AMC’s new summer drama neatly builds on the established zeitgeist of murky tech origin stories. Halt and Catch Fire, an amusing phrase originating from the early era of digital computing, refers to an invisible code and a series of commands that would overheat the CPU and cause it to cease all normal function. While the “Halt” was the code diverting all the commands to the main core processor, “Catch Fire” was simply the result of shutting down with an occasional bonus of smoking wires.
With this in mind, we are dropped into the Texas circa 1983 and introduced to Joe MacMillan, an aggressive and scheming visionary who joins the cable network’s roster of commercially- successful anti-heroes. Lee Pace plays Macmillan with electricity that makes his questionable behavior very appealing. We are told early on of his master plan: To reverse engineer an IBM computer and use the boot code to eventually build a brand new one. Mr. Pace’s characterization of MacMillan is one part Noah Wyle’s Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley and one part Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker in the The Social Network.
The pilot episode is directed by television veteran Juan Jose Campanella (Law & Order: SVU, House, Strangers with Candy) and is aptly titled “I/O”. This is the most basic of all computational code and describes an on/off command. This is a great representation, as this episode establishes a clear baseline in theme and narrative for the rest of the season. The jargon is limited and accessible to general audiences but has moments designed for the more tech savvy. The opening scene has Macmillan listing the new fields of Computer Engineering in a way a professor would in an “intro to computer science” class and is interrupted by a bright student who chastises him for not using the correct language when describing an advanced field. I see this being the overall balance of how the show runners intend to treat the more technical aspects of each episode. As a fan of the early digital era and the history of commercialized tech I found myself satisfied with the attention to detail in not only the IBM computers on display throughout the pilot but the tedious and grueling process of engineering such a machine. The show is about a grand vision, which helps steer away from the minute details of programming design and helps the viewer focus on the progress of its characters.
Joe Macmillan is easily the cleverest man in the room and makes for a solid pairing with the show’s period setting. With his sports car, fancy suits, and high-rise condo, our protagonist carries the earmarks of the cunning 80s salesman who is willing to cut corners for success. Macmillan parades his charisma and sharp wit when he easily negotiates his way into a job at Cardiff Electric, the fictional mid-level tech company that will serve as the battleground for Macmillan’s war against IBM, his former employer. While he is aggressive and seemingly impulsive in his decision-making, Macmillan’s confrontational attitude and fearless personality creates a fantasy for viewers who will sympathize with his struggle and draw comparisons to their own work and office environment. Halt and Catch Fire could easily be categorized as an underdog story, but with a devil-may-care personality like Joe Macmillan’s, it becomes a far more complex and intriguing show about the nature of pioneering in a world of back-door deals, patent theft and betrayal.
Early on, we see Macmillan playing the role of guest speaker in a Computer Engineering class where he begins actively recruiting Cameron Hower, a rebellious young college student whose style and cyber-punk attitude will no doubt remind you of Lisbeth Salander. Portrayed by Mackenzie Davis, Cameron is ahead of the curve and seems quite bored with the progress in her field of study. Macmillan is immediately drawn to Hower after she predicts the development of a single network that connects all computers under one standard protocol similar to a phone line. What she is referring to will one day become the Internet, an idea that establishes Hower as the ‘prodigy’ as well as bridges the many technical ideas in the show to the viewer in the present time.
I was initially pleased to see a supporting female character taking shape in the pilot but was immediately thrown off by an obligatory sex scene between her and Macmillan. It was forced and uncomfortable and negated the purpose of what seemed to be a progressive move by writers. In past incarnations of the ‘garage engineering’ story, women are either in the background or used as an opposing story telling device. In Pirates of Silicon Valley the subplot of Steve Job’s conflict with his girlfriend and her pregnancy is seen as a hurdle for his success and not something used in his character development. In the more recent The Social Network, women are used as objects of sex and the cause of Mark Zuckerberg’s bitterness. While the true stories of these events may be arguable, Halt and Catch Fire is a fictional story that has the opportunity to tell a more accessible story that could pique the interests of the many young or established women in the modern tech industry.
Immediately after squeezing into Cardiff Electric, Joe Macmillan approaches a fellow employee and failed engineer now residing in a cubicle and taking sales calls. Portrayed by Scoot McNairy, Gordon Clarke is the polar opposite of Macmillan. He lives at the bottom of a bottle, wallowing in his past failures and current financial woes. Macmillan reminds him of an article he once published in Byte magazine referring to the progress of computers and what they could eventually become. This vision is shared by both characters and eventually bonds their conflicting personalities. Being the father of two with a mortgage and an already stretched budget, he initially resists Macmillan’s plan to illegally and painstakingly decrypt an IBM machine. Clarke and his wife had previously built the “Symphonic” a personal computer that Macmillan describes as “ahead of its time.” The computer failed in the markets for reasons never explained which leaves his wife to err on the side of caution when she learns of Macmillan’s offer. Working in the field herself, she understands the risk and investment needed to succeed in such an ambitious project.
I was surprised and pleased in the introduction of Gordon Clarke’s wife Donna. A working mother of two whose career in the tech industry plays background to her family and her suffering husband. References are made to her low salary and inability to make ends meet. Every scene with Donna depicts her in some form of struggle. Whether she is picking up her husband from the local police station, trying to manage her household without his help and eventually coming to terms with Macmillan’s project. This character will be a strong point for the series as it grounds the narrative and makes the story relatable to those finding it hard to balance passion, career and their family lives.
With all the pieces falling into place, Joe Macmillan has one last move to set his master plan in motion. In order to force Cardiff Electric to invest and house the building of this new machine, Macmillan leaks his plan to IBM and causes legal trouble between the two companies. After fear grips the company’s owners, Macmillan suggests Cardiff build a new computer they can legally call their own and finally bring in Cameron Hower, an outsider whose fresh perspective and ideas will help with legal maneuvering if IBM ever takes Cardiff Electric to court.
The last scene is the most important when it comes to establishing what our Visionary, Engineer and Prodigy will be going up against throughout the series. They stand in awe as the suits of IBM’s legal monolith enter the offices of Cardiff prepared to crush a smaller adversary. IBM has always been referred to as “Big Blue” because during this time they are not only one of the largest tech companies in the world, but the industry standard for number-crunching and computing machines. In Mad Men, which sometimes succeeds at displaying cultural milestones, you see this in the installation of the IBM System/360-30 mainframe computer at Sterling Cooper & Partners in Season 7, Episode 4. The machine is portrayed as enormous and overbearing on the people who have to compete or work alongside it, an allegory for the company’s role in the industry. We don’t know why Joe Macmillian disappears from his post at IBM and falls off the grid for a whole year before the events of the pilot, but the mystery will keep us engaged. This formula has worked well in Don Draper’s character development in Mad Men and will work well against the similar backdrop of the seemingly mundane office setting the two shows share.
I have never owned an IBM machine but had a brief glimpse into their Innovate conference last year in Orlando. The keynote speaker was Steve Wozniak, and I managed to have dinner with him. We discussed new applications for technology in education and he shared stories of Steve Jobs and himself navigating in the newly commercialized world of tech, the same world on display in Halt and Catch Fire. A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement for the show where a quote from Woz was used to promote it. I immediately messaged him to get his opinion. He explained that he was asked to moderate a panel with the cast and crew but accidentally deleted all his questions moments before it started. He winged the Q&A as well as screened the pilot and found that the writers, cast and creators were “top notch.”
This was enough to convince me to screen the pilot a few days later and form my own opinion. I’m intrigued by the show and its premise but I am cautious about how far it will deviate from this point in history and how true it will stay in its depiction. As a general TV viewer I think the show’s theme of pioneering and the drama that entails it is enough to keep me coming back each week. With the recent success of The Social Network and the building anticipation of Sony’s upcoming Steve Jobs’ quasi-biopic, this show could be a great addition to the sub-genre. For the army of the buy-everything apple fan boys I leave them with another quote from the Woz: “I saw lots of people I know from tech in Halt and Catch Fire, including myself and Steve Jobs.”
Robin Seemangal is a cyber security consultant living in Brooklyn. He is obsessed with film, television and Jennifer Lawrence.