In the end, it was Donna. Amid the bombastic charisma of Joe MacMillan, the frantic genius of Cameron Howe, and the fragile ego of her ex-husband, Gordon Clark, Donna Emerson emerged as the one who could see the future. She could envision where technology was going and be the one to get you there. In the finale episode, Donna, played by Kerry Bishé, delivered a Joe-like speech that looked back at what she had accomplished while looking ahead. But the line that really got Bishé was when her character says, “I hope that when my daughters are my age, they don’t have to have gatherings like this to remind themselves they’re actually here.”
“What’s hard about that is … that’s me,” Bishé said to me on the penultimate day of shooting the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire. “My generation is those daughters, and we’re still having these gatherings and conversations. You think about all the ‘Women in Hollywood’ dinners and cocktail parties. It’s 2017, you know?” And she does. Behind the scenes, gender equality was a part of the conversation: Bishé and her female co-star Mackenzie Davis got paid equally to their male co-stars Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy for the final season. In this interview, Bishé looked back at the past four-and-a-half years on the show, and the final line Donna says to Cameron.
What was your reaction when you first read the final script?
When we first read it, we all got together and read it. The actors do these read-throughs, just on our own, which has been one of the most satisfying things about doing this job. And usually we get the script in our email and we’ll all read it, and then we’ll find a time that we can all get together, and then we work on it — hash it out. So we decided to not read the last episode until we were all together and read it out loud together for the first time, which was really fun and weird. And in the moment I was reading it, it didn’t totally register. Mackenzie cried, and I was like, Yeah, it’s cool. It’s cool. And then I reread it later in my car and I wept.
One of the lines in it that always gets me is when she’s like, “Hey, you know, I’ll hang out with you and eat good food whenever. But I hope that when my daughters are my age, they don’t have to have gatherings like this to remind themselves they’re actually here.” And what’s hard about that is … that’s me. My generation is those daughters, and we’re still having these gatherings and conversations. You think about all the “Women in Hollywood” dinners and cocktail parties. The women of the BBC just had to organize to try to get equal pay. It’s 2017. It’s so hard. Tiny little baby steps, you know? So that part’s kind of sad.
And then the other part is what a beautiful thing to get to articulate how hard it is for working women and some of the conflicts they have. Like, a TV show, it doesn’t have to be that good. We’re wrapping up this four-and-a-half years of my life, and there’s so much about it. We talked a little about all of the allegories between the content of this show and making a TV show. And there was so much about that speech that’s, like, completely, totally truthful and honest. I can look at the crew that I love and say how proud I am to be on this journey with you and mean it 100 percent. I get to talk to Mackenzie and look in her face and tell her what a great partner she’s been, and it’s all just so true.
The metatextual thing really comes to the fore, especially in that scene. Do you feel like your own journey as an actor in Hollywood is reflected in what Donna is saying?
For a long time, I really blithely walked around in the world imagining that gender didn’t matter any more and behaving like I was on equal footing with other people. And I think, for a long time, it was easy to live in the world that way. And, at a certain point, I realized there’s information I’m missing if I’m not paying attention to what my gender is doing in the world. And part of that has been starting to do some work about unconscious bias. Like, why don’t girls like math and science? How do we talk to girls versus boys? All of it is so tied up in my mind.
Pay parity is increasingly an issue in Hollywood. Is that something you’ve advocated on for yourself on this show?
Pay parity is a really hard one to talk about because truly I get paid great. On this show, I’ve always gotten paid great and I’m doing what I love. I do think the principle is important, no matter the size of the numbers we’re talking about. I understand why it’s complicated with TV. There’s this whole system of, you have your quote, your quote is based on prior work that you’ve done. If you are the lead of the show, your quote will be higher. 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. 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. It was nice to not have to ask. It was a really nice commitment — literally putting their money where their mouth is.
It’s a meaningful thing and also that’s my quote going forward. It is a step that helps truly even the playing field now. Who knows, the way the industry is right now, nobody’s honoring quotes.
But it matters.
Yeah, it really helps. It is great that behind the scenes we got that equality eventually. I know I’m not going to start appreciating this until I read other scripts, but we blow the Bechdel Test out of the water, which is the point of the Bechdel Test: It’s a stupid bare minimum. They’re dumb requirements. To play the role of someone who’s so complicated and smart and Donna hasn’t had a love interest — it’s not about that kind of relationship. It’s so deep and beautiful and about being a person, your ambition, and struggling with yourself. That’s so vanishingly rare. Also, roles for women are often so relational. Still on the show I’m “the wife,” when people are like, “Which of the two girls are you? Oh, she’s the wife of the guy.” Scoot [McNairy] is never defined as, “The husband of the lady.”
What was your first reaction when you took the role in the first season to how Donna was written?
I remember I loved the pilot script. It’s one of the best pilot scripts I’ve read. I was like, I want to be a part of this for sure. I remember talking to them and having conversations, and I was like, “I’m going to have to just trust you, but it feels like what’s in here is she’s got the potential to be something other than the wife. I feel like it’s in the script.” And they were like, “Yes, it is.” It’s really important to us that she isn’t just the mom and the nagging wife, the wet-blanket wife at home that we’ve seen on TV before. It really is an act of faith, but you trust that they’ll mean it, that they’ll invest in it. And, I mean, did they ever.
I remember I’m picking [Gordon] up at jail and I’m on him about drinking in the afternoon, and I’m doing dishes. And in the midst of making dinner I take apart the Speak & Spell. And I’m trying to, like, fix the Speak & Spell. And the director, Juan Campanella, was like, “It’s okay if you struggle a little bit. It’s okay if you fumble a little with the screws. You’re harried. It’s okay.” And I was like, No. It can’t be. So I worked with the props people, because I was like, I need to look like preternaturally good at this. This is the moment where I need to express that this person isn’t what you think she is. It was really important to me from the get-go to make it very clear what kind of person we were dealing with.
Donna is really the silent weapon in the show.
You know, the other characters in the show are borderline sociopaths at times. They’re, like, on the spectrum. Truly. They can’t relate well with others. Those are great characters, but it was so easy to relate to Donna. She’s the human heart. And also, you needed her to be able to look at the other people and know that their behavior was abnormal. So you needed to have that to compare it to. Donna provides the human lens on this world.
How did you feel about her arc of trying to be more of a shark this season?
Oh, it was so heartbreaking. It was so hard, because I love her and I don’t want to see her make horrible mistakes and be such a bad person. It also felt a little bit like it got to this point where the only kind of person that would do that is a lunatic or a drunk. And it turns out she was kind of a drunk. But that’s less fun for me to play, a little bit. You’re like, oh, she’s just going off the deep end. In the past seasons, if there were things we didn’t love about the script or the language, we would lobby to change it to varying degrees of success. And this year I was so uncomfortable. I knew where it was going, and you very quickly see the direction it was headed. But I was like, I’m not going to ask to change anything. Not a word. Because I can’t trust myself to be objective about it, because I don’t like any of it. It all feels bad. And so I’ll just do my actor job and just try and find something in it that I feel I can do honestly. And I’m worried everyone is going to hate her, you know? I want you to root for her as much as I root for her, and she’s just so awful.
She becomes a mirror of Joe from the first season.
Yeah. They did this cool thing where they had different lenses, and Joe had this green-lens filter. And then they were like, “We gave you the Joe lens.” That’s a really subtle but powerful way to suggest something like that. She’s trying to be Joe, and it doesn’t work for her. She’s not that way. That’s not how she’s a powerful person. And it’s been nice the last few episodes to get back to what feels like good Donna, where she learns that lesson and she finds out what does make her powerful. And I feel like part of what does make her powerful is being really open and vulnerable about her feelings.
I want to talk about the final line Donna says to Cameron: “I have an idea.”
I’m so happy with that ending. And I was shocked that they managed, in a way that I buy, to have it both ways. Because I was like, you can’t put them back together again. There’s no way. The trauma that these two people have gone through together, we’d be like, “You’re idiots. You’re so stupid. Really? That’s going to go horribly.” But what they do is they spend the whole episode talking themselves out of it, and they list all of the reasons why it’s a terrible idea. So we get to be smart, we get to acknowledge the truth about the history of these two people and know it’s a bad idea. I really liked, “I have an idea,” which is a really hard thing to act.
We shot it a bunch of different ways. And one of my favorites is if it’s an apology. Karyn [Kusama, the director of the episode] has this great idea about it. I’m paying for the food in our diner, and she sees somebody reading the newspaper, and she sees the jukebox, and she’s the waitress taking an order, and she sees the cash register. And then it’s like a lightning bolt. We don’t know what the idea is, which I love. Because it could be anything.
Is it Venmo?
I made some joke like, is it the iPhone? But it’s great, we don’t have to know what the idea is. And Karyn’s like, It’s everything. It’s not one idea. It’s all of the ideas. Donna sees the future when all of this human interaction will be technological. The future that we’re living and the future that we’re yet to see. And that’s so fucking cool.
It’s hard to separate yourself from the character after so many years, which is a unique experience for me. I don’t usually have that. Donna’s problem has been that she doesn’t feel appreciated. She’s not the freaky genius savant kid that all of these other characters were. She has to work for a living, you know? And she’s always been the workhorse, the old reliable, practical one. And so what’s great is she has the idea. She gets to have all of the things. She’s the one with the inspiration at the end. She’s the one who’s in the driver’s seat, making the choices. What a beautiful way to end the show.
Do you think that they’ll work together?
Yeah, totally … I’m not one of those people who are like, “What do the characters do after this? What’s the future for them?” The show is the show, and this is the end of the show. But what’s so great is that it’s like an infinite ending. It’s all things, and everything anyone could possibly imagine, you can imagine for them. And it’s so hopeful, and beautiful, and forward-looking. The idea doesn’t matter. It’s the moment of them coming together and Donna having the inspiration and sharing it with her, with this person. That’s the beautiful thing.