Still On Fire: Recap/Review of Halt and Catch Fire – “FUD”
After getting caught up in the period drama/spy thriller that is AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” last year, I found myself re-watching each episode after its first airing. By the time the series ended its first season run on August 3, 2014, I had seen each episode at a minimum of 10 times. The show was so engaging and mysterious enough that it beckoned a second viewing; largely due to the creation of a window into an intriguing time in American history and ingenuity, series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers gave audiences a new show to become immediately hooked on. To this day, I’m still on fire as I’m positive many other viewers are. A little under two weeks away, “Halt and Catch Fire” returns on Sunday, May 31st at 10 pm ET. With season two welcoming us to mutiny, let’s continue our look at “the battle for CTRL.”
“I/O” concluded with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) watching IBM’s legal department file into the Cardiff Electric building. For Gordon and Cameron, they were completely out of their element and in way over their heads. For Joe, it seemed like just another day at the office, even when questioned by Gordon “What are you trying to prove with all this?” As they both step out of frame, we there’s a suspicion that Joe may not be as confidant in his plans after all. Is he trying to prove that he is a visionary? Possibly trying to re-affirm to himself that he isn’t a dreamer or a fraud?
“FUD” – aired 6/8/2014 – (5 stars)
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella
Written by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers
As IBM begins their inquisitions at Cardiff Electric, Gordon tells the legal team that on April 4th, John Bosworth (Toby Huss) and Nathan Cardiff (Graham Beckel) approached him for the project of developing an IBM clone. With machine gun pacing, they also question and attempt to rattle the 22-year-old Cameron. She’s just as sarcastic and impolite with them as she is with MacMillan and Gordon. “I’m not interested in copying garbage” she says as she refuses to look at the BIOS. IBM attempts to place fear, uncertainty, and doubt into Gordon and Cameron as they rattle them with questions that force them to become introspective into their own journeys. Rebecca Taylor bitingly remarks on Gordon’s past failures and asks if he feels that qualifies him to “spearhead the Cardiff PC program.”
The opening scenes of IBM’s legal counsel interviews with Cardiff Electric are tense and work as an effective way at portraying the flood of fear into the halls of the Texas based company. Paul Haslinger’s score has a mechanical and almost heart beating rhythm to it that perfectly sets the tone for an uncertainty over Cameron and Gordon’s futures.
After a quick encounter with one another in the bathroom, Macmillan and Bosworth are up next. We don’t get to see the interview with Bosworth play out, but it only works as it speeds up the time in seeing MacMillan take the stage. As a seemingly natural salesman and leader, confident in how he rehearsed his team, MacMillan waits for IBM’s legal team to enter the conference room. It looks as if he’s the last one up and it certainly seems that way when only senior VP of sales Dale Butler (David Wilson Barnes) enters. We get our first sense of the history MacMillan has with IBM as he speaks with Dale. He reminds him of Columbia Data and Compaq, and that their BIOS will contain no copyrighted material and that Cameron will be isolated in a “clean room.” Dale dismisses MacMillan’s talk as he says that he’s more interested in where he’s been all this time. He gives a sad puppy dog look to the fact that MacMillan left without even saying a goodbye (it’s initially taken as just a sarcastic remark to what seems like an abrupt leave from IBM, but it remains noted as a possible tease of an aspect of MacMillan’s personality fleshed out later in the series.) MacMillan remains silent, but speaks up when Dale tosses around the thought that IBM may just bury him in legal papers and fees. He points to Cardiff’s only legal counsel – Barry (Mike Pniewski) and of how they have no problem with sticking with only him, even if it means the work will ruin his life. We cut to Dale and the rest of IBM leaving Cardiff while MacMillan watches from the window. A timid Gordon and seemingly unrattled Cameron enter the conference room and ask MacMillan how the legal interviews went. He assures them that they’re perfect and we actually believe him. After all, IBM just left and it seems as if it was an easy victory for Cardiff, just as Joe has suspected. All part of the plan, right?
“What exactly are we building?” Gordon asks. MacMillan begins to write something on the board and…
“2 X FAST, 1/2 PRICE”
Cameron and Gordon are both instantaneously hooked on what MacMillan wrote. However, it divides them as Cameron feels that Cardiff’s PC needs to excite and be a game changer, whereas Gordon feels comfortable with what MacMillan wishes to build. MacMillan walks out quietly on them as they become engrossed in their own arguments. He watches them from afar as he’s successfully stirred the pot. As a smile creeps across his face, it feels that Joe is the kind of guy that takes pleasure with his ability to throw a grenade into a social situation and then enjoys watching it blow up for better or worse. It’s actually a characteristic worth thinking about for a moment as in today’s day and age so much could be said for all of our contributions. We have the ability to create terrific splashes within the media pool, positive and/or negative whenever we post something or interject with a comment on social media. It’s hard not to take pleasure when a post/picture/tweet picks up steam. In the context of our mechanical relationships, Joe MacMillan only serves as a literal and figurative manifestation of a basic human trait that has existed within all of us. What’s worth noting and something we begin to contemplate even more in “FUD” is just how human in Joe MacMillan?
Bosworth walks into the conference room and immediately separates everyone as he declares that from now on everything is going to be done “above board.” He has Debbie escort Cameron to the clean-room where Barry will maintain the Chinese wall. Debbie asks about the project that they’re working on and while Cameron explains, Debbie interjects “like Wordstar?”
Outside on the main floor, Bosworth introduces everyone to Joe MacMillan. He’s given the title of Senior Product Manager and is said to have “already made quite an impact.” The moment plays fabulously well as Lee Pace and Toby Huss capture the subtle frustrations of both men dealing with the uncertainties of building tomorrow. MacMillan gets everyone excited when he speaks of change coming to Cardiff. He only has two rules: “Let’s have a lot of fun and 2) Let’s make a lot of money.” He finishes by adding an exclamation point to his rousing talk with a “we just might put a ding in the universe.” Everyone claps except for Gordon and Cameron. He recognizes a certain familiarity to what MacMillan just said, but Cameron just rolls her eyes and walks away. The relationship that MacMillan shares with both Gordon and Cameron is as interesting as the strained and tenuous one he has with Bosworth. Gordon doesn’t necessarily trust Joe, but there’s an understanding that he might be his plane ticket out of his mundane existence. For Gordon, MacMillan has become a necessary evil if it means saving himself. Gordon’s issues though consistently remain in the fact that he keeps placing his own interests before his wife and two daughters. With Cameron, it’s a bit different. She’s a trail blazer and uniquely following her own path. She’s taken the opportunity at Cardiff to write her own ticket as she said in “I/O.” But, she also has an attraction to Joe that she has yet to understand for herself.
Gordon is escorted to his office, and unlike the clean-room that Cameron is stationed in, his has windows! He’s moving up and extraordinarily satisfied as his own need to be validated begins with his promotion. MacMillan walks in to visit him and confidently, but nonchalantly brings up Steve Jobs. Gordon lets MacMillan know that his speech about putting “a ding in the universe” was taken straight from Jobs. MacMillan doesn’t even register the un-originality of his speech and just smiles “Yeah, I know. Isn’t he great?”
“One more job ought to get it.”
Once again, in a clever way of exploring their characters, AMC introduced an exciting way to look beyond what we see in Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe, and Gordon Clark. (*Donna Clark, John Bosworth, and S2’s Sara Wheeler have been added.) Thomas Golubic, the shows music supervisor, assembled individual playlists for each of the characters. While certain songs do appear in the series, others songs simply add another layer of dimension to some of tv’s most morally and socially interesting of characters. Each playlist is supposed to “help elaborate on the different characters and their headspace, to articulate their journey with music,” said Golubić, who has also provided music for AMC’s hit series, “Breaking Bad.”
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On his way home, having left work early at MacMillan’s insistence, Gordon drives home in a dreamy state of disbelief over his recent rise to success. Caught up in his own world, he drives singing to Boz Scaggs “Lido Shuffle.” Thomas Golubic made a smart choice in picking this song as the “one more job ought to get it” captures Gordon’s thoughts in the moment.
Back at Cardiff Electric, Cameron begins work on the BIOS as she has a box of pizza delivered to the clean room. (Sidenote: Ranger Soda makes its debut here.) Barry is waiting outside as we hear frenetic punk rock music playing. MacMillan confronts her, pays for the pizza, and calls her out on her unprofessionalism. She once again undermines and disrespects his authority when retorting with “You practice that in a mirror with a whole bunch of other s*** you either made up entirely or stole from someone else?” While MacMillan no longer seems above board and is called yet again on the “ding in a universe” line by Jobs, Cameron comes across as an extremely young upstart with seemingly little respect for the authority and opportunity she’s been given.
At the Clark home, Gordon tells Donna that he has reason to believe that “we’re going to be okay.” In bed, he tells her that Cardiff played IBM out the door just like MacMillan thought. He then invites Donna to bring their two daughters to work after their dentist appointment the following day. She asks Gordon who they got to write the BIOS and he tells her Cameron Howe. But, what he fails to mention is that she’s a girl. When Donna says “He must be the real deal”, Gordon continues to lie by omission. We already know that Gordon is not entirely perfect at home and so his keeping “Cameron is a girl” secret only adds to another potential moment with his wife. I believe Gordon is insecure with Cameron being the coder for the PC project, especially since Donna works at Texas Instruments. It’s an understandable reason to feel uneasy about her, but he should have been honest with Donna.
Cameron is still at work. Cardiff Electric is closed and she’s still there after hours. She’s visibly stuck while writing the BIOS. The best way to describe what Cameron is going through is coding block, a technological form of writers block. She walks through the office building and her inquisitiveness reminds us that she’s only 22 years old. Cameron sleeps in the clean-room and we could surmise that she’s homeless. Mackenzie Davis brings a rare quality to her role as Cameron Howe. She’s immediately interesting to watch and easily holds her own with Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, and Toby Huss. While Cameron isn’t necessarily accessible and likable for a certain demographic, she is one of the more inviting of characters to root for.
Perhaps the most likable would be none other than Toby Huss’s John Bosworth. He’s a working man and we know he helped build Cardiff Electric into what it is during the show’s current time of the 80’s, along with forging many of its key relationships. It’s even more painful to watch someone like Bosworth struggle as opposed to Joe MacMillan or Gordon Clark. The Texas good ‘ol boy has an uncomfortable and awkward conversation with one of his clients named Carl. Bosworth attempts to make conversation with him throughout the sports complex. It becomes increasingly more and more one-sided as Carl makes no effort to speak with a man you figure he used to be more sociable with. Only after Bosworth suggests he’ll send over some of his people for a system upgrade with no invoices does Carl give him a dismissive response.
MacMillan heads to the clean room to check on Cameron’s progress, but she isn’t there. Instead he finds a crude message on her computer station: “If you can read this the b**** fell off.” He wakes up Barry and further annoying the enigmatic senior product manager is not so much her disregard for the company, but that she’s not following his directions. (Sidenote: She drew on Barry’s face.) The legal counsel remarks that Cameron is interesting, but the novelty has worn off for the time being. MacMillan dismisses Barry and finds Cameron in the basement. She’s working on some project and based on his reaction, it isn’t the BIOS. MacMillan talks to her, but she immediately puts him in his place by spewing technical jargon that goes over his head (and mine.)
While MacMillan is occupied with Cameron in the basement, Gordon decides to go into the clean room and rummage through her belongings. He finds a home made sock doll and a switch blade that nearly slices his hand.
Cameron is in fact stuck and is too prideful to admit she’s at a roadblock. MacMillan offers “Maybe I could help?” Cameron approaches MacMillan and proceeds to lean over him and take off his belt. He asks what she’s doing and she tells him that she’s stuck and needs to clear her mind. At the moment this annoys Joe and he walks away. When Gordon approaches MacMillan on his return from visiting Cameron, he surprises him by agreeing that she needs to be cut loose after she finishes writing the BIOS. The predicament MacMillan and Cameron find themselves in are all too relatable. “FUD” writers (and creators) Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell give us an excellent portrait of two immovable objects. MacMillan is driven to prove himself and to others that the vision of building an IBM clone is more than just delusion. Cameron, on the other hand, while outwardly projecting a me against the world vibe, seems as if she very much hinges off of her success in writing the BIOS. While she doesn’t necessarily care what others think and say about her, she does care about the project tremendously and wants to prove that she could complete the work. Most interestingly is of how street smart Cameron is and of how she already recognizes that MacMillan will probably fire her once the BIOS is complete.
Donna and the children arrive at Cardiff Electric and while she’s in the bathroom they encounter Cameron. It bothers Donna, but she doesn’t say anything to Gordon. We also meet Brian, one of Cardiff’s employees and Donna and Gordon’s next door neighbor. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy at all. Later that night, before dinner, Gordon fesses up to Donna that Cameron is a girl. She then tells him that she encountered her in the bathroom earlier at Cardiff.
Back in the basement, we see Cameron with her head phones on and drinking more of Ranger’s orange soda. MacMillan enters the room and knocks off her head phones. She spills soda on herself and grows understandably angry that he hit her. It’s another move on his part that hints at his volatile side. He throws down the IBM BIOS and tells her to change just enough not be caught. We could understand his anger and impatience as Cardiff doesn’t have the luxury of time to develop their PC.
Cameron heads to the mall and tries on several outfits at the recommendation of Debbie. She doesn’t find anything that fits her and so she leaves, but not before she steals a few shirts. As she’s leaving, it looks as if the mall security caught her, when the men in suits are actually from IBM. They approach her with a job opportunity and it’s left open ended as to whether or not she took it.
FUD – Fear, uncertainty, doubt
IBM uses the sales tactic of FUD to persuade Cardiff Electric’s clients to go with them. The office goes frantic as the phones start ringing non stop and they realize their throats have been sliced. MacMillan immediately recognizes that they’re being raided and losing to IBM. He offers to help, but Bosworth shuts him out while citing “This is about relationships. Something you wouldn’t understand.” It’s our first significant insight that Joe MacMillan may be outed as a sociopath and while we’ve been given clues to his tendencies, it’s Bosworth’s cutting words that bring MacMillan to a halt. MacMillan is played very interestingly by Lee Pace as every time he does something despicable, you get the sense that he may be remorseful or, in the very least, have an understanding that what he’s doing might be hurtful to those around him. While he continues on his warpath with abandon, he gives almost no thought before hand as to the damage he may cause. Yet every time something does not go according to his plan, he retreats within himself. There’s a very child like boy quality to him that should be watched.
We learn that 15 accounts were lost and that 68% of their core billings were lost. Cardiff Electric now only will be able to maintain their operations for less than two months. When Gordon calls MacMillan on his plan, believing that the slick and ever calculating salesman, has another card up his sleeve, it’s just as surprising to him as it is to us that he doesn’t. MacMillan is genuinely backed into a corner and we realize that he’s just been pretending all this time! Gordon then equates MacMillan to Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon. “You’re like one of those guys that goes out and reads Catcher in the Rye too many times and then decides to shoot a Beatle,” Gordon says. “Only in this story I’m the Beatle.” Joe then storms out and heads down to visit Cameron. He grows angry when he can’t find her and has a bit of a rage tantrum while tearing apart her work space looking for the BIOS. He says to himself that there’s “always another move” and it is clear that MacMillan feels that he just lost a game of chess and cannot reckon with his defeat. Once again the idea of him being too much of a dreamer and a fraud enters back into play. He ends up leaving the office and while on a drive he comes across an electronics store that’s going out of business. The stereo salesman is played by Randy Spence. You may recognize him as Nicholas from this past season of “The Walking Dead.” Randy Spence’s unnamed character recognizes MacMillan as a salesman and so Joe then asks him to sell him a stereo. Before he could start talking, MacMillan rattles off “What’s your problem? Where did you go wrong? Why is this store going out of business? There must be a reason. I want to know what it is.” MacMillan then has a psychotic breakdown of sorts as he becomes more abrupt with the stereo salesman and starts turning on all the stereos and raising the volume all the way. “You just didn’t see it coming!” he frustratingly and angrily says to the salesman while pushing him down. Out of frame we hear him tell MacMillan that he’s calling the cops and the following frame just lingers with Joe in the center of this swirling, symphony of chaotic sound. It’s this moment where we think, yet again, that there may be something wrong with Joe MacMillan. Unlike Ned the Piemaker on “Pushing Daises”, Lee Pace is a whole different animal in “Halt and Catch Fire.” While there are quick moments that are all too fleeting that reminds us of Pace, MacMillan is easily more comparable to Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” than any of Pace’s other characters.
Later on at MacMillan’s apartment, Dale Butler shows up. This is a scene you’d want to pay attention to as it’s heavy with exposition and setting up one of the many new twists. We learn that when MacMillan walked out of IBM, he never gave formal notice. They owe him in back wages to the total of $615.38, but MacMillan reminds Dale that he did over two million worth in damages to IBM’s data center. (2 million in damages!?!) Dale tells him that when they filed the insurance claim, IBM actually made money off of the damages. He closes MacMillan’s employee file, but does offer him the opportunity to return. MacMillan naturally declines the offer to return to IBM, even when told that it will disappoint his father. Before Dale leaves for good he almost threateningly tells Joe “Let’s see what happens when they find out what you really are.” Dale leaves his apartment, but not before MacMillan could become transfixed on his briefcase. Cue the next developmental idea for Cardiff’s PC. MacMillan decides their computer needs to have portability and a handle.
He heads back to Cardiff Electric and encounters both Gordon and Cameron. MacMillan and Gordon begin to fight after they have a quick argument regarding the new ideas for the PC. While they fight with one another, Gordon accidentally tears open MacMillan’s chest revealing his gruesome scars. As they both start to calm down (Gordon is visibly shocked by the gashes, cuts, and scars) MacMillan tells them of when he was nine years old. We hear that there were kids that would chase him because he cared about things like Sputnik, not the New York Giants. “No one ever told me adults are supposed to be ashamed of those feelings.” On the night of the ’58 championships, “the greatest game ever played”, the kids chased him off the roof and he fell. After IBM, he began looking for answers as he traveled. Eventually he came to read “The Future of Open Architecture” and tracked Gordon down to COMDEX only to watch them chase his and Donna’s Symphonic off the ledge. MacMillan then begins to appeal to Cameron by saying “everything about you threatens people.” He paints them all as outcasts and, in turn, is able to bring them all back together after their shared fears, uncertainties, and doubts. “Progress depends on our changing the world to fit us. Not the other way around.” MacMillan tells Gordon and Cameron.
Having convinced them that they all need the project to be successful just as much as he does, MacMillan sits in his office the following morning. He sees Gordon arrive first, but the “misunderstood genius” doesn’t acknowledge him. MacMillan is a little dejected, but perks up when Cameron walks into his office. She brings up his story from the night before. Demonstrating her ability to see through Joe once again, she brings up that the “greatest game ever played” was in December of 1958, making Sputnik a year apart from the game when it came down. Joe, with his sly smile quickly fading into an emotionless gaze, has only one response for Cameron calling him on his theatrics and flawed story…
“Is that right?”
“Halt and Catch Fire” is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix. Season Two premiers Sunday, May 31st at 10 pm ET on AMC. Check your local listings.