In the end, everyone is who she is.
As the second season of Halt And Catch Fire ends, Cameron and Donna take what they’ve learned and triumph, while Gordon and Joe revert back to who they were and are left behind. Not that the lead characters of season one see themselves that way, necessarily.
Gordon, bankrolling Mutiny at least partly in order to save his crumbling marriage, smiles and makes jokes about having another kid as the plane to California prepares to take off. As ever, Gordon is unable to read the room, his constitutional desire for everything to go back to normal (or his vision of normal) blinding him to Donna’s veiled distress, both her painful memory of her recent abortion (which, to be fair, Gordon doesn’t know about), and her ongoing realization that life with Gordon will always involve coping with disappointment. And when, flipping through a computer magazine, Gordon sees that Joe’s turned Gordon’s good faith gesture to fix Westgroup with an anti-virus “antidote” into a multimillion dollar business, he’s furious, his blithe hopefulness ceding in an instant to the impotent rage that’s marked him from the start.
And Joe, relocating to the same city where Cameron is taking Mutiny, stands alone in a gorgeously empty rental, his soulful yet icy stare taking in another sparkling night sky (San Francisco over Dallas) where Joe MacMillan will, this time, make the world understand his genius. Again.
Halt And Catch Fire’s improvement this season has been predicated largely on watching Donna and Cameron replace Joe and Gordon. They, too, started a tech business on inspiration and chutzpah, their quest for success in an exponentially expanding field inextricably tied to their personal journeys. But where season one saw the show’s obsession with marketing Joe as tortured visionary crowd out much else, season two has been more grounded in recognizable humanity—both in Cameron and Donna’s efforts to keep Mutiny afloat, and in watching Joe and Gordon struggling to figure out, in the wake of their story, just how they still fit.
For Gordon, that’s meant coming to terms with both a serious illness and the idea that his feelings of victimization and inadequacy have a lot more to do with his character than any outside conspiracy to keep him down. Scoot McNairy has always excelled at making Gordon’s failures affecting without ever losing sight of the immature self-pity that’s often at the root of them, and, tonight, his unwillingness to commit to his therapy and his pleading need for Donna to absolve him of blame when their daughter temporarily goes missing are the impetus Donna needs to finally demand things change.
Kerry Bishé—sidelined somewhat the last few episodes—reasserts herself as Halt’s most compelling presence here, laying out terms under which the marriage can continue, delivered in a speech as controlled as it is nakedly honest. Her terms—Gordon signs over essentially all the money from his Cardiff settlement to buy Mutiny its own mainframe, the Clarks move to California with the company, and Gordon comes to work at Mutiny—are bold and, to Gordon, shocking (“What is this, extortion?”). But Donna’s through evading the faults in her marriage, her experiences at Mutiny in no small part giving her the clarity and courage to make a clear, unsentimental, but not-unloving case as to what she needs out of her husband, and her life.
After their wrenching fight earlier in the episode (where Gordon confessed to his one-night stand, and exhibited a blinkered double standard regarding Joe and Cameron’s deceptions), Donna said to Cameron, “I don’t know that Gordon and I love each other any more. And I don’t know if we can fix it. And I don’t even know if I want to fix it.” Here, she uses similarly declarative sentences, telling Gordon, “I don’t want to be the woman who leaves her husband when he’s sick. But that doesn’t mean I won’t.” Bishé, outstanding all season, is at her best yet in these scenes, her response to Donna’s seemingly untenable situation a marvel of understatement and clear-eyed strength of character. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she says to Gordon’s attempt to apologize for his affair, and it’s not because it’s too painful—it’s because she’s looked at the big picture of her life and decided what’s important.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s story this season has seen her do what Joe never could: compromise and change. As boss of her own company, Cameron’s initial rigidity concerning what Mutiny should be threatened, like Joe’s with Cardiff, to sink the whole enterprise (or, you know, burn it like a truckload of computers). But Cameron’s not Joe, and Donna’s a much better creative partner than Gordon was, so Cameron is able to realize her dream of a company founded on inspiration, creativity, and freedom by changing it when she sees that Donna’s ideas are better. It’s a shock to hear Cameron say “We’re not a games company any more” when she tries to get Tom to come with the Mutiny crew to California tonight, but there’s no trace of bitterness in her statement—indeed, she’s thrilled earlier in the episode seeing how the Mutineers have used their gaming skills to make Donna’s Community more fun and exciting (and addictive). And while Mackenzie Davis isn’t the actor Bishé is, she’s made the most of Cameron’s elevation to series co-lead this year. Her scene counseling Donna partakes of exactly none of the smudge-faced histrionics Cameron’s been prone to in the past (especially when Joe’s around), instead matching Bishé’s tone of earnest truthfulness:
I don’t know what it’s like. Marriage. Being married. I won’t pretend to understand. What you and Gordon have—that’s something only you two can figure out. I do know once in a while, you know, life can give us a sign, point us to a different place. Maybe good things can come out of bad. If it weren’t for Cardiff Electric, there’d be no Mutiny. If it weren’t for Gordon Clark, I wouldn’t have met you.
As in Donna’s confession before this, Davis’ understated performance underscores how deeply satisfying this relationship has been all season, leading to this simple, heartfelt expression of understanding—and advice. (In her construction here, Cameron is equating Donna’s marriage to Gordon as one of those bad things that can lead to something good, whether she realizes it or not.) Cameron doesn’t know marriage, but she—finally—understands what it is to have a true friend and partner.
Joe MacMillan doesn’t have that luxury, despite Gordon’s effort to reach out to him tonight. The friendship between Joe and Gordon has always been fraught with each man’s issues and blind spots—and the mistrust sown by Joe’s manipulations and secrets. Nonetheless, there’s the seed of something akin to what Cameron and Donna found this season, a mutual respect, coupled with a simple need for a pal. When Joe, fresh from signing the divorce papers Sarah signed without him, visits Gordon to give him the PROM chip they first worked on together, Lee Pace gives Joe a vulnerability all the more heartbreaking for how badly he tries to hide it. Gordon rightly susses out that Joe is on the verge of doing something drastic. (After Joe glimpses a picture of Bruce Springsteen at the lawyer’s office before closing his eyes and accelerating his truck, the lyrics “suicide machines” and “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” came into my head.)
Gordon’s subsequent visit to Joe is touching (“You’re a good man, Joe”), no less due to how Gordon tries to connect with Joe through Sara (and by extension his own marriage)—even though it’s clear Sara’s already gone for good.
She makes all the suffering of what we do worth it. That is not an easy thing to come by, and when you do it’s even harder to make it last. Maybe it can’t, but I do know you’ll hate yourself every day if you don’t at least try.
Pace’s face when Gordon unexpectedly hugs Joe is a heartbreaker, with Pace, as ever, making Joe’s pain register with almost too-naked emotion. From the start, Pace has been the perfect choice for the show’s conception of Joe MacMillan, his natural expressiveness adding to Joe’s larger-than-life presence. (Pace would have made a great silent film star.) Tonight, when Joe—taking Gordon’s well-intentioned gift of the Sonaris anti-virus program and turning it into his latest visionary business scheme—bulls his way into the office of the asshole banker who’d humiliated him earlier in the episode, Pace imbues Joe with his slickest, most malevolent energy yet:
You should protect yourself. Build a wall… You take a little bit of something bad so you can never be hurt like that again. The real product here is security, a shield against those who would hurt you, perhaps because of their own carelessness or simply because they want to destroy you. Real security is trusting no one.
There’s an element of salesmanship going on, sure, but Joe’s speech is his summation of all he’s learned from his ill-fated experiences this season—real security is trusting no one.
Never mind that Joe’s idea of helping Cameron involved a constant stream of manipulation, lies, and not a little self-interest, Joe claims he came back from his sabbatical at that observatory a changed man. “I decided I should do things differently. Operate from a place of total authenticity, be open, be human, do the right thing. But the truth is no one else made that pact with themselves so why should I?” Joe went through a hell of a lot this season, and Pace has made his repeated heartbreak quite affecting—but all Joe knows is his own vision of how things should be. When reality won’t conform to his idea of it, he first collapses—and then he turns back into Joe MacMillan, master of the universe. When Joe stands in that empty office, fidgeting with his now-denuded ring finger and glaring out over a new city, it’s like watching a supervillain origin story.
Meanwhile, Cameron is on a plane, flush with cash and surrounded by friends all dedicated to the dream she shared with them. Even Toby Huss’ Bosworth rejects his entrée back into the good ol’ boy boardroom and throws in with the motley gang from Mutiny. (I may have let out a little cheer.)
She doesn’t have everything she wants (Mark O’Brien’s Tom doesn’t accept her free plane ticket), and neither does Donna—but their trip to California is a hopeful one, and they’re embarking on it with the love and support of people who believe in them. The first scene of the season was of Joe and Cameron happy. The last is of Joe, slick and suited and alone in a cavernous, empty space.
- The ratings for this (drastically improved) season of Halt And Catch Fire have been awful, which most likely means this is it for the show. If so, it’s not a bad point at which to stop. Joe’s journey away from Dark Joe and back again suggests only a repeating pattern in further seasons, and the Gordon-Donna marriage, too, doesn’t seem to have much in the way of surprises left. As much as I enjoyed the show this year, Halt And Catch Fire was built on a rickety foundation—that it reached unexpected heights was a pleasant surprise that I’m not sure can be sustained.
- Of the Mutineers, it looks like Arki, Wonderboy, Dave, Bodie, Carl, Lev, and Yo-Yo are on board. I always knew Yo-Yo wouldn’t leave us.
- The asshole banker (the same one who originally belittled Donna and Cameron) really shouldn’t be so shocked that Joe is able to undo the Sonaris virus. I mean, he watched Joe load the virus onto his computer in the first place—his “How did you do that?” after Joe then plugs in the anti-virus doesn’t make much sense.
- Said banker mocks Joe, calling him a psychopath. Joe’s not a psychopath, but calling in a guy you think is a psychopath just to humiliate him seems unwise as well.
- Bad Joe’s return also reintroduces Halt And Catch Fire’s Dutch angles.
- Add Westgroup to the list of major companies left in shambles by the Joe MacMillan touch. This time, Jacob Wheeler takes the fall, and the company is out to the tune of six million bucks.
- “I always hoped one of my inventions would go down in history. I just never thought it’d be a computer virus.” Poor Gordon.
- “Remember last month when you were so worried that someone was stealing your ideas? Well, that actually happened to me.” The revelation that Donna was in on Cameron’s plan to get revenge on Westgroup is shocking—but not that shocking.
- Thanks for reading, everyone.