When Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, who at the time were working in social media for Disney, pitched their show to AMC the premise was rather simple. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) was the slick Don Draper-like (Jon Hamm) antihero of the early Wild West days of the personal computer industry. Each season, the visionary but dangerous salesman would lead a team racing to achieve some game-changing technological breakthrough, if the interpersonal debris he left in his wake didn’t stop them.
“You can see [our green-ness] in the first season,” said Cantwell when he and Rogers were guests on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “I feel like we were trying to copy shows we loved in the beginning, but halfway through that season we found our own voice. [I feel like you] see us starting to make moves that are moves we like, and I feel like that’s a direct reaction to us settling in and kind of realizing that we get to do what we want.”
Rogers said he and Cantwell benefited from studying the decade of great television that preceded “Halt and Catch Fire.” The anecdote that Vince Gilligan shifted the course of “Breaking Bad” — produced by Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, the two executive producers AMC assigned to help guide the two young writers — after seeing the chemistry between leads Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul was one that resonated with them.
“We were super young and didn’t know what we were doing, but I think we were careful enough to lay in these little grenades into each character, and we soon happened upon, in that first writers room, ways to explode those archetypes,” said Rogers. “We had Joe, but we were able to detonate him from the inside out and show a guy who maybe didn’t have it all figured out and wasn’t convinced of himself deep down and, actually, was a very fragile human being underneath the surface.”
Not only did Cantwell and Rogers flip the script on their antihero — while discovering depth in Scoot McNairy’s (Gordon) and Kerry Bishé’s (Donna) characters — they played off their show’s very structure to find a subtle richness that kept them from falling into the predictable patterns of serialized television.
In Episode 8 of the 10-episode third season, the show makes a significant jump in time; so significant that at the beginning of Episode 8, we discover Gordon and Donna have divorced. Following the professional-personal collapse at the end of Episode 7, the viewer is able to fill in the blanks. Yet, so much time has passed, the couple’s wounds are starting to heal and they’re feeling out how to have a different type of relationship — professionally, personally and as parents.
“We talk about this a lot in the writers room: that relationships can fall into a binary pattern: They’re together, they’re not together, they hate each other, they like each other,” said Rogers. “[That omission] helps the writing, gives you more places to go.”
The course shift that started at the end of Season 3 set up a remarkable series-ending Season 4, in which Cantwell and Rogers played off the shows established season-to-season structure to go even further with their character exploration. When it’s discovered that Yahoo has been built into Netscape’s new web browser — scuttling the protagonists’ plans to build their own search engine — the moment is almost anti-climatic. The race to be at the cutting edge of tech, which had always driven the show’s plot and personal relationship conflicts, had receded into the background and become secondary to the characters’ growth.
“In the fourth season, the characters almost become aware of the pattern of the show and acknowledge it,” said Cantwell. “Having them point to the wheel that they’ve been on and react to it at the end– like, I remember when the Yahoo thing happens at the end of Season 4, it was the first time we called it in the [writers] room ‘getting Halt and Catch fired’ because it was clearly the mechanism that kind of bummed out and taken over our characters at the end of each season and to be able to comment on that from within the world of the show did feel like closing the loop in a satisfying way for us.”
Rogers added, “This idea that the characters don’t have to linearly pursue something and then win, or tragically lose– I think we looked at this idea of a loser, which is a pejorative term in the American context, and we said, ‘How can we redefine that to make these people human beings?’ We thought that the greatest gift we could give Joe MacMillan was to lose and for him to be OK with it and getting him to that place felt really wonderful to him.”
One of the hooks of “Halt and Catch Fire,” similar to “Mad Men,” was Cantwell and Rogers would do deep research into the evolution of computers and the world wide web, which they could serve as an entertaining history of an industry that shaped the daily lives of the show’s modern audience. Over the course of the show, their research opened another door — one the two creators didn’t anticipate.
After the 1970s, women’s participation in the tech fields rapidly declined. Computers were marketed as “toys for boys” and bikini-clad models were used to sell them. From Seasons 1 through 3, the two creators subtly layered in some of this history, but worried about going too far with it and entering into the realm of didactic man-splaining. Entering Season 4, knowing it would be their last, they decided not to nibble around the edges.
“I think we had amazing women in the writers’ room, producing, directing, the actresses that kind of demanded it and embraced it and helped us see the value in getting that message out there in the way it did,” said Cantwell.
In Season 4, Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna’s relationship and career-personal arcs take center stage. The series finale featured Donna’s impassioned and confessional speech to a group of women in tech, while the two character’s complicated reconciliation gives the show a surprising, but well-earned “the future is female” end note.