'Halt and Catch Fire's Pilot "I/O" Belongs to the Women: Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé

The pilot for AMC’s newest drama, Halt and Catch Fire , titled, “I/O,” premiered on Sunday night (though it’s been available online for two weeks). Expectations for the freshman series are extremely high. The question on everyone’s mind is: Has AMC found its next critical darling that will be able to take the place of Breaking Bad, and soon, Mad Men? I’d venture to say that it’s impossible to answer that question after only watching one episode, but I do think that Halt and Catch Fire has a lot of potential. “I/O” did a fantastic job of introducing viewers to the characters, establishing the core relationships, and setting the season-long story arcs into motion.

During the pilot, we met the show’s three main characters: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a Don Draper-esque business man with big plans; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a down on his luck computer engineer who’s capable of a lot more than he gives himself credit for; and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a spunky technology student with a ton of raw talent. While the majority of the pilot’s 50 minutes were dedicated to Joe’s complex plan to force company Cardiff Electric into the personal computer business, which involved enlisting Gordon to attempt to reverse engineer an IBM PC, the real stars of the episode were the women: Cameron and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), Gordon’s wife.

Let's start with Cameron. Cameron is a smart, cocky college student. She may not know where she’s headed after graduation, but she certainly knows not to take any crap from anybody. Impressed by Cameron’s attitude and her extensive computer knowledge after serving as a guest speaker in one of her college classes, Joe follows her to a local arcade to vet her for a job. There’s a lot of tension and chemistry between the two characters, and before long, they predictably end up making out in the arcade’s back room.

At first, I thought, “Oh no. Is Joe, like Don Draper and Tony Soprano before him, going to end up sleeping with every female character that he comes into contact with? Because if so, I’m already over it.” Thankfully, the scene ends with a twist: Joe warns Cameron mid-hook up, “This doesn’t mean you get the job.” Uh, I guess that’s what he considers dirty talk? Cameron pushes Joe away in disgust. “Wow, you mean we’re not in love?” she asks sarcastically, and then walks out, leaving Joe with his pants down.

There are a couple of important things at play here. First, despite what I thought initially, Joe is not completely irresistible to women. Good. That’s so much more interesting (not to mention so much more realistic). Second, Cameron is shown to be in complete and total control of her sexuality. She hooks up with Joe because she wants to, and she ends the encounter when it's no longer meeting her needs. She’s not worried that "scorning" Joe might ruin her chances at landing whatever position he’s prepared to offer her — he acted like a jerk, so she could care less.

Later, after Joe and Gordon have convinced Cameron to join them in their personal computing venture (she wisely holds out for more money), we see Cameron reporting to the Cardiff Electric offices for her first day of work. As she walks through the parking lot, she passes two immaculately dressed women in suits, and immediately begins to feel uncomfortable and out of place. She quickly pulls a plain red sweater over her decidedly less professional clothes in an attempt to look more “appropriate,” but still gets a disapproving look from a female secretary as she exits the office’s elevator for the first time.

Cameron doesn’t play by the rules (as evidenced by her “quarter on a string” trick at the arcade), and normally, she probably feels pretty confident in her choices — but there’s clearly something about corporate America that just unnerves her. She doesn’t fit in with the other women of Cardiff Electric — but maybe a small part of her wants to. It’s an interesting struggle that I hope the writers will continue to explore in future episodes.

While watching the pilot, I was also really taken with the character of Donna. The first time viewers are introduced to Donna, she’s bailing her husband Gordon out of jail after a night of out-of-control drinking. She’s not happy. We get the sense that Gordon’s done this kind of thing before. We learn that in the recent past, Donna partnered with Gordon in an attempt to build a computer called, “The Symphonic.” Unfortunately, the machine was a total flop and the couple ended up losing a lot of money (Donna appears to be harboring some resentment towards Gordon over the failure).

Donna works for Texas Instruments, so she understands the technology business. Initially, she doesn’t want Gordon to team up with Joe because of the toll that building “The Symphonic” took on their family — but the writers don’t portray Donna as an unreasonable “nag” who just doesn’t want Gordon to have any fun (which was sometimes an issue with the character of Skyler White on Breaking Bad). No, Donna has some very legitimate reasons for not wanting Gordon to get involved in another “build your own computer” misadventure, and the writers really take the time to make viewers understand where she’s coming from.

Gordon is depressed at his current job, and Donna is tired of being the only parent who’s putting in work at home. At one point, she asks Gordon, “Don’t you realize what you’re risking? Don’t you realize what you have now?” He responds that their current family life is just “not enough” for him. Ouch.

In the end, Donna gives Gordon her blessing to go forward with his new project with Joe, not because she’s 100 percent OK with it, but because she understands that he needs to be challenged at work in order to thrive. He needs to feel like he's a part of something worthwhile. I guess it’s possible that this could end up strengthening their relationship, though, to be honest, I’m afraid that Donna’s going to get hurt. Still, it’s clear that Donna decides to give Gordon her approval because she really loves him — whether or not he feels the same way remains to be seen. Regardless of what happens, I was extremely happy that the writers never minimized Donna’s feelings or concerns.

So yes, Halt and Catch Fire’s pilot episode, “I/O,” belonged to the women, but actors Pace and McNairy turned in strong performances, as well. Is Halt and Catch Fire the next Mad Men ? It’s far too soon to say, but I think it’s shaping up to be a summer series that you should definitely be watching.

Images: AMC