WARNING: This article contains spoilers!
The fate of relationships, companies, and characters on Halt and Catch Fire are finally unveiled in the second season’s finale, leaving behind pasts full of heartbreak and welcoming bright futures.
As Jessie Evans recounts to Jacob Wheeler point by point the damage to Westgroup and its properties, Joe arrives at an elegant office, asking to see Sara when she arrives. Once there, a nearby business magazine informs him of the news: Wheeler has been ousted from his position at Westgroup. After waiting, a lawyer enters without Sara in tow and delivers the divorce papers, freshly inked earlier that morning with Sara’s signature. Disappointed, Joe reluctantly signs.
Mutiny is abuzz with the implementation of avatars into the Community module, a flurry of new subscribers reported by returned programmer Yo-yo, and new accountant Dave settling in to Tom’s old desk. After finding out their new network Telenet has increased its rates to account for the company’s high traffic, Cameron becomes upset about not being “in the driver’s seat” of the company. Though Donna tries to talk to her, she resigns to Cameron’s argument when she needs to leave to pick up Gordon from his therapy group.
With the therapy session about to wrap, the therapist asks the gathered circle of people to reveal their stress levels. After several highs and lows are reported around the room, Gordon reveals his extremely low tally of .28, caused by a minor incident of him misplacing his glasses. Hoping to help Gordon expand further on his unusually low number, he requests Gordon reenact the incident. Just as the therapist thinks he’s on the cusp of revealing Gordon’s true worries and concerns, Gordon mocks his analytical questioning and sits down, all while Donna observes from the hallway.
On the road, Joe, emotionally drained from the dissolution, tests the fates by putting the pedal to the floor, closing his eyes, and taking his hands off of the wheel. A passing honking car brings him back into the moment.
At home, Donna is faced with upset daughter Joanie complaining about breakfast. Cooling her temper with a reminder that they “all need to work together” for Gordon’s sake, Haley and Joanie bring up their father’s fight with his brother in California. When asked what the fight pertained to, Joanie leaves the table as Gordon walks in, preparing to start his day.
At Stokes Capital, the venture capitalist firm Donna and Cameron once met with, Joe meets with Timothy Bondham, who quickly makes short work of Joe’s unusually humdrum pitch for investment in broad-spectrum network connectivity, calling him a “legitimate psychopath” for his alleged involvement in the downfall of Westgroup and his past with Cardiff.
Cameron excitedly proposes a purchase to Donna at Mutiny: their own mainframe computer to rid themselves of external networks. Donna points out many downfalls to the purchase, stating, “If you want to drive a submarine, you gotta join the Navy. Yeah, you might have to salute somebody every once in a while, but…it’s better than buying a rickety old diesel boat that sinks you to the bottom of the ocean.” Later, as Yo-yo, Lev and Cameron discuss and joke around about possible mainframe purchases, the trio overhear other programmers talking about Tom.
Opening up the ol’ garage, Gordon clears off some table space and dusts off some train sets stored away on a shelf. His perusal of the toys is interrupted by the appearance of Joe, who gives him a memory chip he saved from the machine they reverse-engineered for Cardiff together. When asked about possible reparations with Westgroup and his status with Sara, Joe quickly dismisses himself without answering.
That night in bed, Gordon, reading the business magazine that reported Jacob Wheeler’s ousting, groans to Donna about the reputation Sonaris has gained from the Westgroup downfall. When Donna’s attempt to change the subject fails, Gordon goes on to talk about how Cameron “destroyed [Joe’s] entire life, and for what? Because he tried to help her?” When Donna comes to Cameron’s defense, she admits the deliverance of the Sonaris infection to the WestNet systems was an idea both she and Cameron came up with, resulting in a whirlwind argument leading to Gordon’s admission of having an affair in California. “When I found out I was sick, I looked around for my marriage, and it wasn’t there. You weren’t there,” says Gordon. “Maybe…maybe this has been broken for a long time, and we’re the only ones that don’t know it.” Stunned silent, Donna only then looks to the open bedroom door to find an eavesdropping Joanie, who quickly retreats to her bedroom and shuts the door.
The next morning, Cameron finds Donna arriving early to Mutiny. Donna dolefully spills her heart to Cameron about possibly being unable, and maybe not even wanting, to repair the rift between Gordon and herself. Cameron admits being unable to relate, but notes, “I do know that once in a while, you know, life can give us a sign…point us to a different place, make good things come out of bad.” After putting a smile on Donna’s face, Cameron broaches her biggest suggestion yet: a relocation to California for the previously suggested mainframe computer and “a fresh start.”
Gordon visits Joe at his now barren flat and tries to reassure him of his innocence. He gives him a new program disk named Tabula Rasa, a fixed version of and antidote to Sonaris, and suggests he use it to “make things right” or at least repair things with Sara. “When we came to dinner here that night, you said to me, ‘She makes all the suffering of what we do worth it.’ And I’m telling you, that is not an easy thing to come by…I do know that you’ll hate yourself every day if you don’t at least try.” After a friendly hug, Gordon departs, leaving Joe to contemplate the new options he’s been given.
At a lively company lunch, Bosworth holds a captive audience in his coworkers and gets flourished with compliments by the businessmen as well as son James. As the men continue telling their tales, Bosworth quickly finds himself tuning out the loud bellows of his colleagues and reassessing his purpose there. Likewise, Donna muses on the slate of options given to her outside as Cameron fields a flustered Gordon inside Mutiny. Donna soon arrives and unveils the source of his fluster: daughter Joanie is missing. Returning home, Gordon scours surrounding areas while Donna calls around, but both efforts turn up nothing. Haley interrupts a moment of frustration and worry between her parents to point out movement in the playhouse in the backyard. There they find Joanie, who blames herself for Gordon and Donna’s fight. When Joanie broaches the topic of possible divorce, Donna dismisses her to the house and states her terms to Gordon for continuing the relationship: moving to California and buying the mainframe for Mutiny, with Gordon getting a job at the company.
Returning to Stokes Capital, Joe marches himself into Bondham’s office after a grueling three-hour wait and infects his computer with the Sonaris virus, declaring, “After my time at Cardiff, I went away. 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?” After Joe corners Bondham, he delivers the Tabula Rasa antidote to the computer, stopping the code’s spread and saving their systems. Bolstered by the Westgroup incident’s national media exposure, Joe pitches the first instance of anti-virus protection to an intrigued Bondham.
In the midst of a pizza dinner, Gordon takes a call from Joe, who enthusiastically tries to recruit him into a new partnership, but Gordon refuses, revealing his and Donna’s plans to move to California and his employment at Mutiny. Upon hearing the company’s name, Joe angrily hangs up the phone.
A month later, Cameron walks into Tom’s house and offers him a chance to join Mutiny in California, providing him with a plane ticket for a flight that night. On the plane, as the ragtag group and other passengers locate their seats and settle in, Gordon speaks to Donna about their family, saying, “We could be happy again. I really believe that. And who knows? Maybe when we get to California…maybe we’ll have another [child]?” Donna quickly dismisses herself to the restroom and lets the tears flow. Among the late arrivals on the other side of the plane is Bosworth, but no Tom, much to Cameron’s disappointment. Waiting for Donna’s return, Gordon peruses a nearby computer magazine and happens upon an article sporting the bold headline, “MacMillan Utility Nets 10 Million Backing For New ‘Anti-Virus’ Software Venture.”
Quickly surveying a spacious area of a floor in an office building, Joe agrees to buy the space, and surveying the sparkling cityscape beyond, finally assumes his place on his throne, leaving the mistakes, hardships and heartbreaks of his past behind.
This episode has some of the most amazing development in Joe Macmillan I have yet seen. Ending on season 1 and starting season 2, we didn’t see the transition he made into being this loving man trying to start anew with Sara, we just saw who he was in the first season, and a time jump.
I seriously thought, and was in fact waiting with bated breath this entire season, for the old Joe to come out, thinking, “No, this man hasn’t truly changed, it’s a ruse, nothing more.” But this episode shifted my perspective completely.
This man is not a psychopath leaving fires in his wake and putting on some sort of mask in attempt to start more of them. This man is truly trying to make a change in people’s lives and bring this potential ability to connect through these intelligent machines to the masses. When he’s tried to escape the past, his father’s ever-lingering shadow, the mistakes he made, the bullying, the taunts…whatever obstacle is standing in his way of going further down this road inevitably digs up those skeletons once again.
He tried to escape it, even found someone who seemed like she didn’t care what past lay behind him, as long as his future put him on a different path. But he wanted to ride the same path, maybe come at it in a slightly different way, but he’s always wanted to travel down that same road, and in so doing, he lost what hope he felt he had in changing into a better, more honest man. No questions asked, no discussion, no chance to explain, Sara signed those divorce papers, rather than giving her husband, this partner that needed her more than she knew, this man that was trying to convince himself every single day that, despite everything, he was deserving of the love and care she could give, at least the time of day to say his peace. But like every other person who has stood in his way, she disregarded him as nothing more than a manipulative psychopath rather than a man trying to climb a tall, tall ladder only to keep getting knocked off of it time and time again.
The man at the end of this episode is not the same man we saw in season 1. This Joe is tired of having the red marks on his resume stand in his way of what and who he really wants to be. Joe Macmillan in season 1 was manipulative, suave, but hopeful in finding a few likeminded people he could take over the technological world with.
This Joe Macmillan has learned that, in fact, he didn’t need anyone else at all.
(Of course, he really did — he wouldn’t have the Sonaris code & antidote, and therefore his entire business plan, without other people. And that is where his downfall may and probably will lie.)
On a separate note, I also find it interesting to see once again the geographical, and thus emotional, separation of the Mutiny gang and Joe. These characters, or rather their primary leaders Joe and Cameron, circle each other’s orbits quite a lot. The first season, they were in the same orbit, spinning in the same direction, but in this one, they each ruled their own worlds, which midway through collided, and are now once again separate and flourishing. A few more rotations, and they’re bound to collide again, whether with each other or through other characters’ relationships, like Gordon and Joe. Should season 3 come to pass, the now more developed Joe Macmillan will be a fierce, unyielding competitor in the industry for Mutiny, and the individual and cumulative challenges Mutiny and Macmillan will face, especially in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s boom of technological development, will be well worth the watch.