WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
Walter White has left the building and Don Draper is soon to follow leaving major holes to fill on the AMC Network’s programming schedule. The network laid an egg last year with their police drama “Low Winter Sun” and another new series “Turn,” which concludes its rookie season on Sunday June 8, has not fared well with critics or ratings. The network morphed a few years ago, from being the less talented sibling of Turner Movie Classics, into a venue for groundbreaking drama that has helped change the face of television.
AMC once again selected a show set in an earlier era, this time going back to the early 1980’s deep in the heart of Texas. Although most folks would associate that time and place with the oil industry, the network chose to present a story set in the Texas equivalent of Silicon Valley. The plot-line of the new series “Halt And Catch Fire,” is the genesis of today’s personal computers, a subject that when I first learned about this series seemed as dry as stale crackers. However any show that can put two guys in a garage testing circuits and writing down numbers, and make it as exciting as watching a football team march down the field for a touchdown, has a lot of potential.
The show centers around three characters, who will form an uneasy alliance in trying to build an IBM clone and in the process make each of their fondest wishes become reality. Lee Pace who has a cult following from appearing in “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies,” is the shark with a vision Joe MacMillan. MacMillan, a former IBM employee charms his way into a sales position with Cardiff Electric, showing his potential boss his W-2 form instead of a résumé to prove that he is a performer. Hired by John Bosworth, (Toby Huss) a good old boy from Texas, who believes he is far sharper than any slick-dressed fast-talking guy from New York, Joe comes on board to bring in the revenue he boasted he could generate.
MacMillan’s first morning at Cardiff starts out with him taking the assigned parking spot of one of the company’s software engineers, who protests to no avail. The parking spot (A-16) belongs to Gordon Clark, (Scoot McNairy) a man just going through the motions after watching his dream fall apart. Gordon and his wife Donna, had attempted to build a PC of their own design a couple of years earlier called Symphony, but the project failed and Clark has yet to recover from grieving over his lost dream. We first meet him as Donna bails him out of jail, after Gordon had a few too many.
MacMillan drafts Clark into going with him on a sales-pitch lunch with a potential customer. We join the group which includes the client company’s owner and two of his executives. Joe starts trying to sell the potential clients of the advantages of going with Cardiff over the established industry leader IBM but is able to maneuver his pitch and challenge the CEO to stop playing things safe and take risks. MacMillan basically calls out the company owner’s manhood, then goes silent and starts smiling. Joe has the customer on the hook and pulling him in, when Gordon breaks the magic and the silence by offering free installation. The client tells the pair he will think about it and they part company. When they return to Cardiff Joe praises Clark’s presentation of the software package but makes it clear that when MacMillan is trying to close a deal Gordon remains silent.
The relationship soon changes as MacMillan discovers an article Gordon wrote in a trade journal on the future of computers, both men are on the same page that the computer is not an end unto itself but a vehicle to get its user the information they need. Joe proposes that they reverse engineer an IBM PC to figure out how it operates. Clark refuses at first, but the more he thinks about it the closer he gets to giving in. Gordon tells Donna that he is sick so she takes their two daughters to her mother’s house for the long weekend. He then goes and buys an IBM PC and surprises Joe in Cardiff’s parking lot. The pair head to Gordon’s garage to take on the task of figuring out exactly how the machine operates.
Gordon explains to Joe that you can buy all the parts inside the machine at any local electronics outlet. The only thing in the computer that IBM actually owns is the code on the chip that has the programming information. If they can find the chip and crack the code they can get every bit of information that IBM spent years formulating. After brushing off some rust Gordon goes smoothly through the maze and captures the treasure chest the duo seek. They then print out the results and then test their theory by putting the machine back together. After the machine causes a power outage in the garage, the guys go into the house and realize they have accomplished their goal. As the pair are celebrating their success in the garage, Donna pulls into the driveway and sees the computer equipment everywhere.
After trying to charm Donna fails, MacMillan leaves and she starts to tell Gordon they can’t go through building a PC again. Clark tells his wife that their marriage, family and his job are not enough and he needs to climb aboard Joe’s bus. Donna brings the girls into the house ending the conversation.
Bosworth is almost out the door at Cardiff for a pork-chop dinner when his secretary tells him that IBM is calling for him. John soon finds himself speaking with an IBM executive about Joe, who walked out of IBM one day a while back and kept on going. The executive tells Bosworth that MacMillan is “damaged goods” and then puts the company’s head of their legal dept. on the line. Somehow IBM found out that Clark and MacMillan had reverse-engineered their PC and since they are employees of Cardiff, IBM will sue the company.
Bosworth calls the owner of Cardiff and bring Joe and Gordon into his office and starts screaming at the pair. Gordon can’t understand how IBM could have found out that the two of them reverse-engineered a computer, until MacMillan admits to calling them. The next day Cardiff’s attorney explains this was a setup by Joe to get Cardiff to manufacture their own PC. The Cardiff executives are also informed that they can’t fire the pair, or it will be admitting guilt to IBM. However they need to bring in a software engineer who does not work for Cardiff and is bright enough to figure out the code on their own.
Joe happens to have the perfect candidate in mind, a college student he met early in the episode named Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis.) MacMillan had given a lecture to a college class that Howe attended impressed that Cameron predicted the internet as the next big step in computer evolution. After the class ends the couple get together sexually, but MacMillan spoils the moment by telling her that their actions don’t guarantee her a job.
Cameron agrees to come on board for a salary of $40,000, pretty good money for a college dropout. She is then coached by Cardiff’s attorney through some tape recorded questions and is part of the team, with Gordon and Joe both telling her they’re her new boss. Donna also gives Gordon her blessing to “build it.” The episode ends with enough IBM attorneys to form a battalion invading the offices who have come ready to eviscerate the team from Cardiff.
It is a pretty fair assumption that Cardiff will win this opening round, otherwise it would make for a very short series. The questions are how well Joe, Cameron and Gordon can work together and exactly how long a leash is Bosworth going to allow MacMillan to have?
The story will pick up again next Sunday night on “AMC“