Halt and Catch Fire is a series that has only gets better by the season. The high tension AMC tech drama definitively proved that last night with a two-part season finale – and thankfully not series finale – that moved the action forward four years to 1990 and the dawn of the Information Era – a ballsy move that not every show could pull off.
But aided by one of the best ensembles currently working on TV – Lee Pace (The Hobbit), Mackenzie Davis (The Martian), Scoot McNairy (Monsters), Kerry Bishé (Argo), and Toby Huss (King of the Hill) – showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have deftly moved the series in an exciting new direction that keeps pace with the ever-changing technology that serves as the show’s backdrop.
We recently spoke with Cantwell and Rogers about the bold decision to jump the series ahead four years, what the future holds for Cameron and Donna, whether Joe MacMillan is really a new man, their favourite scenes from this past season, and much more.
First of all, congratulations on the fourth season!
Chris Cantwell: Thanks!
Christopher C. Rogers: Thanks so much!
So season four has been touted as the final season. What does that mean to you as showrunners to be given the opportunity to get to finish Halt and Catch Fire on your own terms?
CC: It means a lot to us. This show feels novelistic to us in the way that we write it and because it’s so character-centric. It does have a plot that moves forward, but we’re really following the lives of these people. So to have 10 episodes to complete it the way we want to and give the characters the final piece of their journey that they deserve, I think it’s a really great creative challenge – one that Chris and I haven’t experienced yet – and one that I think the writers room as well as the actors will be really excited to dive into. It will give us a chance to really build towards what we hope is a very satisfying conclusion for our audience.
So let’s talk about what most people will be talking about: the flash forward – the time jump 1990 and the decision to do that.
CCR: The time jump was something we were talking about as early as when we found out that there was going to be a season three. Chris Cantwell and I were given the opportunity to become the showrunners of the show at that time and we did what anyone would do which is freak out a little bit. We rented a house in Joshua Tree to go talk about what the season was going to be and we landed pretty quickly on the idea of seeing the immediate aftermath of these people moving to California. We thought it would be a mistake to skip that. We want to see these strangers in a strange land, we want to see them struggling in the big leagues, in this kind of crucible they find themselves in in Silicon Valley and the larger tech landscape.
We also really wanted to get to this WWW moment. Technologically speaking 1986 was just not as compelling to us as what we knew was waiting on the horizon in 1990. So we decided that this would be the story of the right idea at the wrong time, of people getting there early. So the 1986 portion is more concerned with e-tail and the NSFnet – the building blocks of which coalesce in 1990 around the idea of the worldwide web – and that was always going to be one part of the story. We did not know when we were going to jump time, but the idea scared us so we wanted to do it, especially because it’s so big. It’s four years – that’s longer than these people have even known each other. So it was something we wanted to do, but we were open to the idea that we wouldn’t get there if it felt false. When we hit these huge pyrotechnic moments in episode seven with the split of Donna and Cameron and then eight with the death of Ryan and all that happens, that it just felt earned to us. It was a place we wanted to go and in a way 1990 is an answer and a continuation and really kind of the final chapter of a story that has to begin in 1986. So that’s how we approached it.
I want to talk about failure. That’s a big theme in this two part finale. Gordon and Donna’s marriage has failed. Mutiny has gone under. We jump ahead to 1990 and most of the characters are doing okay – at least financially – but those failures are still weighing heavily on everyone. Was that difficult as writers to basically throw out everything that your characters had been working towards for the past two seasons?
CC: For us this was the story that we thought was realistic after the IPO failing and after what Gordon and Donna go through in episode seven and eight. Throwing Cameron out of the company is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and what could realistically happen after that is that things just kind of slowly drift apart. Rather than build to another explosive moment between Gordon and Donna just have it kind of go to sleep… [laughs] I feel like that’s a sad thing to say but it can happen to a lot of marriages, especially marriages that have been through what Donna and Gordon have been through. Things have been so conflict laden and tumultuous that for them to finally just give up the ghost and disappear before they even realize it was something we were really interested in story-wise.
I think the same goes for Mutiny. It’s this place that started as this vibrant, incredible place to work full of twenty-year-olds in the living room of a house. It was crazy and frenetic as we saw it in the opening of season two, then it debuts low on the stock market, flounders around for a few years, and then by the time they walk back into that building in episode 10 it’s just empty, it’s a shell of what it was. There’s a lot of ghosts in that room. There’s a longing for what they had in the characters, particularly with Donna, and there’s a desire to correct the past.
In terms of Gordon and Donna’s marriage, it’s a very complex relationship and we felt that the divorce was a new place to go with it. We thought it was a more fun way to tell the story, to just drop into that and have the audience catch up and get their bearings as they get all this new information. It is a lot to drop on them!
One of the most interesting arcs this season belonged to Donna. She slowly goes from dedicated team player to essentially Joe MacMillan by the end. She’s been set up as next season’s villain. What can you tell us about the decision to take her character in that direction and what were your initial conversations with Kerry Bishé about that arc?
CCR: We wanted to tell the story of Donna realizing that she might be really good at this, of Donna coming into her own. She was a secret weapon in the first season and came into this starring central role in the second season. We feel like there’s nothing Donna can’t do. She’s a character we root for because she just has a good head on her shoulders and makes good decisions. We wanted to see her do that on a large scale and on a bigger stage. That’s so much of what Donna did this season in Silicon Valley, spurred on by a mentor she found in Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), who helped her think of a life larger than the one she planned for herself.
In terms of taking her to villain, as Donna and Cameron had a falling out we knew people were going to emotionally side with Cameron a little more naturally, but Donna always had her best arguments. We really try to make neither of them right or wrong in every scene. We want this to be arguments and clashes of equals, both of whom have a valid viewpoint. Neither of them are twisting their metaphorical moustache, they both want what’s best for the company but they disagree about how to get there.
So even though Donna is the one set up adversarially to the rest of the folks as the season goes on, I think she has every right to that idea. I think she found it and they took it. I root for her frankly in whatever she’s going to do next with it. We absolutely knew we had the actress in Kerry Bishé to pull off that long arc, to balance that nuance and grey area. Her arc over the course of this season is heartbreaking. She tries to go back to repair the past with Cameron only to have Cameron use that moment to complete this kind of coup de grâce. It’s one of the arcs we’re most proud of, especially the way Kerry pulled that off.
Speaking of Cameron, she hasn’t had much luck with this group of people in the past. What does the flash forward 1990 version Cameron have going for her that the 1986s version we saw didn’t?
CC: The 1990s version of Cameron has a maturity. She’s maybe calmed down somewhat having enjoyed some success with her own endeavour – this video game project called Space Bike. She’s married to Tom, she’s in another country, and she seems to have some stability in her life. And yet I think we can tell from the first moments of seeing her in episode nine that the character is still searching. Something has maybe been lost in these four years and she doesn’t have it fully figured out.
She’s still looking for something but she knows not what. Joe showing up brings a brightness back into her that reminds her of the vividness that her life was once full of. I don’t know if it’s necessarily and concretely about Joe in that moment, but it very well could be. Cameron is a character who’s very complex and unknown, even to herself at times in her life, and I think even though we got to know her the most this season the character still has some real soul searching to do.
So Joe has been a lot of things and been through a lot over the past three seasons – this season especially. But his relationship with Ryan – and Ryan’s subsequent death – seems to have really changed him. The nature of Joe’s character makes it so hard to know if he’s actually a new man. But do you see this as a new leaf for him?
CCR: Absolutely. We think – and I think Lee Pace would agree – that this is in many ways Joe’s best season to date. That’s because you got to see this man become who he is this season. The backstory is right there on screen, so you can see the things that made him who he is. Lee Pace ate up this iteration of the character and really brought him to life in an incredibly sympathetic way. Feeling sympathy for Joe was going to be such a hard thing for people. He is a guy who maneuvers and can deliver that perfect asshole line in that perfect Joe MacMillan way, but seeing him fall back in love with technology through Ryan and go through what he goes through – getting into this exciting new business venture with him only to end so tragically – it really humanizes the character to a lot of people.
So I think Joe has changed. We really wanted to play fair with that, especially over the time jump. The Joe that shows up to Comdex 1990 is still very much grappling with the events of episode 308. Part of what draws him and Cameron together is that she does give him some absolution, some peace of mind about these things that he’s obviously still wrestling with. But I’d like to believe Joe this time around, but the truth is nobody is ever all the way one thing or another thing. Nobody is ever all the way good again or all the way bad. I think Joe is humbled by all that has happened. Does that mean that he doesn’t still have the guy with the shiny suit and the quick wit inside him? Absolutely not. I think that’s forever baked into who Joe MacMillan is. But he is the sum of the experiences we’ve seen through thirty episodes. So the Joe you’ll get in the fourth season is in ways more complete and in ways more damaged, and I think that’s what makes him fascinating.
I don’t think anyone can argue that you’ve got one of the best ensemble casts working in TV currently. I have to give a shout-out to the massively underrated Toby Huss in particular. Do you guys have a specific scene or performance from this past season that was a personal favourite to each of you?
CC: If you’re bringing up Toby Huss I have to go with Bosworth bringing the Robot Butler to Jody’s birthday party. For me it’s just one of the most joyous moments. We put all the footage we could find of that moment it in the episode. He and Scoot were really fun in that scene, and I think even Mackenzie is getting in on the action and watching from the background as he’s trying to get the robot to work.
But you’re right. We wouldn’t be able to assemble this cast today if this show was picked up to go to series right now. They’re immensely talented and the world has really started to recognize that with all of them. It’s great to see them not just on our show but in everything else. I love Lee’s performance this season, I love the love story between Bosworth and Diane, Scoot keeps doing tremendous work as isolated Gordon in the closet with the HAM radio, and watching Mackenzie soul search has been wonderful, but number one is the robot butler! [laughs]
CCR: [laughs] Yeah, robot butler! But two with a bullet is the scene in the boardroom between Mackenzie and Kerry where they finally start to come apart is a hard one to watch. They really earned that. We were so scared of someone feeling shrill or wrong in that scene – it’s a credit to those actresses that they didn’t – but even before that the scene where Donna has a conversation with what turns out to be her projection of Cameron is a scene I really love too. It’s not the kind of scene that any show can do, but those actresses made it possible and treated it with a nuance and balance that showed why we loved them and that partnership – and really showed why it was so hard to lose that in that subsequent scene.
So looking ahead are there any ’90s-isms or areas that you really want to explore? Do you think we’re going to reach all the way up to the Dot-com bubble?
CC: We only have one season left so maybe if we did one year of the ‘90s for each episode we’d get up to the Dot-com bubble. [laughs] I feel like if we got to the Dot-com Bubble my father would have a heart attack because he does not want to relive that.
Chris kindly said we were in our early-thirties in the last interview we did, but I’m turning 35 in a month so I’m officially at the mid-thirties mark. We were both children in the ‘80s and remember the good times then, but our adolescence was largely spent in the ‘90s so it’ll be exciting to dig into that. The music, the changing styles from year to year are always so much fun. In terms of specifics, we’re going to do some great needle drops from our musical teen years. We’re going to get in there and do some cool stuff like that, but we’ll have to do some research to figure out what was going on in California in the early ‘90s. It’ll be fun! We’ll take some of the residual ‘80s with us like we did with the ‘70s when we started season one. There was a lot of ‘70s in the background so I think we’ll do that in season four.
And finally, the name of our site is DorkShelf.com, so we always like to ask the folks we talk to about their own dork shelves. It’s a spot in your house where you have some item or keepsake or collectible that’s important to you or that you like to show off when people come over. What’s on your dork shelves?
CC: This is a good question. I’ve got lots of dork shelves! [laughs] Chris will tell you I’ve got too many dork shelves and I think they embarrass him. I’m going to try to think about which one to talk about first. I’ll ask my wife. What’s the dorkiest thing I have on a shelf in our house? The Don Quixote statue?
I have a Don Quixote statue from Spain. He’s very spindly and strange and I put him on our mantle. My wife is not really thrilled about it. [laughs] I also have an Indonesian monk doll that sits on a stool facing the Don Quixote statue. He has very long wooden fingers and it scared the shit out of my wife when she first saw it. I do that kind of stuff in the house all the time.
CCR: Man, I don’t know if this counts, but I am tragically a great and lifelong fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. I have a very prominently displayed “Play Like a Champion Today” sign like they have in their locker room on a door in my house. They touch it before each game and I like to touch it before each game, although it seems to have no bearing on my fortunes.
Well on that note, best of luck next season!