• Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy on Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s latest attempt to own your Sunday night, is already drawing comparisons to Mad Men. Aside from being produced by the same cable network, they’re both period dramas (set in the 1980s and 1960s, respectively) that recall better days for the American economy. They both have mysterious, magnetic leading men who are flanked by sidekicks and subordinates struggling with their own ambitions. And both shows premiered with episodes that, while giving some reasons to hope for the best, initially left us wondering in which direction they were headed.

After running over an armadillo with his sports car, Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) is in a Texas college classroom questioning future computer engineers and programmers about their hands-on experience. When he’s down to two candidates, including Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), he asks them to tell him something about computers that will be true in ten years. The male student, who goes on about artificial intelligence, is dismissed by Joe in favor of Cameron’s more realistic—though they didn’t know it at the time—prediction: a standardized computer network that would function similarly to a phone network.

Joe continues his unorthodox interview of Cameron at an arcade bar, and we learn that she’s not interested in cranking out more “counting machines” for IBM, the company she believes he works for. She gives a brief history, wrapped up in a rant, of smaller computer companies stealing ideas from each other, and how IBM steals from them all. Her prediction about network connectivity, which is decidedly less glamorous than anything A.I.-related, actually speaks volumes about the already stagnant state of computer production in the early 80s. Cameron isn’t going to waste anyone’s time, least of all her own, with actual forward thinking. It’s clear that imitation is outpacing innovation, and she’d rather not be a part of it.

That seems to make her perfect for Joe’s “project,” though he doesn’t immediately explain what that is.

It’s only after we meet Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a software engineer at the middling Cardiff Electric in Dallas, that we actually learn what Joe is trying to do: reverse-engineer an IBM PC to create a clone and maybe some market competition. Gordon is a failed visionary; he tried to produce his own PC before IBM cornered the market, and he is initially reluctant to help Joe. But Joe wears him down at work (it turns out he is no longer with “Big Blue”), and the two quickly break down IBM’s Basic Input/Output System (BIOS).

And after some blustering and legal maneuvering behind closed doors, we have our setup: Joe, Gordon, and Cameron are going to out-IBM IBM.

It’s not nearly as seductive an overture as Don Draper’s now-famous “ad men invented love” speech, but as Joe puts it, “Computers aren’t the thing—they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” It remains to be seen whether the “thing” is the people, the place (Silicon Prairie), or the idea, but with an excellent cast (Pace, in particular, is mesmerizing to watch), Halt is looking more like the sports car than the armadillo.

Halt and Catch Fire, AMC, Sundays at 9 PM

In February 2018, this article was updated to use the phrase ‘arcade bar’ in place of the word originally used.