"It's just a computer!" Mad Men's Peggy Olsen shouted recently, on both the most prestigious show on television and a shrewd ad for the new show vying to replace it.
That brief AMC spot for Halt and Catch Fire has haunted the last few weeks of Mad Men, kicking off with shots of the fancy new computer Harry Crane and Jim Cutler fought for, the one that drove poor Ginsberg crazy. Cut to 1983, to another suave man in a suit, now informing us that "Change is coming" with a familiar mix of confidence and malice. The goal is to make the early-'80s rush for PC-industry dominance look as sexy and enigmatic as the '60s battle for advertising and cultural supremacy, and to depict change as a positive thing for once, as opposed to the corrosive force still terrorizing Don Draper.
AMC needs some new hits. Some new anchors, really. Ever since the passé antihero shtick of Low Winter Sun failed to capitalize on Breaking Bad's own final split-level season, TV writers have started to note the no-longer-underdog channel's struggles to capitalize on its early successes, which might've been a mere lucky streak. The awkward Mad Men tie-in makes sense here: Halt and Catch Fire longs to be AMC's new prestige period drama, offering the same moody and character-driven pacing, the same balance of allure and self-destruction, the same pilfering of an iconic era's distinctive music and fashion.
The thematic parallels are certainly there: First and foremost, there's the show's protagonist, Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), a classic troubled visionary. In the course of the HACF pilot (airing Sunday, and streaming on AMC's Tumblr now), he finds himself a new job in Dallas (even though he has "East Coast corporate" written all over him, as his new boss asserts); aligns himself with a depressed, alcoholic engineer (Scoot McNairy's Gordon Clark); and engineers a minor coup that forces his newfound employers, Cardiff Electric, unwittingly into the PC business. He also has some sort of dark, hidden past: He walked out of IBM without explanation a year prior, and had been declared missing. He's the charismatic wolf at the door, that familiar dominant, five-steps-ahead-of-you cunning simply updated with an off-duty leather jacket and a Wall Street-style corporate swagger.
Way back in the Mad Men pilot, Don Draper dropped a few of his immortal, show-defining lines: "What you call love was invented by guys like me... to sell nylons," he tells one future mistress, soon adding that "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." McMillan offers a few mini-manifestoes of his own here: "Computers aren't the thing—they're the thing that gets us to the thing" soon leads to the client-lunch pitch "You've made just enough safe choices to stay alive, but not to matter. Is that what you want? You can be more. You want to be more. Don't you?" It provokes the same need, the same sense of inadequacy, as a well-written ad, now with a cutthroat greed-is-good edge. McMillan is selling primacy, not happiness.
Both these shows evoke a classic sense of American Hunger—or, if you prefer, American Emptiness—that roars to be filled. It's that recurring American thing of being a Great Country, powerful yet still listless and restless, carried from Hemingway to Updike to Springsteen to David Foster Wallace. McMillan is just another echo of that old Gatsby archetype, as Draper himself was: the white American male who rolls into someplace new and decides to remake himself, to be victorious this time, to finally get to the thing.
Until recently, the early '80s didn't much figure in American Origin Stories like this. They lack the mythological narrative of the '20s or '40s; the foundational quality of the '50s, whose imagery and consumerism became inextricably woven into the fabric of 20th-century America; the glamor and aesthetic appeal of the early to mid '60s. The '80s, by contrast, are generally treated as a transitional time, not a Moment Where Things Happened. But maybe we just needed some distance before that era could seem exotic or instructive or seductive, and some time to filter out the decade's typical aura of romanticism: Jon Hughes movies, pre-Scientology Tom Cruise, the yearning of a well-calibrated synth melody in a New Wave song.
We can all agree that it's a quintessentially American decade, at least: "One of these last times of optimism, when America was strong and great," as Christopher C. Rogers, one of Halt and Catch Fire's co-creators and executive producers, puts it. Now it's a beguiling time, the near past that's suddenly drifted into the actual, distant past. The '80s have receded far enough back into our collective memory that they do qualify as another chapter in the story America wants to tell itself about the 20th century.
HACF dovetails nicely with FX's Reagan-era Cold War drama The Americans, which adopted internet predecessor ARPANET as a plot point this season: "Hard to believe the future of the free world rests in all those numbers and symbols, huh?" one FBI spook tells another. Here, the focus is on mutually assured destruction in a corporate sense: McMillan and Clark plot to reverse-engineer and essentially steal the makeup of an IBM computer. They're your usual Flawed Men, breaking the law with noble aims, but the laws they seem poised to break, and the cannily duplicitous and coldly systematic means they use to break them, evoke modern financial-crisis racketeers far more than the celebrated outlaws of yesteryear. "Were people just copying ideas, or were they visionaries themselves?" asked Christopher Cantwell, the show's other creative and executive producer, in a recent interview, tying the show's central dilemma to the 21st century's visionary-or-thief tech boom. Talking up the show's young, female programmer Cameron Howe, he adds that "It's people like her who go on to found the companies that we're all living in the thrall of now."
The show begins with McMillan running down an armadillo in his sports car: a classic enough image, man and his technology encroaching on the natural world. But this is a newer, more wanton brand of hubris, a Gatsby type becoming all the more ruthless and brash when the world can be reduced to a scrolling screen of numbers. Halt and Catch Fire is a clunky title with, as the title sequence immediately makes clear, a cool explanation: It's an old computer command that "sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once." Pause, and then the ominous kicker: "Control of the computer could not be regained." This is a story about the mavericks who built the machines the led to the newer, brighter machines that we carry in our pockets, that control us as much as we control them.
In true prestige period-drama form, that title is as much about us as it is about the characters. McMillan is a perfect Draper for this new frontier of American origin stories—a more arrogant taste in sports cars, a more serpentine business-lunch demeanor, and a far more vicious thirst to find that thing. We've had computers for a few decades now, but it's hard to tell if they've lead us to the thing, or simply exposed the impossibility of the search—forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. It's long past due that we return to where it all started, to try to divine the codes that built our version of America.
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