By: Kayla Hawkins, contributor
AMC’s HALT AND CATCH FIRE, like its title, is just a tiny bit too complicated. (How this show isn’t called Control+Alt+Delete boggles the mind.) As the opening scrawl tells us, it refers to a command that makes all computer programs run at the same time and makes it impossible to take control of the machine—hopefully not a harbinger of runaway plot threads.
Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillian, a Machiavellian computer salesman who arrives in a Texas town with one nice suit, a fancy car, and a plan to dismantle the burgeoning computer industry. Since breaking out as the star of Pushing Daises, Pace has struggled to find a similar vehicle for his talents. Then all fresh-faced sunny optimism, after spending the better part of a decade in thankless supporting movie roles, he’s re-emerged a darker and more complicated presence, perfectly suited for prestige drama.
He’s operating in the Don Draper mold here, a mysterious sweet-talker who’s smart enough to create a plan to cut down the IBM monopoly by engineering a personal computer, yet seems to only have the most basic understanding of human emotion. Time and time again in this episode, he makes his escape from messy emotional situations, generally leaving his computer-savvy partner, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) holding the bag. It’s a good trick—he can be both incredibly gifted and incredibly stunted, though the shady backstory implied by his disappearance might be too melodramatic for its own good.
McNairy reunites with his onscreen wife from Argo, Kerry Bishe, who is, as in that film, lovely but tasked with being a wet blanket. There’s a nice moment towards the end of the pilot where she explains that she doesn’t want to stand between him and his dream, but since she’s also a computer engineer, it’s sad to see her say she doesn’t have any dreams of her own. Hopefully she’ll be swept up in MacMillan’s plan at some point.
One thing this pilot does splendidly well is trade off which characters know what they’re talking about depending on the scene. When it comes to the actual computer engineering, Gordon is almost exasperated with how long it takes MacMillan to catch up with the basics. And, likewise, when MacMillan is selling, Gordon is always right on the verge of screwing everything up.
It keeps those of us who don’t know the first thing about computers feeling less like dummies, and provides a crash course in what they’re planning to do, even if it’s impossible to really understand how it’s all happening. Somehow, when Gordon and MacMillan work on their own time, their small-time employer is on the legal hook for their actions unless they succeed. Thankfully, this is all explained multiple times, because it’s less than intuitive.
It’s great because in each situation and, more broadly, it means these partners have something to teach one another, both literally and about their approaches to life. Pace is all sheen, all impressive 80’s swagger, while McNairy is haughtily intellectual, to the point of self-destructive alcohol use to numb how he feels he’s wasting his genius.
The third member of their team is Cameron (MacKenzie Davis), a computer student and arcade junkie scouted by MacMillan. Looking like a mix between Robin Sherbatsky and G.I. Jane, she shows up late, is likely the only girl in the class (or, at the very least, the only one not dressed in Coke bottle glasses, a short-sleeve button down, and a pocket protector), and predicts the Internet like it’s nothing.
If there’s anything disappointing, it’s that Cameron lights up the teaser so well and then disappears for the lion’s share of the pilot. It’s a fantastic reveal when MacMillian’s plan comes together and we get to see just where she fits in, but it’s a waste of who should be the tertiary main character.
Add a dynamic credits sequence that’s already on track to be the best of 2014, AMC may have finally added its first successful drama since 2010’s “Rubicon” and its best pilot since 2009’s “The Killing.” It’s a series that will likely feature scenes of shadowy figures hunched over microwave-sized computers and endlessly inscrutable business machinations. It combines the period detail of “Mad Men” with the loving stylization of “Breaking Bad.” It’s not an instant classic, but there’s no better place to look for inspiration.