We may have a whole season of “Mad Men” left in front of us — or more accurately, two half seasons — but AMC gave audiences their first glimpse at the cable network’s future Saturday morning at SXSW. “Halt and Catch Fire” set a high standard for the new Episodics category with a riveting hour of carefully choreographed 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.
“There were hundreds of companies trying to do this,” co-creator Christopher Rogers said at the post-screening Q&A. “By 1990, IBM was not one of them. They were taken down by these underdog upstarts.”
These upstarts are compellingly portrayed by three central figures. First we meet Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), the man with the plan even if only he knows what that plan entails. While I’ll make sure to leave the vitals secrets for the June 1 premiere, some minors spoilers may come up from here on out. McMillan talks himself into a job at a mid-level computer manufacturer that’s not interested in manufacturing PCs. McMillan has other plans, and quickly seeks 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, especially 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.
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 a 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.
“I read the pilot and thought, ‘Who is this sociopath?'” Pace said in the post-screening Q&A. “Then I looked again and saw someone who looked like Steve Jobs, a little like Donald Trump in the early 1980s,a little like Gordon Gekko, and a little like the guy with 80s greed. He just wants to make a computer for you. It will serve your life and help you connect the dots.”
“You see, he’s doing it again,” interrupted Toby Huss, who plays Joe and Gordon’s boss with a delightful Texas twang and an even more remarkable soul. “He’s defending Joe. His character’s an awful bastard. We all know that. Yes? No?”
For now, I’d say both yes and no. What makes the decision of whether or not Joe will become the latest in an already rich history of antiheroes at AMC is the balance the show strikes in regard to the gender gap. The woman who Joe has sex with in early on in the pilot is a major player, not a mere fling. Cameron, a rebellious college student played with appealingly high energy by Mackenzie Davis, is recruited to help build the PC, despite her penchant for anarchy. She bookends the pilot and gets comparatively less screen time than her costars, but leaves her mark nonetheless.
“There’s definitely a boys club mentality in this industry, even today,” Rogers said. “That’s something we wanted to look at. Donna and Cameron are a spectrum for us with women in this field. We think there’s an interesting conflict to examine and seeing how these female engineers can compete if not surpass their male counterparts.”
Undoubtedly these issues will be examined more thoroughly as the series unfolds, seeing as the cast and crew are still shooting the first season. Still –what was shown and said at SXSW Saturday morning made me feel better about a world without “Mad Men.”