is cut short when Donna walks in and dismisses Joe and confronts her husband. They argue and Gordon drops a bombshell that being married is not enough for him. She attempts to understand where he’s coming from, but sarcastically apologizes for not having the “burden of being some misunderstood genius.”
The Donna Clark/ Gordon Clark marriage is believable and one of the elements that makes it play so well is the chemistry Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe share. A little tidbit – They played husband and wife in Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” You understand the frustration Donna has with her husband as he’s become consumed with the escapist fantasy of building an IBM clone that MacMillan has sold him on. You get the pain she’s felt with their joint failure in the past, along with knowing that her husband has not been able to let go of the Symphonic. As for Gordon, I feel that his “misunderstood genius” is a constant threat to his own sense of validity. He’s unsure of whether or not he’s as intelligent as he’s believed and has the pressure of feeling trapped at Cardiff Electric. He dares to dream bigger, but unlike Joe, does not have the tenacity to move forward. He’s much more resolved at being a simple sales engineer with no direction home.
As the XTC song suggests, “it’s just a complicated game.”
“He’s damaged goods.”
Joe MacMillan acknowledges he doesn’t work for IBM to Cameron at the bar while he was introduced as a big blue employee at the college (he’s a liar), we see he has four scars on his chest (he has an undisclosed past), he’s destructive when he doesn’t immediately get his way (self-destructive and dangerous); the next shoe drops. Dale Butler (David Wilson Barnes), the senior vice president of sales at IBM North America calls John Bosworth. We learn that MacMillan “walked out last March and never came back.” He’s been missing for a year and up until IBM caught wind that he was in Texas, they believed he was dead. “He’s damaged goods.” Butler tells a now presently concerned and worried Bosworth. So who really is Joe MacMillan? And how exactly did IBM find out about a man they believed to be missing and possibly dead?
Later on, Bosworth and Nathan Cardiff (Graham Beckel) meet with MacMillan and Gordon to discuss the legal ramifications of the situation they currently find themselves in. They’re told that Butler and Rebecca Taylor (IBM’s in-house legal attorney) are on their way to Cardiff Electric the next morning. MacMillan tells them that he was the one to notify IBM of their reverse engineering of the PC. It’s audacious, shocking, and a gutsy move on his part which incurs the anger of both Cardiff and Bosworth. Let’s acknowledge that Cardiff Electric has been in business since the ’60s and that Bosworth has been with them for 22 years. The fictional Texas based company has been in the business for a while and all of a sudden the visionary, fraud, and disruptive force found in Joe MacMillan arrives and turns everything inside out.
Outside, MacMillan tells Gordon that he saw the Symphonic at COMDEX and was blown away by the inventiveness and vision he had. You get the idea that MacMillan may have been this master planner, a spider of sorts at the center of this massive web all along, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s constantly thrown off guard by various shocks (Gordon initially turning him down, not closing the sale, IBM and Cardiff Electric’s reaction…) While MacMillan plays the role of the smartest guy in the room, he is actually not. Key word being “plays the role.” He tells Gordon that a year from now he’ll be thanking him. That remains to be seen. Cardiff Electric, along with their in house legal counsel Barry Shields (Mike Pniewski), tell Gordon and MacMillan that their only way out of the bind Joe’s placed them in is through the legitimization of the PC building project. By law they can’t use Gordon as the engineer on the project as he’s seen the contents of the ROM BIOS, so they need to hire. MacMillan protests that he doesn’t have enough time to vet a potential candidate, but they shut him down immediately. Nathan Cardiff begins to shout at MacMillan when he suggests that he’s making the company money. Cardiff says that he admires MacMillan’s tenacity, but he draws the line when told that his money is being secured. He warns MacMillan that he’s “toying with futures” and that there are no second chances in Texas. If he makes a mistake “ain’t nobodys going to find where you’re buried.”
“The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash
Enter Cameron Howe, the prodigy. She’s at the same arcade from the beginning still cheating the video games with her quarter trick. She gets kicked out and while outside she’s approached by Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark. Cameron is as tomyboyish, punk rock, and bad-ass as ever. You may want to consider reading Molly Lambert’s Cameron From ‘Halt & Catch Fire’, and the Legacy of Female Badasses in the ’80s. MacMillan tells the 22 year old coder that he scouted her for this specific occasion to which I don’t find necessarily true. He attempts to sell her on the fact that this project is too important to pass up, but she immediately sees through his pitch. Let’s remember her first encounter with him. They eventually settle on terms that finds Cameron making double what Donna makes at Texas Instruments. The next scene finds her on the bus en route to Cardiff Electric. She stands out and Mackenzie Davis brings to life an exquisite character who is hardly seen in the pilot episode, but is sure as heck going to rise to an essential role throughout the first season. She’s likable in an alternative kind of way, but provides a stark enough contrast between Kerry Bishe’s Donna that she becomes a strong enough character in her own right. Besides, how could you resist that tough charm, musical taste, computer expertise, and Laura Dern-ish looks!
At Cardiff Electric, John Bosworth chews out the team in the truest sense of the word. Shortly before, Dale Butler and Rebecca Taylor arrive, he warns Joe that while he did hire him and didn’t check his references, he’s worked for the company for 22 years and helped build it into what it currently is. He tells MacMillan that he’ll never forget being backed into a corner in his own home and for that he’s going to raid his closet and pull every loose thread. Ah, the game is afoot! The tension builds.
Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe, and Gordon Clark wait in the conference room for IBM. Guess what? It’s not just Dale Butler and Rebecca Taylor who show up. It seems as if all of IBM is converging on Cardiff Electric and well more than 20 people begin filing in towards them. Gordon looks at Joe and asks “What are you trying to prove with all this?” and then walks away. Cameron looks at Joe, but he doesn’t break his empty gaze and vision of the future as he watches IBM enter their offices. He gulps ever so subtle. What is Joe trying to prove?
“Halt and Catch Fire” season one is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Netflix. Season Two premieres Sunday, May 31 at 10 pm on AMC. Check your local listings.