In the post-“Sopranos” world, television writers can play around with thematic settings to their hearts’ content — suburban gangsters, zombies or a meth-cooking science teacher, for instance — but any good show always puts the character drama first. And AMC is in the business of making good shows.
The network debuted its latest program, “Halt and Catch Fire,” in June. Like “Mad Men,” HCF is a period piece. Replace the retro-chic and cocktails with hauntological retrofuturism and a soundtrack saturated with post-punk heroes like Killing Joke and The Fall, and you have AMC’s newest layered drama.
While HCF comes replete with dense character arcs, the backdrop is pretty great for computer geeks and fans of a good heist.
“Halt and Catch Fire” chronicles the PC revolution of the early ’80s by portraying a sales executive-cum-idealist, a life-weary engineer and a crust-punk technology wunderkind at the fictional Dallas-based Cardiff Electric, based loosely on Compaq. Right out of the gate, the show dutifully dispels the myth that California’s Silicon Valley acted as ground zero for the information age — North Texas’ Silicon Prairie was equally important.
Additionally, the show sets the stage for those too young to remember how monolithic IBM was when computers could first fit on a desk. Spoiler alert: IBM couldn’t fight the PC revolution, and Compaq successfully cloned and modified IBM’s processor in November 1982, essentially lighting the fuse for others to do the same.
Like Texas in folklore, the Silicon Prairie acted as the Wild West in the days of the nascent PC race. And like Cardiff Electric in the show, the real-life Compaq secretly reverse-engineered the patented IBM code to build a better machine while maneuvering around legal difficulties (they even had the good sense to scribble it all down on a napkin).
The show’s characters, however, borrow more from the Apple archetypes, with Joe MacMillan’s wide-eyed optimism and results-driven relentlessness acting as the Steve Jobs to Gordon Clark’s workhorse architect Steve Wozniak, who praised the show’s accuracy during its premiere at SXSW.
The pilot episode delivers vintage technological cues in an almost reverent manner; never does it poke fun at technological limitations from two generations ago. Cameron Howe’s arcade hobby is never framed as campy, nor is the Clark family’s 128-kilobyte Speak and Spell, which Donna Clark tells their young children “holds a lot of words” and would actually have been manufactured by Cardiff competitor Texas Instruments.
Halfway through the story, we see the inciting incident: MacMillan slams down an article Gordon Clark wrote as a younger and more idealistic programmer in Byte Magazine about open architecture.
Open architecture, essentially the same concept as today’s open source, was revolutionary at the time. The idea was that a computer’s blueprint is public and that all computers should physically operate in the same way, allowing easy adding, modifying and customizing of the various processing components (like Linux systems). As Clark says in his makeshift garage R&D lab, all the parts can come from anywhere; it’s the processor (in this case, the BIOS chip) that matters.
For obvious reasons, IBM was extremely resistant to open systems during the PC revolution and sent out a legal team that’s also depicted in the show. Today’s comparable behemoths, like Microsoft, Apple and Google, still behave propriety-minded. In particular, there is Apple’s strong opposition to customization and resistance to compatibility.
Like the rest of the show, the title “Halt and Catch Fire” parallels real life by evoking early computer programmer humor. It’s a reference to the machine code self-destructing its central processing unit (CPU) — without any real fire of course. It’s hard to say yet whether that’s legitimate foreshadowing, a red herring or simply a cool reference for the title.
More than anything, though, “Halt and Catch Fire” represents the danger faced by those with great ideas when challenging Goliath in a single-company-dominated free market where IBM called the shots and all telecommunications were owned by pre-divestiture Bell. Tune in for the cool vintage machines, stay for the escalation.
Images courtesy of James Minchin III/AMC.