“We take everything from everyone on this show.”

Season three of AMC’s tech drama Halt and Catch Fire shouldn’t have happened. The show’s season two ratings were lower than its already low season one ratings, and despite critical acclaim, the show lacked for awards nominations as well.

Yet, a small but vocal fan base — and, yes, I’m part of it — compelled AMC to order that third season. The decision resulted in quite a bit of turnover; Jonathan Lisco, who had run Halt and Catch Fire in its first two seasons, departed for TNT’s solid crime drama Animal Kingdom, and all but two of the show’s writers had left as well.

But the two who were left — series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers — stepped into the showrunner role as well, and built an entirely new writing staff. Then they picked up the story of their characters moving from Texas to California without a hitch.

Season three was Halt and Catch Fire’s best and most insightful season to date, and despite the show’s continued low ratings, it led AMC to renew the show for a fourth and final season.

Shortly before the network’s renewal announcement, I talked to Cantwell and Rogers about the major developments of Halt and Catch Fire season three — and especially a season finale that saw the action leap forward four years in time, from 1986 to 1990.

Beware: Spoilers follow.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
Believe it or not, this COMDEX party in season one was the last time the four main characters were all in the same room — until now.

Todd VanDerWerff

Halt and Catch Fire’s four main characters are so rarely in the same room together, as they are in the finale. When was the last time that was true?

Christopher Cantwell

The last time they were all in the room together was probably season one, episode nine, when they’re at COMDEX [a computer industry trade show], right before things go to shit. There are little permutations here and there in season two, but they’re never all together.

Christopher Cantwell (left) and Christopher C. Rogers. (Mark Davis/Getty Images)

Christopher C. Rogers

That just blew my mind.

Todd VanDerWerff

Why do you dole out those moments so sparingly?

Christopher C. Rogers

The truth of the things that happened between them has dictated that. You never want to jam the band back together artificially, because I think people smell the artifice of that immediately. The fact that it has taken us two whole seasons to earn [having] them all in one room again, that makes me happy. It means we played truthful with the violence they did to each other from the start.

Christopher Cantwell

It was something I was excited about since Chris and I started talking about that as an ultimate end goal of season three, to get them to a place where they could be, tenuously, in the same room. When you have your heavy hitters all in the scene together, it’s so much fun to write.

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
Donna (Kerry Bishé, left) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) talk things out before their partnership falls to ruin.

Todd VanDerWerff

You put Donna and Cameron through the wringer this season. When I was on set this spring, you told me the deterioration of their relationship was coming, and I was doubtful you could pull it off, given how strong their friendship was in season two. But you did. How did you build to that so skillfully?

Christopher C. Rogers

It’s always a little interesting to look at the show you make and say, “Is this my opinion about partnership? [Do I really believe] that it always must end, it blows up in egos that can’t coexist?”

Christopher Cantwell

It’s going to happen, man.

Christopher C. Rogers

Never. We’re better communicators [than Donna and Cameron].

With those two, the plan to get there early, in episode seven, was maybe the thing I’m most proud of. We wanted to, again, just play with what [our characters’] reactions would be to that level of betrayal.

I think a lot of shows would’ve made that episode the finale, and spent a season building toward this breakup. In a third season that we felt very lucky to have, we were determined to use all of our story, and to get there immediately. If the audience can smell it coming, then we want to be two episodes ahead of that.

Christopher Cantwell

We wanted to evolve the partnership. In season two, it was wonderful to watch them be different from Gordon and Joe in that they had their disagreements, but they were ultimately functional and respectful.

The way we talked about it in the [writers’] room was, “If they committed misdemeanors against each other in season two, what would happen if they started to commit some major felonies against each other in season three?”

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
Joe climbs a stairway to THE FUTURE.

Todd VanDerWerff

It felt to me like a big idea of Halt and Catch Fire season three was that a lot of money was suddenly on the table. What was your conclusion about how having that influx of Silicon Valley cash would influence these people?

Christopher C. Rogers

The whole move to California felt inevitable, and it felt false not to do it. The longer we kept them in Texas after the second season, the more it would have felt like these guys were marginal players in what we all knew was becoming the arena of technology. That choice felt dictated by the success they had experienced in the series.

In terms of the money, it absolutely changes everyone’s decision-making calculus. Where some of those characters can afford to forgive and forget and be better people in an atmosphere where the stakes are a little lower, Donna and Cameron’s choices about their future were very much money-influenced. Not that they were so much driven by that, but by Cameron’s desire to not let that be the thing that made choices for them, and by Donna’s feeling that they’d be fools not to explore what the money was trying to tell them.

Christopher Cantwell

We’ve always enjoyed the story of the rebels and the underdogs becoming the establishment. That’s happened several times in the show already, and you see that happen in the technology industry all the time.

It’s the fun new app that’s going to change everything, it’s small, and everybody has a piece of the company, and there’s no boss — and then it’s Facebook. Or it’s Steve Jobs being the underdog throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and now Apple is everything.

Joe and Gordon become the establishment by the end of season one, and Cameron and Donna become the new upstarts. They play [those roles] through season two. Now Cameron and Donna, in season three, are struggling with that role and that identity of being the boss and running a major company that has shareholders now. [They have] responsibilities to much more than what’s the cool new idea.

Todd VanDerWerff

So often, we see the establishment characters acting as villains toward the underdogs, and you’ve certainly played out that dynamic with Joe especially. But as you head into season four, you’ve really put Donna in that establishment role, and she’s usually been Halt and Catch Fire’s least antagonistic character. What’s it been like taking her on that journey?

Christopher C. Rogers

We worked really hard to make sure Donna had what we felt were valid arguments in [the discussion about whether to take Mutiny public]. Whenever somebody is saying, “We can’t give away the heart and soul of this company,” we wanted Donna to have an equally good reason why they should embrace the future and change.

Donna’s story, we thought, was the story of someone realizing they were really good at [being the boss]. I don’t think it came naturally to Cameron, but I think Donna, especially through Diane and her experiences in Silicon Valley, looks around and says, “Am I potentially great at this?”

It was fun for us to watch Donna come into her own. We never reward anyone on this show with happiness ultimately, but I hope people don’t come away from the season feeling that Donna was a villain, because we tried very hard to make nobody the clear right one and the clear wrong one.

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
Cameron and husband Tom (Mark O’Brien) prepare to meet with their former colleagues.

Todd VanDerWerff

Cameron really seemed to be dealing with some undiagnosed depression or anxiety this season. Did you talk about that at all in the writers’ room?

Christopher C. Rogers

I don’t think we ever talked about it in a clinical sense, but we definitely talked about it in a kind of existential, spiritual sense. She’s finding herself at this crossroads of being someone who is the head of what could potentially be an empire. The thing she started as kind of a fuck-you to the establishment in her living room has turned into this major entity.

The responsibility of that on her shoulders, the future of that on her shoulders, wanting to maintain the spirit of how it began, even as it changes right before her eyes — she’s starting to close up.

She really has a hard time being vulnerable and open with people this season. [All of the show’s characters] do, and that’s a big theme for this season, this whole question of, “Are you safe?” Cameron’s dealing with that just as much as anybody else. The irony is when she finally does open up and embrace change and trust Donna again, that’s when things really go haywire for her.

The same thing is true with Joe. When Joe finally decides that openness is the answer, he loses his company, and he loses his protégé. We take everything from everyone on this show. We really try to.

Todd VanDerWerff

For three seasons, you’ve danced around what we know is coming, which is the internet and never-ending interconnectivity. In season three in particular, you went full tilt into that idea; in many ways, Ryan’s suicide note sounded like it was written in 2016. Why was the end of this season the time to finally dig into what’s coming?

Christopher C. Rogers

In a lot of ways, what’s been so wonderful about season three is we’ve taken these characters on a backstory you got to see. From these seats, and from these roots, would come the people that created the internet and the World Wide Web.

As the show has evolved from the reverse-engineering of an IBM PC [in the pilot] to technology that becomes more and more familiar to a modern audience, not only has it been easier for people to grasp but it’s been easier to lift out the show’s core theme, which to us has always been connection, and whether technology is a force for or against it.

In a way, to not get to the World Wide Web and the dawning internet would be to avoid what’s coming. We can’t do that.

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
In the future, Gordon and Donna are no longer married. :( :( :( :(

Todd VanDerWerff

Lots of shows have done time jumps recently, and they’re getting harder and harder to pull off. Why did you make the decision to leap to 1990 in your final two episodes?

Christopher Cantwell

Chris and I, we went away to Joshua Tree in October of last year to talk about the show and where we want to go with it. We had been talking about it in the month or so preceding AMC deciding whether or not to renew [for season three].

We were looking at the technological landscape, and also at the character landscape, and all roads, by ’86, were really pointing toward this interconnectivity, which eventually gave birth to the World Wide Web, with Tim Berners-Lee’s paper in ’89.

We toyed with the idea of starting everybody four years later [in 1990], but we felt that would be leaving way too much on the table in terms of the character story, of what we were coming off with season two. There’s a lot of story left to tell for the characters as they arrive to California in ’86 that would point to where things were headed. And then we get there and drop [the time jump] on the audience in episode nine.

We thought that was a fun thing, not just from a storytelling perspective but also from an audience perspective. To do a time jump that’s four years — longer than the characters have known each other throughout the series — was daunting but also fun.

Christopher C. Rogers

It was fucking exciting.

Christopher Cantwell

It was like, “Let’s try this.”

Todd VanDerWerff

Did anything fall into that gap that you were sorry to miss, whether they’re character moments, or tech innovations, or certain events in pop culture?

Christopher C. Rogers

Pop culture, yeah, but it was the ’80s. As a grunge fan, I’m happier the closer we get to things we recognize.

I was sorry not to see the ultimate death of Mutiny, but I thought there was something elegant about suggesting it was an unexciting entropy in the space between.

The same thing with Donna and Gordon’s marriage. The trauma of the [failed] IPO, Ryan [killing himself], and the end of the Clarks’ marriage was something that felt to us like it earned everybody wanting to talk again four years later.

These people wouldn’t want to talk in six months. It would take that long to forgive some of the wounds that we dealt out. In a lot of ways, four years really felt like the minimum amount of time that needed to pass to be ready to come back to the table with each other.

Todd VanDerWerff

You keep saying that none of the characters on this show end up happy, but you always leave them with the potential for happiness. They’re never in a place where they think their lives are over. And in the finale, instead of ending with everyone grieving over Ryan’s death or the end of Mutiny, you chose to end with, “We’re going to try this new thing.” And not a lot of showrunners would do that. Do you think that optimism is crucial to the show’s success?

Christopher Cantwell

That’s the characters’ blessing and their curse.

You could see it as that they’re extraordinarily resilient people, that they can survive even in the face of failure, even in the face of tragedy and major rupture. But you can also see them as people who are sitting at the craps table, doomed to just keep putting chips down, because there’s no other option. To us, that ambiguity in the characters is the juice, and that’s what’s interesting to us.

If it was just devastation and, “My life is over,” then there’s nowhere for the story to go. If they [quash] their own resilience and their own desire to get somewhere, either professionally or with each other, then the story’s over.

It’s fun to see them do that, and it’s worrisome to see them do that. There’s so much baggage at this point. There’s so much emotional freight.

For us, ultimately, the story, even aside from the technology, is about this dysfunctional family that needs each other in some permutation. The connections between those people that keep them moving through time, and keep them moving through story, will always give us somewhere to go, I think.

Halt and Catch Fire AMC
Joe and Ryan talk through Ryan’s options after the law closes in on him.

Todd VanDerWerff

Ryan really served as a mirror for the rest of Halt and Catch Fire’s characters. What do you think he reflected in some of the others?

Christopher C. Rogers

Ryan kind of reflected the recklessness of all the characters back on themselves. People in Halt and Catch Fire are so bruising with each other sometimes. There’s such a willingness to do violence to each other personally, professionally, emotionally, and yet people seem to kind of rebound, ultimately.

They buy back in. They’re all Gatsbys, and they believe tomorrow they’re going to reach out their arms farther, and maybe that time they’ll be content, and it’ll be enough. Ryan is kind of the control. He’s a person where [the failure of Joe’s company, for which Ryan works] is devastating, and the stakes are real to him. He couldn’t just buy back in the way they could. He shows these people that they’re playing with real stakes.

We didn’t set out to write him as a moral, and you always want him to be a real character with real feelings and motivations. I love what he did in terms of humanizing Joe, in terms of reigniting things between Joe and Gordon, and in terms of showing that Mutiny, which often has this great appreciation and fairness for everybody, sometimes misses too. They didn’t know what they had, and they couldn’t listen to the good idea when it was in front of them. I’m really grateful for that character, and especially what Manish Dayal was able to do with him.

Todd VanDerWerff

The look of the show changed significantly in season three, becoming sunnier and more of a piece with the California setting. How did you develop that?

Christopher Cantwell

A lot of that credit goes to our new director of photography, Evans Brown. I remember talking to Evans initially and saying how we wanted the show to look different because they were in California now. It couldn’t just look the same, especially since we were shooting in Atlanta still. He talked about bringing these bright colors out that you would see in California, but then desaturating them, and doing all kinds of interesting things with the tools he had at his disposal.

Something I love that he did was he used 50- or 60-year-old glass lenses to shoot all of Joe’s storyline. It gives it a slight diffusion and feathering around the edges of the frame, just to show Joe in kind of a gauzy and dreamlike stagnation. Then he actually flipped those lenses over and used them on Donna in the 1990 portion of the story, because that’s where Donna is. Things like that.

And those tall fir trees that you get in Georgia work a lot better for Northern California than they do Texas, as do the rolling hills, so once in a while we could go outside. Craig Stearns and our art department really went in and built sets that felt endemic to California. Then we were very fortunate to be able to go out and shoot underneath the Golden Gate for two scenes.

Todd VanDerWerff

It seemed to me like there was an uptick in people noticing the show this season. Did you have that feeling too?

Christopher C. Rogers

I’m grateful that the show’s life has gone the way it has. We were new guys with a new show in the first season, and we read all the reviews, and that crushed us. That taught us something good, which was to try to just make the show from your gut, and make the show you want to see, and try to tune the rest of it out.

In the second season, we made something that really felt like our voice, and we were incredibly proud of it. Then when we got handed the reins of the show for the third season, we were determined to go even deeper into that. We were going to leave it all on the table.

We’re able to read the reviews and let the outside in a little more. It means the world that people connect with it, because this is definitely the most personal version of the story we’ve put forward.

I’m happy that people have had time with these characters, so that the appreciation seems deep and informed, but at the same time it’s hard to let that in, because then you have to let in everything else.

We always want the show to be seen by more people, but at the end of the day, we’re just thrilled with the work. We try to have that be enough.

Halt and Catch Fire’s third season is available on AMC’s website. You can watch the first two seasons on Netflix.

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