Small Screen: Halt and Catch Fire

“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
- Joe MacMillan, Halt and Catch Fire

It’s 1983. Return of the Jedi is in megaplexes everywhere. Cabbage Patch dolls are flying off the shelves. IBM controls the market for personal computers. And in Dallas, Texas, an unlikely team of misfits from local tech company Cardiff Electric is building a Giant.

That’s the premise behind AMC’s series Halt and Catch Fire, which begins its second season on May 31. The late 1970s and early 1980s brought the beginnings of the personal computer revolution, with Apple and Microsoft settling in Silicon Valley and IBM ruling from the East Coast. But in the middle of the country on the Silicon Prairie of Texas, smaller companies like COMPAQ, Texas Instruments, and Tandy Corporation weren’t far behind, producing their own PCs with mixed results; though Texas Instruments’ personal computer line was short lived, for several years Tandy Corporation successfully created and marketed a line of PCs through their electronics division—Radio Shack.

Halt and Catch Fire’s fictional Cardiff Electric finds itself at the very center of this revolution when former IBM sales executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) arrives in Dallas from New York, killing an armadillo with his sports car in an opening sequence that suggests with little subtlety that no obstacle and certainly no armadillo will stand in the way of his vision. In a relentlessly paced pilot episode, Joe recruits Gordon Clark, a Cardiff engineer that has long since checked out of his job, and Cameron Howe, a brilliant and unconventional young female coder, to reverse engineer an IBM PC and write an original boot code to build a new personal computer that can compete on the market with Big Blue. As portrayed by Mackenzie Davis, Cameron is introduced as the unpredictable, renegade coder, attracting stares as she walks into Cardiff in army pants and blasting punk music while writing code. Scoot McNairy’s Gordon is more cautious and easily stressed, the skeptic of the group; he and his wife Donna, a computer engineer at Texas Instruments, had built their own computer two years earlier only to fail in the demo stage. Joe views himself as the arbiter of the future, the great creator despite lacking Gordon and Cameron’s technological know-how. He cultivates a persona that’s all about showmanship, borrowing ideas from others to make his point. As he rouses the other employees at Cardiff with a motivational speech, he adds, “We just might put a ding in the universe,” only to be pulled aside by Gordon: “Steve Jobs said that”. “I know,” answers Joe, “Isn’t it great?”

It’s an unlikely team, and the computer command from which the show takes its title seems almost too on the nose as Cameron, Gordon, and Joe begin work on their PC:

“Halt and Catch Fire (HCF): 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.”

Though both Joe and Gordon think of themselves as the leader, it’s Cameron who remains the most interesting figure of the group. She joins the team dubiously, unimpressed with Joe’s visionary persona and dismissed as amateurish by Gordon, but is quickly revealed to be more talented than her appearance suggests; when Donna peeks at what Cameron has been working on, she’s blown away. “Your code,” she tells Cameron, “It’s like music.” When it comes time to name the machine, Cameron’s suggestion is ‘Lovelace’, eliciting snickers and blank stares from engineers all thinking about Deep Throat. Rather than honoring a porn star, the name is an homage to Ada Lovelace, the woman widely considered to be the first computer programmer after creating an algorithm for mathematician Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Neither of her co-creators seem interested in history—Joe hopes to name it ‘Contrail’, the exhaust streak left behind in the sky by an airplane, before Gordon, apoplectic with rage that Joe would consider naming their machine after dust, christens their machine the ‘Giant’.

It’s clear to the modern viewer that Cameron is the only one of the trio that truly understands the nearly limitless possibilities for personal computers, looking to the future instead of the “twice as fast, half the cost” model favored by Joe and Gordon. In episode two, she passionately describes to Joe and Gordon what she wants in a PC, exclaiming, “Computers should have photo realistic screens, they should have a million pixels and be self-learning and run expert systems. They should beat me at chess!” When writing the BIOS code for their new machine, she insists on including a personalized operating system (OS) unlike any other on the 1983 market. Reasoning with Gordon, she explains, “It needs a soul. It needs to be something that people can fall in love with...I want to build something that makes people fall in love”. Gordon is dismissive: “Why don’t we make the machine jerk us off too?”

Cameron’s abilities are so far beyond that her colleagues are holding her back; while they pitch a computer that functions as an employee, answering every command with speed and in the affirmative, Cameron is looking for a friend, imagining a machine with capabilities closer to the intimate OS in Spike Jonze’s Her. In neon green text scrolling on the screen, Cameron’s customized OS greets her, “Hello Cameron. What would you like to do?” Gordon remains unimpressed, so focused on efficiency that he ignores any marker of individuality for the computer and sees the OS as a gimmick that takes away valuable space on his hard drive. Though he has the technical skills that Joe lacks, it’s not hard to imagine Gordon being the one left in the dust by the innovators; he scoffs at Joe’s proposed design for a modern metal casing, makes jokes about HAL in reference to Cameron’s OS, and dismisses Joe when he admires a new touchscreen model from HP: “Eh, it’s just a fad”. It’s a sly wink from series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers - one needs only to glance at the latest line of Apple products to see just how little Gordon knows about what the future will bring.

The final two episodes of the season unfold as the team travels to Las Vegas to present the Giant at COMDEX, an annual computer expo showcasing the latest innovations and technologies in the field. Joe rattles off the specs of the Giant to possible buyers: an 8086 processor that runs 70% faster than the IBM XT, an integrated LCD screen, and a compact, briefcase-sized design weighing, as Joe boasts to his captive audience, “a featherlight fifteen pounds”. The specs are almost laughable to a modern audience—Apple’s most recent MacBook Air weighs in at just under three pounds—but to the 1983 buyers at COMDEX, this is incredible. The deals are all but signed until a former colleague of Donna’s unexpectedly shows up at COMDEX to reveal a PC called the Slingshot, an almost identical copy of the Giant right down to the piggybacked double row of chips that allows the Giant to remain so compact. Worse, it’s faster, unencumbered by the space taken up by Cameron’s operating system.

This was the name of the game during the PC revolution. Every company with a PC division was striving to create faster, lighter, cheaper computers before their competitors hit the market; in an earlier episode, Joe has a panicked moment when he hears a rumor that IBM is also looking to launch a portable model. Backed by Joe in a last minute attempt to outshine the Slingshot, Gordon doesn’t hesitate to remove the OS, devastating Cameron but making the Giant that much faster, including a software upgrade to add MS-DOS. In his presentation, Joe bypasses his prepared speech about the unique qualities of the OS to emphasize the newly acquired speed: “Your computer isn’t your friend. It’s your employee.” To a crowd of marketing executives, those are the magic words, but it seems that Joe isn’t entirely sold on his own speech. Later that evening, he stumbles upon a small crowd whispering in a hotel suite, all facing a PC. In a mechanized voice, the computer utters the famous words: “Hello. My name is Macintosh.” Joe is awestruck, his expression giving away his immediate realization that Cameron was right. “It speaks,” he utters, suddenly aware of how far the personalized OS could go.

Twenty-eight years later, Apple unveiled Siri. The technology behind the now ubiquitous OS came from a company of the same name that Apple had acquired for north of $150 million the previous year, and her distinctive voice and quippy tone quickly became synonymous with the brand. This modern update of the ‘gimmick’ that Gordon had been so quick to dismiss sold four million units in three days, and spawned imitators like Cortana, a similarly helpful female-voiced OS released by Windows in 2014.

In the season finale, Joe calls Gordon into his office to watch something that he taped, rewinding a VHS cassette to find the 1984 Apple Super Bowl commercial for the Macintosh computer. The infamous commercial shows a girl with a not-coincidental resemblance to Cameron, sprinting down a hallway to a cavernous room of blank faced drones facing an imposing bespectacled face on a Big Brother-esque screen, issuing edicts in a monotone. She spins to launch a sledgehammer, shattering the screen and liberating the drones as a voiceover intones:

“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”.

In that moment, it’s completely clear to Joe and, with the benefit of hindsight, even clearer to the viewer: He’s not the future, and neither is Gordon. Cameron is. And he knows that the Cardiff Giant is already practically obsolete.

By the end of the season, the trio has split apart, divided by their work on the PC and each striking out in a new direction. Joe leaves Texas, embarking on a kind of spirit quest to find himself; when the viewer last sees him, he sets out hiking across Colorado, bound for the Fiske Observatory. With the Giant set to release onto the market, Gordon remains at Cardiff, already restless while his team basks in the good reviews for the Giant. His coders have all quit, leaving Cardiff to join Cameron at her new venture, Mutiny. Spurred by the revelation that data can be sent over phone lines, she launches a gaming collective, explaining to Donna, “you dial-in, you play games across phone lines with real humans. We’re writing the interface, the games, everything”. Impressed, Donna accepts Cameron’s job offer, placing the two women on a path that can only lead to the internet.

As season two begins, the women are now firmly in the seat of the innovators, with the more traditional thinking of Gordon and Joe left by the wayside. The Giant is behind them, with a new, uncertain path leading forward. As Cameron says to her team at Mutiny: “A lot of people are gonna want us to fail. But that’s because we’re the future, and there’s nothing scarier than that.”

Halt and Catch Fire returns for season 2 on Sunday, May 31 at 10pm on AMC.