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Halt and Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé on Donna’s Huge Season and Why the Show Isn’t a Bigger Hit

Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

True to its technological roots, Halt and Catch Fire received a major upgrade for its second season. Building on the strength of its first go-round’s final episodes, the AMC series about a quartet of troubled computer geniuses trying to build the next big thing in the Silicon Prairie of ’80s Texas quietly became an engaging and unpredictable workplace drama worthy of its Mad Men time slot. It may have struggled in the ratings, but it soared onscreen.

And as it did, Kerry Bishé was in the pilot’s chair. The actor behind Donna Clark navigated a demanding set of story lines — the creation of the proto-social network called Mutiny, constant clashes with her co-workers, her husband’s illness and infidelity, her own secret pregnancy and abortion. It placed the character at the center of the action and elevated her to the first among equals in the show’s strong ensemble cast, including Mackenzie Davis as her partner Cameron Howe, Scoot McNairy as her husband Gordon Clark, and Lee Pace as her erstwhile nemesis Joe MacMillan.

It all culminated in tonight’s terrific season finale, in which Donna picked up stakes to move both her company and her family to California, hoping to save both in the process. According to Bishé, it was the payoff of a promise showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers made to her back when the series began.

The praise for this season has been intense. Did you feel something was really clicking?
I was so underwater with the amount and intensity of the workload this season, but that’s the best part. That’s my favorite time being an actor, when you can really submerge yourself, and I had the best team of people to do it with. The other actors on this show are a very rare group of people who would get together on the weekends and do hours-long rehearsals where we’d read through scripts, work out moments, figure out what our characters wanted, give each other advice. It’s an incredibly hardworking group of people, and I couldn’t imagine a better working environment.

That camaraderie came through on the screen. You can understand why these characters are drawn to working together, even when they’re not getting along. They seem to respect each other.
That’s really great. One of the big differences between season one and season two is that the working relationships in season one were incredibly contentious. The characters would manipulate and lie, and they were really out for themselves. In season two, the working relationship really changed. While it remained contentious, there was a sense that these two women [Donna and Cameron] in particular very deeply respect and value each other, and they’re really trying hard to make it work.

And in many of their disputes, both of the positions on where to take the company are equally reasonable. It’s much more exciting to watch a drama when you genuinely can’t decide what “should” happen.

I love that. That’s what good writing does, to me. All the characters have good reasons to do what they do, so you can understand Cameron and Donna, even though they’re making opposite decisions or have opposite priorities. You still feel like they’re both completely justified in the choices they’re making. I concur, I think that’s a really great part of this show.

That carries over to the characters’ personal lives too. The show didn’t pump-fake in the direction of Donna’s abortion — she actually went through with it, and her reasons were presented as sound and strong and nothing to be ashamed of.
That was a fascinating story line, and it was interesting how it all played out. The writers were really intent on making it a confident decision that Donna made. They didn’t want her to be wishy-washy, they didn’t want it to be a thing that [dramatic voice] destroyed her, you know? They did a great job of giving her that backbone. But at the same time, in a bigger-picture way, I didn’t want it to feel like, you know, working women who have a career have to sacrifice, or that given the opportunity women will choose their career over their family. It felt like threading a needle to me. It ended up being a pretty good balance between what the writers needed it to be and what I needed it to do to feel okay about what we were putting out in the world. 

There’s an additional element to it, which is that she kept both the pregnancy and the abortion a secret from Gordon. It wasn’t until deep into the finale, after they’d had a huge fight and he revealed he’d been unfaithful, that I realized she still hadn’t told him. That aspect of the story line came back in a way that hit me really hard.

How did you feel about that? Like, how did it hit you?

It rang true. A lot of times when we fight with people we care about over things they’ve done to us or secrets they’ve kept from us, we put aside our own actions and secrets without even thinking about it.

I’m glad to hear it. It’s not forgotten, though. You know? She’s not gonna tell him, she’s gonna deal with this thing separately, but then on the plane — oh, it’s so sad. That scene on the plane where I go and cry in the bathroom? That was the last thing we shot the entire season. [Laughs.] Me, alone, weeping in a bathroom. Keeping secrets is hard. I really like that the writers allowed her to have that secret, that they gave her that respect. But it’s something that lives with you.

The way I read that scene was that she was crying not because she regrets ending the pregnancy but because she feels guilty for being dishonest about it with Gordon even when they’ve patched things up. When you were playing that scene, what did you think Donna was thinking?
Playing the scene is a lot different than reading the scene. Reading the script when it first comes out, before I can think about it and work on it, is the closest that I get to being an audience member. So reading the scene … I think I agree with you. To me, it’s about the pain of having to keep a secret. It’s hard to keep a secret like that. I think she’d feel more responsible if there was a world in which she could have told him, but they don’t right now have the kind of relationship where she can share that, so she has to bear the weight. She has to bear the weight alone a lot, for a lot of things. What I loved about this season with Gordon and Donna’s relationship is that they were both trying to make it work. The mistakes they made were in good faith, trying to help each other, trying to help their marriage. They were still huge mistakes, but they were really making an effort.

Between what was going on in Donna’s life professionally and personally, she was the main character this season. It was her show, in a way.

That’s so cool. I read the pilot and it was very clearly, from the beginning, a special thing. I thought the writing was so good from the get-go. But the character could have gone in a number of directions, and the [showrunners] really assured me that they were interested in making her a full, complete human. And they did. This season, they really delivered on that, on the promise they set up in the pilot for this character. It was so great to give her those big moments.

Making supporting characters compelling and unpredictable has been the show’s strong suit for a while. On a lot of other series, John Bosworth would just be some Texas shit-kicker antagonist.
You know, Toby Huss really made a meal out of that character. He turned it into what it is. He mined all the potential it had. He didn’t really give them a choice — they had to write for him like that.

While critics have been vocally supportive of the season, it’s tough to say the message has penetrated to the viewing public. Do you pay attention to whether a show is finding its audience while you work on it?
You want people to like it. We’re all working so hard that it’s kind of a bummer when it doesn’t make a splash, when it feels like it goes out there and just sort of disappears a little bit. The market is huge, and it’s really hard to get the kind of attention that turns a show into a hit. But I’m so well aware that that has absolutely zero to do with me. It’s a whole series of accidents that makes a show into a hit. A show can be fantastic and still not be a hit. You just have to hit the Zeitgeist at the right moment, and there are so many factors that you’re not in control of. When I’m working, it’s just about doing the best I can with whatever dialogue is in front of me today. You can’t worry about the other thing.

Without naming names and putting you in an awkward position, a lot of people wonder why people who are hate-watching certain shows on Sunday night don’t change the channel and like-watch a different show. It’s hard to be a show that’s just good, as opposed to a show that bugs a lot of people, whether it’s good or not.
[Laughs.] Well, I don’t wanna be in a show that’s salacious just for the sake of getting viewers. I’m happy to do something that I’m proud of. I feel like the work is bigger than I am. I hope that I can rise to the challenge of it when I go to work every day, and that is so rare. Most of the stuff out there is real garbage. I gotta show up and do my job, and the rest of it is what it is. You know what’s interesting? The way that I connect to the show, the analogy I use to make it personal to me because I’m not a technological person at all — I love scientists, but I just don’t have a scientific brain — is that it’s looking at American capitalism, taking these really creative intelligent people, and forcing them to face the compromises that you have to face in order to make a hit product. That’s what we do all the time in television and movies. You’re constantly facing both artistic purity that you believe in and the market forces that make you compromise, that make you lower your expectations or change the thing you’re making into something else. And there’s no guarantee it’ll be a hit. I really feel personally connected to that process of negotiation and compromise towards a pure, beautiful artistic goal.

Do you know anything about season three?
I know absolutely nothing. I know zero. [Laughs.] I’ve always had this dream that they make a product, a computer product, and then you realize it doesn’t actually exist yet, and they’ve invented something futuristic. That’s my dream for the show.

I’ve definitely wondered whether they would eventually invent something that made it a science-fiction show.
Yes, that’s what I’m saying! Listen, between you and me, we’ll get them onboard one of these days — like season nine. But let’s all focus on season three for now. [Laughs.]

HACF’s Kerry Bishé on Why the Show Isn’t a Hit