"Halt and Catch Fire (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained." -- the show's title card
We are introduced to AMC's newest white male antihero, Joe MacMillan, in an opening scene that calls to mind another character that fit that description. In a very "Breaking Bad"-esque cold opening, Joe runs over an armadillo in his sports car. He looks at the creature, stuck in the grill of his vehicle, with a blank expression. He's a bad boy, you see.
The year is 1983. Joe enters a college classroom to lecture on computers. That's his business, we'll learn. Joe engages in some verbal sparring with one of the students, a young lady named Cameron Howe. The two take their conversation to a bar afterward. Joe is looking for hungry young mavericks to join him as he shops his services to a company called Cardiff Electric. He believes Cameron might fit the bill.
"Everything I'm studying here is so totally 10 years ago that no one who matters pays attention to anything I do," Cameron laments. "I'm paying attention," Joe replies. "Yeah, but do you matter?" Cameron shoots back. They quickly adjourn to a back room at the bar to have sex. Joe pompously offers that this doesn't mean that Cameron will be hired, which goes over about as well as you would expect.
After the opening credits, we're introduced to Gordon Clark, one of Joe's associates. Gordon is being bailed out of the drunk tank by his wife, Donna, who has brought their kids along to witness their dad's meltdown. Gordon makes reference to a time a few years earlier, when he and Donna worked together on making one of the first personal computers, and her father had refused to lend them more money.
Joe meets with the senior vice president of Cardiff Electric, John Bosworth. Joe is looking for a job, but he hasn't brought a résumé, only a copy of his W-2, showing how much money he earned as a salesman for IBM. He wants to do the same for Cardiff, or so he tells John. John is impressed enough to hire Joe, but he wants to make it clear that he is in charge. "You answer to me," he tells him
We see Joe looking over a Cardiff organizational chart, highlighting Gordon's name. It would seem that with his recruitment efforts with Cameron and his eye on Gordon, perhaps Joe is interested in more than just selling widgets for Cardiff.
"You've made just enough safe choices to stay alive, but not enough to matter," Joe tells a group of executives at a sales lunch the next day. He's enlisted Gordon to come along with him as he tries to sell Cardiff software to the group, who seem wowed by IBM.
"Is that what you want? You can be more," he tells them. "You want to be more, don't you?" he asks Gordon, as much as the executives. "This is about you finally having the confidence to walk out on the ledge and know that you're not going to fall." Gordon seems wowed by his new colleague.
After a scene at the Clark residence serves to underscore that Gordon is feeling especially useless, particularly in relating to his talented and career-driven wife, we see Joe approach Gordon at work the next day, brandishing a software journal that Gordon had written years before. This was the work that drew Joe to Gordon.
"You wrote a treasure map," Joe tells him. "If you see him around, I want to meet that guy. There's a project I want to discuss with him... This puts the future squarely in the hands of those who know computers not for what they are, but for everything they have the potential to be... You know who said that? You did... Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing." (I actually can't decide if this is the best bit of dialog I've heard in a while, or the worst.)
Joe remains relentless in his pursuit of Gordon, calling his home and even going so far as to approach him at a movie theater while he is there with Donna and their kids. Joe finally tips his hand and asks Gordon to reverse-engineer an IBM computer with him. Gordon turns him down, at first, citing concerns over the legality of such an operation, and what the fallout could do to his family.
But after a testy exchange with Donna, where Gordon felt that she was belittling his achievements, and after a montage that featured Gordon soldering soda cans and Joe hitting baseballs in his luxury apartment, Gordon tells Joe that he's on board. That montage was so weird. I'm talking Bert-Cooper-tap-dancing weird. I'm talking that fly episode of "Breaking Bad" weird. I'm talking that House of Cards threesome weird.
So, Joe and Gordon spend a weekend in the Clark's garage, reverse-engineering an IBM. They crack IBM's code, and the first part of their new project is done. Before they can celebrate, though, Donna returns home from a weekend with family to find Joe and her husband camped out at their work station. Donna isn't pleased that her husband went through with this plan. "Can't you see what you're risking?" she asks. "Don't you realize what you have now?"
"It's not enough," Gordon replies. "OK. Well, it always has been enough for me. But then I guess I never had the burden of believing that I was some misunderstood genius," she retorts.
John Bosworth fields a strange phone call from a sales executive at IBM, who informs him that Joe MacMillan had walked out of their company a year before, and had been missing ever since. Well, there's an interesting swerve. So, the main character is a bad boy with a mysterious past? Clichéd? Perhaps. Am I still intrigued? Perhaps. IBM alerts John that there is a legal issue involving Joe that could cause problems for Cardiff.
That legal issue? Joe had contacted IBM and told them what he and Gordon had done together. Joe saw this as a way to gain leverage and force Cardiff into the business of revolutionizing personal computing, not just pushing software. Gordon freaks out, afraid that everything that Donna had warned him about was right.
Gordon confesses as much to Donna later that day, and tells her that he's done with chasing pipe dreams. "I'm sorry. Computers, my job, none of that matters, not without you," he tells her. "Build it," Donna replies. "Whatever it is you're dreaming of, build it. I know you can make it great."
Cardiff's legal team meets with John, Joe and Gordon, and tells them that they'll be clear of a potential IBM lawsuit, as long as they go ahead with the PC project and hire a new engineer to work on the deal. They need to find that engineer quickly, though.
That new engineer is Cameron, who Gordon and Joe track down just as she's being thrown out of a bar after a fight at an arcade machine. Cameron can sense Joe's desperation and cuts herself a sweet deal to come and work at Cardiff.
Joe and his newly assembled team meet with John, who promises to be hard on them and keep them on a short leash. After the meeting, he pulls Joe aside for a private tongue-lashing. "I've worked here for 22 years. I helped build this company into what it is. And you backed me into a corner in my own home? I'm never, I'm never going to forget that. Never."
"What are you trying to prove with all this?" Gordon asks Joe. Joe doesn't answer.
And so, we understand Gordon and Donna and what motivates them, we know what John's focus is, we even have a good idea of who Cameron is.
But Joe MacMillan is still a mysterious bad boy.