Hey, AMC: Quit screwing around and renew ‘Halt and Catch Fire’

Senior Television Writer
08.02.15 50 Comments

AMC

On Friday, AMC came to press tour and announced renewals for a whole bunch of shows that are not “Halt and Catch Fire.”

This is unacceptable.

Sure, for much of it its first season, “Halt” was a collection of interesting performances and ideas in search of a TV show worth containing them all. But by the time it started this second season, the show about the dawn of the computer age had given itself a massive system upgrade, and is now one of the very best dramas in all of television, let alone on AMC. There was a moment in tonight’s season finale – a conversation on an airplane between spouses Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) that had a much deeper meaning for her than for him – that hit me as hard as anything I’ve seen in a good long time, and it was just one spectacular scene among many this season.

As was the case at this time last year, the show’s future is up in the air. AMC waited a few weeks after that finale to order a new season, and where press tour would have been an easy time to proudly announce a season 3, that didn’t happen.

AMC’s not in the business of charity, but I’d like to think that having two different “Walking Dead” shows, not to mention a successful (and terrific in its own right) “Breaking Bad” spin-off gives the channel license to keep around a less popular show that continues the tradition of quality started with Don Draper and Walter White.

But while we wait, I emailed the show’s creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, some questions about the season finale, season 2 as a whole, and their hopes for the series’ future, all coming up just as soon as I write in my stress journal…

Both seasons ended with the launch of new business ventures, in ways that could have been the set-up for a new season or a reasonable end point for the show, and both seasons have ended in the real world with your future very much up in the air. How did you approach these finales in terms of closure, or the lack thereof, particularly this year when you had a better sense of what your audience was and what AMC’s expectations were?

Christopher C. Rogers: As writers we believe in playing fair with the audience and that one of our responsibilities as storytellers is to entertain. For us, that has always entailed providing some degree of closure toward the end of each season, while at the same time suggesting in that Sopranos way that life continues, messy and uncaring, etc. We also like to use each finale to suggest a “big idea” for where the story might go next. At the end of Season 1 that idea was Mutiny, at the end of Season 2 it is California.

In the real world, because of the realities of our production schedule and the fact that it was our first show on the air, we got to write Season 1 in a kind of benighted vacuum, never thinking that that there wouldn”t be a Season 2. When that possibility finally dawned on us last summer as we waited for word of renewal, I think it put a real fire into us to return with a second season that left nothing on the table should we be given the chance.

That said, we”ve found that you simply cannot write to the ratings or audience reaction if you hope to be successful in storytelling. Both represent a moving target that you”ll always be chasing behind if you let them into the process. To be overly glib about it, all you can really do is please yourself in the writer”s room, stay open to good ideas in production and post, then cross your fingers that people like the key art before it airs.

The order for season 2 came well after season 1 had ended. What’s your sense of your fate this time around, and when do you expect to get an answer? What does AMC want to see or hear for you to get another season? Did you have to pitch them on the season 2 arc as part of earning that renewal?

Christopher C. Rogers: We’re cautiously optimistic about a third season and keeping our fingers crossed. We’re incredibly proud of the season of TV we put out this year and have frankly been delighted with the almost universally positive critical response. Our fans have been both vocal and loyal and we definitely feel that we have much more to say with these characters should we be given the opportunity. That said, we understand that there are other considerations (ratings not least among them) which AMC has to weigh in making their decision. We fully expect them to gather all of the data out there and take the time they need to reach a conclusion, which is what they’ve always done historically whether the show is a new one like ours or a returning hit like Breaking Bad.

Re pitching a third season: AMC has frankly been wonderful from the very beginning of our relationship in they’ve never asked us to chase audiences, ratings or specific plot directions. To their great credit, they’ve allowed us to take this story in the directions we’ve felt best creatively, and while we usually go in over hiatus to give them some broad strokes on what we’re thinking next, that process has never been positioned as pitching for renewal.

Joe spends most of this season trying to be good and authentic, but almost no one trusts him based on past performance, and he makes an easy fall guy when Cameron and Donna set him up to deliver the computer virus. By the end of the finale, he seems to have embraced his inner villain a bit. Is that a version of Joe you find more fun to write? If there is a third season, what should we expect from him?

Christopher Cantwell: To us, the great tragedy of Season 2 is the fact that nobody believes Joe MacMillan despite his good intentions. It speaks to the delicious complexity of the character that you can play the fact that he”s a good guy as a surprising story twist.

Many viewers were waiting for Joe”s ulterior motives with Sara and Jacob and Westgroup to be revealed, but then it turned out he was acting in a truly genuine matter. The trouble for Joe was, his dubious nature from Season 1 still haunted him, and all of his former cohorts thought he was lying through his teeth the entire time. For us, this poses an important thematic question: can you really change? Can you leave your past behind? Was Joe acting sincerely and honorably, or was he deluding himself with this new authentic path?

Joe”s ‘original sin” this season was taking the job at Westgroup. Nathan Cardiff ripped up his pay-out check, and he freaked. So he took one shortcut. And it cost him dearly. But him losing that Cardiff money and taking that job is the entire reason Season 2 happens. If he had left well enough alone, or continued on with his original plan of starting his own company, none of this would have gone down.

By the end of the season, Joe has turned dark again, but it”s a different flavor. He”s truly walled himself off. He no longer trusts anyone. And he doesn”t see the value in good intentions. But to us the most interesting Joe is a conflicted and human Joe, and he”ll continue to wrestle with those sides of himself should the story continue.

At what point in making season 1 did you realize that you wanted to emphasize Donna more? It’s not that Kerry didn’t have anything to do in the early days, but she definitely became much more prominent over that season, and Donna and Cameron’s partnership was at the core of most of this season.

Christopher C. Rogers: Both Cantwell and I are in our early 30s and as such consider ourselves of a generation of writers greatly influenced by the “difficult men” vanguard of showrunner/creators. As such, we”re huge believers in the (I”ll credit Vince Gilligan) idea that you have to constantly remain open to new creative directions and ideas by responding to and feeding what”s working on your show. From the outset of Season 1, Kerry Bishe”s Donna was really working. Not to the exclusion of the great work our other actors were doing, mind you, but so much so that we began referring to her as our “secret weapon” in the writer”s room. Similarly, as our first season drew to a close with the technology story seemingly pointing us toward online connectivity and Mutiny, we lept at the chance to write more Donna/Cameron scenes, as those had been such a happy discovery as the footage came in.

It was extremely important to us from the outset that Donna”s character be an engineer in her own right and function as more than an accessory to Gordon”s arc on the show. We knew the moment that Donna would be “brought into” Cardiff Electric (104) was something we were aiming for and similarly that she would have a role to play in the team”s last stand at Comdex (109). I had to pick a single “oh wow” moment however, I”d go all the way back to her pilot fight with Gordon in the garage where she tells her husband that their marriage and family life have always been enough for her but then again she never had the burden of believing herself a misunderstood genius… oh man, I remember standing with Chris in video village and knowing Donna was lightning in a bottle.

Was there any pushback from AMC about Donna having the abortion? Even in 2015, it’s still rare to depict a married woman who’s a regular character on a TV show going through with that. And what were you trying to say with that story about Donna and her struggle to balance work and family?

Christopher Cantwell: There was not pushback, and AMC very much understood what we were trying to go for: that is, the infinitely complex decision behind a woman making a choice like this. We absolutely did not want to “TV” this moment and make it simple, trite math, i.e. ‘Donna wants to work, so she can”t have another kid.” For Donna, and for us in the writers room, it was never that simple. We had many in-depth and emotionally honest conversations about this issue, and why some women choose to go forward with it.

For that reason, we really wanted Donna to articulate all the reasons she”s leaning towards terminating her pregnancy, but we also didn”t want to absolutely spell things out and reduce the character to a POV in some larger ongoing debate. We found what we thought worked very well in an early scene between Donna and her mother. She lies and tells her mother that she miscarried-of course, the audience doesn”t know the truth yet, that she”s actually grappling with her impending abortion-and in that moment she gets the comfort and connection she”s seeking due to the loss of an unborn child, all while translating it into a situation that is more palatable and understandable for her mother, who”s from a completely different generation and would likely not understand the actual choice Donna”s making. Still, if you go back and watch that scene, Donna actually says-or tries to say, as best she can-all the reasons she doesn”t want to have another baby. And even as she”s saying them, she”s breaking up, and starting to cry, because in the end it is such a profound and complicated thing.

The only thing she can say to Cameron in their car ride to Planned Parenthood is why she”s NOT doing it, which is: that her commitment to Mutiny for some reason disallows her to have a third child. It can”t be reduced in that way. Donna knows that, and knows that her decision will forever be more ambiguous and more multi-faceted in terms of her motivations, in ways she may never be able to perfectly articulate. To us, that was the most real and truthful portrayal of her choice, and a choice like this.

Another balance question: how do you let the characters be forward-thinking about computers and the internet without making them seem psychic, and/or like they’re getting fictional credit for things developed by real engineers and software designers?

Christopher C. Rogers: It”s important to us that Halt and Catch Fire not be an alternate history. As such, we work hard to make sure that the events depicted fly within the shadow of what actually happened, which technologies won or lost and which companies got there first. Ours is a world where Michael Dell exists, where Steve Jobs exists, and as such we like to let our characters chose wrong for the historically right reasons as frequently as they get it right. Halt and Catch Fire”s real opportunity has always been to tell the untold stories of the myriad companies and innovators who never got credit for their role in creating this sea change in our world. There has long been a tendency to simplify the story of technology to a Silicon Valley based two-hander staring Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that Halt and Catch Fire works hard to clarify and elaborate on.

Where did the idea for Gordon’s illness come from? Early in the season, it seemed like the cocaine was going to be his main problem; was that ever a consideration, or was it always meant as a bit of misdirection?

Christopher Cantwell: To us, a straight-up 80″s ‘cocaine” storyline felt too expected and from the moment it was pitched, we sought ways to subvert it. Gordon”s illness was a way of turning ‘oh, Gordon is a cocaine addict” into a bit of a head-fake for the audience. Firstly, we wanted to be accurate to that drug and how it was used in the 80″s-as much as many after-school specials from the period would like us to believe, one snort doesn”t necessarily turn someone into an instant addict. We spoke to many folks who used it for a time in the 80″s, led functional lives, and then successfully put it away. That doesn”t mean it wasn”t dangerous, and, as Gordon”s doctor points out, there are all types of ways it can mess up your life and kill you.

But more importantly than that, we wanted Gordon”s story in Season 2 to organically grow out of his character, and not be dropped on him like some sort of device. We also wanted his struggles to isolate him this season, and really up the stakes of his search for connection. Finally, we felt that tossing him immediately into Mutiny wouldn”t feel earned and believed that Gordon totally on his own, fresh off a pyrrhic victory like the Cardiff sale, would be much more interesting.

The diagnosis of CTE sunk up well historically-it was only recently understood and was an official WHO diagnosis as of 1985-but furthermore, it seemed to gel with Gordon”s character in a way that allowed us to dig deeper into his psyche. In Season 1 we saw a man who was driven but high-strung, bold but anxious, in love with machines but also a slave and a victim to them in a way. CTE made that literal. It allowed us to expand the chaos in Gordon”s mind, and illustrate how machines (from cars in his dad”s shop to computers in his own garage) had physically taken a toll on him.

Going into the series, did you have a plan for how far you might like to follow this story? Has that changed, whether because of the ratings or because of what you’ve discovered creatively? If there is a third season, what are you comfortable telling the audience about it now?

Christopher C. Rogers: From the outset of our first meetings with AMC, we were convinced that the runway presented by the technology story was a long one. These questions of how we got to where we are today, whether tech. has brought us closer together or driven us farther apart, and this idea that people who create things inevitably bake something of themselves into the things they create, didn”t feel closed-ended to us. We knew that the dawn of the personal computer was the genesis point, but the conclusion of that thread is much more subjective.

While we do strive to marry each season to an important (and often unsung) moment in tech. history, the character story still has to steer the narrative of Halt and Catch Fire first and foremost. As such, should we be so fortunate as to get a third season, we absolutely know what we think the story will be, but at the same time know that it will ultimately be best served by our willingness to stay open to even better ideas as they reveal themselves in the writer”s room. I will also say that we think Halt presents us with some unique opportunities to stretch the [traditional TV) format that we”re hoping for the opportunity to explore in a potential third season. Oh, and it”ll be set in California.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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