Collateral attractions: Halt and Catch Fire

If you follow the Pace, or — as seems increasingly likely these days, see him out of the corner of your computer screen — it’s hard to avoid awareness of his new series on AMC, Halt and Catch Fire. It’s a show about the beginnings of the personal computer “revolution,” and the beginning of it focuses on the theft of the IBM BIOS and the beginnings of the move toward open architecture and portability.

Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 11.55.31 PM

I admit, I was skeptical. My dad was a mainframe cryptocomputer specialist from 1967-1970 (O Vietnam War, you influenced so many things, among others, the general upward class mobility of my family) and a systems analyst from 1970 till 1996, and I’d heard a lot more computerspeak in my childhood than I ever developed a tolerance for. (I remember swearing to myself as a tween that whatever I did, I was not going to work on computers myself or ever be in a relationship with someone who did. Tja.) To some extent the development traced in this drama led to his downsizing, insofar as his ongoing involvement with mainframes meant that he missed the personal computer revolution on a professional level. (We had several of them at home, including some of the machines you see in this program; he just didn’t love computers enough to go in that direction.) So although I remember the period, I didn’t have a real urge to see the show, and the fact that the cutesy title (which references a machine language error that hangs up a CPU) seems to be repeated in the episode titles (I/O; FUD) seemed just a little too precious to me. And historicizing shows based on technology are particularly vulnerable to stupid errors that matter most precisely to their target audiences.

150px-TI_SpeakSpell_no_shadowSegue to Servetus in a motel room on Thursday night and no HGTV and channel surfing and seeing that episode 1 was being repeated. OK, OK. Wow — this is actually interesting. (The little kids have a Speak and Spell, pictured at left, because their mom works at Texas Instruments, and my cousins had one.) And I’m thinking, hmm, is this something I could watch with dad? But of course, I wasn’t watching for the subject matter, I was watching for the Pace.

My exposure to Pace’s work is limited. I’ve seen him in Lincoln and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and, as it turns out, in A Single Man, although I don’t remember him in that at all. In the first two of those pieces he plays very bombastic characters and while he’s a pleasure to watch, he does turn on the camp. I have to admit that that was my main reaction to the first episode of Halt and Catch Fire. Here we have another character who is indicating like crazy — and it’s a bit hard to tell, exactly, where the line between character and acting falls — is Pace overacting or is he playing a character who is overacting? It’s a bit strange to say that, because, in more or less the second scene we see him, he’s speaking to a class at a university (called “Austin Tech” in the show, which made me giggle) and the character makes the classic first body language move of a professor standing in front of a lecture room, one that I make myself all the time, which is intended to indicate both sincerity and bringing oneself down to the level of the students whom one is addressing (a move of abandoning authority that paradoxically enhances the speaker’s authority because of his voluntary concession of status). I’ve been especially fascinated lately by the notion of irony in acting and what seem to be Pace’s native modes (based on what I’ve seen of him) always raise that question for me.

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Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 11.08.44 PMJoe MacMillan (Lee Pace) addresses an information science class in episode 1 of Halt and Catch Fire. Source: AMC

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There’s an interesting first (sex) scene in the show that I thought said a lot about the character he’s playing, but I left episode 1 nonetheless a bit undecided or perplexed about Pace’s work. In comparison, I got way more excited about the subject matter than I thought I could ever be — and so tonight I suggested to dad that we could watch it together. Wow, he loved it. First, we watched episode 1 on my computer. He claimed to find an error in the script (to do with hex) and we had a fantastic talk about the early 1980s in his life and our lives and so on. And then we watched the second episode on television, and we were laughing about references to WordStar (which has been in the news recently as George R.R. Martin’s word processor of choice) and stagflation. Although the show does have a little too big of a tendency to tell rather than show (the script keeps pedantically reminding the viewer what a BIOS is and why they are stealing it), I think we’ll be watching more episodes of this as a father-daughter bonding activity.

And tonight’s episode really convinced me about Pace’s performance of this role. It still seems stagy to me — he has a tendency to fling his arms about that seems slightly unnecessary, particularly penetratingly in a scene where he visits a failing hi-fi store. But in tonight’s show the viewer realizes just exactly how much his character is acting, all of the time. Joe MacMillan is a manipulator — and Pace seems to be incredibly good at that. It gives the show a surprising bite.

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Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 11.27 Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan in episode 2 of Halt and Catch Fire. Screencap edited from source: AMC

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One of the key scenes of episode 2 occurs when the three co-architects of the BIOS theft (MacMillan, a computer engineer he finds at the company he targets, and a female university student who’s supposed to be the coder) meet in a parking lot at a watershed moment, when it looks like the project and their working coalition are about to collapse, along with the company they’re working for. The two men get in a fight and MacMillan is revealed to have a heavily scarred torso. He gives an impassioned speech about his interest in technological developments, ending with the lines,  “I thought we could do this because we’re all unreasonable people and progress depends on our changing the world to fit us.”

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Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 11.28Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan in episode 2 of Halt and Catch Fire. Screencap edited from source: AMC

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What interested me about the scene up to this point is that as viewers, we’ve gotten more than enough evidence from the episode’s narrative that MacMillan is an opportunist of some sort. And yet. And yet. I watch this speech and find myself buying it hook, line and sinker. Only to discover (being vague here to get you to watch the show) that the next scene immediately undermines everything he says.

Pace says of the character he’s playing: “With Joe MacMillan, there’s a very thin line between reality and magic.” In that sense — not just as he’s scripted, but also as Pace plays him, with this constant tension around whether he can be believed, MacMillan seems to be a synedoche for the tech revolution in general — with questions about the character’s sincerity and his acting paralleling the problems in knowing what’s real in tech. He manipulates, pulls forward, and draws back in ways that those of us who engage with the computer world experience regularly from our machines and software — and as with MacMillan’s speech, we believe regularly even though we know or at least should realize that we are being manipulated. MacMillan is a character who can make us believe, can make us abandon our questions about irony, even though we know at every turn that we are being lied to. He’s a salesman, but more than a salesman, somehow — speaker for the computer revolution as modern type?

Pace has also said in a recent interview that he wants to play characters who won’t leave him alone. I’m intrigued by why MacMillan apparently preoccupied Pace, and I wonder if it’s for the same reasons that I find myself still thinking about him — precisely because of the way that the seductive face of the liar who can make us believe anything pervades our technological lives. Because what’s weird about all of this is, thinking back to the moving speech that I described above — there is something ultimately and paradoxically truthful about the lie. MacMillan feels as if he’s being real about something, even as he undermines everything he says and grins when caught in the act. There is something true in irony, as well, if we could only put our fingers on how the deception works — and if that thing is only (primarily?) pain.

You can watch the first episode of the show here for the next three weeks or so.

[ETA: typos corrected.]

~ by Servetus on June 9, 2014.

26 Responses to “Collateral attractions: Halt and Catch Fire”

  1. We are DVRing it in the master bedroom, and our resident computer geek Benny has yet to catch up on watching the first two eps (been a little busy lately 😉 ) but I have watched them both. I don’t want to say too much either and give things away, but there were certainly a couple of moments tonight that made me sit back and say, “Now, wait a minute . . . just who and what is this McMillan guy all about?” You’ve got my attention, Mr. Pace. Looking forward to gaining more insight into the character in future eps.
    (You really need to see him in “Soldier’s Girl” with Troy Garity.)
    I am also glad this looks as if it could serve a positive purpose for you and your dad. 😀

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    • If the whole alternative life plan is to work out (for both of us) we need to figure out how to get along better. If watching TV is a way to do that, I can do it. But the show is actually interesting. And, let’s admit it, Pace is really attractive.

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  2. Hmmm… I don’t think that AMC link works here in the UK. But what lovely timing of the Universe to send this show into your sphere… just in time for Father’s Day!!!

    In other random British actor news, I see Mark Rylance was just awarded a Tony award for his performance in Broadway’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’!!! Yahoo!!! I saw this all male cast production in 2012 while it still ran in previews at the Globe Theatre… and it’s hard to believe so much time has already passed by so quickly!! 😉

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9562248/Stephen-Fry-in-Twelfth-Night-Globe-Theatre-first-review.html

    Hope you are finding ways to enjoy the rest of your summer! London weather was beautiful yesterday … though today, meh – not so much. 🙂

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    • Just got here, so at the moment basically just regrouping … I owe you (and about twenty other people) a longer msg.

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  3. OMG. I LOVE YOU. So glad you wrote this post. I too have been watching and I am captivated by this show and Pace’s performance.

    I am also a huge fan of Scoot McNairy too. Let’s just say I was hating on his film In Search of a Midnight Kiss (it is a bad take on Until Sunrise) until the last 10 mins then I was like great film. Any film that can flip me like that, I can not hate on. But I digress.

    I am a fan of AMC shows in general, and of course the Pace factor, I was curious to check him out too. Yes, he is extremely attractive and the charisma oozes off the screen. Doesn’t it?

    There is some good tension happening in the writing and acting. After that speech, hubs was like “that was a writer getting a bit too carried away.” But THEN the next scene flips our expectations.

    I have spent most of my career working with sales people, and almost married one. The really successful ones are total lunatics so I am appreciating Pace’s character. Love the tension and intrigue.

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    • I had never seen McNairy before but he’s more my “RL type”. re Pace — yeah, it’s charisma, not beauty. He’s pretty. But not anything like Armitage. It’s more that you see him and you can’t help but react to him.

      re the scene flip = yes. You don’t know exactly how to take the parking lot scene and then BOOM, and then at the end, MacMillan isn’t in the least bothered by what Cameron says to him.

      sales people — when I take career inventories they always say I should work in marketing. (Om, no.) My take on all that stuff is I could do it if it were something I really believed in. I can sell you a product that convinces me, but I can’t sell you random products. I find the tension between those two poles — McM’s believe in what he’s selling and his feigned believe in what he’s selling — really fascinating.

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  4. I am enjoying the tension. I like that we have lots of questions about these characters and I will enjoy watching to find out the answers.

    They really do capture that late 70’s – early 80’s vibe. The scene in the dressing room when she was trying on all those blouses! Love. I like that the one of the lead characters is this tough strong SMART woman!!!

    As far as the computer lingo stuff, for me, it can be a bit confusing, but I don’t even mind that so much because this show has nuisance. Nuisance is just about the hardest thing you can write too.

    Hmm Sev in marketing … sure, why not? Marketing is about seeing the bigger picture, communicating a thought or an idea in a compelling way.

    I had the same thought about Pace, I don’t remember him from the other films I have seen him in, but I guess that is a credit to his acting that he has disappeared into those roles.

    Yes different vibe than The Armitage. but both radiate an intensity.

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    • yes, the dressing room scene was another favorite of mine — I totally remember all of those fussy synthetic fabric blouses (even though I was about 12 at the time — but that character is supposed to be max ten years older than me).

      computer jargon doesn’t bother me at all and in a way, I think they could back off on it, because 90% of the audience doesn’t care. The only place where I got lost was where she was trying to lose MacMillan — I understood about one word in that sentence — but I never got that far with coding. One term of C+.

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      • The fact that as tired and out of it as I felt last night I stayed up and watched the second airing (when I knew it was waiting for us to watch on the other DVR) and I *still* have to get caught up on Game of Thrones—well, that says something right there, in terms of my interest in the production. Those were my own college and young adult career days, so it’s quite a blast from the past for me. As for those polyester blouses, oh!! The memories.

        I saw Lee in a couple of things early on and enjoyed his performances and his good looks, but I think it was as Calpurnia, the transsexual character in Soldier’s Girl, that he really had me from “hello.” Also loved “The Fall” and his sweet chemistry with the child patient. He’s got charisma, alright, and those eyebrows that deserve their own zip code. He wears a suit awfully well, and I have no complaints about the unbuttoned shirts, either. No ma’am.

        Oh, and what IS it about HGTV? I went through a period recently where I watched it constantly, whenever I could not sleep. Curiously addictive.

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  5. I was born in 1981 so I find the development of personal computers and how these other computer companies developed has me interested, I guess I know the end result (I’m on a non-IBM product) but how things are going to play out has me fascinated. I have yet to see the second episode and this piece really has me wanting to ASAP. I can’t wait to see more of MacMillan’s backstory, motivation, etc. The character gives me a snake oil salesman vibe. In addition, there seem to be quite a bit open shirt views (at least from the promos and screen shots I’ve seen) which doesn’t hurt… 🙂

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    • It looks (from their webpage) like they’re planning to post the additional episodes eventually. I thought the second episode was better than the 1st, although the opening quarter of the first episode is definitely gripping, it doesn’t end with very much intensity (unlike episode 2).

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      • Thanks! I’ll check it in a week to see if it goes off log-in required (I don’t have cable/satellite tv) otherwise I may look for a different way to see it.

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  6. Do not mean to nitpick, but didn’t you mean “A Single Man” as opposed to “A Simple Man”? 😀 Must admit I watched that one for Lee but his role was quite small in it. Yet to watch HaCF ep.1. Intrigued. Fedoralady is right, Soldier’s Girl is quite something. (Btw, she is responsible for my side-crush on LP!!!)

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  7. I have become a big fan of AMC since Mad Men came on (and I think changed tv as we know it, the greatest show ever created and nothing else can touch it, but anyway). AMC basically have the market cornered on cinematic, high end tv drama. Since Mad Men has been winding down, been watching Turn (which is really very good) and now HCF. I like it quite a bit, really well made show. I was kind of struck in the first episode though how much McMillan reminded me of Don Draper, particularly in that scene at the restaurant where he is ‘selling’ those execs with the whole story about how they are going to change their business etc and they ask him if he is still talking about software. It was just a little too close to Don Draper and of course his whole mysterious background, having disappeared, being damaged, sexually magnetic, driven to succeed in his business for some reason other than simple money making, the stuff that happens in the second episode with his shirt off, etc. It just kind of started to get on my nerves because while these characteristics are not owned by Don Draper (of course) the whole package just seems too much like Don Draper, as if the Draper character had been transported from 1960s NYC to 1980s Texas. There will never be another Don Draper, they broke the mold. AMC should be doing something new and different with the show that is replacing Mad Men (not just doing Mad Men 20 years later in a different industry and city). But yeah, overall, very well made show, great cinematography and production design. I did like reading your piece – that was new and original 🙂

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    • I haven’t seen Mad Men, so I couldn’t say. (no plans to, either, nothing about the show appeals to me). But I have seen people asking on imdb whether this is Mad Men in the early 1980s.

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  8. Anyone watching Hell On Wheels ? Another AMC show that I love.

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  9. I could see that comparison to Mad Men, but I think it is different enough. Mad Men is more of a character study the plot is so fluid that I am sure it all adds up eventually but never makes too much sense to me.

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    • the reason the historians watch Mad Men, apparently, is that their set design is so accurate, as in, down to the week or something.

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  10. To be perfectly honest, I watch the show bec Jon Hamm is pretty amazing as an actor and has created an iconic TV character. I couldn’t tell you what the hell is going on tho and I have watched from the beginning. It is a heavy show. It never fails at the 20 min mark, we ALWAYS turn to each other and say “only 20 mins.”

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  11. I will say that BOTH Pace and Hamm can ROCK a vintage suit. I really miss men in suits.

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  12. A great double win for you & your dad I’d say. I just caught up w all three episodes of HaCF. And as a big fan of Mad Men, Lee Pace’s character didn’t remind me one bit of Don Draper. Don actually wasn’t a salesman his talent was in creative. I love Lee Pace’s magnetism on screen, he’s the reason I wanted to check this out. After the Hobbit I finally watched him in The Fall and loved him but I haven’t seeked out any of his other work. I find HaCF a bit slow at times (those music sequences though I understand their purpose) but I will probably stick with it, as I find myself getting invested in the cause of the characters. TURN just finished last Sunday which is my new favorite show of the year, I’m hoping it will get renewed for a second season! And @Rob I’m also a fan of Hell on Wheels, only discovered it last summer, shortly before the new season aired!

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    • I think there’s something weird about the pacing of the episodes — it’s like they have an extremely, extremely slow build and then bang, bang, bang, three big things happen in the last ten minutes. But I’m enjoying it still. Turn does look good.

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  13. […] don’t have time at the moment to devote the individual attention to this show that I could to season 1, and I admit that despite my best intentions season 2 passed me by, but I am watching season 3 […]

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  14. […] funny to think back to blogging the beginnings of this show and how much time I spent writing about the computers. I think that was its selling point at the time: Mad Men about computers, and the first season […]

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