“By the end of this year Cardiff Electric will release to the market a truly portable computer,” says Joe Macmillan, standing proudly with hands on hips in front of what is left of the pillaged “silicon prairie” tech company. According to Macmillan, the machine will have “two disc drives, integrated screen and keyboard” and will weigh “no more than 15 pounds.” In the aftermath of IBM’s raid, Macmillan pushes forward with the PC clone as the bloodied company fires a majority of it’s staff and diverts all resources and attention to the new project. Unfortunately, the episode falls flat in developing the three main characters and chooses instead to throw Macmillan, Clarke and Howe into unusually jarring situations. The need to satisfy both the tech savvy audience and the general viewer is becoming an obstacle for the writers.
Macmillan’s mission in “High Plains Hardware,” the third and most tame episode so far in AMC’s 10-episode order, is to gather venture capital to finance his lightweight portable computer. Acting as the general who will never see actual combat, he rests the burden of the complex design on Clarke, who struggles with not only the high concept but also his lack of confidence in confronting Macmillan about the impossibility of the task. The first meeting is pretty standard in the tech world, with Macmillan pitching what he knows: his marketing strategy and vision. Not being enough to convince his mark, his deal falls flat due to a combination of a shaky sales strategy, the scars left by IBM and an exposed divide between himself and his boss, Bosworth.
With his power and influence in the company waning, John Bosworth is struggling to keep up with the drastic changes Cardiff is experiencing. This subplot will play an integral part in the show’s progress, as it’s obvious that a war for control is brewing between himself and Macmillan. Neither of them has the advantage. They are salesman and management attempting to navigate a new world, bleeding edge technology and risky ventures armed with nothing but their past work experiences. Acting as a team for now, the duo must find the cash needed to keep not only the company afloat but to push the PC’s development forward. After a meeting with the absentee owner of Cardiff Electric, Macmillan and Bosworth are given a solid lead and make their approach together. The whale is Lutherford, a rich widower and socialite who has zero interest in the actual development of the technology and is the opposite of the “smart money” Macmillan is looking for. Getting straight to business, she makes an aggressive offer that discourages both men but grows on the increasingly desperate Bosworth.
Meanwhile, in what seems to be a cheaply drawn out story of 80’s teenage angst, we see Cameron Howe doing everything she can to avoid her work on the BIOS code. We see her picking through the rubble of the massive layoff; collecting office supplies and even shoes and bringing them back to her basement lair. Fidgeting in frustration, Howe finds and cashes her paycheck for $382.67 ($881.40 if adjusted for inflation). She then goes on a shopping spree and abruptly decides to spend the day with some overly stereotypical 80’s thrashers. From what we know so far about Howe, she is a brilliant young woman and somewhat a loner (she plays video games by herself in an arcade in the pilot). Are we supposed to believe that a paycheck suddenly gives her the urge to drink vodka, receive an amateur tattoo and fraternize with derelicts? Howe is obviously stuck on the code she is developing and will seek methods of procrastination. Remember, her dialogue and progressive ideas about networking and graphics in the previous episodes indicate that she is the ideological bridge between the show’s period setting and the modern tech world. Shouldn’t the way of overcoming her obstacles reflect the same struggles young tech-savvy ideals face today? While the viewers (and writers?) may be confused about the direction of Howe’s development, the show’s other female character seems to have a clearer path.
Donna, Gordon Clarke’s wife, plays a more prominent role this time around and seems to be the only character with a stable story. We learn a few things about Donna that could impact her relationship with her husband as well as the overall plot of the show. Donna works for Texas Instruments, a company most viewers should be familiar with, as they have branded calculators and a long line of semi-conductors. She works for a man from her past that is far more successful and levelheaded than Gordon. A stern businessman and her boss, he represents what could have been for Donna if she had not married her troubled husband. This device is taken further by Donna’s overbearing mother, who rants about his success and travels. Sitting with her husband as they both are working on projects at home, Donna intervenes with Gordon’s struggle to design a motherboard that could fit into Macmillian’s wild vision of a lightweight portable PC. Excited and intrigued by her idea of a “Layered Array”(stacking a split board with double the chips on top of each other), Gordon takes it back to Cardiff to present to his team.
For Gordon Clarke, his struggle in this episode is with a fellow employee who survives his axing. This man is the opposite of Clarke in his approach to the project and to the work at Cardiff electric in general. He is the “No” man who constantly puts up roadblocks for Clarke throughout the episode and even succeeds in instilling doubt a few times. While this employee’s concerns are not without merit, his inability to push the envelope begins to bother Clarke and impedes the progress they are attempting to make. As they both drive home from work after a day of no more obstacles, this employee rants on about an unrelated subject until he crashes into another car. This was the sign Clarke needed to finally realize that this employee has no real invested interest in seeing the project succeed and whose lack of conviction could hurt them in the long run. Clarke promptly fires him.
Coming back to Macmillan and Bosworth’s dinner with a potential investor. We see our antihero do something either calculating or desperate. Facing certain defeat against Bosworth and the deal that is about to be made with Lutherford, Macmillan turns the tables by threatening the stability of her relationship with her significant other. Macmillan aggressively seduces Lutherford’s kept man and we are led to believe they have sex. Catching onto what has just happened away from the dinner party, a worried and teary-eyed Lutherford cancels the deal. Does this reveal more of Macmillan’s past? My guess is no. This was an extreme move that doesn’t reflect his personal lifestyle but his tenacity and how far he is willing to go to win. This move by the writers will alienate some of the audience, as it was a sudden and jarring leap from a business negotiation to something else completely.
We knew the show would be about the sacrifices and hard decisions pioneers must make in order to realize their vision, but to use a device like homosexuality could cloud what we expect to learn about Macmillan’s past. For me it comes off as an attempt to offset the straightforward plot of this episode and leave the audience bewildered. It was ultimately in poor taste, especially with the episode ending with the initiation of a sexual encounter between Macmillan and Howe. Was that supposed to say, “Just kidding, he’s not gay!”? With all the mystery surrounding the lead character’s past and the clouded futures of the supporting characters, it will be difficult for the audience to invest themselves in the drama of their development without some form of stability. Part of me thinks that with so many similarities to Mad Men, this episodes turn was an attempt to break away and rebel from that successful formula. They may have gone too far. When it comes to the mechanics of a show with borderline misanthropic characters like Joe Macmillan, Don Draper or Walter White you can’t deviate too much too soon or the audience will find it harder to sympathize with their struggles throughout the show. As Gordon and Donna Clarke put it, “Software comes and goes but hardware is forever.”