Halt and Catch Fire is set in the early 1980’s, at the fictitious company Cardiff Electric, which is led by a misfit team of visionaries attempting to revolutionize the computer industry against titans like IBM.
This is truly an amazing show, and no, you don’t have to be a total computer nerd to get it – though it may help. After disappearing under dubious circumstances from corporate giant IBM, Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) shows up at Cardiff Electric and talks his way into creating a whole new PC division in the company. That is a rather simplified version of what happened, but for those of us not total computer geekers, it suffices.
McMillan, after talking his way into a job with a semi-reluctant boss, goes on a hunting expedition to find just the right sidekick for his most ambitious project to date: to make a portable PC that’s approximately the size of a briefcase, with twice the running speed and half the cost. Sounds like a laptop to me, which is awesome. [editor’s note: it’s actually more like the Compaq Portable. Yes, now you have an idea how old the editor is. Sigh.] McMillan decides downtrodden Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) is the best bet for his Second, and sets about convincing Clark to reverse-engineer an IBM computer with him. (Not being a computer God, I’m not quite sure what this means, only that it meant Joe and Gordon putting in long hours in their shirtsleeves and beer, with bright LEDs and a whole crap-ton of handwritten numbers.) Joe’s already met and recruited — if you want to call it that — Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a then-unheard-of female coder who’s so far outside the [societal] norm it’s scary (she’s actually the poster child for the programmer culture that would shortly follow), but there’s no denying her talents for coding. Even though Gordon ends up often relying on the extra talents of his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), who works for Texas Instruments and could get in a lot of trouble if it gets out that she’s helping Cardiff, these three main characters make up a trio of unconventional visionaries taking the PC world by storm!
Cameron, at least physically, looks like your stereotypical 80’s punker child: short, almost-platinum hair, Doc Martens, army surplus pants, white wife-beater shirt. She is well aware the PC division of any given company is a Man’s World, and could give a sh*t less. Once those headphones are on and her nose is glued to a monitor, gender and any other bias disappear under the weight of her results.
Gordon, on the other hand, is weighed down by his responsibilities of wife and children, along with the seemingly ingrained belief that this downtrodden life he was leading is all that’s left to him. Gordon seems to be one of those light-hidden-under-a-bushel artists, in relation to PC engineering, and despite his fears, he absolutely flourishes under McMillan’s determined attitude.
Which leads us to the focal point of the show, the leader of the laptop revolution, the man who can and, so far, has talked his way into nearly everything, Joe McMillan. His passion for this project, often smooth and always persuasive delivery, and utter determination to let absolutely nothing stop him, is glorious and gratifying to watch. Reminiscent of Walter White and Francis Underwood, seeing Joe McMillan do his thing is like watching Satan Jr. take his rightful place in the world. We’re never quite sure just how far McMillan is willing to go for his dream, and what nefarious plans and reasons he holds in the background. And did you know that mini-Machiavelli walking around spouting pretty poison, McMillan, was also Thranduil, the Elf King in the newer Hobbit movies? OMG.
The fact that the show is set in the ’80’s leaves it open for potential enjoyment from ’80’s children, especially the more computer-related ones, like me. Plenty of interpersonal drama plays out, even amongst our trio, who all have to bear the enormous weight of what they’re trying to accomplish and whom they’re going up against, mainly IBM, who is no small contender for PCs in the early 1980’s. McMillan demonstrates time and again his willingness to go way too far to accomplish his goals, up to a spoiler-ific homosexual makeout scene and even quite far beyond that.
Despite Cameron’s avowed disdain for anything mainstream, she still has the girly reaction when her data is apparently accidentally wiped, in tears and lamentations. (We can all relate to that one, I’m sure.) And Gordon with his never-fully-appreciated-till-now sheer artistry, we all know people like that and can wholeheartedly cheer him, and them, on!
CTRL the Future!