There were many things standing in the way of AMC’s newest drama, Halt and Catch Fire, being any good. Just as there are, clearly, very many things standing in the way of its three leads and their mission: to get away with reverse engineering an IBM personal computer in the 80s and turning it around into something else for their own personal profit and gain. People have tried and failed to bring this burgeoning world to life in any sort of actually riveting and meaningful way. Thanks be to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, though: because Halt and Catch Fire has actually done it. And you’re going to want to tune in.
Sure, there are plenty of comparisons to make “it’s Mad Men in the 80s with more computers!” “It’s a Breaking Bad anti-hero in the Silicon Prairie!” And in a lot of ways the show is that — but not to its detriment. In fact it’s very much to its benefit: this is prestige television, and when you consider how often that world’s depictions are more tropey-dope than anything else (cough Ashton Kutcher cough cough), it’s a welcome relief to see that grow up a little.
A lot of the pilot’s strength has to do with Lee Pace’s semi-despicable Joe MacMillan. An egomaniacal, clearly destructive megadick with charisma oozing out of every manipulative pore, MacMillan enlists the help of down-and-out “misunderstood genius” engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and a smartass-in-the-best-way prodiginous computational renegade in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Coupling Gordon’s idealistic aspirations of changing the world by using computers — “the thing that gets us to the thing” (that thing clearly being: THE INTERNET oh gosh!) — with MacMillan and Howe’s unpredictable risk-takingness is what makes the whole thing so engaging. They’re doing something very bad. Everyone knows it’s very bad. And yet they take the risk anyway with a bunch of big looming question marks hovering over their heads all the while.
Now sure, on the surface level that premise all sounds very de rigeuer, very uneventful to the non-computer-geek eye, but it would be a mistake to think that. The construction of the narrative gives Halt and Catch Fire its promise. This is one well-written, well-paced show. McNairy, Pace, and Davis are an enigmatic trio that play off of one another to hilarious effect, ensuring the sparks will fly (and not just from the broken computers HEY WAIT where are you going come back here right this instant…!) as the story continues to ramp up and all those big unknowns come tumbling into complicated view. And seriously — we cannot say enough good things about Davis. She has serious potential here to steal the whole damn show.
Halt and Catch Fire has found a really promising sweet-spot for its storytelling promises in the way it addresses the stuff most audience members are wary of — Computers! Science! Math and jargon and the future ooooh ahhh! — by combining it with the sort of human stuff that everyone can understand: corporate revolutionaries battling against the big bad overlords battling it out for complete control. They’re doing a little bit of bad for the greater good and promising, essentially, that shit is going to blow up in our faces. After all, the phrase “Halt and Catch Fire” is one that ultimately forces a bunch of computer code to initiate at once and vy for control of the computer, frequently resulting in the whole thing shitting the bed, so to speak. Halt and Catch Fire is, quite simply, a show that’s equal parts intelligent and simple, with an eye on its layman viewers and a look towards the future (our present) through the eyes of the past. Don’t know what hexagonal architecture is? No problem, the writers have given you just enough to understand what’s going on without overwhelming you with data and Very Important Computer-y Things.
All too often, stories about the birth of personal computing and the Internet are swept aside for Tron-like visual slickness and punchy 80s tunes. Halt and Catch Fire has both visual slick and aural 80s-ness, but it’s grown up and engaging. It actually understands what’s going on. And you’re more likely than not going to want to tune in: this could be the thing that leads us to the thing.
If you’re interested, the pilot is streaming online until tomorrow, or you can wait for its premiere on Sunday, June 1st at 10PM on AMC.
Have you watched? Planning on tuning in? Let’s discuss it in the comments!