AMC’s “Halt And Catch Fire” is an excellent new drama that takes place in the early 1980s amidst the rise of personal computing.
The first episode tracks the story of Jeff McMillan and Gordon Clark, who set out to reverse engineer a computer by IBM to get into the personal computing business.
We’ve just watched the first episode, and it’s excellent! You can watch it online right here, or…
The opening explains the origin of the show's name -- 'halt and catch fire' is an old command that would effectively dismantle a computer.
Here's hotshot sales guy Jeff McMillan, on his way to make a presentation to a computer science class.
He gauges the students' levels of expertise in various aspects of computer science, and one student stands out.
Now we meet Gordon Clark, who's just been bailed out of jail by his wife. It's an alcohol-related offence, but they don't reveal specifics.
Back to McMillan, who's interviewing for a sales job at a computer company called Cardiff Electric, where Clark works. He cites experience at IBM and a reputation for crushing sales goals, and he gets the job.
For his first day on the job, McMillan steals Clark's parking spot. Clark complains, as you'd expect, but McMillan totally ignores him.
McMillan lays it on thick in an effort to sell Cardiff Electric products -- 'No one ever got fired for buying IBM. It's safe. Aren't you ready to be more?' The clients seem to nearly be sold, but the meeting ends with them saying, 'We'll think about it.'
There's quite some discord at the Clark residence. Donna's doing everything and Gordon is in a weird funk, not doing much to help around the house. Donna tries in vain to fix their daughter's broken Speak & Spell.
The next day at work, McMillan reveals why he's tagged Clark as a teammate -- it goes back to an article Clark had written on open-source computer technology in a magazine called Byte. McMillan says he found it inspiring. He wants to build a computer with Clark by reverse engineering an IBM product.
McMillan is so insistent that he stalks the Clark family to the movie theatre in an effort to convince them it's a good idea.
It comes out that Clark has been around this block once before -- he once designed and built a computer called the Symphonic, and despite being technically impressive, it was a commercial flop. He can't put his family through more financial hardship.
Now for the twist! Clark buys an IBM computer anyway and meets McMillan in the office parking lot. He faked a fever while his wife and kids are out of town, and he and McMillan are going to reverse engineer the computer after all.
The show tackles intellectual property issues head-on -- while IBM owns the software that makes the computer work, all the electronic parts are available off the shelf.
Using an oscilloscope, they crack open the hexadecimal code that makes everything work and transcribe it. It's some 65,000 sets of letters and numbers that a computer uses to execute instructions.
After a long weekend slaving away in Clark's garage, their reverse engineered computer works like a charm.
But now there's a problem. They lost track of time -- Donna's back. She thought her husband's entrepreneurial days were behind him.
And there's trouble at Cardiff Electric as well. IBM has somehow caught wind that two Cardiff employees reverse engineered an IBM device, which is illegal. Lawyers are getting involved, and the overall tone is ugly.
In case we had any doubts before, now it's certain: McMillan is playing his own game here -- he's the one who tipped off IBM to what happened in a weird strategic move to force them into action.
Cardiff's lawyer lays out the game plan (which he later reveals was actually McMillan's plan) -- instead of running from IBM, Cardiff will legitimise the project and hire a new engineer to help with it. Firing McMillan and Clark would paint the company complicit. Instead, Cardiff Electric has just entered the personal computer business.
But which new engineer to bring on? Enter Cameron, from the opening scene. She's on board, but only if the compensation is agreeable. It is.
She gives a deposition to the company lawyer, which largely revolves around answering 'no' to questions like 'Have you ever reverse engineered an IBM product?' Of course she has, but the lawyer's subtle shakes of the head lead her to answer no. She gets the job.
The episode ends on a shot of IBM's besuited lawyers streaming into Cardiff Electric's offices. Cliffhanger! We'll be watching more for sure.
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