"You're going to do the demo without the demo?"
Welcome to COMDEX '83!
In the penultimate episode of season one of Halt and Catch Fire, the crew arrives in Las Vegas, ready to take the then-iconic conference by storm--and find their hotel reservation was cancelled after Cardiff's corporate bank account was frozen.
Understandably, people start looking you a little funny when your company is under criminal investigation. But the team has cash on hand from selling Joe's car, and we're about to see just how far $11,000 went back in the early 80s. (By the way: expressed in 2014 dollars, Joe sold his car for around $26,300 in cold hard cash. Nice.)
Cameron, Gordon, Joe and Donna need hotel suite so they can throw an appropriately geeky party to celebrate their crowning achievement--the sort-of-portable computer Giant. But since COMDEX and a porn convention--gee, think a porn convention might turn up in a plot point later on?-- are both in town, there isn't a free room on the strip.
Then Joe spots two timid brothers--they look like Steve Wozniak's kin--and a lightbulb goes on. Pretending to be an IBM exec, he tells them to pack up and go home: IBM will soon be selling a printer that will crush the one they just demoed.
The brothers are all too willing to believe this and are ready to split town, tail between legs--as long as Joe can reimburse what they've already spent for their room and party supplies. Voilà! Cardiff has a suite and all the shrimp and booze they need for their bash.
But this isn't just a party. COMDEXers expect to see a computer demo while they drink their beer and bop along to Dwight Twilley. (Forgive them. It was the Eighties.) Thanks to a stunt on the conference floor involving spray paint, a briefcase, what appears to be a fake volcano, and a neat tagline--"There is a GIANT in this briefcase"-- Cameron manages to fill the suite with intrigued conferencegoers, but Gordon and Donna are still frantically at work behind closed doors, trying to get the Giant to boot up.
After more than two hours, Joe gives up on demoing a working machine. So he decides to demo a nonworking machine. He brings out the "feather-light" 15-pound, "sexy as hell" PC. Just before he goes to "start it up" he mentions that some of the stars from the neighboring porn convention are waiting to get into the party. The all-male crowd starts screaming, Joe gives in to them--reluctantly, oh so reluctantly (coughing)--and in walk four barely-dressed women, who grab beers, start dancing to (of course) Berlin's "Sex," and suddenly no one is very interesting in seeing a Giant demo.
Even better, Donna and Gordon finally manage to boot up the machine before they go to bed. They're all ready to go for tomorrow.
But then, down on the conference floor, Joe, Gordon and Donna discover Brian--the Clark's neighbor and ex-Cardiff employee--and Donna's crush and ex-boss Hunt teamed up to build the Slingshot--a faster, and cheaper version of the Giant.
How did they build what Cardiff built in half the time? Hunt later says they made a machine that's not as good as Cardiff's, but it's "good enough." Meaning: it doesn't have Cameron's fancy OS.
In any case, it's hard to see how Cardiff recovers. It's equally hard to see how Gordon and Donna's relationship recovers. Now's when Gordon realizes how much extra time Donna's been spending with her boss. The Slingshot wouldn't exist were it not for Donna unwittingly updating Hunt almost every step of the way. It gets worse. We know Donna only kissed Hunt once, but she vindictively tells Gordon, "It should have been an affair." Oww. Was that necessary, Donna? (Well . . . given Gordon's behavior, yeah.)
Later when Gordon is alone in the hotel room, he looks unbearably sad, starts drinking and then--slowly, methodically--starts to disassemble the PC. Oh great: another one of Gordon's nervous breakdowns is coming on. (Guess he left those soothing Zoolander-sounding tapes at home.)
But when Joe and Cameron get back to the hotel room, they see that Gordon's done some heavy lifting. It's faster all right. And probably much faster than the Slingshot. But it's missing something: the entire operating system Cameron had built.
Cameron, close to tears, pleads with Joe to make Gordon put it back. Looking genuinely sad, Joe just stands there. He's gotta go with Gordon on this one.
Good call, Joe. After demoing the machine on the floor, Cardiff has its first interested customer, who asks Joe how $70,000 for 900 PCs sounds.It looks like Joe doesn't hate it.
With the most depressing pop of a champagne bottle ever, Joe, Donna and Gordon acknowledge the good news. But it's nothing to celebrate. No one got what they wanted.
Later, strolling through the hotel halls, Joe notices one last eye-catching debut at COMDEX. Wandering into another computer demo, Joe sees that Cameron's OS wasn't as ahead of its time as they thought. Another company had also developed an intelligent OS.
What company? Some scrappy little startup you've never heard of called Apple.