The trio of visionaries at the center of Halt and Catch Fire provides a well-researched spectrum of the social and political impulses that led to the advent of the laptop amid the personal computing boom of the early 1980s. For Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a product manager at fictitious software company Cardiff Electric, the debut of a quicker, more compact PC from his new employer means a quick route to breaking up the monopoly his former employer, IBM, has on the computing racket. His ultimate ends are in power and corporate vengeance, but the series keeps much of what drives him, as well as the details of his expulsion and his doings since, a secret. The two other members of the trio touch on far more uncharted and involving origins of the PC craze, but the show’s creators choose to tailor the series to focus on the enigmatic MacMillan, which might explain why Halt and Catch Fire comes off as overtly coy and more than a little aimless.
In the case of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), the engineer MacMillan followed to Cardiff, the idea of building a PC means spearheading a project for the first time since a catastrophic independent venture with his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé). It’s 1983, a time when small technology firms were popping up and making a name for themselves, and the showrunners, working with a stellar design team, nail the atmosphere of the era, with measured portions of horrid fashion, oppressively dull interiors, and vintage tech jargon. The mood is glum, but never particularly gloomy, giving the series a visual sense of emotional desperation and professional paranoia.
If the environs add nuance to this tale of corporate intrigue, largely tracing the reverse engineering of an IBM PC and the writing of the BIOS by Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), MacMillan’s punkish coder and occasional lover, the story’s actual turns remain both dreary and familiar. Gordon and Donna’s marriage is re-energized by the project, but we hardly get a sense of either character away from the rote routines of their strained family life and jobs, and neither arena of their lives leads to any visual evocation of the unique thinking and innovation that must drive them. In contrast, Howe is defined largely by the select array of punk tunes that soundtrack her life, which isn’t to say a mall-set montage soundtracked to Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” is unwelcome. The series ends up being all percolating mood, hung-up on the drawn-out wait for the personal revelations of MacMillan’s life before Cardiff, and the outcome of his precarious new enterprise. In the thick of the various discussions about design, code, and copyright law, the dialogue is consistently authentic-sounding, but the conflicts and drama never summon anything particularly insightful or compelling about those involved.
With little exception, MacMillan is the sole character given scenes that seek to bring out his antic inner life, the most memorable of which being his meltdown in an electronics store, where he tries to find a hold of his ambition in a torrent of comingled rhythms emanating from various speakers. He’s an initially intriguing figure, a good match for Pace, who’s always proven adept at mixing intellectual dominance with sarcastic charm and wit. The problem is that the elusiveness of his character never amounts to much, and the writers consistently tease his mysterious power over all to the point of defusing the tension of big sequences, like Cardiff’s first run-in with IBM’s legal team, or the crisis that erupts when Howe loses her BIOS work. MacMillan renders the various conflicts essentially predetermined, as they all end up being tied to or easily overcome by his confident scheming, which takes the air out of any attempts to convey his weaknesses. For all his fascination, he becomes less and less compelling as Halt and Catch Fire goes on, as he becomes a figure of the show’s unfortunate sense of withholding. As a result, the series ends up being almost all build-up, a hungry anticipation for what machines can and will do, but it only has a cursory interest in the complex humans that built them.