Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan (AMC)

“The men in the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get running
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal.”
Joe Strummer/The Clash, “Clampdown”

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It’s a testament to how good an actor Lee Pace is that Joe MacMillan’s journey in “Waiting For The Clampdown” is so affecting despite being as pre-programmed as Joe’s story has been from the start. Pace has always managed to make Joe interesting to watch, even when the script has Joe function as more plot machine than man, and there’s a lot of Joe the manipulator tonight, as he first convinces Jacob Wheeler to buy Mutiny, then convinces Cameron to sell Mutiny, then convinces Cameron not to sell Mutiny. Along the way, he also convinces Aleksa Palladino’s Sara to take him back and marry him, agrees to leave his job at her father’s company and move to California, and shares yet another deep, dark secret from his past with Cameron.

I’ll take the heat for being hard on Joe as a character, even as I hold firm that Joe was a calculated attempt by Halt And Catch Fire creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers to give audiences what current AMC dramas demand of their antihero protagonists. Halt And Catch Fire is trying to become a different show this year, one less beholden to that imitative idea that character drama has to be driven by a mysterious, morally questionable man. Tonight, Joe’s story essentially yanks out what’s been both powering it and holding it back by having Joe replay last year’s entire storyline in one hour of television—and then realize he’s the problem after all. “I’m removing myself from the equation,” Joe tells Cameron. He may as well be telling us, too.

This season began with a flashback of Joe and Cameron playing house in the brief window of time (mostly offscreen) when they were happy together, underscoring the show’s contention that their love story was the real heart of the season. Joe’s relationship with Sara has been less convincing not because we’re hoping for Joe and Cameron to make it work, however, but because of how uninteresting and underdeveloped Sara has been. Lifted out of the story for episodes at a time, Sara functions as Joe’s conscience, and little else, even as Pace’s performance has found ways to make Joe’s need for her more humanizing than anything else in Joe’s character so far. So tonight, after Joe and her father spend a dinner talking past her (even while Joe defends her) she calls Joe out. As is her wont, Sara’s assessment of Joe is deadeningly on the nose, unpacking Joe’s flaws for us. “We talked about moving forward. You’re backsliding. I want you to stop meddling in other people’s companies and make your own.” That Joe can be so simply broken down reinforces how thin his character has always been, no matter how the show has tried to tart it up with regularly deployed intimations (or, as tonight, straight-up anecdotes) that hint at the reasons for Joe being Joe. Which makes what Pace brings to Joe’s exit tonight more admirable—it might be a function more of acting craft than great storytelling, but it’s moving as hell nonetheless.

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Sadly, to get to Joe’s best moments, poor Lev has to be sacrificed to the gods of storytelling contrivance. The dangers of Donna’s rapidly growing Community social network are unleashed upon Lev who, in the internet’s first instance of catfishing, discovers that the cool guy he’s been flirting with online is actually a gang of very patient gay-bashers, who lure him out of the Mutiny house for a date, and beat him senseless. While I’m still mourning the loss of Cooper Andrews’ Yo-Yo, August Emerson’s done good work making the smart and competent Lev a welcome presence at Mutiny, and what happens to him here is certainly upsetting. (And Cameron’s fury at the cops’ seeming inaction in solving the hate crime gives Mackenzie Davis a chance to let loose with an admirably in-your-face, “The dumb pigs aren’t doing anything about it!”) But throwing Lev to the wolves in order to derail Cameron’s tense confrontation with the Mutineers about her turning down Joe’s offer (which, they discover to their horror, was for five million dollars) is just narrative convenience. It also provides Joe with the opportunity to drop another of his suspiciously situation-specific secrets (wherein he claims to have been the victim of gay-bashing back in middle school) in order to cement his argument that Cameron not sell out to Westgroup. Meanwhile, Lev, guarded over by the black Spider-Man action figure he’d won earlier in the episode, lies unconscious, shattered by his role as plot device.

“Waiting For The Clampdown” traffics in big speeches, but Joe’s final plea to Cameron is undeniably the most affecting, thanks to Pace’s performance (and Davis’ largely silent reactions). There’s been an irksome undercurrent of undermining Cameron’s authority this season, even as the show moved her into a more central role. It continues tonight, with Joe’s turning to the men closest to Cameron—Bosworth and Tom—in order to get her to listen to reason. That’s “reason versus emotion,” as Joe makes it plain to Tom: “You have to ask yourself if you’re doing right by her if you let her make this decision based on pure emotion.” He says the same thing to Bosworth who, while admirably remaining loyal to Cameron throughout (“Everything that’s said in this room goes right back to Cameron”), still clearly conveys his agreement with Joe’s assessment that Cameron is only turning down Joe’s offer because of their past. (“She can hate me all she wants but don’t let her cut off her nose to spite her face,” pleads Joe.) As with Joe’s meddling with Mutiny all season, there’s the very real sense that he knows better than Cameron what’s best for Mutiny, and for her. In his actions tonight, even after he has his change of heart (once he realizes that Jacob Wheeler intends to renege on their deal and gut Cameron’s gaming from the new Mutiny), Joe essentially manipulates Cameron one last time into, essentially, not acting so much like a girl.

That being said, Pace nails his big scene. Was young Joe bullied by homophobic kids? Maybe—Joe’s bisexuality was established last season (narratively convenient as it appeared), although he did lie about being thrown off the roof of his high school by a wholly different set of schoolmates in order to get Cameron and Gordon on his side, so who knows. Here, while he may be using the same tactic to get Cameron to keep Mutiny, he probably doesn’t need it, as Pace makes Joe’s case feelingly:

You’ll ruin it. You won’t mean to but you will. Your vision will be corrupted and lost. I’m not going to bully you into this. It’s your company, you should decide what happens to it. Maybe you’ll make it, maybe you won’t. But you’ll live or die by who you really are.

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What makes Joe’s plea so poignant is that, even here when he’s appealing to someone he truly cares for to do something he truly believes in, he can’t stop selling. Even as he removes himself from the main story (at least for now), it’s unclear if there’s a real Joe at all.

When Cameron returns to Mutiny and declares the deal off, she reaffirms her ownership of her vision, her company, and herself. (Even if she had to have those things handed off to her by Joe.) Brushing off the concerns of her mentor, her best friend, and her lover, as well as her employees, she states, simply, “This is my company and I’m not selling it,” before shutting her office door behind her. With only three episodes left in this season, it’ll be interesting to see how Cameron—and Halt And Catch Fire—moves forward without Joe MacMillan pulling the strings.

Stray observations

  • While Joe’s departure gives him one last big moment, Gordon’s half of the season one protagonist partnership looks more appropriately like a slow fade. Scoot McNairy is doing delicate work tracing Gordon’s physical decline—rather than showy incidents, Gordon is just becoming incrementally fuzzier.
  • Speaking of fuzzier, episode director Karyn Kusama handles Donna’s reaction to Gordon finally telling her about his affliction by showing Donna focusing on isolated items around the room while everything else goes out of focus. I’ve seen it before, but it’s always effective.
  • Donna has to turn down Gordon’s advances in pursuit of consolation sex because she’s still healing. Kerry Bishé keeps playing her conflicted feelings about her husband with heartbreaking subtlety.
  • Gordon’s new business—taking orders for custom-built computers with the help of his old Cardiff colleagues—is actually a good one (even if he is spending right through his buyout money). Which makes Gordon’s mental episode right after this heartfelt speech to his friends so sad: “The hardest thing in life is to get knocked down and to get back up constantly. I wondered if I was ever gonna find it. The closest I’ve come is my kids. I think I’ve finally found something that will allow me to say to them with confidence, ‘You can do it, you can follow your dreams.’”
  • While it’s always gratifying to see Bosworth dress down Joe (“I can’t take such a large amount of sunshine up my ass—makes me itch”), it’s sad to see him fawn over Wheeler, when it’s obvious Jacob’s only praising him at Joe’s instruction.
  • Joe’s self-satisfied grin after thinking he’s manipulated Tom is his most smackable in the history of the series.
  • Donna’s mother urges her to leave Gordon using Donna’s favorite anecdote of Gordon’s screw-ups as reason to dump him.
  • In case you missed it: You should really read John Teti’s analysis of the way color is used in Halt And Catch Fire. A compelling read that showed me how there’s always more to see.

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