“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
—Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy)
The opening title card of Halt and Catch Fire explains the show’s cryptic name. “HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF),” it says in blocky green type on a monochromatic computer screen. “An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.”
The title card does not explain why such a command was ever invented, but the episode that follows suggests that the three main characters are on a similar path of inexplicable, chaotic self-destruction. The series is set in Dallas—the “Silicon Prairie”—in 1983, a time when personal computing is the next obvious money-making arena. The major players in the field seem set, with IBM repeatedly invoked as the titan of the industry. However, Halt and Catch Fire isn’t about the leaders or biggest innovators in personal computing, the Steve Jobs or the Bill Gateses. Instead, it’s about the other guys who rushed in and tried to make a fortune in their wake.
More specifically, the first episode focuses on two young men working at a mid-level electronics company who decide to attempt to reverse-engineer an IBM computer. They hope to change it just enough to keep IBM’s army of lawyers from suing them into personal ruin. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) instigates the project; he doesn’t have the technical know-how, but he’s the slick operator who can smooth-talk his way through the business world.
He uses that snake-oil salesman charm to enlist engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). He’s still traumatized by a previous, failed attempt to build a computer with his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), a fellow engineer and put-upon working mother. Providing for Donna and their two daughters makes Clark more risk-averse than MacMillan, though he still dreams of building his own machine. Eventually, the two bring aboard hacker/student/natural talent Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to pursue their industry-disrupting vision.
With the relationships among MacMillan, Clark, and Howe in the foreground, Halt and Catch Fire makes impressive use of its time period without treating it as an elbow-to-the-ribs joke. Sure, there’s the obligatory Return of the Jedi reference, but there are no Rubik’s cubes, day-glo colors, “Billie Jean,” or any of the other hackneyed ‘80s touchstones. Instead, 1983 appears here to be a transitional year that separates the ‘70s from the ‘80s, pivoting to the age of the personal computer, and the details designating this moment are specific rather than generic.
Some of these details are the subject of an “AMC Xtra”, a bonus feature available through AMC on Demand. Cinematographer Nelson Cragg and pilot director Juan José Campanella note that some spaces are stuck in the past, like the Clarks’ living room, decorated with ‘70s wood paneling, while spaces designed for innovation, like Clark and MacMillan’s office, feature sleek metal. We can see that a darkness permeates the entire episode, as even daytime, outdoor scenes are overcast. This darkness, so different from the neon typically associated with the ‘80s, helps to unite digital and analog aesthetics.
The inventive look of the series is paralleled by its inventive history. MacMillan, Clark, and Howe are fictional creations, as is the company they’re working within, Cardiff Electric. This allows that, unlike other stories about the early days of computers, Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t have to be faithful to the lives of real people or businesses, and so it’s not a foregone conclusion whether or not this PC-cloning project will succeed.
The series premiere sets up the basic stakes of the project: either they succeed and become wealthy or all lives involved and one mid-level electronics company are ruined. As Clark writes in an article in Byte magazine, “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Each individual sees the creation of a new computer as an act of self-invention.
MacMillan adds an extra layer of suspense; it’s unclear whether or not he’s a visionary or just a great pitchman. The premiere reveals that he once held a job at IBM and disappeared without a word (his reasons remain mysterious in this first episode). Whatever that past may be, he’s now the one most often pushing to take the next leap forward, whether or not the other two are ready.
With all of these dynamics hurtling towards a number of possible outcomes, watching the trio’s attempt to take on IBM is certainly enjoyable. The pilot even manages to find tension in mundane engineering tasks. At one point, Clark and MacMillan have to copy 65,000 lines of code by hand—on paper with pencil. If only they had a personal computer to help them.