In Which We Put Our Hands On An Executive

Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL

by ETHAN PETERSON

Halt and Catch Fire
creators Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers
AMC

A monkey’s paw is all this third season of Halt and Catch Fire is. Coined by the terrible English writer W.W. Jacobs, the little paw of a monkey is a concept that refers to when you wish for something but the thing you end up getting, while ostensibly identical to what you asked for, is substantially worse than your desire.

Halt and Catch Fire did everything right for two wonderful seasons, and all I wanted was a third. Now it looks like it is being made in some guy’s barn. This is supposed to be Silicon Valley?

I understand that it makes sense that the coders of Cameron Howe’s social tech company would bring their clothes from their previous home of Texas to their new California environs. It seriously looks like they are just reusing the costumes from last season to save more money. “Why make more costumes,” AMC probably opined in a memo, “no one watches this show enough to notice.”

I watch this show, AMC. This third season reads like they only had the money to get the show’s signature star, Lee Pace as sinister web security mastermind Joe MacMillan, for a couple of hours each day. The focus here is all on the relationship between Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), which was exactly the wrong choice, since like most couples, the Clarks are only interesting when they are fighting.

I blame AMC for this entirely. There is one new actor in the season premiere of Halt and Catch Fire. Drink that in. I understand that later in the season Matthew Lillard and Annabeth Gish will be coming onto the show, but that would cost all of $10. What about maybe casting a star onto this project and giving it a budget to look as good as the other shows on the network. Fear the Walking Dead probably spends more on catering.

Despite the obvious lack of network support for this project — this show could have been Stranger Things — I have full faith that this season will eventually turn it around.

The early days of online interaction as a metaphor for our current view of technology leads to a lot of bracing critical moments. The soul of Halt and Catch Fire was really in the relationship between Cameron Howe (the brilliant and sexy Mackenzie Davis) and Joe MacMillan. The show’s run began when they had sex, and the two barely share the screen together at all. Howe now gets along really well with the Clarks and in fact all of her employees, even though she misses the boyfriend she left in Texas.

The premiere was the perfect time to introduce her to a new love interest, someone who was also powerful in Silicon Valley who could become a major character on the show and a rival to MacMillan. This can still happen, but just think of how much that would cost in additional sets.

Instead we meet Ryan (Manish Dayal), who is meant to take the new role as the enterprising technical genius. Cameron struggles to believe in what Ryan is selling her, even though only months ago she was in his exact same situation and her bosses didn’t listen. This is slightly implausible, but not as difficult as it is to identify with a character whose only trait is that he likes to work a lot.

Here’s the problem: when you are good at one thing, you have a great situation. You are only good at that one thing, so you go and do it as well as you can. But what if you’re good at more than one thing? How do you know which thing you are best at? You can’t really know, since it depends on how good other people are at the thing you do. If you are the best at it, great and it’s lonely at the top. If you are not, maybe you go back and revisit that other thing you do well.

At the end of the day (shut up), a show like Mad Men had two key characters and anything that took the focus off of Peggy or Don was a flat-out distraction from what made the show successful. Halt and Catch Fire created other characters that we love and respect. But there is such thing as being too respectful of what you make. For example, the executive played by Toby Huss should have died a long time ago, preferably in a fire.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.

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