By now, it would be somewhat shocking if you haven’t watched the premiere episode of AMC’s new drama, “Halt and Catch Fire.” They’ve screened it in theaters at SXSW, released it on Tumblr — the first show to debut on the social media site — and are streaming it on their site until Sunday night’s premiere on television. Taking place in early 1980s Texas, AMC’s new drama tells the tale of three technology-minded dreamers looking to create a personal computer that rivals and maybe even replaces the already well-established model of IBM. It’s an old school show being shown in modern times.
And it translates perfectly. Creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers are both new to network television, but the duo — along with showrunner Jonathan Lisco — have crafted a riveting hour of carefully choreographed television with a pulse all its own. Many comparisons have been made to its network predecessor “Mad Men” (we’re plenty guilty), and frankly, they’re deserved — just not for the reasons apparent at the onset.
These upstarts are compellingly portrayed by three central figures. First we meet Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the man with the plan even if only he knows what that plan entails. MacMillan talks himself into a job at a mid-level computer manufacturer that’s not interested in manufacturing PCs. But that’s okay because he has other plans, quickly seeking out the man he’s there for, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy).
Clark and his wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) built their own PC in the late 70s, and Gordon has never recovered from its failure. Donna sees its creation as a mistake and is happily resigned to her life as a working mother leading an average domestic existence. Joe is the wrench in her world. He sees something in Gordon, but has to trick him into helping against Donna’s wishes.
These characters may sound familiar to devotees of AMC. Donna could easily be Betty Draper or even Skyler White — the ignorant wife occasionally suspicious of her husband and betrayed when his weaknesses are unveiled. Gordon doesn’t seem to be headed down Walter White’s path, but he could be seen as pre-cancer Walter.
Much like Walter with Gray Matter Technologies, Gordon works his day job with little to no enthusiasm after missing out on a massive opportunity earlier in his life. And Joe — he’s got Don Draper all over him. Those suits. That swagger. That drive. Not to mention he has sex before the title sequence even plays, and a mysterious background hints at spilling out despite his guarded nature.
Yet all of these easily made assumptions are subtly if not purposefully flipped before the first episode wraps. Donna isn’t Skyler, and she’s certainly not Betty. She’s not blind to who she married, and she’s not in denial. A scene in the episode’s final act provides her character with depth appropriate for a woman of her reported intelligence. It’s clear she will be as pivotal to the developments as the three people actively working on the new PC.
Gordon doesn’t have to hide what he’s doing. He’s not at risk of lying to alienate his family (at least not yet), so he’s distinguished himself from Walter. Joe still shares some glaring similarities with Don — especially that mysterious missing year of his life in which no one knows where he was or what he was doing. Yet Joe isn’t closed off. He engages people and is upfront with his intentions, if not his reasons.
What makes “Halt and Catch Fire” compelling — at least for the first hour (that’s right, we’ve seen as much as you) — are these characters and their tendencies to turn expectations on end. Gordon and wife Donna are clearly much more than your typical husband and wife TV couple, and Cameron, a rebellious college student played with appealingly high energy by Mackenzie Davis, isn’t another bimbo for Don Draper to use and abuse. She’s made herself a permanent fixture in his life, and not in a romantic context.
MacMillan, though, is perhaps the most refreshing subverter of expectations. He’s not Don Draper. He’s too driven. His life has meaning, and it’s directly connected to this business. Just because we don’t know why doesn’t mean he doesn’t, marking a key personality alteration between Joe and Don — Joe’s not lost. He knows exactly what he’s doing and is willing to risk it all to accomplish it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with what “Mad Men” is doing. It’s only wrong to assume “Halt and Catch Fire” is after the same thing. Fans of Draper should still love MacMillan, as will newbies to AMC drama. It’s not “Mad Men.” It’s not the anti-“Mad Men,” either. If anything, its complexity and driving pace come closer to “Breaking Bad.” Here’s hoping.