Spoilers ahead for the season-three finale of Halt and Catch Fire.
Like the technology at the heart of the series, Halt and Catch Fire has seemed to improve at an accelerating rate. Starting with the personal-computing boom in 1980s Texas, the series rejiggered its central premises in season two, moving away from Lee Pace’s tech genius Joe MacMillan to focus on a start-up run by Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Once it nabbed a third season, Halt brought that start-up to Silicon Valley and gave Joe a big chance at redemption — and bigger defeat. The show is currently the best it's ever been, tightly plotted, structurally daring, and willing to take big risks — as we see in the show’s two-part finale, which jumped four years into the future to 1990, right at the birth of the World Wide Web.
“The metaphor was too rich,” Halt co-creator and co-showrunner Christopher Cantwell said of the scene. The internet becomes the thing that pulls everyone together, even as they misunderstand, betray, and disappoint each other — it forces them to communicate. “If we could put them under the umbrella of internet connectivity,” he said, “as long as it emotionally felt truthful to where they had been, we could get them at least in the same room together for 49 minutes before it all went to hell again.” To learn more about the decisions that went into taking that leap, Vulture caught up with Cantwell and co-creator Christopher C. Rogers to get answers to our burning questions about the internet, the mechanics of Cameron and Donna’s relationship, and what they hope to accomplish in their just-announced fourth and final season.
Why do a time jump in the first place?
Christopher Cantwell: Because we’re writing for a really high-tech audience who knows where all of this is headed, we thought it would be really great to finish the season with those three letters: WWW. We were fighting about that for a while. Do we jump the story four years later in season three? That felt like it wouldn’t do service to the story we told in season two. Do we tell a whole season set in 1986? We certainly felt like we could, but in the larger technology backdrop, we couldn't find a punch that equaled a web address. So Chris and I decided: What if we told as much story as we could in 1986 and then jumped and spent the last however many episodes four years later? What if we told the story of the characters becoming quite alienated from each other in 1986 so that we could then set the table for some kind of reunification?
And why end on a bottle episode?
Christopher Rogers: One of our guiding principles is that we try to use up all our story as quickly as we can. If the audience sees it, we want to get there two episodes earlier. So as we approached ten and looked around, there was this opportunity to do a quiet finale and do something weird and interesting and, in a way, look both forward and back through the lens of these people, examining their relationships with each other in the context of the World Wide Web.
There are always ideas for incredible bottle episodes, and they seem to go away because you've got to write those and figure out how to make that sustain. [The season finale] was this lens to look back on the series so far and where the series might go. It just took us back to the core of what our show is, which is a show without guns or a lot of external plot devices. At the end of the day, it's got to be about character, and these characters, and how they relate to each other.
Gordon’s daughter Joanie is suddenly a teenager played by Kathryn Newton when we get to 1990. How did you approach the change in her character?
C.C.: We had two extremely talented actresses that played the Clark girls for the first three seasons in Morgan Hinkleman [Joanie] and Alana Cavanaugh [Haley], and they were so wonderful. We realize that the actors, that Lee and Scoot and Mackenzie and Kerry and Toby could pull off a four-year difference in their faces, but the girls wouldn't be able to do that, if we were going to see them again.
In episode eight, which was directed by Reed Morano, the last scene that the girls are in is when Alana, who plays Haley, answers the phone in her Ewok costume and talks to her mom. We actually rolled on them, and on that tape, surprised them with a big good-bye party, which was great for the girls. And it was sad! We had crew members tearing up.
We thought a teenage Joanie, who was an embodiment of the two most difficult women Gordon Clark has ever encountered in his life — Cameron Howe and his wife, Donna Clark — if we could put those two people into the same person, it felt like Gordon would really have his hands full.
Why jump to 1990 in particular?
C.C.: That was really up to the technology. We tried to make it as short as possible. We didn't want to jump six years, five years, it felt like too much. We wanted to make sure enough was going on with the web that people were aware of the Tim Berners-Lee paper. For a little while, it was 1989, because that's when Berners-Lee wrote the paper, but the paper sat at his supervisor's desk at CERN for months and no one saw it. In order to be honest with where we were going, and that last scene of the finale of them all being able to access it, that came off of the historical timeline of CERN launching that website right around Christmas 1990. We really tried make it so it wasn't too jarring, so it was accurate, and gave us the right story we needed.
The coder Ryan Ray joined the show this season, only to commit suicide in episode eight. How did you come up with that arc?
C.R.: We wanted Ryan to be a kid who really cared. We had a lot of opportunities with him, to be a mirror who helps with the re-humanification of Joe, which was a big thing that we felt like we'd been building to, and for our money, this was the best season we've had with Joe in terms of earning a story that's heartbreaking.
But at the end of the day, it was most important to us that we try to make a character that felt real. That's what happened with Ryan. We saw him bring Joe back to life, make Joe fall back in love with technology, and for a while I think there's really a beautiful thing that blossoms between them, only to go awry in a misunderstanding. Ryan tries to pull a Joe MacMillan — but of course he's not Joe MacMillan — at the same time that Joe is realizing he has to change.
Ryan feels similar to Aaron Swartz, a young programmer who also championed open-source uses of technology and also committed suicide. Was that someone you thought of when coming up with the character?
C.R.: To be honest, we were even worried about being too close to that, because we wanted to have sensitivity to Aaron Swartz's real story. But he was absolutely a name that came up as we discussed this and how to handle it in the correct way.
We really had to believe from the beginning that this was an all-or-nothing proposition for Ryan, that he had been ignored and that this frustration and this kind of damage had been building in him for a long time. In Joe, he had let himself go all in and fall in love with something that was ultimately volatile, so that when it did reverse on him and when he's faced with this prospect of not getting to work in computers for a period of time, of going to prison, it's not a setback for him — it's game over. Unfortunately, again, without wanting to comment on the real and tragic story of Aaron Swartz too much, that felt resonant of that. In that he was put in an impossible position.
What is behind the growing split between Donna and Cameron, which drives much of the season?
C.C.: In season two, what was wonderful about Cameron and Donna was that they had a quarrelsome but functional and respectful partnership. As they move into the big-stakes game of Silicon Valley in season three, we wanted to pull all of the characters into a pressure cooker, and they feel the brunt of that pressure entering the big leagues. Both of them emotionally react in different ways, and that's where they start to get cross-ways. Where Cameron starts to clam up and hold on to her company and worry about losing control of it, and Donna, triggered by a very aspirational figure in the character of Diane Gould, starts to see a future for herself that is full of success. She's very aggressively ambitious this season, in a way that we can get behind and support, because we've wanted that for Donna for so many episodes. And yet we also are sympathetic to Cameron. We don't want Cameron to lose what she created out of a purity of spirit at the end of season one.
It just felt like the natural progression of their partnership, one that ultimately was hard to write because they were so close, ultimately much closer than Joe and Gordon ever were in season one. And if anything, we see those two guys start to arrive at a real friendship in season three, finally. It was really tearing asunder Cameron and Donna that was painful for us, but ultimately felt like good drama.
What is the state of Cameron and Joe’s relationship, especially after they hook up at COMDEX in episode nine?
C.R.: When we decided to go back to COMDEX, which was a thing we wanted to do in theory, it did seem like a very real place for Cameron and Joe to encounter each other again, but how far that went was never preordained. It had to feel earned between those two.
Cameron is, in a lot of ways, delivering Joe from this lingering guilt and these feelings of being lost that he's experiencing over Ryan and these four lost years in his life. And for Cameron, Joe represents an escape from her own temporary unhappiness, which, I think, has a different flavor. We think those two are tied together. They're both characters who started the series wearing masks and who have seen each other without their masks and will always be bound together in some fucked, amorphous way. Is it love, and is it even good for them? Those are definitely open questions.
How has Gordon and Donna’s divorce affected their relationship?
C.C.: Gordon and Donna getting divorced didn't, for us, kill the connection or relationship between the two of them, but rather gave us a new direction to go in. Sometimes you fall into the binary of "the marriage is working, the marriage is not working, the marriage is working, the marriage is not working." We've done that a couple of times on the show, and we wanted to see something new.
We thought that there's just such a complex relationship there that we figured, if they did get divorced, what would their relationship look like? What if it was amicable? What if they didn't have a blow-up fight like we've seen in the previous two seasons? What if it slowly atrophied, even off-screen, and the two of them ended up parting ways? How friendly can they be with each other? When does it get complicated? Maybe when Donna finds out that Gordon's seeing other women now. Or when Gordon, who is the king of bad timing, puts his foot in his mouth and thinks that they're such good friends he can recommend that she go on a date with someone else he knows. There's a messiness to their relationship now that's really rich. And I'm really excited that we got a season four, because something I want to really dig into is the ongoing connection between the two of them.
The season finale feels like a series finale. Was it written to be so?
C.R.: As a matter of principle, we try to write every season's end like it could be the series end. Not just because we were damaged by The Sopranos ending the way it did; because as viewers, we think we owe that measure of closure to the audience.
Going into this season knowing it's our last one is, in a lot of ways, a creative gift. It lets us do something special and make choices we'd be more hesitant to make in another season. We really want to make this last season of Halt the best season of Halt, and I think we've really been given the ammunition to do that.
What about John Bosworth, who gets left out of the big meeting and seems to have retired on his boat?
C.C.: It didn't feel honest to Boswoth's story to get him all the way into that room at the end of the finale. He'd been through a lot at that point, with his relationship with Cameron, and the news of Ryan's death, the IPO of the company — everything had fallen down on top of him. He did have one shining beacon, and we are proud that the one romantic love story of season three is actually John Bosworth's story with Diane. He is retired, and he is on that boat in the finale, but when we get to season four, he will reenter the picture in some way. Because he's John Bosworth, and that's what's so much fun about that character. He shows up, and he's resilient, and he defies expectations, and he sticks around. Even in the face of changing technology, he's just there.
Are you excited to bring your very '80s show into '90s, and bring on some new music?
C.R.: The answer is fuck yes. We have treasured our time in the '80s and had a lot of great needle-drops courtesy of our excellent music supervision team, Super Music Vision, headed up by Thomas Golubić and our composer, Paul Haslinger, who was in Tangerine Dream. It gives us this seamless score that really fits and is as good as a lot of needle-drops. Going into the '90s, we enter a more personal territory for Chris Cantwell and I, who are both in our early 30s. Even in episode nine, as we get into the Pixies and that moment before grunge, which we have these childhood nostalgic associations with. We're going to have a blast. And you know what? The '80s are hanging around in the beginning of the '90s — every decade lingers for a few years. So while we're leaving the '80s, I don't think it's good-bye forever.