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Halt and Catch Fire creators talk time jump, final season

‘We decided this would be the story of the right idea at the wrong time’

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Tina Rowden/AMC

SPOILER! Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the two-part season finale of Halt and Catch Fire.

AMC’s tech drama Halt and Catch Fire erupted in flames several times during its creatively stunning third season, but the two-part finale ended on a simmer — which, in many ways, is the most dangerous kind of fire, especially when you aren’t aware you’ve left the burner on.

Season 3 ended with a two-parter that sped the characters into 1990, with a series of jaw-droppers for everyone in the new decade: Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) have divorced, and daughter Joanie is all grown up (and thoroughly damaged); Donna’s made partner; Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) moved to Tokyo with Tom (Mark O’Brien); and Joe (Lee Pace) is well, human again, and his feelings for Cameron are bubbling back to the surface.

But the second half of the finale offered the real bombshell: Donna brought the gang all back together for one more project, which turns out to be…the Internet. The sparse scenes in the evaporated Mutiny office played out like a classic stage play, with supremely high stakes on an intimate level — just like Halt and Catch Fire has always offered.

EW got on the line with show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers for a crucial check-in on where the season finale left each character — and what the just-announced fourth, final season has in store.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the first half of the finale. Why the time jump? What did you feel we gained in not seeing, say, Gordon and Donna’s divorce, or Cameron moving away?

CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: I think we felt that the slow realistic atrophy of the Clark marriage, Mutiny, Cameron moving away, Joe fading into the background of his own life…the things that would really happen to these people after these events, rather than make them explosive — because we had already done such explosive things with Cameron getting ousted from the company, Ryan taking his own life, the IPO tanking, all of these things happening — that there was just a slow wind-down of things into dormancy [that] felt like a really interesting way to tell our story. To pick up after the fact, that things have just kind of gently gone into that good night, I think was fun for us, where we can just suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, Donna and Gordon are divorced! Oh my God, there’s no Mutiny anymore, it’s completely empty! What the hell is Joe doing with those two computers on his desk watching football games?’ Those are the kind of things that were exciting for us, where we could just let the story go to sleep after a really bad nightmare in episode 8, and then pick it up in episode 9 and everybody kind of wakes up and things start to come back together again, slowly but surely.

Did you always think you would hit the ‘90s?

CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: It was a little bit of a calculated risk we took. Before the third season started, Chris Cantwell and I actually rented a house out in Joshua Tree to talk about what this season might be, because it was our first as showrunners, and sketch out what we thought was our landscape to cover. We found ourselves with this tough choice. We did not want to lose the immediate aftermath of season 2, in terms of Mutiny and Joe making landfall in San Francisco, and the kind of ‘strangers in a strange land’ of it all. But technologically, we really wanted to get to this big connectivity, this WWW moment. So we decided this would be the story of the right idea at the wrong time — the people who got there early. Nineteen eighty-six is a story of detail and Joe and Ryan on the NSFNet, kind of putting together the pieces that in 1990 are prepared to coalesce into what we know as the World Wide Web. So it was born a little of that necessity, but I think it also just scared us, to do the huge time jump and take as much time off for these characters — a period of time that equals the amount of time they’ve known each other in the story so far. We knew we wanted to get there, and we didn’t know when, but we were really thrilled with how it came together and the way we just, as Chris said, dropped people into it in [episode] 9 and let them try to catch up.

The season finale brings everyone back together in the same room. It read as such a bottle episode stage play — akin to 12 Angry Men, almost. Was that something you’ve been looking forward to writing? And did you ever fear that the characters had spread too far to believably come back together?

ROGERS: [Episode] 310 was this incredible opportunity for us in that, we had had these big episodes — 7 ends with Cameron and Donna splitting up; 8, which ends with the death of Ryan; 9, which ends with Joe and Cameron sleeping together — so we felt like, we’ve had all these fireworks. We talked a lot about doing a quiet finale and returning the show to what we think its core competency is, which is character work. It’s a show without a lot of external devices to create drama, like guns or things like that, so at the end of the day, it has to be about these people and their relationships to each other. It was a thrilling concept. We really wanted to dig down and we felt like the idea of the World Wide Web was big enough to concentrate it all around. But it was also incredibly daunting. These are the kind of things that come up in the writers’ room, where everyone agrees that it sounds so cool, but then you put pen to paper and you say, ‘God, do we have an hour of this? Is this compelling? Can we make people talk about HTTP and have actual stakes?’ But we really felt like we have the actors, so we wanted to give it a shot, and when we happened on this idea of using it as a lens to examine their histories with each other, that’s when we felt like it suddenly took flight. It’s an episode where they’re looking back a lot and also looking forward at the same time. As they examined things they’ve been saying for three years, like trying to sell each other on the idea of the future, and Cameron says, “I’m so sick and tired of everyone talking about the future,” which is such a trope of Halt and Catch Fire. It was really a way to look back at the series for us.

Tina Rowden/AMC

Donna’s move at the end of the episode is a very Joe MacMillan thing. What’s her headspace as she’s driving away? Is she Joe 2.0?

CANTWELL: It’s funny you mention that. It’s definitely a little bit different for Donna than it would be for Joe. But I will say that there are little subtle tricks and hints that we put in. I know that Evans Brown, our brilliant DP, used a very specific type of lens to shoot Joe’s storyline this season. I think he used about 50- or 60-year-old lenses that are glass that gave things a feathered edge and dreamlike quality. And then he actually used those lenses on Donna in the 1990 portion of the story, which is fun. But I will say, what’s important for Donna’s story — and we talked a lot with Kerry Bishé about this — is that it’s less about revenge and more about, Donna’s biggest insecurity for the last three seasons has been believing that she’s as good as the rest of these people. She’s brilliant, and I think she has a really strong desire to prove that, and prove that now, she can do it just as well as Cameron or her husband or Joe or anybody. Season 3 showed us that she has the potential and can be really great at this — both at the business and at the technology — and she’s going to be in a place in season 4 of, ‘Let me show you how well I can do this.’ If that put hers in an adversarial role, so be it. But I think it is definitely one driven by her own ambition and her own need to prove to the others and herself that she is as good as she says she is.

Gordon — well, I just love Gordon. I like to think Gordon will end up fine. If the Internet pans out for him, he’ll be fine. If he doesn’t, he’ll be fine. Is that true? Is Gordon Clark fine?

ROGERS: [Laughs.] I think the sad fact is that nobody is ever fine on Halt and Catch Fire. I think it’s a series about people who are driven, in a way that I think is a little too familiar for a lot of writers and artists, to keep buying back into the belief that the next thing will be the big thing. They need to put themselves into the things they create — they’re not like content people who are just constantly willing to put all their chips back down in the hopes that tomorrow they’ll be able to reach out their arms farther. I think Gordon is a guy who really wants to be part of a thing that matters. He’s always been a brilliant guy, and to some extent has been misunderstood, but I think we’ve seen him evolve over the seasons into a person who understands his limitations more. He’s matured more. But I don’t think that hunger in him has been quieted. So much of this season was about the idea of safety or security, and can you ever be safe when you hazard the risks of other people online and in person and in personal relationships? And I think our answer to that is a resounding, “No, but there’s hope.” And I’d say that’s also true with Gordon. He can’t stay away from these people, and they can’t stay away from him, and he’s drawn like a moth to the flame back to the white-hot center of where these ideas come from, and that is not a safe place for anyone. We love Gordon, too. [Laughs.] But we can’t promise anyone comes out of this okay.

You tested Joe this season with two really human crises, with the HIV scare and then of course with Ryan’s suicide. Why did you feel it was time to put Joe through these herculean hurdles?

CANTWELL: This is a season where we wanted to make Joe MacMillan fully a human being, and we finally wanted to strip away the mask that he feels he needs to wear. In season 1, we definitely know and recognize that mask, that he needs to put together that perfect suit and be the bulletproof salesman, and we quickly learn that there’s a lot of fragility underneath that and he’s not as perfect as he claims, and he’s not as full of foresight as he believes. In season 2, he had this interesting journey of feeling he needed to be more of a warm and caring person, and he convinced himself that he needed to be humble, and so he decided to be with Sara and went to work in the basement of her father’s company, but there’s just something inside that guy that can’t stop. And now we see him in season 3 with the latest incarnation of that mask, which is the cultured personality Steve Jobs-ian guru that sits atop the top floor of his office building and dispenses these [kernels] of tech wisdom. But we also see that the light is kind of dimming in him, and his inspiration and the things that have driven him have really gone dormant. What we wanted to do was break that guy down and get him to a place of being just who he is, and who is that character? I think that’s something that has always fascinated us, and has fascinated Lee Pace. I think it was really three things: It was his relationship with Ryan and the reignition of his passion and inspiration, which, then again, made him dangerous again because he started to play fast and loose with the rules. [With the HIV scare] I think he had a very, like you said, human crisis, where all of a sudden he thought that he was looking at his own death and suddenly questioning everything about himself. And then, to be pulled back from the brink and realize that you’re okay, only to then lose someone extremely close to you to a very sudden death…I think it really shook Joe to the core and I think the character we see in 1990 is the real deal. To me, that’s what’s fascinating, is that the guy that shows up at the Mutiny offices and the guy that shows up to Comdex, you can see that he’s been stripped bare, and yet he’ll always be Joe MacMillan. There’s nobody who can just be the perfect kind of asshole in a certain moment than Joe, and he does that to Tom in the finale a couple times, but at the same time, he’s who he is now, and I think it’s taken seven years of his life to strip all those layers away. But now we’ve got a guy who knows what he wants. He believes in the future, and he’s convinced himself he loves this person in Cameron, and he’s got a friend in Gordon, and now he’s going to move forward. How does that Joe MacMillan move forward? That’s something I think will be really interesting in season 4.

Bos (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish) seem like they’ve found their happy ending. Not to say we’ll never see them again, but was that last scene the culmination of their story? Boating off into the sunset, more or less?

ROGERS: We wrestled with this for the finale. We decided ultimately it felt false to get Bos in that room with them. We didn’t want to force a reunification of the band, and Bos was the one we couldn’t put in that room in a way that felt dramatically honest, so we didn’t do it. But as Chris is fond of saying, you can be guaran-damn-teed that we have not seen the last of John Bosworth in the series. He’s a really beautiful, hopeful story. He’s a guy that really reinvents himself and changes. In ways, had he not been brought to life so beautifully by Toby Huss in the first season, he’s a guy that could have been a one-season character: the story of a dinosaur aging out of the business. But I think what we love about Bosworth is watching him grow and adapt and do unexpected things. The only love story in season 3 is a love story for John Bosworth, and it was so sweet and interesting for us to write. Diane was a character we also really came to love. So absolutely, we’re going to keep John Bosworth around. Certainly, we left him with a boat and a little bit of happiness, which is something that can be snatched from you in an instant, but we intend to bring him back into the fold just because we love him so much and what he means for Cameron and what he’s come to mean for so many of these other folks. He’s integral to the fabric of what we think works, so you have not seen the last of John Bosworth.

To round out the character studies: Let’s talk Cam. She was so confident in her decision to cut Donna, but not confident in her decision to cut Tom. What does Cameron need to do in this last season for you to feel like she’s fully turned into the Cameron you always wanted her to become?

CANTWELL: Cameron is an interesting character because sometimes she’s functioned a little bit like a cipher in a way that Joe has. I think we’ve really gotten to know her more this season than we have any other, and we cracked her open — with her marriage to Tom, and yet this rekindling in some confused way with Joe, and then also this other important relationship in her life with Donna that is so fraught and so intimate. For someone who at the beginning of season 1 seemed like she wanted no human connection, Cameron has several really intense connections now to people in her life. We see her by the end of season 3 as someone who has matured, but also maybe lost a little bit of themselves and is at sea. She says to Joe in episode 9 that she seems to have figured things out, but you can tell, I think in Mackenzie’s performance, that there’s some searching that’s still going on in Cameron, and I don’t know if the answer is necessarily Joe MacMillan. I don’t know if the answer is necessarily Tom, or even Donna. She has a lot of really complicated feelings for all of these people in her life, and she’s going to have to sort through them in season 4 and, not that she’ll even have to make a choice between them, but I think she’ll have to make a choice about herself and figure out what her future needs to be and what she really wants. I think Cameron, seven years into her story, is still trying to figure that out, and we’ll see her continue to pursue that in season 4.

You were just renewed for a final season. Do you know what the last moment of the series is?

ROGERS: Oh man, I don’t think that we do. Every year we have some idea that we try to build around, if we’re lucky enough to come back. I think you’re catching us in a reflective moment, where we’re incredibly grateful to end the show on its own terms, which is really a creative gift…but I think we ultimately have to decide what these people have earned and where these people will land, and what the message of all these 40 episodes, which will lead up to that moment you’re talking about… we’re excited by that challenge. We’ve already got a little bit of a lump in our throat about saying goodbye, but at the same time, this is so much more than most storytellers ever get to ask for, is just knowing that you have 10 episodes to get to a moment like the one we’re describing. So we’re thrilled that we don’t know what it is yet.