Halt and Catch Fire: Pilot Recap

“What a fearful way to do business. You’ve made just enough safe choices to stay alive, but not to matter. Is that what you want? You can be more. You want to be more, don’t you?” – Joe MacMillan

Call me a nerd, but the sexiest part in this pilot, hands down, was a scene in which 2 men decipher the IBM PC-ROM BIOS assembly language code. Hello 80s music and dot matrix printers. (HOT!)

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There are 3 things that immediately appealed to me from the commercials: Texas, the 80s and computers in Halt and Catch Fire, A.K.A. the show in which Lee Pace is still charming despite playing an unsympathetic asshole. It’s 1983 and former IBM executive Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace) is out to create the new, better PC in a world that is dominated by Big Blue. He heads to Texas and basically screws over a bunch of people (both literally and metaphorically) in a quest for dominance. Why? We don’t really know his motivations yet and whether he’s going to be the hero or anti-hero, but jam to the totally awesome new wave opening credits music and let’s meet the rest of the players.

Cameron Howe: the cool and badass female programmer. How do we know she’s cool? She has an awful 80s haircut/bowlcut (too cool for perms) and spends her days at the arcade using the well-known trick of tying a string to a quarter to rack up free plays. She also knows that one day personal computers will all be networked using a standard protocol – i.e. the internet. (If we don’t get some Facebook reference and/or data privacy concerns as an allusion to today’s highly monitored environment I’m going to be very disappointed). She rejects Joe for being a corporate suit from IBM but then he says he doesn’t work there, and they do it in an arcade-supply room. (Nowhere near as sexy as the aforementioned scene).

Gordon Clark: runner-up for Worst Hairstyle, a computer engineer at Cardiff Electronics, the company Joe wrangles his way into. Hand-picked by Joe himself for writing an article about the future of computers and attempting to build a failed computer named the Symphonic with his wife years before. Gets manipulated by Joe into reverse-engineering an IBM PC.

Donna Clark: wife of Gordon and at the point the only nice and likeable character on the show. She works at Texas Instruments and holds her family together while her husband is moping about in a dead-end job. She doesn’t want to take risks anymore since they have 2 kids and basically just wants a family lifestyle. Eventually she supports Gordon as long as he supports his family.

John Bosworth: Senior VP of Sales at Cardiff, gets tricked by Joe into entering his company into the PC race against IBM. Will probably make life hell for Joe after threatening to uncover his past.

“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Joe left his job at IBM for unknown reasons. Like, completely left. Just walked out the door one day and his employers thought he was dead or missing. He shows up in Austin, Texas, running over an armadillo outside the state capitol, and he is scouting for some college computer engineering students. He has his eye on Cameron, but then we don’t see her again until the end of the episode.

Joe gets himself hired at Cardiff Electronics, bragging about his high sales records at IBM, and purposely gets Gordon Clark, a computer engineer there, to follow him on a sales call, and then convinces him to illegally reverse engineer an IBM PC. Gordon has been living a mundane life, getting drunk and needing his wife to bail him out of jail, but he gets excited at the prospect of trying to build a computer again. So he lies to his wife and spends a 3-day weekend with Joe successfully figuring out IBM’s PC-ROM BIOS chip.

IBM finds out and is not happy about this, bringing in their legal suits against Cardiff, but Joe has engineered the whole con. He needed a company’s resources to help him build the next big thing, so he called IBM to let them know he reverse engineered their PC. Because Joe and Gordon are employees of Cardiff, the company takes the blame. The only way to not get sued into oblivion is for Cardiff to say they were looking into building a PC the whole time, and for them to get an engineer to work on the new chip, someone who was not a part of the reverse engineering process. Cue Cameron back to the story, as she gets hired by Cardiff and the 3 of them stand in fear as IBM brings a whole army of suits to break their story. Give credit to the show for making this scene appear as intimidating as a potential gunfight on other shows.

The show has potential as a summer series, and is intriguing enough for me to tune in next week. The lynchpin of this show’s success will be Joe’s character and what we see of his story as the weeks progress. Also the time period definitely helps; growing up in the 90s I still know a lot of the pop culture references from this show so it hits a sweet spot of nostalgia for me.

How we know it’s the 80s:

  • Quarter arcades
  • Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (I loved this thing)
  • Bad haircuts
  • Station wagons
  • Return of the Jedi

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