Before we get to the meat of Halt and Catch Fire's series premiere, can we take a quick 30 seconds to appreciate the new AMC drama's awesome opening credits?
Daaaaaaaang! That is fresh! And honestly, it's a much better introduction to the computer-revolution series than watching Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan run over an armadillo in a sports car. I'm assuming that scene was a heavy-handed metaphor for Joe's ability to penetrate even the hardest of armors. Or maybe it signified his hatred of animals? It wasn't that clear to me.
What WAS clear to me about Halt and Catch Fire first episode, armadillocide aside, is that it marked the beginning of a potentially great drama for AMC—something that's eluded the network since Mad Men and Breaking Bad earned it the reputation of being television's next big prestige-drama factory (The Walking Dead is more successful than great).
"I/O" set the stage for a series that takes place during a fascinating time in history—the personal-computer revolution that shaped today's society as we know it—with characters who have the gusto to punch through the walls and break open the possibilities. It also featured a boomin' soundtrack, competent cinematography, and one scene about reverse-engineering an IBM computer that had no business being as enthralling as it was.
Lee Pace's Joe MacMillan is one of those guys who shouts "I'm a maverick!!!" into a mirror while brushing his teeth, and he's so wrapped up in the idea of being a pioneer that it probably costs him a lot of personal relationships (does Joe have any friends?). It seemed like he took a job at Cardiff Electric just to pick the brain of engineer whiz Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and then suck him into a get-rich-and-legendary-quick scheme through a combination of back-patting, begging, and scolding. And the result was Cardiff Electric versus IBM thanks to some legal quicksand that was purposefully—and somewhat nefariously—laid out by Joe, forcing Cardiff to jump into the computer-building business against its will, lest it face the lawyers of IBM. It's basically a new version of the David vs. Goliath story, but a new version where David starts out by forcing his big brother to partner up with him. And by the time the army of suits from IBM stormed into Cardiff's offices, all Gordon could ask Joe was, "What are you trying to prove with this?"
However, "I/O" wasn't completely bug-free. A case of Pilotitis made the hour feel sluggish at times, as we all knew that the three main characters would be teaming up by episode's end. Surprise! The rugged prodigy hottie with the Mary Stuart Masterson 'do who initially rejected Joe in a clichéd introduction between two strong characters eventually joined up with him. And we still had to wade through nearly a whole episode of watching Gordon kick and scream and resist Joe's advances, and then kick and scream against his wife's fussing, despite Halt and Catch Fire's logline (and decades' worth of television storytelling) giving away the secret that yes, Gordon would collaborate with Joe.
What's especially worrisome is the way that Gordon took that predictable step: After vehemently protesting, his wife just changed her mind about letting Gordon risk everything to do what he wanted. As a result, his decision didn't feel earned, bringing up questions of the series' writing.
A few other characters exhibited questionable behavior, too: Why would Cameron have sex with Joe in the bar after spending an entire scene trying to get away from him? And why would Joe's boss John Bosworth—a man who would later showcase a careful business acumen—hire Joe without even seeing a resumé? Moving the story into position appeared to take precedence over believable character conduct.
Ultimately, the setting, atmosphere, and characters of Halt and Catch Fire are so intoxicating that I don't believe the series will continue to be as predictable. I wish that instead of focusing on assembling the team, "I/O" had delved deeper into what makes Joe tick, given that he's going to be the core processor that makes this show hum. Like all successful visionaries, he boasts a dramatic combination of ruthlessness, sociopathy, and mystery. Rather than portray Joe as a salesman who would earn praise from Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glenn Ross, Halt and Catch Fire would've been better served by immediately scratching the surface of the many questions that surround Joe. How did he spend his year off after walking out on IBM? Is his confidence part of his act? Does he know what failure tastes like? Does he ever feel any remorse for dragging other people into his flights of fancy? Joe may have the swagger of a veteran gunslinger with no holes in him, but his strengths are also his weaknesses, and the fun of Halt and Catch Fire will be watching the back-and-forth game as Cameron and Gordon follow their fearless leader between triumph and the abyss. Joe will get his wins, but he's going to f*ck up big time, too, and everyone will pay for it.
"I/O" wasn't without its faults, but I suppose that's to be expected from a pilot episode that has one objective: get the gang together. I'm still pretty excited for Halt and Catch Fire, because I get the feeling that "I/O" was a necessary step for the series to take in order to start telling its real story. Even though the laying of the foundation wasn't pretty, we're at the start of something that could be really great. We'll find out soon enough.
– Scoot McNairy, who plays Gordon, is Halt and Catch Fire's early breakout star. He's fantastic in the role of Gordon.
– Kerry Bishé is also very good as Gordon's wife Donna, especially considering that she's playing a character type that's becoming tiresome on television: the wife who doesn't want to let her star-of-the-show husband do anything. (See: Breaking Bad's Skyler White, Mad Men's Betty Draper, The Sopranos' Carmela Soprano, Boardwalk Empire's Margaret Schroeder.) However, Donna's also a computer programmer, so there's a good chance that her character will have more substantial storylines later in the series.
– Someone arrest Toby Huss, who plays Joe's boss at Cardiff Electric! The guy was stealing scenes left and right!
– Unless we're eventually going to learn that Joe and Cameron are sex addicts, I don't understand why that early sex scene was necessary, other than to pique the interest of viewers who were ready to tune out. Seriously, the whole meeting between the two of them was pretty awful.
– The reverse-engineering scene with Joe and Gordon was awesome. It reminded me of Walter and Jesse cooking meth in Breaking Bad.
– What did you make of Joe's senseless murder of a poor Texan armydilly? Smart metaphor, or animal cruelty?
– Most importantly, will you be back for Episode 2?