As far as TV problems go, Halt and Catch Fire has a good one: What do you do with the Difficult Man when you’ve outgrown him?
In its first season, AMC’s ’80s #tbt got dinged for being a botched Xerox of Mad Men; in its second, it was praised as an original look at the tech industry in its infancy. The initial wave of criticism was inextricably linked to Halt’s would-be Don Draper, a self-styled tech visionary named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace); the subsequent approval was inextricably linked to its admirable choice to move past him, focusing instead on programmer — and Joe’s ex — Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), her business partner Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), and their fledgling gaming company, Mutiny.
Except even after Donna and Cameron took the reins, Joe was still there, not quite knowing what to do with himself. The show didn’t, either. Halt’s new leads went through the stress and triumph of kick-starting their own business on Dallas’s Silicon Prairie. Joe, meanwhile, had a disastrous marriage and an even more disastrous business partnership with his oil baron father-in-law, trying to convince both others and himself he’d changed all the while.
In season three, premiering tonight, that’s all over.
Newly relocated to northern California with the rest of the cast and newly filthy rich off an antivirus software he didn’t invent, Joe is in full-fledged villain mode, complete with Jobsian scruff and knitwear. He’s a bullshit artist, fueled by charisma alone; unlike software whiz Cameron or hardware expert Gordon Clark (Donna’s husband, played by Scoot McNairy), Joe has little more than a rudimentary knowledge of the tech he’s evangelizing. Like his closest ancestor, Joe is a salesman first and foremost, except he doesn’t actually create what his company is selling — he just profits off the people who do, even as his impulsiveness puts their livelihoods at risk. The first season celebrated these qualities in Joe. The second had him do penance for them. The third sees him embrace them.
The first image we see of Halt’s new home is an omen. “ARE YOU SAFE?” asks a billboard, towering over San Francisco in twilight. We see the same ad over and over again, looming in the background of characters’ lives; it is, of course, for Joe’s company, a software security firm preparing to expand from corporate clients to the general public. Except Joe, being Joe, didn’t actually create the product that finally secured him Master of the Universe status. Gordon did, and gave it to a rock-bottom Joe after Cameron sabotaged his latest business venture.
In the second season’s finale, Joe turned around and used that good-faith gift to land $10 million in venture funding — the same funding his more cautious female contemporaries like Cameron and Donna scramble to get even a tenth of. The move foreshadowed an ideal role for Joe moving forward: an established foil to Cam and Donna’s seat-of-their pants upstarts, who don’t have the privilege of showboating their way into a corner office. Halt’s third season moves into more explicit depiction of sexism in tech than ever, and an empowered Joe is its implicit flip side.
Fast forward to the glass box in the sky that funding helped him buy, and Joe’s external circumstances finally match his internal self-regard. When he interacts with the main cast, it’s purely as an adversary: He humiliates Gordon in a deposition; he tracks down Cameron at a lecture to deliver smirking one-liners like “How could I have risen from the ashes if you haven’t burned it all to the ground?”; he poaches Mutiny’s best programmer on the condition that he tells Gordon, to his face, “I’m going to work for Joe MacMillan.”
A Difficult Man acting, well, difficult is hardly new, but Halt is unusually clear-eyed about Joe’s failings. Unlike so many wild-card eccentrics before him, Joe’s ends don’t justify his means; until now, the ends amounted to a series of professional bridge-burnings, and even a successful business hardly justifies ripping off a man with terminal brain damage. He’s also surrounded, and frequently confronted, by the wreckage he’s tried to leave behind. “I know you’ve got this whole humble Zen master thing going for you,” a Mutiny executive tells him at an industry party, “but I’m not buying it.” Halt wears its disdain for its for its former lead openly.
Halt’s true masterstroke, though, is that it doesn’t undermine the point by focusing on the antihero anyway. Mutiny is still the true core of the series, keeping Halt from repeating the mistakes of Golden Age clones past. And Lee Pace’s performance ensures there’s still nuance to the character, communicating the insecurity and, deep down, earnest belief behind Joe’s charm and frankly absurd good looks. (If you told me Lee Pace is the result of a secret government arms race to develop the perfect human specimen, I’d believe you.) But that subtlety, which starts to emerge later in the season, emerges from a place that’s more honest and authentic than “misunderstood visionary.” Halt and Catch Fire finally figured out the logical next step in the evolution of the deeply flawed male character. After the hero comes the antihero, and after the antihero comes the villain.