An enigma is not necessarily a character. This distinction may be the singular fatal flaw of Halt and Catch Fire’s first episode. The show, looking to recapture the AMC buzz that is fading with every series finale, is set in the world of 80’s computer companies, from the giant of IBM to the minor Cardiff Electronics. We know the year is 1983 because some of the characters attend a screening Return of the Jedi. We know that Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) is a bad husband because he drinks too much and doesn’t fix his daughter’s Speak n’ Spell. We know that Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) doesn’t play by the rules because she has short hair and sits in the back of class. What we don’t know, yet, is who Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is. More importantly, we don’t why we should care enough to find out.
The other female protagonist, Cameron, could be laughably generic, the “hacker chick” cliché molded with touches of punk tomboy. It is not that these people do not exist, but that they seem to be the only models for this type of woman in pop culture. Davis does as much as she can here, coloring in the what of her character, if not the why. Strangely, Gordon is the only one here who seems to have motive, though Cameron’s prideful ambition is enough for now. Gordon acts put-upon in a rather obnoxious way, to the point that I was unsure if I would be able to continue with the show at the midway point of “I/O”. He acts so sadly pathetic at the beginning, but comes alive when reverse engineering IBM’s computer. It’s not a particularly good scene, for reasons I’ll touch on later, but it at least serves to give Gordon dimension, as do the later scenes where his confidence is visibly growing back.
Joe is the problem. Pace is doing his best Don Draper for the most part, even copying his cadence to a laughable degree in a sales pitch. The difference is that Draper was already a character by the end of his first scene. The way he interacted with the staff at a restaurant, the look in his eyes. He grew, and more depth was revealed throughout the show, but the foundation was there from the beginning. Halt and Catch Fire looks to do something similar, with Joe running over an armadillo. The slow will perish in his wake, or so he hopes, the show is saying. His egotism seems earned to the degree that he is able to coerce people into doing things he cannot do himself (a helpful skill to be sure). There are notes here, mainly in the worried look on his face as the show cuts to credits. But there’s not enough substance behind the mask at this point.
The Mad Men similarities go beyond the Joe/Don comparison. The entire purpose of the show seems photocopied at certain points in the episode. “It was, like, 1979 was good, but then 1980 came…” Gordon reflects wistfully. If Don never said the same thing about 1959 it’s only because that show is much more nuanced than this one. The dialogue here is often blunt and bland (“Looking at you now, I can tell that you’re not sick at all”). Pace is able to sell a number of his lines, as Joe is the only character who gets interesting words to say (though, it bears repeating, this does not make him an interesting man). “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing,” is an incredible stance for the show to take, that moment providing the energy that evades the moments surrounding it. But it all fails to add up to anything potent.
Another issue is the way the show deals with the technical intricacies of the computer world. The aforementioned reverse engineering scene is full of the specificity I normally adore. The problem is that the mechanics aren’t tied to the humanity. There are glimpses, especially at the end when Gordon’s wife finds him out (though this conflict is so quickly deflated a number of scenes later, likely to rise up again as alcoholism is wont to do). Yet the scene as a whole just feels like a lot of jargon for the sake of proving to viewers that the writers know what the terms mean. Technical intricacy is one thing, and it’s a good thing to a certain degree, but emotional intricacy is far more important and not present enough here.
There are glimmers of hope. Pace, Davis and McNairy are a strong central cast with each one bringing a unique energy to their grouping. And the show does seem to treat women in the tech world progressively, a low bar that another Sunday night computer-based show is failing to clear. But the meat of the stuff isn’t there, whether in the broad, brief look at women not in the tech world who seem to begrudge Cameron’s progress, or the constant use of tilted angles that are trying to create a retro atmosphere. Halt and Catch Fire is a lot like IBM’s computer; with it, AMC has “made just enough safe choices to stay alive.” But as the empty man at the center of the show says himself, “you can be more.”
- One excellent thing about the show; the soundtrack. XTC’s “Complicated Game” is especially evocative here.
- Another line that inadvertently reads as self-criticism: “This is an industry built off ripping off each other’s boring-ass ideas.” Not that Mad Men is boring, but you get the point.