Series: Halt and Catch Fire

"I want to build a machine that nobody else has the balls to build."
Joe MacMillan

Halt and Catch Fire is an American television series airing on AMC.

Set in the "Silicon Prairie" of Texas in the early 1980s, it is the story of sales executive Joe MacMillan, engineer Gordon Clark, and programmer Cameron Howe, a trio of employees at a small system software firm called Cardiff Electric. The series also follows Gordon's wife Donna and Joe's, Gordon's, and Cameron's boss John Bosworth.

In the first season, Joe, Gordon, and Cameron set out to create a revolutionary IBM PC clone which is smaller, faster, more powerful, and more affordable than the original. While designing the machine, the team must deal with the tension of their personal issues as well as the threat of Cardiff Electric going out of business before the machine can even hit the market.

Season 2 takes place one year after the events of the Season 1 finale, mainly focusing on Cameron's post-Cardiff venture, Mutiny. Season 2 also introduces a new series regular, Sarah Wheeler, a wealthy and well-traveled freelance journalist with past connections with Joe.

This series contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: The first time we see Gordon Clark, he's being bailed out of the drunk tank.
  • All Men Are Perverts:
    • In "Adventure", after Cameron names her BIOS "Lovelace", the engineers assumed she was talking about pornographic actress Linda Lovelace.
    • In "Giant", Kenny Burke, a local industrial designer Bosworth had previously hired, insults Joe for not paying attention to the girls at a strip club.
    • In "Up Helly Aa", while the Giant was still malfunctioning during Cardiff's suite party, Joe distracts the drunken COMDEX attendees with booth babes from a neighboring porn convention.
  • Always Someone Better:
    • The problem confronting the Cardiff crew, obsessing over beating IBM... only for Joe to recognize that the Apple Macintosh is a better product the second he sees it.
    • Subverted with the Slingshot computer which is generally inferior to the Giant except that due to having fewer features it is also slightly faster and cheaper. Joe and Gordon recognize that by sacrificing some of Cameron's innovative features they can outperform the Slingshot and thus win over the buyers.
  • Artistic License Engineering: Dust and contaminants will easily ruin a hard drive and its stored data. While attempting to recover the data off Cameron's burned out hard drive, Donna and the Cardiff engineers should have been handling the platters in a dust-free clean room environment instead of out in the open in Cameron's basement "office" in "Close to the Metal".
  • Artistic License History: The show portrays Cameron (and to some extent, Donna) as basically the only female computer programmer, presumably to make her appear special, but actually women graduates in computer science were at an all-time high in the early-to-mid 80s.
  • Awesome but Impractical:
    • The operating system Cameron wrote for the Giant. Her query-based user interface was meant to be more user friendly than the command line interface of MS-DOS; however, her OS required a full megabyte of RAMnote  and negatively impacted the Giant's boot time, system response time, and IBM PC software compatibility. Hunt Whitmarsh admitted that Cameron's OS was ahead of its time, but it was a "memory hog".
    • Gordon believes that the Macintosh is "all bells and whistles and zero utility".note 
  • Badass Boast: "IBM will have to clone us." To hammer the point home, Joe burns a binder containing the source code which he and Gordon had complied from their reverse engineering of the IBM PC BIOS.
    Joe MacMillan: Oh, that's what I call cooking the books!
  • Batman Gambit:
    • Joe's entire scheme relies on correctly predicting how people will react to his manipulations and using this knowledge to put them in a situation where they can't or won't say no to him.
    • In "Up Helly Aa", Gordon pulls one of these in order to get Cardiff Electric a suite at COMDEX after their reservations had been cancelled. Gordon deliberately sabotages a weaker company's lackluster presentation while Joe posed as an IBM representative to backup Gordon's bluff.
  • Bi the Way: In the pilot, "I/O", Joe has sex with the future BIOS programmer, Cameron (a woman). Then, in "High Plains Hardware", Joe passionately makes out with a potential investor's boyfriend, if only to piss her off because Joe felt the terms of her deal was grossly unfair as she only offered $10 million for a 80% stake in the Cardiff PC project. In "Giant", Joe reveals that he was in a relationship with another man, Simon, a decade before moving to Texas.
  • Big Bad:
  • Big "Shut Up!": Joe gives this to Gordon as "advice" for the next time the former attempts to close a sale.
    Joe MacMillan: I need you to do me one favor.
    Gordon Clark: Okay.
    Joe MacMillan: Next time I move to close, this is what you do.
    Gordon Clark: Okay, what?
    Joe MacMillan: You... SHUT! UP!
  • Blatant Lies: To keep IBM from suing Cardiff Electric into the ground, Gordon tells IBM's legal counsel that Cardiff and Bosworth had approached him about designing a PC rather than Joe.
  • Boring but Practical: The Giant is a very innovative computer but ultimately Joe has to market it as a "station wagon", a reliable workhorse that will get the job done without any fancy features. Cameron sees it as a betrayal since her vision has always been that a computer should be "more than just a calculator".
  • Brand X: Ranger brand soda. The soda comes in many flavors (e.g. orange, lemon-lime, grape, etc), and Cameron is most often seen drinking the orange flavor.
  • Buffy Speak: Joe tries to convince Gordon to join him by saying "Computers aren't the thing, they're the thing that gets us to the thing."
  • Bully and Wimp Pairing: To an extent, Joe and Gordon. Nathan Cardiff lampshades this, comparing Joe to a rattlesnake and Gordon to a little bunny rabbit.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Cameron's work habits are... unorthodox, to say the least, but she may be Cardiff's best hope of creating a computer that doesn't resemble IBM's handiwork.
  • Burning the Ships: Joe deliberately informs IBM that Joe and Gordon, as Cardiff Electric employees, have reverse engineered the IBM PC BIOS code. IBM sends in an army of lawyers and Nathan Cardiff is left with two choices: fully commit his company to the PC clone project Joe is advocating or get sued into bankruptcy by IBM. Everyone is furious at Joe but in the end he gets his way. This is then subverted when we realize that the project's failure will ruin everyone except Joe: He forced everyone else to take a high personal risk and commit fully to the project, but due to his father's connections he can walk away at any time and resume his old life.
  • California Doubling: While the show is set in the Silicon Prairie of the DFW Metroplex, the show is filmed in Atlanta. AMC initially considered filming the series in North Texas; however, AMC already had crew in Atlanta for The Walking Dead, and Georgia has more generous tax breaks for TV and film production than Texas.
  • Call Back: In the pilot, Gordon fixes his daughters' broken Speak & Spell and reprograms it so that it greets them by name upon starting up. Cameron attempts to do the same with Cardiff's new machine, but gets shortly shut down by Gordon. May also double as an ironic kind of Perspective Reversal.
  • Casting Couch: Lampshaded and subverted multiple times. In the premiere, Joe tells Cameron that he will not hire her just because she had sex with him. This pisses Cameron off immensely because it was never her intent. Then Joe hires her anyway, in part because of her reaction to his comment. In a later episode Cameron wants to take over as the manager of the software team and Joe tells her that he cannot do favors for her just because they are sleeping together. She promptly breaks it off with him and later gets the job by proving to Joe that she is the right person for it.
  • The Chains of Commanding:
    • John Bosworth hates to fire people he has known closely for years and the stress is taking a serious toll on him. He stays late at the office trying to catch up on all the new technology and jargon he now has to deal with and even sleeps in his office rather than going home to his family. Ultimately he ends up sacrificing more than any of the other characters in order to get the project finished and takes full blame for getting Cameron to hack into the bank and embezzling money to keep the company going.
    • Gordon is happy to have received a promotion but he soon learns that this means that he has to fire people, some of whom are his friends and neighbors. The stress of having the future of Cardiff Electric in his hands drives him back to drinking.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Joe definitely has a case of this.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: Brian Braswell, one of Gordon's engineers, keeps pointing out problems with the various designs Gordon has proposed, and Gordon ends up firing Brian. Gordon's action is somewhat justified by the fact that while Brian had valid concerns about Gordon's proposals, he was never shown to actually suggest any solutions. On a project like this, the company cannot afford to have naysayers bringing the project down.
  • Completely Missing the Point: When Gordon, frustrated after Joe's dreaming keeps piling more and more engineering problems onto the design, that the name Joe came up with, the Contrail, is stupid, he sarcastically suggests calling the computer the Cardiff Giant. Joe accepts the name, apparently not getting the reference.
    Joe MacMillan: When we unveil the Contrail and it looks like this, people will be falling over themselves.
    Gordon Clark: Wait, the what?
    Joe MacMillan: The Contrail. We're calling it the Contrail. I'm announcing it this week, so don't tell anyone.
    Gordon Clark: The "Contrail"?! You're naming it after the exhaust that comes out of the back of a plane?!
    Joe MacMillan: It's about soaring, leaving the competition in the dust, which is exactly what this design can accomplish..
    Gordon Clark: No, Joe! Contrail is the dust! Look, if we continue to put form ahead of function, we're gonna be the ones left behind with everyone laughing at us. I mean, why don't you just call it the "Cardiff Giant"?!
  • Computer Wars: The show takes place during the late 8-bit/early 16-bit era, with Joe throwing Cardiff Electric onto the front lines.
  • Consummate Liar: Joe lies to everyone about his intentions. Often someone will call him out on a lie and Joe will pacify him/her with another lie. It seems he is unable to stop himself from "selling", which in his case means exaggerating the truth.
  • invokedCreator Couple: In-universe, Gordon and Donna created the Symphonic and later the Giant. Gordon invites Donna to come work at Cardiff Electric as the head engineer; however, she declines his offer deciding to work with Cameron at Mutiny.
  • Cue Card: Invoked by two guys trying to sell the Protonix OccasionMaster dot-matrix printer. Its biggest selling points are bidirectional printing and being able to print graphics, but the people trying to sell it at COMDEX read their sales pitch directly off papers they're holding, which leaves a lot to be desired.
    • Additionally, Gordon and Joe, in a clever double-team effort, manage to sink the demo by pushing the salesmen to demo the printer, which eats the paper and kills any interest in the revolutionary new technote .
  • Cryptic Background Reference: References are made to the events that caused Joe to leave IBM but Joe avoids the topic and the IBM executives seem to be saving that information as future ammunition to use against him. All we know that as a result, a 2 million dollar data center was destroyed and Joe dropped off the radar so completely that his former bosses thought he might have gone and killed himself.
    • Hunt, Donna's former boss, shines a little light on the mystery. Apparently, Joe got in a fight with his father and in retaliation opened a water main into the data center.
  • David Vs Goliath:
    • Small Cardiff Electric vs Big Blue IBM.
    • Lampshaded by Joe when he points out that IBM might have an army of lawyers to send after them, but Cardiff's legal argument is so sound that their single in-house lawyer will be able to beat them in court.
    • Deliberately invoked with the Slingshot, a competing computer built specifically that it would be able to slay Cardiff's Giant before Cardiff can even get close to competing. Subverted when Joe sacrifices Cameron's operating system and is thus able to "dodge the bullet" that Slingshot fired at them.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: One of Joe's gay ex-lovers reveals that he is sick. While the disease is not named, given Joe's reaction, it is clear that it is AIDS.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Deconstructed. At the start of Season 1, Gordon started from the bottom at Cardiff Electric as a low level sales engineer, struggled with building the Giant and has risen to the top by the end. After the success of the Giant, however, Gordon is unsure of how to move forward after Joe abruptly leaves the company.
  • Every Man Has His Price:
    • Cardiff Electric loses more than 68% of its revenue after IBM poached their client base. Even clients who have been with the company for years cannot turn down the amazing deals IBM is offering to lure them away.
    • Averted when IBM offers Cameron triple the money she is getting at Cardiff, but she ends up turning them down.
    • When it seems that Cardiff Electric and the Giant are done for, Joe accepts his father's offer to come back to IBM in exchange for heading IBM's new portable computer project. However, Joe and Cameron manage to persuade Joe to see the Giant project through.
  • The Fellowship Has Ended: The first season ends with Cameron starting her own company and Joe torching the first shipment of Giants before taking off.
  • Expy: Although it exists in the same universe as another company, Cardiff Electric parallels Compaq's rise in the computer industry.
  • Finagle's Law: "Up Helly Aa" has a series of these for Cardiff Electric; however they manage to overcome them. First, the team learns that they don't have a suite or exhibit space; however, Gordon successfully hatches a scheme to get a room and booth space. Afterwards, the Giant malfunctions, but Joe distracts convention goers with booth babes while Gordon and Donna repair the Giant. Finally, Cardiff learns that another upstart company led by Donna's ex-boss Hunt had plagiarized the design of the Giant. With modification to the Giant, Joe successfully pitches the machine at the cost of Cameron's original vision for the Giant.
  • Five-Finger Discount:
    • Cameron uses a trick quarter to avoid having to pay for arcade games in "I/O", and shoplifts several shirts in a mall clothing store in "FUD".
    • In "Landfall", Gordon shatters a toy store window in order to get two Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.
  • Freudian Trio: Cameron, Gordon, and Joe are the Id, Superego, and Ego, respectively.
  • Gamer Chick: Cameron gets kicked out of a tavern after hogging a Centipede arcade machine for over an hour and using a trick quarter to avoid paying. Later, Cameron uses a text-based adventure game to weed out excess programmers.
  • George Jetson Job Security:
    • After IBM raids Cardiff's customer base, Gordon is forced to lay off several employees.
    • Driving home one evening, Gordon's coworker and neighbor Brian runs a stop sign and gets into a fender bender. When Brian blames everyone but himself for the accident, Gordon fires him on the spot, realizing that Brian was a weak link in the PC project.
    • When Cameron uses a text-based adventure game to weed out excess programmers, she states any programmer who didn't cheat in order to win the game was fired on the spot.
  • Going Native: Good Ol' Boy John Bosworth starts out as extremely skeptical about the PC clone project but by the end he becomes its biggest proponent, even willing to commit fraud and go to jail in order to get it completed.
  • Good Ol' Boy: Cardiff Electric Senior VP John Bosworth and company owner Nathan Cardiff are both hard nosed, conservative Texas businessmen who don't take kindly to Joe's risky, progressive East Coast corporate thinking.
  • Heroic BSOD:
    • Cameron suffers one after her computer gets fried and her backup floppies get degaussed.
    • Cameron suffers another one during COMDEX after Gordon removed her OS from the Giant, and Joe sided with Gordon.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Bosworth takes responsibility for embezzling Cardiff's money to keep Cameron out of jail.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Averted, as the technology of the period is portrayed realistically.
  • Hypocrite: Joe tells off a potential investor by stating that mediocrity and making a project about themselves are the two things that ruin a company. However, Joe's ego gets irrecoverably tied to any project he undertakes, and he is quick to abandon or destroy the project when Joe does not get the result he wants. Case in point, when the Giant project did not go as Joe wanted, especially after sacrificing Cameron's ambitious OS to defeat the Slingshot and seeing the Macintosh at COMDEX, he destroys the initial shipment of Giants and abruptly leaves Cardiff Electric.
  • Hypocritical Humor: It turns out that the reason Bosworth doesn't want Cameron sleeping in the office is so she won't catch him doing the same thing.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender: Gordon was once a hotshot computer designer who created a revolutionary computer called the Symphonic. He tried to present it at COMDEX, but it failed to boot. After the project tanked, he was forced to take a lowly job as a support engineer at Cardiff Electric in order to support his family. The bitterness from the failure caused him to start drinking heavily and to neglect his family. Joe presents Gordon with a second chance to change the computer industry, and Gordon throws caution to the wind when he agrees to reverse engineer the IBM PC.
  • I Have a Family: Gordon tries to use this to convince Joe that reverse engineering the IBM PC was a terrible idea, especially after Joe intentionally tells IBM about the project.
  • Implied Death Threat: Nathan Cardiff tells Joe that if he doesn't follow through on the PC project, there won't be another job for Joe because no one would be able to find where he'd be buried.
  • Impossible Task:
    • When Joe reveals his plan for Cardiff's PC to Gordon and Cameron, building it with twice the speed at half the cost of the IBM PC, Gordon tells him that the industry moves in increments, stating that the next product is either faster or cheaper than its predecessor, not both.
    • When Joe reveals that the new Cardiff PC would be portable and weigh less than 15 pounds, the engineers scoff at him.
  • It's All About Me:
    • Gordon believes that reverse engineering the IBM PC, and later actually building the Giant, was solely for Joe's benefit.
      Gordon Clark: There is no "we", Joe.
      Joe MacMillan: There is now. I was at COMDEX two years ago. I saw the Symphonic demo. It was ahead of its time. That was then, this is now and a year from now, you're gonna thank me. You're a builder, Gordon!
      Gordon Clark: No, I'm not, okay?! Not anymore.
    • Joe's father lampshades Joe's tendency to fall into this trope by pointing out that massive corporation like IBM is not going to start a multimillion dollar portable computer project just to get back at Joe. The project was started independently by another IBM division who are probably not even aware of Joe or Cardiff Electric.
    • Cameron's reaction when Gordon removes her operating system in order to make the Giant competitive with the Slingshot is all about Joe and Gordon betraying her vision for what the computer should be. She does not seem to care that it was the only way to save the project and keep Cardiff Electric in business. She would rather have the Giant fail then deviate from her vision.
    • A lot of Gordon's and Donna's marital problems come from Gordon taking this attitude. The failure of the Symphonic computer had just as big an impact on her as it did on Gordon but she is prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to keep her family going. Gordon acts as if his life has lost meaning and allows his drinking to jeopardize his job. It is a sign of his Character Development that at the end of the season he specifically tells Donna that she should do what makes her happy even if it means that she will not be working with him.
  • It Will Never Catch On: While exploring the COMDEX show floor before the Giant demo, Cameron thinks that Windows looks cool, but Donna tells her it was crawling with bugs, and Joe was impressed with HP's "touch screen" technology, but Gordon calls it a fad.
  • Jerkass: All three main characters are jerkasses in their own way.
    • Joe manipulates those around him in order to advance his goals.
    • Gordon often neglects his wife and daughters, often due to Joe's ambitions.
    • Cameron's rebellious and free-spirited nature often clashes with her more straight-laced coworkers.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Joe is a Manipulative Bastard, but he is correct that they can break IBM's stranglehold on the industry. In turn, the people who call him out on his actions are acting jerkish, but are fully justified in their anger. John Bosworth outright states that he is going to make the team's lives miserable, but their actions jeopardized twenty years of his life's work and threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of Cardiff employees. In "Adventure", he strongly hints that Gordon should follow his lead when dealing with the Japanese. Gordon fails to take the hint because of his own issues vis-a-vis Joe.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em:
    • Nathan Cardiff is fully prepared to close the company down once it runs out of funds and is vehemently opposed to the idea of putting more of his money into it. Averted with John Bosworth, who is determined to keep the company going no matter what he has to do to accomplish that.
    • Surprisingly, of the main trio, it is Joe who gives up first when it looks like the Giant will never make it to COMDEX.
    • Donna and Hunt finally convince TI management that the TI-99/4A is a lost cause, though Hunt says that the company has been thinking of dropping it for months.
  • Loophole Abuse:
    • Joe and Gordon use reverse engineering to recreate the assembly language code of IBM PC BIOS. The duo might have gotten off scot-free had Joe not deliberately told IBM about the project.
    • After Cardiff is committed to the PC clone project, Joe attempts to have their BIOS designed in a clean room environment in order to appease the lawyers for both Cardiff and IBM; however, Cameron's rebellious and free-spirited nature makes this difficult.
  • Loose Lips:
    • Gordon and Donna have been calling Cameron white trash in front of their daughters. When she finds out, she's not exactly thrilled about it.
    • Gordon's drunken attempt to shoot the breeze with a Japanese businessman almost costs Cardiff a deal with Kazoku.
    • Cameron eventually learns about Joe's intentional sabotage of her BIOS work after Gordon vents about the FBI shutting down Cardiff.
    • Donna's boss is trying to pump her for information about Cardiff's computer project. While she claims not to told him anything, he still manages to piece enough to start his own company and rip off their design to built his own computer for COMDEX.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • Joe manipulates everyone around him to get his project off the ground. When they realize what is going on, they call him out on it, but have no other choice but to join him.
    • Donna's boss Hunt seems like a nice guy but turns out to have manipulated her so he can steal Cardiff's design and build a competing computer.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Ranger soda is a nod to the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency.
    • The engineers dub their design lab the "Kill Room", after one engineer jokes about how they are likely to kill each other before the machine is finished.
    • Cameron christens her BIOS "Lovelace", after Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer ever.
    • Gordon originally suggested calling the new Cardiff PC the Giant as a joke, naming it after the infamous 1869 Cardiff Giant hoax. Joe then unwittingly accepts Gordon's suggestion.
    • The Slingshot deliberately plays on the David Vs Goliath imagery to position itself to slay Cardiff's Giant by demoing ahead of the Cardiff team and thus being able to end the fight before Joe can mount an attack.
  • Missing Steps Plan: It quickly becomes apparent that Joe only has vague ideas about how to proceed after he gets Cardiff Electric to start designing a PC clone. His ultimate vision is to revolutionize the personal computer industry and dethrone IBM, but he does not yet know what Cardiff's computer should really be like, and more importantly, does not know how to convince people to buy it.
  • Morton's Fork: Joe puts Cardiff Electric into this situation. If they fire Joe and Gordon, it will be seen as an admission of guilt and IBM will sue them into bankruptcy. If they do not fire them and instead claim that they are legitimately building an IBM clone, they will have to invest millions into the technology and then try to compete against a pissed-off IBM, which will most likely bankrupt the company. Their only sliver of hope is that Joe is right and their new computer will be able to successfully compete with IBM's PC. Fortuantely, Joe's gamble pays off where the Giant turns enough profit for Nathan Cardiff to cede control of the company to Joe and Gordon.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Joe has given several different explanations for the scars on his torso, none of them true. It's likely that the story of him falling off the roof after being taken up there by his mother is the true one, since Joe and his father both obliquely mention that incident.
  • Nepotism: Joe's father is implied to be a powerful executive at IBM. His influence is big enough that, even after everything that Joe has done, IBM is willing to hire Joe back if he just walks away from the PC clone project.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Gordon and Donna are a little bit incautious talking about Cameron, and it gets back to her. Being as Cameron doesn't always have great impulse control, this nearly backfires on them until by chance, Gordon's neighbor shows up, intoxicated and armed with a gun.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Played with. Due to Cameron's unprofessionalism, she nearly loses all of her work when her hard drive gets fired, and she believes that her backup disks got degaussed; however, Donna and the Cardiff engineers manage to recover and reconstruct more than 90% of the BIOS code. As Donna later finds out, Cameron's work was never really lost as Joe had the real backup disks, and he had engineered the whole crisis in order to get publicity for the Cardiff PC.
  • No Sell: When meeting with potential investor Louise "LouLu" Lutherford, Joe finds her offer ludicrously low and hates everything about her. He gives her a highly insulting "The Reason You Suck" Speech in order to wreck the business deal. However, LouLu simply ignores Joe and instead addresses John Bosworth who she knows has the actual power to close the deal. Nathan Cardiff later lampshades the fact that she has been called much worse and she never lets insults interfere with a business deal. Joe still manages to sink the deal by making out with her boyfriend which actually gets under LouLu's skin.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: invoked In-Universe.
    • In "Close to the Metal", Joe brings in a reporter from Wall Street Quarterly do to an article about Cardiff's PC while Cameron was in crisis mode after losing her BIOS code. Of course, Joe intentionally sabotages Cameron's work in order to have said article written.
    • In "The 214s", after Cardiff Electric is shut down by the FBI for an embezzlement scandal, Gordon tries to convince Joe to not abandon the Giant project by stating that people at COMDEX will be curious to see the trainwreck that is Cardiff.
  • Nothing But Hits: Played with. While the soundtrack may use well known artists of the late 60s to early 80s, they don't always use the most well known songs.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: This is practically Joe's modus operandi. After deliberately telling IBM that he and Gordon reverse engineered the IBM PC BIOS, he forces Bosworth and Cardiff into one of these: either enter the PC business or get sued out of business by IBM for copyright infringement.
  • Oh, Crap:
    • Everyone in the room when Joe reveals that he was the one who informed IBM that they reverse engineered their proprietary BIOS chip.
    • This is Gordon's and Cameron's reaction when they see the army of lawyers that IBM has sent to deal with their little "project". Joe is unfazed since he was fully expected this reaction from his former bosses at IBM.
    • The morning before their COMDEX demo, the group is taking some time off to enjoy the convention and pick up some free t-shirts when they come upon the Slingshot demonstration. They instantly realize that they are screwed and that the Giant might be dead-in-the-water before they even have a chance to demo it.
  • Period Piece: The show is set in the personal computer boom of the early 1980s. Each episode has a specific time-frame in which it took place, with some episodes coinciding with Real Life events.
    • The series starts just prior to May 25, 1983, as Gordon takes his family to see Return of the Jedi and Joe and Gordon reverse engineer the IBM PC during the Memorial Day weekend.
    • "Landfall" takes place between August 15 and August 20, 1983, when Hurricane Alicia hit Texas.
    • "Giant" takes place sometime between September and early October 1983, as TI had announced it would drop the TI-99 and exit the home computer business in October 1983.
    • "Up Helly Aa" takes place between November 28 and December 2, 1983, the dates of COMDEX '83.
    • Part of "1984" takes place sometime after January 22, 1984, as Joe had taped Super Bowl XVIII to show Gordon Apple's advertisement for the Macintosh.
  • Police Brutality: Towards the end of "Close to the Metal", two Dallas County sheriff's deputies pull over Joe and savagely beat him and arrest him for no apparent reason. However, when Bosworth bails Joe out of jail, Joe realizes that the incident was arranged by Bosworth as a message to remind him who is in charge at Cardiff Electric.
  • Product Placement: Besides IBM, many real-world computer hardware and software companies of the period are mentioned, including Texas Instruments, Apple, Commodore, Tandy, Microsoft, Digital Researchnote , Columbia Datanote , Compaq, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Xerox, Hewlett-Parckard (HP), Atari, and Coleco.
    • Gordon's wife Donna works (until the end of the first season) at Texas Instruments, and their two daughters are seen playing with a Speak & Spell, an educational toy manufactured by TI in the late 1970s and 1980s.
    • In the pilot "I/O":
      • Cameron is seen playing a Centipede arcade machine.
      • Gordon takes his family to see Return of the Jedi.
      • Joe hands Gordon a back issue of Byte magazine, an editorial magazine of the period which covered the microcomputer industry. Gordon wrote an article for the magazine on the topic of "open architecture", and Joe reminds Gordon of this in order to motivate him into reverse engineering the IBM PC with him.
      • Gordon is seen drinking Dr. Pepper, a product invented in Texas.
    • In "FUD", while talking to Cameron, Joe's secretary Debbie mentions WordStar, a popular word processing application in the early half of the 1980s.
    • In "Landfall", Gordon is trying to find Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, a toy whose popularity was huge in the early 1980s, for his two daughters as the remnants of Hurricane Alicia make their way from Houston to Dallas. After paying $80 for a rock when a stranger claims he was selling a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, Gordon resorts to breaking into a toy store front window and stealing two dolls from a display.
    • While demoing the Giant at COMDEX, Joe mentions Microsoft's Multiplannote  and Lotus 1-2-3, both of which are early spreadsheet programs; the latter program was a invokedKiller App for the IBM PC.
    • At COMDEX, Joe wanders into a hotel room where the Apple Macintosh is being demoed for the first time... complete with ceremonial candles akin to a religious experience.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: In order for Cardiff to survive COMDEX, Joe had to sacrifice Cameron's ambitious OS from the Giant in order to make it faster and cheaper.
  • The Quincy Punk: Cameron meets with a group of these in an alley and later parties with them in a hotel room after cashing her first paycheck.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • In a span of an afternoon, IBM is able to steal more than 68% of Cardiff Electric's business. Pissing off a giant corporation has repercussions.
    • Joe might have a grand vision of selling a computer that can compete with the IBM PC but it is up to Gordon to actually build the thing. Soon the project is running into immovable barriers like the Laws Of Physics and solving one issue only leads to more problems. Increasing the speed also increases the heat generated by the components. An innovative solution to deal with the heat problem would make mass production difficult and make the costs of the final product too high. No wonder Gordon starts drinking again.
    • At the beginning of the series Gordon is already in a fragile mental state. The enormous stress from being in charge of the designing and building the new computer pushes him way over the edge and he finally snaps at the end of "Giant".
    • COMDEX is a big reality check for everyone. A competing product rips off their ideas and the Giant seems to be dead even before it can be demoed for the first time. Joe has to sacrifice his and Cameron's vision for what the Giant could be, in order to beat the competition. Dona's flirtation with her boss turns out to have dire consequences for the project and for her marriage. In the end, Joe discovers that while he and the Cardiff team fought to beat IBM, Apple developed the Macintosh and changed the computer landscape forever.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: John Bosworth comes of a jerk at first but he is under a lot of stress due to the mess that Joe created. It soon becomes clear that he hates laying off people and will do everything he can to save the company. He is willing to tolerate Joe because they need him to sell the project and is actually very nice to Cameron when he catches her rummaging through the empty offices after work hours.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Joe tells off potential investor LouLu Lutherford after she offers a less than desirable deal to finance the Cardiff PC project, claiming that she rents her friends and makes her business decisions all about herself.
    • Donna berates Gordon for not keeping promises he made and not knowing enough about their own daughters.
    • Joe does this to Gordon in front of Gordon's fellow engineers after Gordon nearly sinks a deal with Japanese suppliers and then doesn't come to see Joe prior to announcing the LCD deal. It turns out that while Joe going to the Japanese to mollify them apparently restored the deal, Gordon did a lot of the heavy lifting at the cost of a lot of his dignity by going to his father-in-law the previous night, who helped save the deal.
    • Gordon tells Joe that him leaving Cardiff Electric to return to IBM is a betrayal of everything he ever stood for.
    • Cameron tells Joe that he is a "sad little boy with a lot of wasted potential" as she finally breaks things off for good, shutting the door in his face.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • Joe manages to force Cardiff Electric into the computer business by openly telling his former bosses at IBM that he and Gordon were creating a clone computer, forcing Cardiff to claim that they had been working on their own computer all along in order to avoid a lawsuit. And Cardiff realizes that they can't fire MacMillan or Clark because that would tip off IBM that they knew that the computer project violated IBM's copyright.
    • Just after Cameron finishes writing the BIOS code, Joe deliberately fries her computer and convinces her that she's degaussed her backups, creating a crisis for the company, all so that he could get the Wall Street Quarterly to write a story about their computer.
    • Cameron takes a page out of Joe's playbook when she comes to believe that the new software team is mismanaged. She goes to her new boss and fires him and then she fires most of the programmers for NOT cheating in a video game. She then explains her reasoning to a bemused Joe who agrees with her and makes her the new software manager.
    • After Cardiff Electric is shut down by the FBI, Gordon hastily disassembles the Giant prototype, thinking that FBI agents would not seize "spare parts" as evidence. Later, he breaks into the office at night to steal the Giant's component parts, reassembling the computer at his garage.
  • Sanity Slippage: The second episode reveals that, under his confident demeanor, Joe can be really unstable. It is implied that he suffered a nervous breakdown during his time with IBM. When it seems that his plan will fizzle out, he loses it for a while. He stops by a store selling hi-fi audio equipment and goes bonkers when a salesman tells him that the store is going out of business because customers do not want to buy the new technology the store is selling. In a succeeding episode, he enters a car crushing contest and it's clear if you look closely that he's using it as a way to take out all his frustrations.
    • The ending of "Giant" appears to be this for Gordon.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!:
    • In "The 214s", after Cardiff Electric is shut down by the FBI, Joe nearly abandons the Giant project, but is convinced by Gordon & Cameron to stay on. However, in "1984", Joe torches the first shipment of Giants and abruptly leaves Cardiff Electric.
    • At the end of the first season, Donna deliberately gets herself fired from Texas Instruments as a way to appease Gordon for her indiscretions with her ex-boss Hunt.
  • Serious Business:
    • Early on, the Symphonic for Gordon. However, this is no longer the case when he feels the Giant will succeed, declaring the Symphonic a "piece of shit" and destroys it in front of Donna.
      Joanie Clark: What's a Symphonic?
      Donna Clark: It's a silly computer Mommy and Daddy built that didn't work.
      Gordon Clark: The Symphonic... was the best thing your dad ever did.
    • The Giant for Cardiff Electric. This is justified, especially considering that the machine will ruin Cardiff Electric if it fails.
  • Shaped Like Itself: When Joe asks Gordon what is the Giant's "Lotus 1-2-3", Gordon responds with "it's Lotus 1-2-3", reminding Joe that they built an IBM-compatible machine.
  • Shown Their Work: As with many AMC shows, the creators went extensive lengths to recreate the setting of the early 1980s.
    • The "Doherty Threshold", where a system response time less than 400 milliseconds was considered addicting to the end-user, seems to be a made-up concept; however, the concept is taken from an IBM case study written by Walter J. Doherty in November 1982.
  • Shout-Out: In a Season 2 promo, Gordon calls Cameron's and Donna's venture a "Nightmare on Nerd Street".
  • Sink-or-Swim Mentor: Joe loves to put people in situations where they have to use all their potential to succeed while failure would ruin their lives. He does this to Cardiff Electric by forcing them into the PC Clone business and he keeps doing it to Gordon and Cameron almost Once an Episode.
  • The Sociopath: By the finale, it's clear that Joe is one. His ego is irrevocably tied up in being personally attached to any project he undertakes, and when he doesn't get what he wants he will either abandon it or destroy it rather than see it done. Additionally, his obvious glibness and ability to "turn on a dime" if it means he can keep people in his orbit renders him fundamentally unstable and, as Nathan puts it, a "rattlesnake", not to be trusted.
  • Spiritual Successor: The series seems to be one to Mad Men, due to its period setting and the main character being a Tall, Dark and Handsome slick-talking narcissist with a Dark and Troubled Past.
  • Spotting the Thread: Towards the end of "FUD", Cameron realizes that Joe's story about getting his scars after some bullies chased him off the roof for not fitting in was bullshit because the two historic events central to his storynote  actually happened about a year apart rather than happening that same week.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Played with. Gordon and Joe both comment that the woman in the Apple '1984' ad "looks like Cameron". But anyone who has watched the actual "1984" ad from Apple knows that the woman in it has decidedly different bodily features.
  • Take That:
    • Cameron calls IBM's BIOS code "garbage" without having to look at it.
    • When Cameron insults Donna by calling her "somebody's mother", Donna states that she is indeed the mother of two girls and tells Cameron that she looks like she needs a mother.
  • Techno Babble: Averted, in that characters use actual computer science, electrical engineering, and information technology concepts and terminology.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: IBM sends a veritable Army of Lawyers to Texas as an intimidation tactic and to show how many resources IBM is willing to throw into the fight. Only the executives and senior lawyers actually talk and the rest are there to just glare menacingly. It's lampshaded when Joe's former IBM boss has the lawyers leave the room when he is talking to Joe. He knows that Joe will not be intimidated by the lawyers. The next episode Joe throws this back at them by bragging that Cardiff Electric only needs a single lawyer to win any lawsuit from IBM.
  • Those Two Guys: Lev and Yo-Yo, Cameron's software programmers and housemates.
  • Time Skip:
    • Season 1 takes place over a period of nearly ten months.
      • "1984" spans nearly three months; the episode starts about one week after COMDEX in early December, Cardiff Electric receives its test shipment of Giants sometime after Super Bowl XVIII in late January, and Gordon holds the Giant launch party in late February/early March.
    • Season 2 takes place one year after the events of the Season 1 finale.
  • Trauma Button: Cameron meets Joe McMillan's father, Joe Sr., and they actually get along for a while... until Joe Sr. says that Cameron must make her own father very proud. Cameron lost her dad when she was only 10 years old, and the mere mention of him upsets her so badly that she retreats into another room to cry.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: After Cardiff successfully pitches the Giant at COMDEX, the team contemplates this after Joe and Gordon had to sacrifice Cameron's ambitious operating system just to survive.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Pretty much everyone calls out Joe for his insane stunt that put everyone's livelihood in jeopardy.
    • After Gordon's wife picks him up from the drunk tank, she gives him a major talking to about his self-destructive behaviour. She gives him another major one after she discovers what Gordon and Joe were up to over the weekend when Gordon was 'sick'.
    • Cameron quickly tells Joe off for assuming that she had sex with him in order to get a job.
    • Cameron tells off Joe and Gordon when she finds out that they intend to fire her after she finishes writing the BIOS code.
    • Donna gets in on the act after discovering that Joe deliberately fried Cameron's computer to create a news story for the Wall Street Quarterly to drum up excitement for the Cardiff computer.
    • Joe yells at Gordon after the latter drinks too much during a business dinner and his inappropriate comments sink a deal with the Japanese.
    • Cameron is upset when Gordon strips out the daughterboard for Cameron's OS in order to beat the Slingshot. She gets even more upset when Joe goes along with Gordon's actions.
  • White Collar Crime: The main characters are both a perpetrator and a victim of white collar crime.
    • Bosworth is arrested and Cardiff Electric is shut down by the FBI after Bosworth is accused of embezzling several thousands, if not millions, of dollars from Nathan Cardiff in order the keep the Giant project afloat. Cameron was the one who actually hacked the bank's mainframe; however, Bosworth takes the heat to save her career.
    • After Cardiff is shut down by the FBI, Gordon disassembles the Giant prototype and steals the components to keep it from being seized as evidence.
    • Cardiff Electric falls victim to corporate espionage when Donna's former boss Hunt and Gordon's ex-coworker Brian unveil the Slingshot at COMDEX, which is a clear ripoff of the Cardiff Giant. Joe threatens legal action; however, Hunt rebuffs Joe's threat.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Cameron believes that a computer should be more than just a glorified calculator.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Nathan Cardiff refers to Joe as such, calling him a rattlesnake.
    • Donna's boss Hunt seems supportive of her at first; however, he was using her to get information on Cardiff's PC project so he can produce his clone.
  • X Meets Y: Mad Men meets The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
  • You Are Better Than You Think: After finding out that Cameron was manipulated by Joe into thinking that she'd accidentally destroyed her own work, Donna tells Cameron that her BIOS code is "like music".
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Joe and Gordon were not-so-secretly planning to fire Cameron after she finished writing the BIOS code.