Mad Men has made the world safe for period dramas: Nearly every cable network seems to be launching a time capsule program (and quite a few broadcasters have tried and failed) designed to penetrate our cynicism and trap a bygone era in amber. As Mad Men, the blue chip iteration of the period drama, wraps up its seven-season run, Showtime’s Masters of Sex and even Penny Dreadful, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and AMC’s Turn have sprung up in its shadow.
Which brings us to AMC’s latest deep dive back in time, the ’80s–set computer drama Halt and Catch Fire (which begins June 1 in Mad Men’s 10 p.m. Sunday time slot). The title is a reference to a line of code about self-destruction and that impulse carries over into the insidious behavior patterns of the show’s lead character, mysterious ex-IBM salesman Joe McMillan.
Played with precise intensity by Lee Pace, Joe looks like a Patrick Nagel illustration come to life, all hard angles, jutting shoulders, and slick eyebrows, who turns up in Texas and launches a complex game against his former employers by cloning an IBM computer. He is a riddle in more ways than one: a charming confident man who conceals some dark secrets that are only touched upon in the pilot episode.
Though his mysterious past remains as such throughout the episode, we know that Joe is a dark and potentially malevolent figure. For one, there are the scars on his chest, which point toward… well, I’m not sure what yet. And then there’s the fact that he wrecks his brand-new apartment early on, picking up a baseball bat that holds a telling inscription from his father (daddy issues!) and connecting it with a ball thrown in the air. Smash. Boom. Crash. As the ball careens around the glass-enclosed apartment, we see the damage Joe is doing, not just to his surroundings, but to the people he’s encountering on his curious mission. It’s no coincidence that Joe is introduced to the audience as he runs over an armadillo, trailing destruction in his wake, wherever he goes, not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper before him.
And besides the dark past and path of destruction, Joe also shares Don’s enviable ability to sell anyone on anything and his magnetic sleight of hand works to his advantage when convincing others to do his dirty work. (That he appears to be a complete fraud — or at least, a bald-faced liar — adds a layer of depth to a character that is inherently not as confident as he appears to be.) And because this is set in 1983, the era of power suits and consummate greed, of Reagan and Thatcher politics, Joe’s conniving and ambition seem to fit the inherent values of the time. It’s screw or be screwed, and Joe’s plot has him playing Hannibal crossing the Alps in order to conquer and control.
He collides first with college student Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a combative computer prodigy whom Joe tries to sweet-talk in her classroom, in an arcade, and then in an arcade backroom, where their bodies collide with the forgotten debris, a palpable heat exploding between them. But their quickie turns sour when Joe insults Cameron. Later, however, she’s the salvation of his grand scheme. Davis is the true breakout of Halt and Catch Fire. Seemingly coming out of nowhere (a turn in the Zac Efron film That Awkward Moment and an episode of MTV’s one-and-done series I Just Want My Pants Back), Davis delivers a fiery, incandescent performance that’s impossible to look away from. She makes Cameron both vulnerable and sharp-edged, a feisty and out-of-place punk whose caustic appearance and attitude reinforce, rather than belie, her impressive programming skills.
Then, there’s Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), an embattled, embittered family man whose dreams have all turned to ash. He previously created a new computer with his wife, Texas Instruments drone Donna (Kerry Bishé), but failed to turn it into a success. And he’s since become a whiny drunk and a pathetic sad sack at work. The kind who drops his morning doughnut in the parking lot and he picks it up, brushes it off, and eats it without a second thought, and ignores his kids’ pleas to fix their broken Speak and Spell. He’s an easy target for Joe and quickly, the charming puppet master has Gordon ripping apart an IBM computer in order to reverse-engineer its guts.
The sequence in which the duo performs the heavy lifting of this enterprise — Joe gripping a pen and writing down a series of numbers as Gordon calls them out — ought to be tedious, but in the hands of Halt and Catch Fire creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, it becomes, like the pilot itself, something exhilarating and extraordinary. A series of blinking lights becomes a sword to cut through a Gordian knot, the ones and zeros shifting into not a means to an end, but rather a road map to the future itself. And it’s Joe that is the catalyst for waking up Gordon’s slumbering ambition and drive. “This puts the future squarely in the hands of those who know computers not for what they are but the potential of what they can be,” Joe reminds Gordon. “Computers are not the thing. They are the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Joe and Gordon’s employers at Cardiff Electric have other ideas, however. And it’s Joe’s machinations that put him squarely at odds with the small-time company’s head of sales, John Bosworth (Toby Huss), whose suspicions start pinging the second city slicker Joe walks in the door before reaching an intolerable high-pitched decibel when he realizes that Joe has played them for fools from the start. By forcing their hands, Joe has pushed Cardiff Electric into the computer cloning business, but his motivations remain murky and unclear. Just what is Joe’s endgame? What is he hiding? And what happened when he walked out of IMB a year earlier? Pace brings a level of dynamic energy to a character that might otherwise seem like a sociopath, a distant cousin of Patrick Bateman perhaps, a menacing Gordon Gekko-type crossed with Steve Jobs.
Joe is a visionary and a disruptor and that’s a compelling mix for a lead character, even one who is ultimately as unknowable as Joe is within the pilot episode of Halt and Catch Fire. But in the hands of Cantwell and Rogers, the show’s first installment is a pulsing and thrilling episode that contains much promise for where the series might go, as Joe and Cardiff Electric disrupt the hegemony of IBM via some stolen ideas.
Joe creates an arms race on the forefront of the technological revolution and the result, at least if the pilot is anything to go by, is intoxicating to watch. Like Gordon, Halt and Catch Fire might ultimately flame out (critics haven’t seen beyond Episode 1), but the bare bones of the series opener offer up an incredibly appealing cast, exquisitely sculpted dialogue, and a gorgeous soundtrack that makes the wait for the second episode absolutely unbearable.