Halt and Catch Fire

IMDB: Halt and Catch Fire

Seasons Type Genre
4 Serial Drama
Scene Count
Pilot Screenplay
45 58

Signature Elements

Altered History

A popular technique for writing a period piece is substituting someone/something real for your fictional creation and then telling your own story. Cardiff Electric is loosely based off of Compaq and its rise and fall in the technology industry.

David Vs. Goliath

Everyone loves the underdog versus the champion because it shows how anyone can overcome even the greatest obstacle against all odds. It makes good entertainment in sports and equally good entertainment in television. IBM is a giant corporation taking business from everyone, and Cardiff Electric is picking a fight with them by using their own product against them.

Time Period

Halt and Catch Fire is based in the 80’s just as personal computers are starting to take off. This gives audiences a glimpse into how life was back before technology and the significant events that shaped the future into what it is today.

Main Characters

Joe Mcmillan


(34). A man these black suits were made for. But despite the jawline, the executive contour hair, he’s a million miles away right now.

Gordon Clark


THE LAST MAN AT THE BAR sticks out like a sore thumb. He isn’t country; hell, he ain’t much of anything. Ragged hair, big glasses,
thick unkempt mustache…(31)

Cameron Howe


(22), a young woman with ice blonde hair cut very short. Big black-rimmed glasses and exposed collar bone, fashionable, post-punk.

Donna Clark


(30)…She’s got the pretty face of a high school sweetheart, but the grim frown of someone who’s put up with a lot of shit.

John Bosworth


(48), an eagle resting in permanent judgment, comfortably in power behind his desk. When he speaks,
it’s equal parts brass tacks and Texas drawl.

Other Characters:

Al Kowalski

(45)…a man who’s parked it in management, a bit bloated from booze and food and glory days.

Dale Barnes

Smarmy gym-and-suntan disciple with a conservative haircut… (38)

Nathan Cardiff

(60), relaxed in chair near the window, worn cowboy hat in his hand. He puts his snakeskin boots up on John’s desk, whistling “Red River Valley.”

Character Differences

Gordon Clark

In the screenplay, Gordon is a loving father with noble intentions and has the dream of building computers. He put that dream on hold to be with his family and seems content with how his life is.

In the pilot, Gordon is a terrible father and husband. He barely pays attention to his kids and regrets not following his dream.


In the screenplay, Cameron is a naive young woman who is just starting her career in college. She takes the job for the opportunity and offers little resistance.

In the pilot, Cameron is socially intelligent and knows exactly what Joe is doing. She takes the job after negotiating and has a rebellious attitude towards everything.

Al Kowalski

Al was cut entirely from the pilot. His character was never really needed and provided the same role as John Bosworth. In the screenplay he is even fired off screen by Gordon proving he wasn’t planned to be around for long.

Act Breakdown

Halt and Catch Fire Pilot


The story lines will be broken down between Joe and Gordon.



Joe runs over an armadilo.
Joe guest lectures to a hall of students and meets Cameron. (Scene taken from Act 3 in screenplay)
Joe and Cameron discuss the future of computers in an arcade. (Scene taken from Act 3 in screenplay)
Joe and Cameron have sex in the arcade basement. Joe makes a side comment about getting the job causing Cameron to leave.
Title sequence added.
Definition of Halt and Catch Fire add:
“An early computer command that send the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.”


The entire sequence of Joe leaving Dale’s office and driving off a cliff is cut.

Main Points:

Joe realizes IBM screwed him over.
Joe drives off a cliff to commit suicide.


The entire attempted suicide sequence is cut from the finished pilot. However there are two things in the pilot that indicate that it is still part of the story, but just not shown:

1. Joe has one scene where he is wearing a buttoned down shirt which is unbuttoned. Scars can be seen on his body, but it is mostly covered by the shirt.
2. Dale tells John that Joe had been missing for a year before resurfacing at Cardiff.

So it is likely they wanted to keep Joe’s past a mysterious and slowly reveal it over the course of the season.

In the pilot the scene with Cameron is put at the beginning of the show which makes more sense. It did feel out of place when it was in the middle of the screenplay.

End of Teaser

Screenplay: Joe attempts suicide after driving off a cliff.
Pilot: Cameron walks out on Joe as they have sex.

Script Notes


Act 1

Important Note:
After reviewing the differences between the pilot and screenplay, I decided to combine Act’s 1 and 2 from the screenplay into one Act so it matches closely with the pilot.

The screenplay was written with six acts and a teaser, and the pilot was aired with five acts and a teaser. The first and second act were likely combined into one act to eliminate the need for a 6th act.


Gordon meets his wife outside the jail as she waits by the car.
Joe walks by Gordon’s desk and makes eye contact with him after being hired.
Joe intentionally takes Gordon’s parking spot forcing Gordon to park at the end of the parking lot.
Gordon gets out of his car, drops his food, cleans it off and then continues eating it.
Donna arrives home and tries to fix the Speak-n-Spell while Gordon does nothing to help.
Gordon looks at his old article.


Gordon gets in a fight with a guy at the bar after insulting his girlfriend.
Gordon tells Donna he wants to hang in the garage by himself.
Gordon sits in his makeshift workshop.
Gordon stays up late working on computers in his garage.
Gordon comments on Joe’s car.
Bosworth is grateful for Joe making the sale with Applied Data.
Al tells Joe he better be there the next time he closes.

Main Points:

Gordon and his wife talk about past regrets, which is the cause for Gordon’s drinking problem.
Joe gets hired at Cardiff.
Joe unpacks his new apartment.
Gordon works on computers in his workshop.


The pilot only has 5 acts and a teaser as opposed to 6 and this act is where it is lengthened a bit, combining both act 1 and 2.


Joe’s story has several minor changes.

Al introduced Joe to Bosworth in the screenplay, but since Al is cut from the show, Joe is just being interviewed by John because of his experience with IBM, not because Al is vouching for him.
Joe also keeps his injuries a secret as the audience doesn’t know about that yet.
Joe intentionally gets in Gordon’s life, first by parking in his spot and then calling him on a sales call. The parking spot scenes were added in the pilot.

Joe also doesn’t get the sale from Applied Data, he only gets a maybe. It is alluded that Gordon’s interruption broke the deal.
So the scene with John congratulating him and Al getting mad are cut.

Joe isn’t shown unpacking his apartment, just noting where Gordon is in the organization.


In the screenplay, Gordon is still holding onto his dream by tinkering with computers in his garage after hours. Donna is fine with this arrangement as Gordon is still a good husband despite the drinking.
In the pilot, Gordon’s dream is gone and he drinks because his family commitments forced him to give it up. In the scenes at Gordon’s home, he stands around and does nothing to help Donna as she struggles to balance work and take care of the kids.
His story focuses more on the drama of his marriage falling apart instead of him holding onto a dream.

The Speak-N-Spell also has more significance throughout the pilot. In this script, Gordon fixes it, but in the pilot, Donna attempts to fix it and Gordon just stands there and does nothing. Later Gordon ends up fixing it as he realizes what a bad father and husband he’s been.

End of Act 1

Act 1:Screenplay: Joe reads an article by Gordon, Clark is up late working on computers.
Act 2:Screenplay:Joe asks Gordon about an article and tells him he interested in working on a project with him.
Pilot: Gordon looks back at his article.

Script Notes

In the screenplay, Donna is in the jail to see Gordon when he is released.
In the pilot, Donna is waiting outside by the car.

In the screenplay, Donna and Gordon talk about past regrets since moving from Silicon Valley.
In the pilot, the theme of past regrets stays the same, but its about Gordon’s almost success with the Symphonic.

In the screenplay, John asks Joe about his injuries from the accident.
In the pilot, since Joe is keeping this a secret, the dialogue is cut.

In the screenplay, the company is called Cardiff Giant.
In the pilot, the company is called Cardiff Electric.

In the pilot, Joe shows John his income statement from IBM to show proof of his success as a salesman.

In the screenplay, Joe unpacks his apartment and reads an old issue of Byte which contains Gordon’s article.
In the pilot, Joe sits in his apartments, looks at the staff directory of Cardiff Electric and highlights Gordon’s name.

In the screenplay, the Applied Data sales meeting is in a conference room.
In the pilot, the Applied Data sales meeting is in a restaurant.

In the screenplay, Joe’s sales pitch is about being better service and cheaper than IBM.
In the pilot, Joe’s sales pitch is about being more than IBM. The managers poke fun at Joe’s optimism, but he casually brushes it off by saying he won’t apologize for caring about the business to the main boss.

In the screenplay, the VP says he thinks they can put something together.
In the pilot, the VP says he will think about.

In the screenplay, after Joe says shut the fuck up to Gordon, he asks if he understands.
In the pilot, Joe doesn’t say fuck, and he walks away right after saying Shut up.

In the screenplay, Joe drops the Byte magazine with the page on Gordon’s article so Gordon can see it.
In the pilot, Joe drops the Byte magazine on Gordon’s desk and asks about the article on Page 39. Gordon denies he knows anything or doesn’t remember.

In the pilot, Joe quotes Gordon to himself to try and reignite his passion for the topic.

Act 2


Gordon and Donna talk in the car after Gordon talks with Joe at the movies.
Gordon gets up in the middle of the night and fixes the Speak N Spell. (scenes inserted with the montage of Joe hitting the baseball in his apartment.)


Joe lectures at a university hall. (Moved to Teaser)
Joe talks with Cameron at an arcade (Moved to Teaser)
Gordon shaves off his moustahce.
Joe gets up after sleeping with Cameron and takes off saying it was a mistake.
Joe sits in silence in his apartment.
Flashback of Joe learning IBM patented his creation behind his back.

Main Points:

Joe asks Gordon to reverse engineer an IBM with him.
Joe sleeps with a potential engineer candidate.
Joe remembers being ripped off by IBM.
Gordon initially says no to Joe’s offer, but then accepts, buying an IBM himself.



Besides his interactions with Gordon, most of Joe’s story line is cut in this act.
Joe’s backstory is cut from the pilot in order to keep it a mystery and reveal it later.
His scenes with Cameron are moved to the beginning of the pilot in place of the cut backstory.


Gordon has several changes to his story revolving around his family, but the story line stays the same with Joe.

In the screenplay, Donna is passive on the idea showing more support than doubt. There is no relationship tension besides the drinking problem because Gordon is still a good father. He is also still working on his computers.

In the pilot, Gordon has no outlet for his regret. He mopes around angry about his past failure with his prototype computer, the Symphonic. Joe’s optimism and belief in Gordon sparks him back into action as shown by the scene where Gordon fixes the Speak-N-Spell.

The change in story shifts from a happy down-on-his luck family man with a supportive wife to an angry regretful man who neglects his family and has given up on his dream. The latter has more tension, drama and stakes which is probably why the shift in the character was made.

Gordon also doesn’t shave his face as a symbol of being a new man because the action of working on computers again already signifies the shift in motivation.

End of Act 2

Screenplay: Gordon agrees to help Joe
Pilot:Gordon agrees to help Joe reverse engineer.

Script Notes

In the screenplay, Gordon is explaining the parts of the Speak n Spell to his daughter.
In the pilot, Donna is explaining the different parts of the Speak n Spell.

In the screenplay Donna tells Gordon that Joe called as he is working on his computers.
In the pilot, Donna actually talks to Joe on the phone and Gordon tells her he isn’t there. Gordon is not working on his computers.

In the screenplay, Gordon and his family run into Joe in the movie theatre.
In the pilot, Gordon and his family run into Joe as they leave the movie theatre.

In the screenplay, Gordon’s family watches E.T.
In the pilot, Gordon’s family watches Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

In the screenplay, Gordon tells Joe he can’t help him stating he has too much to lose.
In the pilot, Gordon tells him the same, but adds that it’s illegal and they missed their chance. Joe tells Gordon he plans on using Cardiff to scale it fast.

In the screenplay, Cameron is already in class when Joe is introduced.
In the pilot, Cameron walks in late as Joe is talking.

In the screenplay, there are about 75 students.
In the pilot, there are about 30 students.

In the screenplay, Joe is introduced as a member of Cardiff Giant.
In the pilot, since this is at the beginning of the episode, Joe is introduced as an instrumental part of IBM.

In the screenplay, Joe ends up with one older gentleman with his hand up. He goes back to three and then picks Cameron.
In the pilot, Joe ends up with Cameron and another guy and picks Cameron based on the question where do they see computers in ten years.

In the screenplay, Cameron and Joe play Frogger as they discuss the future of computers.
In the pilot, Cameron and Joe go from game to game talking about the potential of computers that no one sees.

In the screenplay, Gordon brings the IBM computer to Joe’s office as he about to resign.
In the pilot, Clark pulls up in the parking lot and Gordon shows him the computer in his trunk. Joe shows no indication that he was considering resigning..

In the screenplay, Gordon doesn’t mention Donna when he offers his garage for the three day weekend.
In the pilot, Gordon mentions Donna is going to her brothers with the kids for the three day weekend.

Act 3


Bosworth’s secretary answers and tells him that IBM is on the phone.
Donna arrives home to Gordon cooking dinner and a fixed Speak n Spell.
Donna tells Gordon to build the computer, but to be a partner with her and to not neglect the family.


Joe and Gordon discuss their next goal at Whataburger.
Joe sits in his car after his encounter with Gordon after their meeting.
Gordon tells Donna that he is in trouble with IBM.
Dale gloats to Joe and tells him IBM never loses.

Main Points:

Joe and Gordon reverse engineer the IBM computer.
Bosworth and Cardiff receive word that IBM will be pursuing legal action.
Joe reveals he told IBM what they did.



Joe’s story stays the same as he takes the same course of action.
However there is no interaction with his former boss Dale.


Gordon’s added drama with his wife reaches a breaking point when she finds out Gordon lied about being sick so he could go back to building computers.
In the screenplay, there is no tension about this side project as Gordon is already tinkering with computers.
The pilot makes it clear that Gordon is a broken man after giving up the dream. After working with Joe and being caught in a lie, Gordon finally tells his wife he isn’t happy with his decision to give up on his dream.

After Gordon finds out about Joe telling IBM, he finally recognizes the importance of family and what could happen to them if he loses his job. However Donna also has a revelation as she realizes Gordon will never be truly happy until he achieves his dream. Donna tells Gordon she supports him in dream, but to remember his family.

The screenplay has no real conflict or tension between Gordon and Donna, even after Gordon tells her about IBM. From a character perspective, it made sense to add that drama because it puts more pressure and conflict on Gordon, especially considering his already established alcohol abuse.

The act of actually reverse engineering the computer in the pilot is a lot more technical probably due to more research on the process.

End of Act 3

Screenplay: Dale gloats to Joe and tells him IBM never loses.
Pilot: Dale tells John they got a problem.

Script Notes

In the screenplay, the process for reverse engineering the chip is vague with Gordon only saying it will be trial and error and take a long time.
In the pilot, the process is to figure out the 65000 pin voltages that make up the chip.

In the screenplay, after Gordon says they build a better chip, the scene ends.
In the pilot, after Gordon says they build a better chip, Donna shows up with the kids.

In the pilot, Donna and Gordon argue about Gordon getting back into building computers.

In the pilot, Dale mentions to John that Joe has been missing for one year.

In the screenplay, Gordon punches Joe in the parking lot after they learn about IBM knowing what they did.
In the pilot, Gordon doesn’t punch Joe. Joe also mentions Gordon’s old invention.

Act 4


Cameron gets kicked out of the arcade bar.
Cameron and Gordon meet Cameron outside the arcade bar after she is kicked out.
Montage of Cameron traveling to Cardiff.
Cameron arrive at Cardiff lobby.


Gordon throws up before meeting with John and Cardiff.
Gordon asks Joe why he drove his car off the cliff.

Main Points:

Joe suggests Cardiff builds the computer and claim they are in the PC business to avoid getting sued by IBM.
Joe hires Cameron to be the engineer with prior history to help build the PC and give the plan credibility.


Joe and Gordon

The screenplay seems to reward the characters with best case scenarios. In the screenplay, Joe and Gordon manage to negotiate Vice President positions after pissing off both their boss and the owner. The pilot takes the fiction down a few notches to a more realistic outcome by having Joe and Gordon work on the project but not be named Vice Presidents.

Cameron is still hired as the programmer, but she is more stubborn and leverages the opportunity for a bigger salary.

End of Act 4

Screenplay: Gordon asks Joe why he drove off the bridge.
Pilot: Cardiff needs to hire another engineer.

Script Notes

In the screenplay, Cardiff is impressed with Joe’s bold idea and approves it.
In the pilot, Cardiff is impressed, but pissed off that Joe messed with his company. He approves it because its the only option.

In the pilot, Cameron tells Gordon that her and Joe had sex.

In the screenplay, Cameron eventually agrees to the job without negotiations.
In the pilot, Cameron negotiates a higher salary before agreeing.

In the screenplay, Cameron asks why Joe drove off the cliff.
In the pilot, Joe’s back story is never mentioned.

Act 5


Cameron, Gordon and Joe watch a team of IBM lawyers enter Cardiff.
Donna looks at the computer and parts in her garage.


Montage of Joe cold calling people from his Rolodex.
Montage of Gordon putting his ideas on a whiteboard.
Dale tells Joe he closed a deal with Applied Data.
Cameron tells Joe she finished the chip.
Gordon, Joe, Cameron and Donna watch the computer come to life.

Main Points:

Cameron is brought in and prepared for the legal interrogation.
IBM shows up to make their presence known.
Cameron finishes the chip and the computer works with it.


Joe and Gordon

A lot of the ending is changed because of the speed of the entire process. The screenplay has IBM as a looming threat, but Cameron creates the chip and they boot a computer with immediate success. This is a tension free ending that doesn’t really give any excitement for future episodes.

Compared to the closing shot of the pilot where an entire team of IBM lawyers pile into the office, the screenplay didn’t have much of a pull for next episode.

In the pilot, Bosworth also makes it abundantly clear that he is in charge and that he will look into Joe’s past life. In the screenplay, Joe had initially disclosed that information with Bosworth from the start.

Again there are also no scenes with Dale and Joe.

End of Act 5

Screenplay: Joe, Cameron and Donna watch their creation come to life.
Pilot: They watch as IBM lawyers come.

Script Notes

In the screenplay, Cameron says no to each question normally.
In the pilot, Cameron hesitates at the first two questions regarding tampering with computers, indicating she is lying.

In the screenplay, John tells Joe to start cold calling.
In the pilot, this scene is changed to John laying down the rules and yelling at Joe, Cameron and Gordon. He tells Joe he doesn’t like being cornered in his own house and that he will dig into Joe’s past.

Overall Breakdown

Three Biggest Differences

1. Al Kowalski’s character is cut.

Al is a great example of a character that shouldn’t be there. His initial importance is introducing Joe to Bosworth, but as the pilot showed, that was easily changed. While reading the screenplay I would confuse Bosworth and Al or not remember their role in the business. They basically played the same role but were two different characters. Al provided no real value overall and this is hammered home when Gordon volunteers to fire him which happens off screen.

Al being cut is not significant to the story, but it is to screenwriting and provides a perfect example of why you should consider eliminating or combining characters if they provide no value or effect on the overall story.

2. Ending Changed

The most effective endings usually have conflict that is unresolved making the audience want to tune in for the next episode. The original ending from the screenplay ends on a high note as the team manages to build a replicated chip and use it successfully on a computer. This ending doesn’t really entice the audience to watch the next episode as the ending doesn’t generate any sort of conflict.

Instead, the focus of the pilot ending is switched to IBM and its legal team. Seeing a team of lawyers pile into the office is a great visual example of the conflict to come.

Realistically building the replicated chip and having it fully functional would take some time and unless the show time jumped, it would be unrealistic for them to be ready for IBM with a fully functional prototype especially with IBM already there in the screenplay.

3. Joe’s backstory is not shown.

The last significant difference is taking out Joe’s backstory and revealing it later. There are clues to hint at what his secret is, but the show never specifically states it. The backstory didn’t really add to the initial motivation of Joe as it was clear he wants to change the future more than he wants to get back at IBM. So cutting it so it can be revealed later didn’t affect the over all pilot story line.

Structural Changes

Halt and Catch Fire was 5 acts and 1 teaser, not 6 acts and 1 teaser.
There are two significant changes made to the structure of Halt and Catch Fire.
1. Putting the meeting of Cameron and Joe at the beginning of the episode, replacing Joe’s suicide attempt.
If the decision was made to keep the back story a mystery, something had to be a teaser. The scene of Joe and Cameron wasn’t really part of the story and did interrupt the main plot line of Joe and Gordon, so taking it out wasn’t disrupting the flow of the story.

2.The ending pulled back to the IBM lawyers showing up.
The pilot episode cuts out actually building a fully functioning chip in a few weeks. I think cutting back to focus on one problem at a time and slowly building up the creating of the computer is the better idea.

Halt and Catch Fire’s screenplay is a story that starts with a tragedy, but ends on a high note.
The pilot on the other hand, starts off neutral and ends with conflict.

Character Changes

The character changes have a significant impact on the differences of the pilot and screenplay.

Gordon’s character goes from an optimistic programmer waiting for his big break, but hesitant to take action, to a pessimistic alcoholic who has given up on his dreams and his family. And no character is more depressing than one who tried for their dreams, failed and then settled, always thinking about what could have been.

Cameron’s character changes from innocent to rebellious which makes the character more interesting and action driven. As a rebel, conflict is inherently always there, which is what Cameron accomplishes.

Overall the screenplay is highly optimistic with characters eager to work together to take down IBM and build the computer of the future. Even Cardiff rewards Joe and Gordon for bringing a lawsuit against Cardiff by making them Vice Presidents.
The pilot is a more realistic look at the conflict and implications of Joe and Gordon’s actions. No one wants to help anyone unless it’s in there best interest and everyone has conflict with each other.

The definition of Halt and Catch fire used at the beginning of the pilot also hints at what the show will be about. By creating their own chip, Joe and Cardiff have essentially initiated a race where all participants will seek superiority at once, with no one ever really gaining control.

Screenwriting Techniques


Halt and Catch Fire uses several montages throughout the episode.

Phone Conversation – Intercut

Bosworth and Dale have a phone conversation when IBM contacts Cardiff. This is a good example of a phone conversation that inter-cuts between the two participants.

Scene Descriptions

There are several great scene descriptions at the beginning of each scene to visually set up the setting.


The screenplay and pilot are an example of how to add conflict into the story.
Most of the actions in the screenplay work out for the characters providing little consequences for their actions.

Joe comes back from the dead changes to never being shown and only hinted at.
Joe closes the sale with Applied Data changes to Joe getting a maybe.
They build the computer and get VP status changes to barely keeping their jobs and not getting a chance to build the computer yet because they have to deal with IBM and the team of lawyers.
Cameron happily takes the job changes to Cameron taking the job with a higher cost.
Cardiff is happy that Joe forced Cardiff Electric into the personal computer business changes to Cardiff is pissed that Joe messed with his business.
Gordon failed his dream but is still actively working at it with a supporting family changes to a miserable Gordon regretting his decisions and being a terrible father and husband.

These slight changes add more tension and drama to the story instead of things working overwhelming well for the characters.

Thanks for reading and I appreciate any feedback.

Next Pilot: Leverage