"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?"