Metaphors seemed to be the dominate trait in week three of “Halt and Catch Fire” — that is, until the now-traditional twist ending shifted focus back to the mysterious Joe MacMillan. Yes, “High Plains Hardware” was bookended by the overly blunt preservation and destruction of a wounded bird — really, the metaphors are reaching “Mad Men”-during-“The Monolith” levels of on-the-nose — but it’s doubtful many will remember it after becoming even more befuddled by Joe [spoilers to follow]. There’s nothing wrong with mounting mysteries, a practice creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell seem pretty comfortable with by now. This week’s bafflement, though, leaves too many questions on the table, inducing eye rolls rather than gasps.
1) Is Joe gay?
It’s a blunt question for a man who’s shown a proclivity towards avoiding them. We really don’t want to get into another Bob Benson-esque conspiracy wormhole, so to be clear, Joe’s sexuality is only in question because it tells us about his motivations. It matters to the story, but frankly, right now it’s just getting in the way of it. His seduction of a financial asset’s boy toy was quick, direct, and carefully considered. It took nothing more than timing and a look to convey what had happened in the liquor room, and it nixed the deal immediately after.
It’s smart business, sure, but is that all it is? Given his seduction of Cameron in episode one and repeated sexual forays with the eager ex-college student, we were given no reason to question Joe’s sexuality until this very episode (more on his dealings with Cameron later). Its lack of a lead-in makes it feel like a cheap ploy for reaction rather than true development.
That being said, a moment from episode two might have been foreshadowing this very event, though far too vaguely. Last week, Joe’s former IBM executive asked him if his new colleagues would stick around when they found out “what he really was.” Is he a convict? An asshole? A liar? Many thoughts came to mind — “gay” not being one of them. But in “Halt and Catch Fire”‘s 1980s Texas, you were probably better off as an ex-con than as an openly gay man.
2) If he’s not gay, what’s his motivation for doing literally everything he’s done so far?
I hope Joe is gay, if only because that character hiding those secrets for that reason is a fascinating man to follow. But it’s too hard to tell right now, one way or the other. A mystery is all well and good — “Mad Men” coasted on it for some time — but Joe MacMillan is not Don Draper, and now for the wrong reasons. He’s too loose, too unpredictable, and too ill-defined.
Joe could have been hiding this secret the whole time, conducting his actions out of vehement revenge for a lifetime of being treated as a freak — but the key word is “could.” Sleeping with Travis was a sly move from a man who’s so far shown no limits to what he’s willing to do. He’s given up mind and body to get this PC built, but so far, we really don’t know why, other than some unidentified daddy issues. We can guess, but if this most recent transaction was only to protect the business, Joe would become borderline inhuman. He needs limits so we can understand him on the most basic human level: empathy. Right now, he’s a ruthless loose cannon, seemingly ready to drag everyone down with him.
3) If he’s bisexual, why is he so bummed out by having to sleep with Cameron again (and again and again…)?
The easy answer for all of this would be labeling Joe as bisexual. It’s a simple concept for an audience to understand, but one that would undercut much of the drama instilled by his actions. After all, in “High Plains Hardware” he asks Cameron if he “has to come down there,” when she complains about being stuck. He doesn’t want to sleep with her then, and he definitely doesn’t want to when she shows up at his apartment later for a booty call. Slapping a label on him provides an easy answer for a show intent on not providing any, at least so far. Don’t expect this to be one of the first.
4) What’s the real story behind those scars?
It’s starting to seem likely the scars on Joe’s chest aren’t from any accident. Again, the problem remains any theory put forth at this point is pure conjecture, but odds have to increased for a homophobic assault on our lead character. If the wrong person found out, Joe could have been in for a world of hurt in a culture completely against his lifestyle. This would also explain his year-long disappearance (he needed time to recover) and why the lackey sent from IBM was willing to offer him his job back (his papa still loves him enough to employ him, though I’m guessing under unappealing conditions). Some details need to be ironed out still, but the scars are suddenly the least of our worries .
5) When and how will he ever provide answers to these questions?
It’s gotten to the point where we don’t just want to know more about Joe, we need to know more about Joe. The central figure’s mysteries are distracting from other elements of the show worth looking at — Donna made a return to prominence this week, with some not-so-subtle hints at eclipsing her husband as Joe’s head engineer, and Toby Huss continues to excel as the Texas salesman triggering Joe and Cameron’s collective conscience — those mysteries are simply too many, too soon. It’s time to study the character without worrying whether whatever he says or does is all part of the plan; until then, “Halt and Catch Fire” will be stuck in a vicious cycle Joe can’t screw his way out of.