Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, co-creators and executive producers of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, discuss the season-ending time jump, why these characters are always drawn back to one another, and why they’re excited for the fourth and final season.
Q: At what point in the season did you decide to do such a major time jump? Why was it important to you, story-wise?
Christopher C. Rogers: The time jump is something that we’ve been mulling for a very long time – since before the season started. When Chris and I were laying out [Season 3], we were enamored of the stuff that might happen immediately after Mutiny moved to California, and it felt wrong to skip over that. We wanted to see these guys be fish out of water. But at the same time, there was a technology story that didn’t feel as rich in 1986 as some of the stuff that lay ahead. So, we had this dilemma of how to have our cake and eat it too. We wanted to tell this story about the right idea at the wrong time. That enabled us to spend most of the season in 1986 and then suggest where the future of the story might go in 1990 by doing the jump. It really scared us creatively. [Laughs] Those are the moves we really try to make on this show. We thought it spoke to the reinvention theme that runs through the whole show – the idea that time would pass and things would get so serious – with the death of Ryan, the dissolution of the Clark marriage, and all that happens with Cameron and Donna – that only something like a four-year time jump would justify them all getting back at the same table.
Q: Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Joe is still clearly tender about what happened to Ryan, while Cameron hasn’t let go of Donna’s betrayal. Why do you think those characters hold on so firmly to the past? Is it liability for their futures?
Christopher Cantwell: All of the characters – especially Donna – have reached a level of success and don’t necessarily need to go back into the past, but each character can’t help but remain connected to each other even after long periods of time. In a sense, they need each other, or believe they do. That really is the rub. Will they always be stuck together and reaching back into the past to correct things or get back a feeling they had at one point? That’s always the story of Halt and Catch Fire – two steps forward and one step back. Our characters feel stuck and crystalized in time, but at the same time, they keep grasping toward the future.
Q: In Episode 9, Joe and Cameron sleep together again. What is it that keeps drawing them back together?
CC: I think that more than anything, Joe and Cameron recognize themselves in each other. They share more qualities than they’d like to admit and there’s something about the other that always draws them closer. I think they both have a passion for this business and what they do. They’re the original connection of this show, and the reason why all of this happened was because these two people met. The kind of chemistry between the two of them is just undeniable. In a time when things are dormant in their lives, it’s that vibrancy that is so potent for both of them. They’re moths to a flame.
Q: Do you think Cameron really loves Tom, or did Joe diagnose her correctly earlier in the season when he said she married who she thought was the source of her happiness?
CR: The Cameron we leave at the end of Season 3 is incredibly conflicted about what happened with Joe. She wants to love Tom and I don’t think it’s all been a lie. [When] we see her four years later, she’s been living with him in Japan and I think there’s a love between them. Joe knows where he stands by the end of the season, but I don’t think it’s that cut and dry for her. She’s wrestling with this question within herself. Should we always have what we’re attracted to? Is Joe good for her? We really want to leave that ambiguous because I think it’s opaque to the character herself.
Q: What does Joe’s confession that he’s in love with her mean for the future and their potential progress on this World Wide Web project?
CC: Nothing is ever easy with these characters. They bring their emotions to the table no matter where they are, and that can always cause problems. Even if those feelings are reciprocated from Cameron, I think the look on Gordon’s face while he’s sitting on the computer between the two of them says it all, which is, “Oh my God! Here we go again! We’re going to mix business with personal, and we can’t stop that pattern. I’m going to get caught between these two people.” I think they’re all going to get caught between each other. There’s no way these people can escape each other’s orbits.
Q: After being kicked off the project by Cameron, Donna made her own plans, which felt like a very Joe move. Is she the new “villain”?
CR: Season 3 has been the story of Donna realizing that maybe she’s good at this. I think she sees a mentor in Diane and someone who’s living a life a little closer to one she can envision for herself, and that helps make it concrete. She’s coming into her own. At the end of the season, when she determines she’s going to “make her own door” and she’s going to Switzerland, she doesn’t want to give up on something she rightfully scouted out and landed. We see this as Donna going after something she believes in and deserves to continue to work on as opposed to her turning heel.
Q: Going back to earlier in the season, Ryan’s suicide was the first major death ever on the show. What was it like creating that story line?
CC: We have a lot of characters who are extremely driven and aggressive, and we’ve never seen a character suffer so greatly from their own ambitions that the ultimate toll is taken on them. We wanted to see someone not be able to handle the pressure. It was an important story for us to tell because we’re not a show with guns and we can’t kill people every five minutes. It really means something when it happens on our show, and we wanted to be clear in what we were saying with Ryan’s actions this season. It was a very delicate thing to do.
I also think that… we’ve seen Joe for three seasons put on these façades, but we know there’s a humanity buried deep within that character. We talked about what it would take for Joe to become a human being fully and permanently. Ryan is someone that Joe loves, not in a romantic sense but as a true friend – something Joe doesn’t have a lot of. To lose Ryan was an ultimate tragedy for a character like Joe and [a chance] to have him come face-to-face with what he could feel are repercussions of his own actions. It’s Cameron who talks to him in Episode 9 and says he’s not that powerful, which is a way of saying he’s a person like the rest of us and not an omnipotent god. That was important for him to hear.
Q: How did you decide to have Gordon and Donna’s marriage end during the time jump?
CC: We were running out of places to take the Clarks and we didn’t want the story to just be: Donna and Gordon are mad at each other, Donna and Gordon are happy again. Rather than seeing the divorce as a destructive act, we really felt it provided a rebirth and evolution of the dynamic between the two. With them now divorced – seemingly amicably – it gives us places to go and brings to the surface a lot of complicated emotions about how they feel about each other. I do think the Clark marriage is fascinating and deserving of more than an on-and-off switch. [Laughs]
Q: On the flipside, Bosworth and Diane get a bit of a happy ending…
CC: We were so lucky to have somebody like Annabeth Gish in that role. She just effortlessly put that role on and she emulated and brought to life a lot of the spirit of some of the female VPs that were working at that time. We were super proud of the fact that the only real romantic love story this season is one of John Bosworth. Bos is a guy you’re rooting for and you want him to find that solace in his life. Likewise, Diane found someone to bring new light into her life after a divorce and all of the company troubles that happened around her. They were a nice lighthouse beacon in the emotional storm of Season 3, for sure.
Q: Now that you’ve got a season under your belt as showrunners — and Chris Cantwell, you even directed Episode 9 – what has the experience been like?
CR: It was a dream come true. We have an incredible debt of gratitude to [former showrunner] Jonathan Lisco, who taught us everything we know. Without him, I don’t think we’d be able to do what we did this year. We were sad to see him ago, but it was a great opportunity for us. This is a show I wrote with my friend Chris Cantwell and it was very exciting to make all the choices we wanted and have the feedback loop be just the distance between our offices. It was a lot of work, but to get to work with a partner like Chris in a room full of talent was great. We probably lost some sleep, but we’re very grateful.
CC: As much as showrunning was a dream come true in every way that Chris talked about, to actually get to step into the chair and visually execute a chapter of the story that we created was both daunting and extremely thrilling. I was very anxious in the months leading up to it just because the bar is extremely high considering the directors we’ve worked with… I learned a lot and it was a wonderful experience. I wanted to make sure that Chris would be proud of it and think that it could stand alongside the other episodes. We usually watch director’s cuts together, but that day, I went home and Chris watched it himself. I was on the train and I told him to send me either a “thumbs up” emoji or a “thumbs down” emoji. I waited for about an hour while he watched and then I got 20 “thumbs up” emojis, which was a really nice text to receive. Obviously, he’s my partner so he does tend to like the creative work I do, but it was a good feeling to know I had his approval. That’s what mattered most to me.
Q: How do you feel knowing the show will get a final season to end your story on its own terms?
CR: We feel incredibly grateful. If you’d have told us way back in 2012, when AMC acquired the show, we’d get to tell this story in 40 chapters we’d never have believed you. Cantwell and I have really grown up on this show and the people we’ve written and made it with – our cast, the actors, our producers, the network – have really come to feel like family. In that way, only is it bittersweet to see an end to the story on the horizon, but that knowledge is also a creative gift. We feel like Halt and Catch Fire is at the height of its powers and we want to conclude it with the best season yet. Knowing that this is the final chapter really empowers us to do something special in Season 4 and we can not wait to dive in!
Q: We know it’s early, but what can you tell us anything about that final season? What can fans expect as these characters’ arcs come to a conclusion?
CC: Since it’s so early, we can only promise that we’ll take full advantage of of the creative gift we’ve been given and use these final 10 episodes to make sure we honor the human stories of these rich characters… We’re honestly as excited as our audience is to experience how Joe, Gordon, Cameron, Donna and Bosworth finish out the final leg of their journey. As we return to the palette of the series and begin writing again, now is the time to pull out all the stops, waste no moment, and give the show the finality and completeness it deserves.
Read a Q&A with Kerry Bishé, who plays Donna Clark.