Series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rose explain how the World Wide Web will help Joe, Donna, Cameron, and Gordon in their quest for connection
Halt and Catch Fire — a.k.a. one of the best shows you should be watching but probably aren’t — is coming full circle in its final season, which premieres Saturday and follows through on a vision of the future expressed in one of the show’s very first scenes.
In the AMC’s techno-drama’s 1983-set series premiere, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) asked a room full of college students to tell him one thing that would be true of computers in 10 years, and rebellious coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) lazily said, “Computers will be connected together across one network with a standard protocol.” Well, that future has finally arrived in the fourth and final season, which picks up in the early ’90s and finds Joe and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) racing against Donna (Kerry Bishé), who is now a partner at a venture capitalist firm, to create the first search engine for the World Wide Web.
Navigating the early days of the internet will see these three and Cameron, who is also reeling from recent personal and professional failures, face an existential question that will drive this season.
“By the fourth season, they’ve all been through various cycles of projects thinking, This is the project that will make me whole. That’s going to make me right, or This is the relationship that’s going to answer my problems. But, ultimately, wherever [they] go, there they are,” co-creator Christopher C. Rogers tells EW. “So I think we find them in the fourth season kind of asking themselves if the cycle ever ends or if there’s a way to step off, or if there’s a way to make peace.”
Below Rogers and fellow co-creator Christopher Cantwell preview the emotional final season while reflecting on their characters’ “cosmic” relationships.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before diving into the final season, I wanted to zoom out a bit. Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna have experienced so much together and a lot of their joint ventures have not always gone according to plan, and yet they still find themselves drawn to each other. What do you think keeps bringing them back together?
CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: I would say that’s a tough one to answer. I would say that, for us, it feels almost cosmic. There’s something about the characters and the way they respond to each other that I think they all recognize. I think they’re all people who have difficulty connecting with people in general, yet they’ve had these profound connections with each of the others, whether they’ve liked it or not. That comes with a lot of baggage, and they’ve certainly been hurt by the others as much as things have gone well, but, I think that’s the kind of human connection you can’t walk away from. So, by season 4, after 10 years of knowing each other, these characters almost feel like a family. For people that can feel isolated and alienated from a lot of other people, and even lonely, I think, there’s something about the others that just feels undeniable where those feelings can abate and they feel connected again. I think that’s why they’re in technology, too. I think these people are emblematic of why they do what they do.
There’s a palpable loneliness in the first two episodes of the season. How much of that feeling is driving this season?
CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: I think a lot of these characters are kind of lonely at their core, in that some of them are kind of solitary individuals, which, I think, is what kind of drew them to each other in the first place. I’m thinking Joe and Cameron, who are kind of loners by nature. But, I think the fourth season, when I saw some of the early promotional materials, I think there was also this feeling of family. All of these loners came together to form this kind of bizarre de facto family, incredibly dysfunctional though it was. But, I think that’s just the thing that’s going to happen on any kind of series that tries to kind of depict life largely as it is. This has been 10 years of knowing these people. It’s been about them aging. It’s been about them maturing. For people like Cameron, it’s been about going from a punky college dropout to an adult this season. It’s been about loss. I think we wanted to, without being a complete bummer, play with the kind of ravages [of time] and the ways that changes people over time. Maybe there is some melancholy or loneliness underneath the fourth season, but I also like to think there’s some celebration and fulfillment of things that were there all along for some of these folks. I think it’s a season that finds Donna blossoming. So yeah, I guess it is a very adult, final season — which sounds terrible now that I say it. I would hate for people to think that’s all that’s there because I think we had our fun, too, which we always do. We try to intersperse the “prestige drama” with the bratty fun jokes that we ourselves like, and I think that’s the mixture that makes Halt and Catch Fire work.
As you said, this season is about them figuring out if they’ll ever be able to make themselves whole. I think there’s something optimistic and earnest about that desire to get involved with the internet this season, which is about these connections.
CANTWELL: It’s weird. At least for Joe, I don’t know if he ever really let go of the internet, or at least the promise of the internet. I think that’s different from Gordon, who has not let go of the internet in a literal sense because Gordon is still running the [network] that Joe and Ryan and he hooked up at the end of season 3. That’s actually grown into quite an enterprise, his big regional network called CalNect. Joe is still looking for something more. Joe has had these tenuous connections with everyone over the last 10 years and especially at the end of season 3. He’s loved and lost and gained and lost again, but I think he’s still looking. Lee Pace once told us early on in the series that Joe just seemed like a really lonely guy. I really feel that even though that’s a very simple way of putting it, it’s very true. So, when we see him at the top of season 4, he’s still questing and he still wants these people in his life, whether he’s conscious of that or not. I think that the World Wide Web is at least a nice metaphor for that kind of web of connection. It’s definitely something you could assign to our group of characters.
How has the Joe we meet in season 4 been changed by everything he’s experienced in the first three seasons?
ROGERS: Tremendously. Over the four seasons, we take Joe from this guy who enters our series in a fast car and a sharp suit — he’s gonna bend everyone to his will whether they like it or not — to the guy we meet at the top of season 4, who is very much isolated in the basement. Chris put this well: [He’s] the last lighthouse waiting for the internet to arrive. He’s uncertain and he’s been unlucky in love and he lost a business partner in Ryan (Manish Dayal) last year in the most tragic way. This is a guy who has been humbled and, I think, mellowed by time. I think he’s come to understand a little bit more what’s important, but at the same time, we only ever change so much. I think Lee Pace has done a phenomenal job arching that character to the guy we meet in season 4, who, in many ways, is kind of returning to the dynamics of the first season — whether it be his partnership with Gordon or his relationship with Cameron — to see if that new maturity [and] that new wisdom can kind of help him do those things right this time. [In life], things are cyclical. You’re confronted with the same things again and again, but as you change over time, maybe your ability to field them or live through is what changes, and I think Joe is a different person confronting those problems in the fourth season.
Season 3 ended with Joe, Cameron, and Gordon sitting down to build this door to the internet. This season, we’ll see them getting into the world of search. How do they go from building this door, the first browser, to search?
CANTWELL: I think we’re going to see a lot of personal reasons that their project progresses the way it does from the end of season 3 to the beginning of season 4 in terms of the browser. I do think that, historically, there was an interesting section of time where the World Wide Web was launched at the end of 1990 and took a few years to get going. Historically, the browser Mosaic really kick-started things, and we’re going to see our characters experience that. Once that happens and the goal changes a little bit, we’re gonna see them assess the landscape and think maybe there’s a different way to be the door. With all this information now growing on the web, how does one find anything? I think one thing will lead to another for all of the characters in different ways.
What can we expect when we meet Donna this season?
ROGERS: Donna’s journey in the series, really, has gone from being an engineer trained at Berkley (like her husband Gordon) who kind of put her own dreams on hold to raise a family and was occasionally called upon for emergencies to recover some lost data, to someone in the second season who kind of co-founds Mutiny with Cameron and starts to have a facility with what they’re doing. In season 3, I think she’s realizing she might be really, really good at this, and in a way that kind of brings her and Cameron into conflict and ultimately they kind of split apart, but Donna’s acumen for this is great. Season 4 sees her kind of fulfilling the potential that she kind of displayed throughout those other seasons in becoming a partner at this major VC firm. Over the course of the season, she’ll be pursuing the idea of becoming the managing partner of the firm. I think she’s gotten what she wants professionally in a lot of ways, but the old wounds still fester. The end of season 3 has left her a bit paranoid. The way that Cameron kind of cast her out at the very end has left Donna with her defenses up. The worst possible thing kind of happened in her blindspot. So, the Donna that we meet at the top of season 4 is pretty determined to not let that happen again, but I wouldn’t paint her with a brush of villain or antagonist either. I think she maintains this healthy relationship with Gordon. I think she’s a good parent. I think she just makes the best moves available to her at a given time. I think Kerry Bishé has just done a wonderful job bringing that arc to life.
In sitting down to break this story, did you look to other shows’ final season and series finales for inspiration?
CANTWELL: When we were talking about finales we loved, we definitely did have a discussion in the writers’ room and Chris and I definitely did talk about certain things that people had done in the past. Just as an example of spectrum, I think we looked at everything from The Sopranos, which really left you hanging in an incredible and brilliant way, all the way to something like Six Feet Under, which felt tremendously complete and emotionally satisfying. I’m happy to say that I think we fell somewhere in the middle, but I also think our ending is our own and it just felt like it grew organically out of the story more than anything else.
Halt and Catch Fire returns with a two-episode premiere Saturday, Aug. 19 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.