Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell reveal their motivations for the end of the AMC series, if they would've done anything differently, and what they learned from their four-plus years bring it to life
After spending four seasons exploring connection, in all meanings of the term, Halt and Catch Fire has finally signed off for good.
In the poignant series finale, Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) were finally able to reunite, both personally and professionally, and the last time we saw them, Donna was about to share an idea for a new project they could work on together. Meanwhile, Bos (Toby Huss) and Diane (Annabeth Gish) were finally ready to do some living, and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) settled down and became a professor of humanities. (Read our full recap here.)
Below, EW chats with co-creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell about the big developments in the finale, what they hope audiences take away from the series as a whole, and whether they have an idea of what’s next for them.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know this is how you wanted to end the series?
CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: I think we didn’t know until a few episodes out of breaking it. I think we really kept the end of it open-ended. Chris and I always come into the writers’ room with a kind of plan of attack that we then change and alter with the writers and find something better, which we always do. We had some ideas of images or final scenes, but we really just let the process take us there.
That said, at the beginning of the season, did you know that the end goal would be Donna and Cameron teaming back up again, or was that something you discovered in the writing process?
CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: When we split them up, it was important to us that we kind of play fair with the way they parted and that was badly, personally and professionally. So, if they were going to get back together in the fourth season, we really kind of felt that we had to earn that. It gave us both a logistical challenge, in that we loved having those two on the screen at the same time, and so we had to kind of justify places they may run into each other, whether that be in Gordon’s [Scoot McNairy] living room in the first episode or at a conference like the one we see in episode 3.
The ultimate goal was, can these two find their way back to each other? We felt like it had to happen by degrees. We felt it had to happen personally first, which I think the death of Gordon enabled. Episode 8, I think, finds them able to mend their personal fences, but professionally, I think there was even a bridge farther to go. So, I think the finale is about trying to heal that wound, and the way they do it, for my money, is kind of beautiful in this Phoenix scene where they kind of envision what the company might’ve been that they’re ultimately now going to do.
That beautiful Phoenix scene really captures how much these two have grown over the past four seasons. Where did the idea for the scene come from?
CANTWELL: We looked at the patterns these characters have repeated over the four seasons: getting excited about the next new idea or next new partnership or relationship; jumping in all the way; having a blast and experiencing that initial euphoria; and then as it settles in and hardens around them, they experience a dissatisfaction of it, or the reality creeping in, or the strength of the competition beyond their walls; only to lose grasp of whatever they created and tried to hold onto. It’s happened so many times for these characters that we thought it important for them to start to see that pattern emerge and wake up to it. I think that it’s important for Donna and Cameron’s partnership, and friendship at this point, for them to identify and assess that behavior — that they often jump into these things and give it a go and it lasts for a while. I think that’s kind of a beautiful way for those to reach a profound level of maturity with themselves and with each other. So, I think that scene was really born out of that.
Do you actually know what idea Donna wants to pursue, or did you leave that open for yourselves as well?
ROGERS: That’s a question that’s coming up a lot and may come up for time immemorial. I think if you’re looking closely, there are a couple little nods to what the idea might be, but I also think there are a couple different answers that one could arrive at given the pieces there. We didn’t want it to be the end of The Sopranos where it was like the guy in the Members Only jacket and like “did the cop kill him?” — like where there are lots of competing theories and one is right. I think when you’re ending a series, sometimes the sweet spot is to suggest some possibility that the audience can kind of fill in the rest of, and I think Donna and Cameron’s idea might fall in that category. Is Joe going to stay in that school forever? Is this the real Joe? Have we finally arrived, or is this just another iteration of that guy? I think that you bring that answer to that scene. In that same way, I think Donna and Cameron’s idea and the viability of it going forward is a thing I’m happy for the audience to fill in at this point.
This has been said many times before, but one of the great things about the show is that we know these people will ultimately fail because they don’t create Google. Did that fact make it easier or harder to end the show since you didn’t have to worry about them reaching some big professional victory?
CANTWELL: I think that allowed us to focus on the characters more, and I think we had our share of, yes, fictionalized but still big corporate successes. I think they all were doing quite well monetarily by the end of season 4, as opposed to where they were at the start of season 1: They had major companies; they had been on the cover of magazines; they had major games that were huge splashes in the industry; they created big internet service provider companies. They’ve done some pretty serious sh—. I think that what they were realizing was that couldn’t be everything in their lives.
Also, it allowed us to look at this prototype of something Chris and I talk about a lot, which is this idea of “loser” being a pejorative term in American culture and that the winner takes all — that you’re Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or you’re nothing. I think that’s just not true in technology or any other field of human life. I think that the characters really come to embrace that by the end of the season. Do they lose out? Sort of, but not in a huge way. I think Joe moves on to try something different and a little bit more humble and noble. I think Cameron is Cameron. Donna may have an idea for them. She’s also managing partner of a firm that she’s molded in her image and feels good about. I think these characters are able to live in a groundlessness where everything isn’t about one singular victory professionally or personally. I think that is really wonderful wisdom to impart them with as we leave them on their journey.
I think that idea is captured by Joe becoming a teacher, which casts the rude saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” in a very noble light.
ROGERS: For Joe, I think we see over the course of 10-11 years the way that life and time wear on a person. By the time he’s walking into that school to teach, of all things, the humanities, we’re trying to tell a story [of someone] who’s been changed by time, who’s been humanized, as it were, by his relationship to these people, this kind of de facto family he ended up with. I think he’s teaching because it’s a thing he loves and now he’s not as tied to the outcome. Like you said, he’s not as tied to becoming the Google or the company that wins. I think teaching is a way to spread your love of a thing without needing to be the victor in that particular arena, so we love to think of Joe there. At the end of a show, you gotta think about where you want to leave these people and where you want to think about them as you move on with your life. For my money, I love thinking about Joe in that little classroom, driving that expensive car that probably all of the other teachers hate, and teaching that next generation of entrepreneurs how it is to be a human.
I think it’s fair to say this show was on the bubble for a lot of its run. Is there anything you would’ve done differently if you weren’t always looking over your shoulders?
ROGERS: [Laughs] I think in a way this show benefited from that early on. Would it have been easier to have been this consensus hit and kind rolled forward that way? Probably, but there was something about kind of knowing that every season might be our last that kind of spurred us to make our choices as often as possible. We really wanted to kind of play our music. Especially going into the second season, there was this feeling that, this might be it, so let’s just do this how that we want to do. It really kind of changed the tone for the show in a way that was reinforced by the critical response, and that was a real gift to get as young writers. The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was the first one that Chris and I ever spent in a writers’ room. So, I think that just convinced us to keep going back to what we wanted to do. Our motto was to always kind of leave it all on the table every season. We always want to give some closure in our last episode, but at the same time suggest where we might go next. But in approaching the fourth season and knowing it was our last, we doubled-down on that. The feeling was that we didn’t want to be sitting here talking about what the fifth season should’ve been, or the story we didn’t get to. For me, it’s really hard to think of a story we didn’t tell or we would tell in a potential fifth season, because we really kind of finished it. Some stories, I think, require more than four seasons, but I think 40 hours was sufficient for this one, and I think we’re really happy with where we left everyone. Other than “The Ballad of Haley Clark,” which we could be convinced to come back and do as a Christmas special some day, I think we feel some pretty good closure on the story of Halt and Catch Fire.
After spending all of these years looking at technology, what did you guys learn and what do you hope the audience takes away from the show as a whole?
CANTWELL: I think Chris and I got a little closer to who we are as people. We grew up a little bit with this show — just not only on a work schedule basis and what we needed to accomplish, but also we went from being guys in our late-20s when we sold this show to guys in our mid-30s. We’re married and we’ve got kids now. We learned to approach our lives and our work a little differently through this experience. So it’s been extremely valuable in that way, and I don’t think anybody will see that when they just decide to binge watch the show on a holiday weekend, but it was a nice side effect.
In terms of what they take away from it, I really would love for them take away from this kind of what I was saying earlier, that human connection is essential and necessary but ultimately hard, and therein lies its poignant beauty. When we were in New York [on Wednesday] watching the series finale, [Toby Huss] talked about how the show was kind in a way that was beautiful and also difficult to execute and sometimes difficult to watch because the characters didn’t have guns, they didn’t live in a nihilistic annihilationist world of zombies or drug empires. Look, I love these shows, too, and those can be incredible, but this was a show that lived in a different vein and executed a kind of human touch with the way it portrayed reality and people’s lives that I think was delicate and kind to the characters, to the audience, without being sentimental. I would love people to walk away and feel good. I don’t mean feel good like a Hallmark movie or anything. I mean, feel fine, feel okay, feel like they could put one foot in front of the other and say, “Yeah, this is tough, this is a journey, but we’re all in it together” and enjoy it while they have it. That’s a lot to ask. Maybe they should just enjoy the 40 hours of photons being fired into their eyes and then have a sundae and go to sleep and have a good dream. That would be fine, too.
Do you have an idea of what’s next for you guys?
ROGERS: This will be a long way to say we aren’t all the way sure. Halt and Catch Fire was such a dream project. We always kind of thought we were going to get into TV so we could do something like Halt and Catch Fire someday and then it got to be the first thing we did. So, I think we’re hoping to fall in love again, which is always hard because Halt and Catch Fire was [like] our first love, your first girlfriend, and I think it was the deepest in a lot of ways. We are going to try to do something together again in TV, but we want to make sure it’s the right thing because this experience has been so complete that to settle for anything less after this feels like it would be hard.