Dallas, 1983. Southern Methodist University is one of the nation’s college football juggernauts, an empire that crumbles in a few years. J.R. Ewing is one of the most popular fictional characters on the small screen. Getting a job at a large-scale computer software company entails showing up at the CEO’s office with your tax return and making a few bold proclamations about conquering the industry by lunchtime.
That’s how Joe MacMillan’s tenure at Cardiff Electric begins in the debut episode of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. Joe is an ex-IBM huckster with an elaborate plan to make the personal computer “twice as fast at half the price.” Halt and Catch Fire is a fictional account of the PC boom in the 1980’s that follows one man’s quest to burn all bridges and get rich in the process.
Lee Pace plays Joe, a character best described as part Steve Jobs and a healthy amount of Patrick Bateman topped off by Johnny from The Karate Kid. He is a visionary without the technological savvy wrapped in a coat of unparalleled narcissism, able to inspire a room full of rundown engineers and having the stones to lift a speech from Steve Jobs to inspire said room. If he could limit his one-on-one conversations and stick to large gatherings, his cult leader prospects would be limitless.
Joe’s right hand man in transforming Cardiff into a PC monolith is Gordon, played by Scoot McNairy who does an admirable job portraying Gordon as the genius trying to skate by as an indistinguishable face in the sea of software engineers. Joe reads a lost manifesto Gordon wrote on the computer’s potential and the duo reverse engineer an IBM model and copy its code. IBM, naturally, gets pissed and undercuts Cardiff’s prices and strands the company in the PC game with little more than a pipedream.
Because Joe and Gordon were responsible for copying the code and that’s not allowed, the two cannot write the code for Cardiff’s PC. The techno-babble is dense and the legal lines are blurry. It’s not Primer’s impenetrable dialogue, but it’s not Computers for Dummies, either.
Enlisted to write the code is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a mercurial punk rock chick with a haircut that is dangerously close to a bowl cut. Joe scouted, and had sex with, her after giving a lecture at Austin Tech where she dropped out of to pursue her calling of scamming Space Invaders at dive bars. Fueled by orange soda and leftover teenage angst, Cameron lab-rats her way to genius.
Halt and Catch Fire is an enjoyable period piece relevant to today’s world as technology is booming once again (i.e. every app startup that gets a percentage of the Federal Reserve for being “cutting edge” or “hip”) that has a few flaws. In an attempt to build a mythical aura around Joe’s background, the creators force Joe to constantly fib about where he’s from instead of taking the Mad Men route and letting the secrecy marinate. Lead characters manipulating the truth is contractually obligated by AMC (see: Draper, Don; White, Walter), but in Joe’s case it’s an exercise in frivolity unless a dramatic payoff materializes in the season’s final three episodes.
IBM’s prominence is both physical and abstract in the first three episodes, but the imminent threat dissipates as the show shifts into the computer’s design phase. Agreed upon stipulations between IBM and Cardiff stridently followed wane as Cameron’s work expounds. The threat of being sued into the Stone Age evaporates as the company takes gigantic leaps forward, which is inconsistent with actions that would be taken by a corporation such as IBM in protecting their work.
The show’s saving grace is the schizophrenic nature of relationships. Joe and Cameron at each other’s throat one second, in bed the next. John Buckhorn, Cardiff’s very Texan CEO (Toby Huss), sniping Joe at every chance, but reluctantly forced to defer to him when needed. Gordon and his wife balancing the PC revolution and raising their kids. These dynamics vary at the drop of a dime, but all have the goal of building the personal computer that has the dimensions of a briefcase.
Spoiler: It happens and you’re probably reading on it right now.