Halt and Catch Fire begins its fourth and final season this fall with a fresh start: Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé are getting paid the same amount as their male co-stars, Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy.
“Before this season, it was really important to me, just on a personal level of being like, I don’t need to get paid more than anybody; I just want to be paid the same,” Davis, who plays the coding genius Cameron Howe, told Vulture on the set of the show in Atlanta. “Kerry and I deserve to get paid the same as the boys.” Bishé, who plays Donna Emerson, a senior executive at a VC firm, added, “I do think that the principle is important, no matter the size of the numbers we’re talking about.”
Both Davis and Bishé said negotiating the salary with AMC ahead of the final season was simple and straightforward. “Without having to ask this final season or renegotiate our contracts, they paid the four of us the same, which I thought was really generous,” said Bishé. “It was a really nice commitment — literally putting their money where their mouth is.”
“It was really one of those things that was brought up and it was almost a nonstarter,” explained Davis. “It just had already been taken care of. I think we went in with a certain expectation, and before we could even get the request out of our mouth, they went above and beyond that. They were like, ‘We already wanted to do that for the final season.’ I really think so highly of everybody there for that.” (AMC was not available for comment at the time of publication.)
Mackenzie and Bishé understood the complexity of the situation. When Halt and Catch Fire premiered its first season in the summer 2014, both actors were relatively unknown compared to the series lead Lee Pace, who had previously starred in the short-lived but beloved series, Pushing Daisies. Bishé’s character (then known as Donna Clark) in particular was a secondary character in a narrative that centered on Pace’s troubled, enigmatic anti-hero, Joe MacMillan. “Roles for women are often so relational,” said Bishé. “Still, on the show I’m the wife. When people are like, ‘Which of the two girls are you?’ You’re like, ‘Oh, she’s the wife of the guy.’ Scoot [McNairy] is never defined as ‘the husband of the lady.’”
But creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers gave Halt and Catch Fire a reboot for the second season by bringing Donna out of the background and pairing her with Cameron. She was no longer the put-upon wife of Gordon Clark (played by Scoot McNairy), toiling away at home and in an unfulfilling job. Instead, she put her technological know-how and business acumen to work with Cameron to launch a start-up called Mutiny. It was the reset the show needed: The first season debuted to modest ratings and tepid reviews, with many critics, including New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz, noting that it felt imitative of shows that came before it, particularly Mad Men. With that second-season premiere, the show fully became an ensemble show, with Davis and Bishé taking as much, if not more, screen time as their male counterparts. Moreover, it had them relate to one another rather than one of the male characters.
The Donna-Cameron partnership, which began in season two and continued through season three, didn’t just give the show a crackling energy, but a raison d’être. And with it, critical adoration. The show got a third season from AMC despite low ratings because the network’s former president of original programming, Joel Stillerman, said the series had “critical momentum.” Its Rotten Tomatoes score jumped from 78 percent fresh in season one to 94 percent the next season, with many critics singling out the female partnership as the key. After the season-two finale, critic James Poniewozik wrote, “The second season improved logarithmically … Focusing on two women launching a startup in the ’80s wasn’t just refreshing — Bechdel Test, meet Turing Test — it also simply made for a more interesting dynamic than Joe and Gordon’s Don-Draper-meets-Walter-White dynamic did.”
“We blow the Bechdel Test out of the water,” said Bishé. “Which is the point of the Bechdel Test: It’s a stupid bare minimum. [The show is] so deep and beautiful and about being a person and your ambition and struggling with yourself. That’s so vanishingly rare.”
Despite the critical praise for HACF, it was never a given that the show would get renewed each season. “It was hard to have a lot of leverage because who knows if we were ever coming back,” Davis explained. Moreover, television contracts are negotiated before the pilot is filmed, which means that actors can get locked into multiyear deals regardless of how the narrative has shifted on the show. “When I started I didn’t have a quote, so I earned the minimal quote, and I earned a lot less than everybody else on the show, and it made total sense,” said Davis. “Season two, I still earned the same amount, and then sometime around season three, I was like, Man, I work a lot more than some of the guys. And they were so supportive of me as well — there was no contention between us — but they were like, yeah, we should all be getting paid the same.”
An actor’s “quote” is basically their salary requirement — a number that accrues with time and the type of roles they do. But as Bishé noted, the quote system invariably works in favor of those who already have power. “Your quote is based on prior work that you’ve done. If you are the lead of the show, your quote will be higher,” said Bishé. “There are more men that are leads of shows so their quotes are higher faster. You can’t really argue with that. The system leans to favor a certain direction.” But with AMC giving her pay equity alongside the male leads, it raises her quote for future roles. “It’s a meaningful thing, and also that’s my quote going forward,” she said. “It is a step that helps truly even the playing field now.”
In this case, the money followed the content: As their characters Donna and Cameron took center stage back in season two, Bishé and Davis are now getting their due. “AMC, without any negotiation or anything, knew what the right thing to do was,” said Davis. “It is valuable to know that people recognize your work and your labor without you having to fight or convince them, and will come to you with the knowledge that they see you.”