Q&A: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Showrunners Are Ready to Level Up

Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, co-creators of one of TV’s most acclaimed shows, discuss the stunning season finale and getting ready to reboot for next year’s final episodes

Halt and Catch Fire. Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Halt and Catch Fire. Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

I put off watching Halt and Catch Fire’s Season Three finale for as long as I could. Not because I dreaded the experience — on the contrary, this season saw Halt build on its already strong second season to become one of the smartest, subtlest, most carefully constructed and all-around best shows on television. No, I held back because I thought this season finale could be the series finale, and I simply didn’t want to watch the last episode of Halt and Catch Fire I’d ever get. Having gone through this sense of loss with prematurely curtailed three-season masterpieces like Deadwood and Hannibal, I didn’t wanna go through it again.

Fortunately, we don’t have to. Just over 24 hours before last night’s two-part finale aired, AMC announced Halt would be coming back for a fourth and final season, allowing co-creators and showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers to give Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe-Rendon, Gordon Clark, Donna Emerson, and John Bosworth — the quintet of unlikely tech pioneers at the heart of the show’s pitch-perfect period drama about the dawn of the Internet Age — the sendoff they deserve. But the finale was spectacular in and of itself. A sudden four-year time jump from the previous episode finds our heroes in 1990, as the World Wide Web is being born. In the interim, characters divorced or found domestic bliss, became superstars or slipped back into obscurity, making their attempt at rapprochement in the season’s final hour an emotionally complex capstone to a season of deeply satisfying drama.

With the rapturously received third season behind them, and with the mere fact of a fourth season still something they’ve barely wrapped their heads around, we talked to Cantwell and Rogers about how they took the big news, why they made the bold leap into the ’90s, and what we’ll find when we log on for Halt 4.0 next year.

OBSERVER: How quickly did you find out that the show was gonna be renewed for a final season?

Chris Cantwell: We found out that afternoon, actually. The network called us and said, “Are you available for a conference call in four minutes?” They couldn’t find Chris, so I actually had to call Chris’s wife, which I try to never do for work. We got him on the phone, and they gave us they news, and they told us to call the cast, so we had to quickly call all the cast, and then they put the press release out like 45 minutes after that. They run a tight ship at AMC! They do it quickly.

This may be a stupid question, but how did that feel?

Chris Rogers: I mean, we were elated to get to do another season of the show. Somehow there’s gonna be 40 of these! You catch us on a nostalgic morning when we’re looking back on when we wrote this, and when it got picked up — when we thought it would never get picked up…To say there’s gonna be 40 episodes would’ve been beyond a dream at that time. You immediately register that, and the elation of getting to go back to Atlanta with this family we’ve built: the cast, the crew, the editors. We know their kids’ names, you know? So that is a thrill.

On another level, it’s bittersweet to see the end in sight. But it’s also kind of a creative gift, just to know that that’s what you’re writing to. We try to end each season like it could be the end of the series, but this year is gonna be different. Maybe it gives us the ammunition to top this third season, which frankly we kinda put everything we could into. So, a lot of emotions. We’re feeling all the feelings tonight. 

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan. 
Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan.

From the return to Comdex, the big tech convention the characters attended back in Season One, to the final shot of Cameron, Gordon, and Joe, which echoed the final shot of the pilot, this finale really did have a very valedictory tone to it, like you were seriously thinking it was the end.

Chris Cantwell: I would say yes and no, believe it or not. When Chris and I were scripting the episode, I thought, “Wow, we’re leaving more story on the table than I think we’ve ever done before in a finale.” And then we watched it, with the Bob Dylan song [playing during the final scene], and I went, “Holy shit, that’s the end of the show!” You could watch it and go, “Huh, yeah, that was it,” and you could see that as the conclusion. That made it good for me. I felt like, Okay, well, I know their story could keep going and keep going, but if that’s the final image we go out on, boy, that’s a great one. I was happy to get the renewal, but if it closed out there, I would’ve been proud of the work we’d done. 

Do you think the time jump to the era the World Wide Web will benefit the audience, in terms of the tech aspects being more recognizable to modern viewers?

Chris Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. The time jump came out of a certain necessity, a certain tenet we embrace on the show: In the absence of things like guns and other plot mechanics to drive drama, we’ve gotta make ballsy choices. We’ve gotta do things that scare us. When we came upon that idea, we felt those feelings, and so we leapt.

As we contemplated the third season, we really wanted to see the immediate aftermath of the move to California, see these people in a new surrounding, have them come up against the crucible of Silicon Valley, and tell that story. But at the same time, technologically, we weren’t that compelled by what was happening in ’86, and really wanted to get to that WWW moment, 1990, which we always hoped would be the end of that season. So [Season Three] became the story of the right idea at the wrong time, of Mutiny getting there early, and Joe and Ryan working with NSFnet gets into that as well. It’s these pieces that, in 1990, can coalesce to form the World Wide Web. The time jump came from that.

But on a personal level, we also really loved the opportunity it gave us. By deciding to do a lot of our big fireworks early in the season — the split of Cameron and Donna in episode seven, the death of Ryan in episode eight — we needed someplace to go after that. Playing fair with all that had happened between the characters required them to take this four-year break — which is as long as the characters have even known each other in the series — to be able to come back together in a believable, earned way in 1990. So we really do throw the audience into the deep end in episode nine, which is directed by my better half, Chris Cantwell, I think does a really nice job of bringing you in, disorienting you a little bit, and then giving you that answer in a way that is satisfying but also kind of staggering. As we get to those Microsoft screens and start to see those flannel shirts come out, it does feel more like the world we recognize. I think that’s a good thing for the show, but it was important to us that we get there on our own`terms.

The season had been so well received prior to the finale, in large part because the buildup to, and aftermath of, Cameron and Donna’s split and Ryan’s death were so tightly constructed — something the time jump could have completely derailed. Did you conceive of that as a risk — like, ”We could fuck things up by doing something this radical”?

Chris Cantwell: Yeah, we totally did. We were like, “Um, did we break the show?” But we pride ourselves on doing that. Season Two was a very different show from Season One, and then Season Three is a very different show from Season Two. We blow the show up. I try not to read too many reviews, but someone somewhere said that Chris and I were in full-on “give zero fucks” mode in like, episode four! I was like, “Cool! Wait till you see what happens!” I think people lauded us for doing that to the show repeatedly, and continuing to play to that theme of reinvention. Right at the end of the season we really do push the plunger on a lot of things, but it felt right, like a continuation of the story.

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe.
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe.

As Chris said earlier, there needed to be time to heal the wounds that the characters suffered this season, because I think they’re the most extreme they’ve suffered yet. So we built in this time jump, and what we got out of that was the ability for the season to not end on a funereal note, as in one of alienation, but with a hope of reunification. It’s really just that, a hope — people barely stay in the same room together over the course of that last episode. It’s messy, and it doesn’t go off without a hitch, and I think that was important. But to Chris and I, this was a fuller story than one where we just drove the plane of Mutiny into the ground. We wanted the promise of somewhere else for these characters to go, despite the massive amounts of baggage they have between them at this point.

My go-to line about this show is that when the characters have conflicts, it’s genuinely difficult to figure out whose side to take, as both are often convincingly “the right thing to do.” That uncertainty lends it a realism that even many great shows do without. Does that uncertainty filter back to you? That is, as you wrote or shot this season, did anything surprise you?

Chris Rogers: From the beginning, we’ve tried to adjust to what’s working. We try to be observers of our own show, and once you spot a dynamic that interests you, or that feels good, we try to fill in a lot more there. I think about Cameron and Boz—when we saw that chemistry, it was something that we just kinda happened upon. Or Cameron and Gordon—we thought there was gonna be something there this year, and we were pleased to be correct about that.

Knowing that we were going to have Donna and Cameron on a collision course this year, we didn’t want somebody to be right and somebody to be wrong, so we were constantly kicking the tires: “Do they both have valid points of view here? Do they both want what’s best for the company? Are they acting venally?” That really matters, and frankly the actors deserve it. We really did feel the power toss anything to these guys, knowing that they would make it real, and that if it felt false in some way, they’re all such fierce partisans of their characters that they’d let us know. We try to be open when we hear those concerns. If it does feel naturalistic and real, we have to give so much of the credit to the cast — because of the fact Lee, Scoot, and Mackenzie live with each other, the fact that they all get together on Sunday night to do table reads amongst themselves. They could easily not do that — they’re all so successful and famous, they could be flying out every weekend to do other stuff — but they want it to be great. They’re dedicated to making those scenes sing in a way that’s kind of above and beyond. That chemistry works its way into the show, and we’re the beneficiaries of that in the writers’ room. That buy-in is a boon. A gift, really.

For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, the fate of the show is certain. You’re going to get another season, and it’s going to be the final one, so you’ll be able to wrap up the story. How does that change the creative equation going in?

Chris Cantwell: It gives us a pretty great creative gift, in that we can write the show to its conclusion, give the characters and the story a finality, and take ten episodes to do it, because we know where we’re headed. That’ll be an interesting challenge and a fun exercise in the writers’ room. It’s poignant, because it will bring things to an end, but I feel like we’ll be able to bring the poignancy we feel about saying goodbye into the drama of the show. I think that will infuse the writers’ room, and the process on set, with an importance and a weight to it that will carry us through this final chapter. It again feels like a new show — one I’m very, very excited to sit down and start writing.

But is there a release of pressure, too? Whatever the network and the critics and the ratings do, you don’t have to worry — you’re getting what you’re getting. Is that a weight off your shoulders?

Chris Rogers: Actually, that was kind of the show we’ve been all along. This show was the first thing Chris and I ever did. The first writers’ room we ever walked into was our own. So you go make a TV show, and it took us awhile to find our footing. It was scary. The reviews come out, and…You know, no matter what, you probably think your show is pretty great, so it was a real shock to us when it wasn’t just, like, universally beloved. It was such a hard thing to weather, the first season. But in a way it was good, because when we were lucky enough to get a second season, it sent us to a place of just trying to make ourselves happy, and trust the rest of it to work out. You always want ratings, and you always want to do well for the network that’s invested time and faith in you, but we’ve really been incentivized from the beginning to tunnel deeper into our passion for this project, and write the show that feels right to us. I don’t think we’ve ever been guilty of having to chase ratings, or chase an audience. That seems like one of the quickest ways to really fuck it up.

And going into this third season, where we have to be showrunners — I mean, oh my God, it was another black check. This was our chance: “You said you wanted this, so here’s the canvas.” We really tried to leave it all out there. The fourth season is that on steroids. To AMC’s great credit, we’ve always been encouraged to treat this like a passion project, which it is for us, and to tell the story the way that we know how to do it. And we’re going to. The knowledge that this is truly the end is incredible creative ammunition, and we intend to take full advantage of it. 

So, about that fourth season… [Laughter]

Chris Cantwell: Ohhh, man. We’ve only known for 18 hours that we’re going to have a fourth season. But I think that the World Wide Web will factor in there somewhere. I think we personally pride ourselves on telling the stories you don’t know, and the World Wide Web has a pretty storied and interesting history that people are unfamiliar with. We got into that already in Season Three, but we’ll be able to continue that story, and there’s some cool stuff we’ll be able to explore.

But first and foremost, we’ll be able to take these characters to their conclusion, and spend a lot of time figuring out the answers for these five and how they’re drawn to each other. How will they remain connected? Will they remain connected, and if so, in what way? What bonds will last and what bonds will fade away? What do their futures hold, let alone ours? Where do we leave them at the end of all this? It’ll be a fun challenge — and one that is just a complete question mark in my head right now.  Q&A: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Showrunners Are Ready to Level Up