How ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ went from imitation quality drama to the real thing

Halt and Catch Fire just wrapped up its third season – which we know won’t be the last, thanks to yesterday’s renewal for a fourth and final season on AMC. I reviewed the finale here, and I have an interview with the show’s creators coming up just as soon as my apron says “Kiss the Cook” in binary code…

The finale ends with the show’s original core trio looking at a computer at the same time. Was that intentional? Were there iterations of the finale where Donna or Bos was going to be standing with them at the end, or did you know you wanted to go back to the beginning in that way?

CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: There’s a couple of pieces to that. Ultimately, Chris’s and my goal for season 3 was, in the distance, towards the finale, some sort of reunification. We had had such a splintering at the end of season 1, and we had further splintering in seasons 2 and 3, and we wanted to get the core five in some way shape or form together. But as we explored that and got to that place in the story, it felt like it needed to be earned, and it needed to be a little messy. And there were versions early on when it was all five. And then there were versions where we felt like we had to be honest and true to Bosworth’s story, which is that this guy’s put up with a lot from these people, he’s retired, and he’s fairly well-balanced in his life at this point. So it didn’t feel right to have him there at the end. Of course, heading into season 4, you’re guaran-damn-teed that John Bosworth will be involved in some way in some form. And with the Donna/Cameron split at the end of season 3, we felt we had to be true to that. And the way that manifested – which was so painful and ugly for them – it felt like sending (Donna) off gave us more runway for stories headed into a potential season 4. Of course, they’re going to cross paths, but as much as these people are drawn to each other, it’s very difficult for them to stay in a room for very long.

How much of the idea of the group being together in this way, talking about both the past and the future, was about giving you guys the opportunity to revisit the show’s past, and now that you know it so well, do an even better version of this group coming together?

CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: The way we write the show, is we do believe in writing ourselves into corners and trying to use all of our story really fast, as soon as we have it. So things like Donna and Cameron splitting up, that other shows might have been tempted to keep to the finale, we wanted to do in episode 7. The same is true of the time jump. By the time we got to the finale, we felt we had this real opportunity to do something weird and unique: a quiet finale after all the fireworks in the episodes that preceded it. We wanted to put these people in the room and have them talk about this big idea, but use it as a lens to examine the places they’ve been, and the industry they’re in. One of the exchanges I like the most is, someone invokes the future to move a point forward, and someone says I’m so sick of talking about the future; the future’s just an empty promise to get you to do what they want you to do.” And in a way, that was us trying to talk about some of the mechanics of the show. These people need to have learned and evolved from the people we met in our pilot. I think we were very happy to see the core lineup we began the show with at the end of season 3, but they’re mature, filled-out people, thanks in no small part to the actors who portray them. It made us really happy, because we were writing it to feel like these people had come a distance to each other and been truthful with the violence they’ve done to each other, but at the same time, they’re new. They grew up. It’s so tempting on a TV show to play the same dynamics over and over with a character: Cameron is difficult and Donna is reasonable. But we’ve been there. Now season 4 can be about people we’ve watched grow in real time.

When you wrote this finale, you had no idea which way AMC was going to go on renewal. How did you decide this was where you were comfortable ending the series if need be?

CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: Chris and I always endeavor to write every finale of a season as some sort of satisfying conclusion to the story that could potentially serve as a series finale. I don’t think we do it out of insecurity so much as a desire to give people who are watching the show a fulfilling and satisfying end to the story. We always try to leave threads here and there that we can pull through into later seasons if we are fortunate enough to get the renewal. We’ve done that each time through seasons 1, 2, and 3. I feel like in season 3, we left the most threads hanging. We don’t really know any kind of resolution. There’s a tenuous, standing at the brink quality to Gordon, Cameron, and Joe looking at that computer screen, and what’s going on between them personally, and then also wherever Donna is headed to in some sort of, perhaps, adversarial role. We try to give the audience a full story each time. It’s just that simple. Season 3 could stand on its own, and it would have been a fun end. But the fact that we get to keep going, now we know that we can fully write to the end, and that was definitely a gift from the network.

Let’s talk about the early stages of the series. Looking back what were you figuring out about the show as you were making the first season?

CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: We’re both young guys in our early 30s, and this was our first thing that we sold in a meaningful way. We graced the development of the series with our development as writers, and then – because AMC showed faith in us – showrunners. We really got plopped down and the first writers room we ever walked into, and we were working Jonathan Lisco, this wonderful established showrunner who taught us everything we know, and we were in there with people from Mad Men and Deadwood and The Sopranos, shows we really admired. I think we were really trying to learn the ropes. As such, if there is a criticism of season 1 – and I know there is, and we do take the unpopular position that season 1 was good, too – is that we were trying to figure out what the show was. We were really trying to find it, especially through the first five episodes. I think when we stopped aping our idols – and that was at the time for sure shows like Mad Men andBreaking Bad, and lots of people have made the don Draper and Walter White comparisons to Joe and Gordon – and started doing our own thing, that’s when the show started to sing. And as we get into Mutiny and this neon, sarcastic, more frenetic pace, I think that starts to become Chris Cantwell and my voice. That was really gratifying. We felt we were rewarded for becoming ourselves and playing our own music. As we think about the maturation of the show and what we’ve been able to achieve this year as showrunners, it’s gratifying, because we’ve tried to go deeper and deeper into what we were trying to do. Especially once we knew ratings were going to be an uphill battle for us, we were incentivized to do what we love and treat every season like it’s the last season.

Back when this was just an idea the two of you were batting around, how far into the future of computing did you expect to get? Was the plan to just stay in the early ’80s? Or did you know you eventually wanted to get to the birth of the Web, and maybe some things after?

CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: When we first started, we were just focused on that reverse-engineered PC story, which Chris and I were fascinated about, because we didn’t know it. In our research, we saw something fresh there. But as soon as we got into the room and started to figure out what the show was and find our tone and see how forward-looking our characters could be, the word “internet” kept whispering in our ear. Computers and the internet are inextricably tied together. You feel the draw of that in the story. We were starting to even tease it out by the end of season 1, because that’s where the pull was taking us. By the time we got the pickup for season 3, one of the first thoughts we had was, “Wouldn’t it be cool to finish the season with those three letters – WWW – and connect now to where we started?” It’s been a joy to be able to actually get there in our story and have AMC support us in our endeavor. But it was definitely a fog of war for us at the beginning. “Okay, they’re building a computer, where are we headed, how long is this story going to take, how much time do we have to take in terms of exploring the technology or having the characters plausibly move through the technology without seeming superhuman in their abilities to predict what happens next?” But this idea of everyone groping in the ether at pieces of ideas and beating around the same concept, and then something sparking and things moving in a direction was very much historically true, and one that I think served us well in the story of Halt and Catch Fire. It allowed our characters to go along the same path of moving forward without necessarily knowing exactly where they’re headed.

All four of your main characters have changed a lot each season, in terms of their look, their demeanor, who they’re aligned with, etc. Joe seems to have transformed the most. What have been the challenges and benefits of writing such a versatile character, and having Lee Pace play him?

CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: Season 3 was probably our favorite and I think Lee would agree, the best season Joe’s had in the series. That’s because we got to see a backstory in real time, not just imply one offscreen with some scars on the guy’s chest and a lot of rumors. We got to see the guy start out as who he was, and then reform a little in the second season, and earn who he showed up as in the third season. Going into the third season, it was a real goal of ours to remystify Joe. We didn’t want to see him for most of the premiere, have this rumor campaign about him, and we really wanted to reinvest in the character of Joe. I think he did start the series probably most in that old difficult men anti-hero mold. I think this show, as we initially conceived it, could easily have been about Joe MacMillan the difficult computer salesman. But we were really happiest as we went to explode the archetypes, whether it be with Donna – who on another show could have just been a housewife – or in the character of Joe, who when Lee showed up, the nuance and fragility he showed up with in embodying that role gave us a lot of interesting places to go. It’s been the longest journey for him, in terms of who people thought that character was, and who he ended up being in that third season. That’s the wonderful thing about getting thirty episodes, and now forty, is you get to evolve and change characters, who you conceived one way, and work with an actor to find something that feels real and truthful. The fact that Joe MacMillan has become who Joe is at the end of the third season is a real testament to the process.

Donna and Cameron have had this very recent falling-out, from our standpoint in the audience, but over the life of the series, Joe has made more enemies among the group. So you had to work the hardest to get him to a place where the others would want to be in a room with him.


CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: Yeah, he really burned a lot of bridges.

Getting back to what you said before about adjusting your planning once you knew the ratings weren’t there. I imagine a show aspiring to a bigger audience couldn’t do a long scene where characters argue about HTML vs. HTTP.

CHRISTOPHER CANTWELL: (laughs) I don’t know. We have a great partner. I’ve been consistently really blown away by AMC’s trust of us. Even when it was Jonathan Lisco and Chris, and I, we really wanted the story to go in a certain direction, and they trusted us to make it what it is. I don’t know what the world looks like where Halt and Catch Fire has got Walking Dead ratings, and yet the characters are arguing about HTTP. That would be a surreal world. I don’t know what the rules are in that world, and what the rules would be for us. But it worked out the way it worked out. AMC let us do our thing, and I like to believe that they let us do our thing, no matter where our numbers were at, just because that seems to be the kind of collaborators they are.

Writing about creation is really hard to do, and rarely conveys the difficulties and passions of it. This is a show that’s all about creating the future that we live in now. How have you tried to get that across through what the characters are doing, and to get the audience to invest in this future that they already know more about than the characters trying to build it?

CHRISTOPHER C. ROGERS: I think a huge part of it is, we operate from one of the central tenets of the show is that people who make things indelibly put something of themselves into their creations. Both their best qualities and their worst qualities. That’s a theme that’s never too distant for the writers to access, because you put your hopes and dreams into something, and you put it out there, you’re always just making a gamble on what works. But it carries some charge of what you relate to, what you think is real. So the personal of it is easy for us to access. On this show, it’s very important for us that everybody always have their best arguments. Some of this is a foregone conclusion in terms of who wins in what races, and you never want to feel like you’re having your time wasted by watching the story of Betamax. We try to look for the little stories between the cracks of the big ones people think they know. The truth of the tech industry is it’s a lot more of a group effort than people think. The people who come up with the big ideas aren’t always the ones who get to market first or are rewarded for them. We wanted to tell the stories of people who are thinking the right things at the wrong time, or the ones who got there but were missing one critical piece, or the people who outright stole something and took that across the goal line. And I think that is the story of creating things. To have the right idea is not enough. There’s an execution, there’s filling a personal need that all of these people have to keep buying back into the table – that unfortunately as writers and artists, we can relate to. Happy people don’t feel compelled to keep buying back in and keep trying again in that kind of way. So this is the story of people who have these needs within themselves to be part of this future and to create things. And we love to tell it, because we think those people are heroes in their own way.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at