Season 1, Episode 1
The 1980s computing boom through the eyes of a visionary, an engineer and a prodigy as they chart the changing culture in Texas' Silicon Prairie.
Halt and Catch Fire is currently not in season.
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."
Dallas, Texas. 1983. Joe MacMillan careens down an urban street in his Porsche. There is a blur of movement in his peripheral vision, impact, then he screeches to a stop. He's hit something. He gets out of his car to inspect the damage and discovers the remains of an armadillo embedded in the Porsche's grill.
In a university classroom, a professor introduces his class to Joe, a key player in the debut of the IBM PC. Joe asks the students to raise their hands if they have experience in several computing categories. When he mentions very large scale integration, late-arriving Cameron Howe raises her hand and snickers. "Something funny?" Joe asks. Cameron suggests, in front of the entire class, that he doesn't know what he's talking about because anyone who does calls it "VLSI." Intrigued, Joe asks her name.
Later, over tequila shots at an arcade, Joe asks Cameron about her post-college plans. Cameron criticizes the industry broadly for ripping off each other's "boring-ass" ideas, calling IBM, Joe's employer, the worst offender. She continues to brush him off until Joe reveals that he no longer works for IBM.
Following this revelation, the chemistry between Joe and Cameron escalates, and in the midst of having sex in the arcade's back room, Joe tells Cameron, "This doesn't mean you get the job." Disgusted, Cameron pulls away and leaves.
Meanwhile, Gordon Clark is escorted out of the local drunk tank. His wife, Donna, waits outside to collect him, with their children asleep in the backseat of the station wagon. Gordon apologizes for drinking too much and waxes nostalgic about the moment he believes that everything went wrong for them, a failed computer demo at COMDEX three years in the past. With greater present day worries and not interested in revisiting the past, Donna tells Gordon to shut up.
At the offices of Cardiff Electric, a system software company, SVP John Bosworth, a dyed-in-the-wool Texan, interviews Joe for a job. "You've got east coast corporate written all over you,” he opines, "I don't like east coast corporate." Bosworth warns Joe that Cardiff Electric is strictly disinterested in competing with IBM in the PC race — they just want to do what they've always done; sell system software. By way of a resume, Joe hands Bosworth his W2 form to prove his stellar sales record at IBM. "I'll break numbers. I always do," Joe says. Bosworth hires him on the spot.
At home in his Dallas high rise, Joe immediately begins working. He studies Cardiff Electric's organization chart and singles out Gordon’s name. Gordon is a lowly sales engineer at Cardiff and what Joe might want with him is a mystery.
The next day at work, Gordon accompanies Joe on sales call, where Joe courts a potential client with an inspiring pitch. Joe is impressive and his words resonate with Gordon on a personal level. He finishes his pitch with one simple question: "Are you ready to be more?"
Eager to help, Gordon unintentionally breaks the spell of Joe's masterfully woven pitch and costs them the account. Chastised for his interference, Gordon goes home and sulks. When Donna asks him to help fix their daughters' Speak and Spell toy, he rebukes her, saying it's her company's product, not his.
At work the following day, Joe surprises Gordon by producing a back issue of Byte magazine, in which Gordon comments on the untapped potential of computers. "You wrote a treasure map," Joe says, "if you see him around, I want to meet that guy." Gordon asks Joe what he's playing at. Why bring this article back into his life now? Joe replies by quoting Gordon's article back to him, before leaving him with the declaration that "computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing."
Later that evening, Joe follows Gordon and his family to a movie theater and asks Gordon to help him reverse-engineer an IBM PC. Gordon declines, saying that he could lose his job and that, unlike Joe, he has his family to think of.
In the theater's parking lot, Gordon tells Donna about Joe's idea. "We can’t do this again," Donna warns, reminding her husband of their precarious financial situation, in the wake of their last failed computer venture – the Symphonic. Donna explains to the kids that the Symphonic was "a silly computer mommy and daddy built that didn't work." Gordon corrects her forcefully, "The Symphonic was the best thing your Dad ever did."
Joe and Gordon return to their respective homes, frustrated and uncertain what their futures hold for them. Joe, not used to hearing "no," takes out his childhood baseball bat and destructively hits baseball after baseball around his apartment, smashing its walls and windows. Meanwhile, Gordon slips out of bed and tinkers with computer parts in his garage. Both Gordon and Joe are kept awake by one question: do they dare to reverse-engineer the IBM PC?
The next morning, Gordon meets Joe at the Cardiff parking lot. He explains that he's supposed to be home "sick" while Donna and the kids visit her brother, then reveals the brand new IBM PC in his trunk. "Let's turn this thing inside out," he says.
In his garage, Gordon explains to Joe that IBM doesn't own anything inside the computer except the ROM BIOS, and that its copyright can be circumvented through a process called reverse-engineering. After a long and laborious process that spans the long weekend, Gordon isolates the BIOS chip and recreates the assembly language code.
Neither man notices the amount of time that has passed until Donna returns from her weekend away. Realizing she's been lied to, Donna confronts Gordon not only for jeopardizing their finances, but also attempting something that might risk their future together. "Don't you realize what you have now?" she asks. He tells her that it isn't enough.
Dale Butler, SVP of Sales at IBM, calls Bosworth and warns him that Joe left IBM under mysterious circumstances and has been missing for a year. Furthermore, IBM knows about Joe and Gordon's reverse-engineering project and the two companies now have a serious problem.
Later, Bosworth sits Joe and Gordon down with Nathan Cardiff, owner of Cardiff Electric, and furiously informs them that IBM is suing Cardiff for millions. Joe calmly reveals he's the one who told IBM about their project, prompting Gordon to follow him into the company parking lot and insist that their partnership is over.
That night, an apologetic Gordon cooks dinner for his family and fixes his daughter's Speak and Spell toy. He confesses to Donna, "Computers, my job, none of that matters. Not without you." Donna softens. "Build it," she urges him, but her consent comes with a stipulation: "You want to partner with Joe MacMillan, you partner with me. In this family."
At Cardiff Electric, the company's lawyer, Barry, says that firing Joe and Gordon would be tantamount to admitting guilt. He suggests they claim to have been pursuing PC development all along and advises them to hire a software engineer — one who doesn’t know Cardiff Electric or IBM — to replicate the BIOS chip using Gordon's findings. "This is your brilliant idea to save our hides, Barry?" Bosworth yells. "Actually, it was MacMillan's," replies Barry. Cardiff signs off but warns Joe that, should he fail, the consequences of failure will be much larger than unemployment.
Back at the arcade, Joe and Gordon approach Cameron about the opening. Over Gordon's reservations, Cameron is convinced to join the project after demanding twice the salary she is offered.
As they await IBM's legal team, Bosworth sternly lays down the rules for Joe, Gordon, and Cameron. He warns Joe that he'll never forget the deceitful way that Cardiff Electric was forced into PCs, and even hints that he knows about Joe's mysterious lost year, promising to unearth whatever secrets Joe has been hiding.
Through the Cardiff Electric conference room window, Joe, Gordon, and Cameron watch IBM's enormous legal team file into the office. Gordon asks Joe what exactly he's trying to prove with all this. For the time being, Joe gives no answer.