Joe MacMillan can be a mighty son of a bitch. And there’s a lot of facets to him. But I don’t think they’re all necessarily opposed.
There’s the mastermind, the tech guru, the guy who answers things with wistful looks and platitudes. Had the show only lasted one season we would’ve seen a fairly classic anti-hero arc with him. We would see him defy odds, get bested, act impulsively, hurt those around him. In season 2 we have another classic anti-hero arc—”can I find happiness?”—but with a twist: He’s post his show. It’s like what happens to Don Draper after the Coke commercial plays; he’s off the map a bit. And so his attempts at love and loving feel a bit more honest. He’s certainly not the character on the show who’s changed the most, but one thing has become abundantly clear: There is a heart under there. Somewhere. And it’s confused as fuck.
But to me they all seem aligned: He’s a guy who knows what one of his two biggest strengths is—vision. Joe firmly grasps where things will go, how they will move, and (perhaps dipping into his sociopathic side) how to get people there at all costs.
What he doesn’t realize is his managerial side. It’s more than just putting out “boring” computers or pushing papers or being the Silicon Valley’s messiah. It’s recognizing talent in people; such classic leadership. He has a brash way of pulling it out of people—his toying with Gordon, and now Ryan, speak to his lack of care towards pleasantries or even (sometimes) humanism. But he knows good ideas and strong people when he sees them.
To me, Joe is a lot like BoJack Horseman. He’s convinced, knowingly or not, that he is doomed to be a curse on himself and those who love him. And in a way he is. But only because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; like a child who loses a game and says it was dumb anyway. That childishness is what rears itself when Joe is at his most mysterious. Like BoJack and Don Draper before him, when he feels backed into a corner he’s cagey; he answers in riddles to try to obscure the fact that he’s just as unhappy and lost about the situation as you are. His imposter syndrome catches up with him. All of a sudden his vision is corrupted and he can’t put it back together right.
Ryan: You said freedom from fear is a right and you shouldn’t have to pay for it!
Joe: In a perfect would that would be true.
Oftentimes he is whatever the narrative needs him to be—a bully, a genius, a walking crisis of faith. But when Halt and Catch Fire is firing on all cylinders these versions of Joe align pretty clearly. He’s just got to get out of his own way.