I’m a shipper at heart. I try to resist every time I start a new show and I am never successful. Give me two characters who don’t belong together but have amazing chemistry and I will be yours for as many seasons as you’ll have me. Such was the case this week when I went on a journey through the personal computing boom of the 80s and 90s via the AMC Prestige Drama, Halt and Catch Fire.
*****EXTREME SPOILER WARNING*****
I knew the show existed when it premiered four years ago. I knew it starred Lee Pace and, based on promotional images, took place in an office building. It got middling reviews during its first season and wasn’t likely to be renewed so I didn’t get into it. But then I found out about Mackenzie Davis’ role on the show (suddenly her casting in The Martian making much more sense) and kept reading reviews about how good it had gotten and how emotional the finale was. And what am I if not extremely emotional.
I’ve been a huge Lee Pace fan ever since seeing him in the 2003 made-for-TV movie Soldier’s Girl about the life of Calpernia Addams. Looking back, his casting as a trans women was problematic, but the movie affected me and he was incredible in the role. I followed his career through two short-lived Bryan Fuller projects and then we sort of lost touch for a few years. He played an elf in the hobbit trilogy and had small parts in a bunch of movies I never saw.
The character of Joe MacMillan was created to emulate Don Draper, the mysterious anti-hero at the centre of AMC’s other Prestige Drama, Mad Men. Smarter people than I have made the connection that HACF‘s first season was trying to “reverse-engineer Mad Men” just as Joe and Gorden were reverse-engineering the IBM personal computer. But throughout Joe’s journey, the facade of his slick suits and carefully articulated pitches gives way to a broken human who redeems himself and stops trying to sell the future. Pace plays every layer of Joe beautifully. He’s handsome, charming, and witty, but with an edge that suggests irreparable damage.
In the very first episode when he scouts Mackenzie Davis’ punk programmer Cameron Howe at her school, he’s instantly drawn to her and hates himself for it. Cameron sees this opportunity and exploits it. When the two start banging in the dingy basement of an arcade bar, she lets him know that she doesn’t care about him at all. She hooks up with him as a joke, because the idea of the two of them together is so ridiculous. Of course, they can’t keep their hands off each other and keep up their affair after Joe hires her to design his IBM clone.
Season one Joe is presented as callous and calculating. His only motivation is money. Except with Cameron. She decides to continue sleeping with him and she decides when it’s over. When he eventually betrays her, it’s because he loves her and wants her to branch out and succeed on her own. Of course, what ol’ boneheaded Joe doesn’t realize is the whole “if you love someone, set them free” thing only works if said someone knows about and returns your feelings. Otherwise they are likely to revenge-start a new company and revenge-refuse to work with you in any capacity, even if you’re genuinely trying to help. The interesting thing about Joe is that he’s not a monster. He has feelings. But he thinks his life would be simpler if he’s free of emotional entanglements so he cuts himself off from everyone until it’s too late.
Season four picks up ten years after the events of season one. Joe and Cameron have been through it all; marriage, divorce, creating and losing control of their own companies, the suicide of a mutual friend and co-worker, and the advent of the World Wide Web. Joe has taken every hit and been weakened by it while Cameron has flourished and become a game-designing rock star in Japan. Reunited for the first time in three years, the tension is palpable. This time Joe is the one feeling betrayed and Cameron actually cares about him. For the first time he’s not trying to sell her something or tell her what to do. He admits that he’s always been in awe of her and I believe it.
I went back and watched the pilot after that scene and you see it on his face during their first encounter. He’s completely out of his depth and he knows he’s in trouble.
I’m afraid to keep watching. I know healthy relationships and living happily ever after don’t make for stirring drama. I just want Joe and Cameron to be happy. They deserve the world. Also I read ahead and I know there’s another character death coming and I honestly don’t know if my heart can take it.