Halt and Catch Fire, Season 1, Episode 9: “Up Helly Aa”
Directed by Terry McDonough
Written by Jason Cahill
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC
The entire season of Halt and Catch Fire has existed in a sort of parallel universe 1983. The fictional Cardiff Electric crosses paths with real companies like IBM and Texas Instruments. Various characters mention Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but the show hasn’t been too clear about how close it is adhering to the historical timeline of the development of the PC. The final scene of “Up Helly Aa” makes it clear that they are living in the real world, where the introduction of the Apple Macintosh is soon to blow up the emerging PC market and relegate all competitors to also-rans, at least until Microsoft Windows eclipses it in the early 1990s.
It makes sense that we hadn’t heard much about Apple and Microsoft, the two companies who become synonymous with personal computers for the rest of the 20th century. Cardiff is based outside Dallas, far from Silicon Valley and suburban Seattle. Joe and company have been so focused on upstaging IBM, they haven’t been worrying about other upstarts who are as far along as they are, or in Apple’s case, way ahead of them. Halfway through the episode we learn that Donna’s old boss Hunt, along with an ex-Cardiff employee, have developed “Slingshot,” another copycat PC that is cheaper and faster than Cardiff’s “Giant.” In an act of panic, Joe and Gordon decide to ditch Cameron’s humanlike OS, which had been slowing down their machine, in order to compete. Joe figures that speed and cost trump ingenuity, and he’s able to strike a deal with a manufacturer and get the Giant into stores. It’s a hollow victory though, with Cameron on the verge of leaving for Palo Alto, and Gordon, Donna, and Joe sipping warm champagne knowing they’ve stripped away the one thing that made their product unique.
When Joe enters Apple’s hotel room and sees the mesmerized crowd surrounding the Macintosh, he knows he has lost. This computer is more advanced than anything he or even Cameron could dream up. But everything he said in his angry speech on the conference floor – a computer is your employee, not your friend – still has some merit. Yes, the Apples of the world get all the press and the bragging rights, but there’s a lot of money in utilitarian IBM clones – ask the CEOs of Compaq and Dell. Joe thinks of himself as a visionary, but ironically he and his staff have developed the PC equivalent of store brand cereal.
Getting out of Dallas and into the larger world helps the show shed some of the elements that had been dragging it down. For instance, there is not one mention of Joe’s past – including all mental and physical scars or relationships familial or sexual. Even Joe and Cameron’s conversations are about computers rather than their traumatic childhoods. And though Gordon and Donna’s huge fight isn’t the highlight of the episode (would Donna be that honest and cruel to her husband?), at least the actors have chemistry with each other. But it’s the computer talk, the tech nerd stuff that the show seems afraid to fully give in to, that has me (gulp) rooting for a second season. I want to see Cardiff respond to the Macintosh and to Windows, to have to figure out their place in this rapidly changing marketplace. Joe learns that ripping off IBM isn’t such a unique idea. It might keep Cardiff in business, but it does not make him the genius he imagines himself to be.
I liked this episode a lot, but it suffered from a lack of John Bosworth. Is he really going to jail?
All that hotel suite mumbo jumbo at the beginning of the episode was confusing and unnecessary.
Apple is in suite 1492. Cool Columbus reference.
Wouldn’t that have been great if Gordon’s creepy neighbor was also on the Slingshot team?