Halt And Catch Fire has always been a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, but that heart was particularly prominent in recent weeks. Following the unexpected death of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), the show gave over one of its final episodes to an hour-long meditation on grief and loss, and that tone carried over into tonight’s two-part finale, in which technological dreams go bust and romances sour—but hope still manages to rise from the ashes in the form of rekindled personal and professional partnerships. Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers were there for every stage of Halt And Catch Fire’s life—first as creators, then as writers and producers, and finally as showrunners for the last two seasons—and earlier this week, they spoke to The A.V. Club about bringing it all to an emotional close. “It’s good to talk to people about upsetting things,” Rogers said. “It’s therapeutic.” Here, then, is a bit of counseling for those just starting to deal with the end of the series.
The A.V. Club: Before we get into the finale-specific questions, let’s talk a little bit about the death of Gordon Clark a few episodes back, and the decision to bring his story to a close after years of living with a degenerative disease.
Christopher Cantwell: It was something that was there in the background of his character, and what we wanted to do with that sickness was give him something that ultimately could feel frustrating in its ambiguity, and see him settle into a mundanity of having to deal with something like this. It’s relatable to people who have ailments that aren’t something that are immediately grave and severe, but can be. With Gordon it was great to portray a guy in season four that was not on the slow march to the end of his life, but rather a guy who has lived with it for several years now, and we see him even taking further steps in this direction, to just let it go, and was living his life and was being his best self and had been through enough of the pain of the previous seasons that he had some wisdom to him and he felt complete. We really wanted to portray Gordon’s life in season four as a life that is vibrant and having a pretty great second act, and then one that is ultimately interrupted.
And I think that was something that Chris and I had discussed from the beginning. It was really a question of where to do it, because we didn’t want that to be Gordon’s singular story—we wanted him to have these different connections and journeys in the final season, and I think that what emerged in season three, once he went to work at Mutiny and he started to become more of a father figure: first to the Mutiny coders and then to his kids. We wanted to bring more of that into the story and that’s where a lot of the Haley stuff came from. What was nice about Haley is that the story of Gordon was able to transform yet again in a really interesting way, where, yes, he dies, and so the literal story of his life is over, but there is this baton handoff into the finale where you feel that Haley’s trials and tribulations echo, spiritually, a little bit of her father. And to us that was a really nice way to continue Gordon in the story, to see him channeled through her and continue to hang residually over the lives of all the characters that knew him so well.
AVC: And what led you to that decision, to not hold the death for the finale and instead let that mood hang over the final three episodes?
Christopher Rogers: I think every season, we endeavored, as a show, to use up our story fast and get there quickly. We always want to be there before the audience, and we want to put ourselves into corners and ask ourselves to write out of them. I think it’s something that really manifested in the show in the third season, where you really feel like the seventh, eighth, and ninth episode could all be the season finale, and we wanted to repeat that this year.
Gordon’s death, we didn’t spot it ahead of time—we knew it was something we were going to approach if we could earn and try to get to, and when it finally landed in episode seven, that felt right. But that puts us in the position of having to deal with it in the episodes that come after. I think the result of that particular corner was that we wrote, for my money, one of the most personal explorations of grief I think you’ve seen on television. I think a lot of us channeled personal experience into that—not least of which Zack Whedon, who wrote that episode, and Chris who directed it—to tell a really human story about what it is to grieve. I think on TV, you too often see the funeral with some uplifting, weird choice of a song and everybody going out after, and we really wanted to live in how unresolved that is. I think we just tried to play fair with how what had happened would impact everybody on the show. And as a result, we got that eighth episode.
Then, in the ninth episode, there’s this whole story we’ve been telling. Comet-versus-Rover, Joe-and-Cameron—life resumes, even though it’s been hit by a comet. And we wanted you to feel that and as we went through the ninth and tenth episodes, even, that these things don’t go away—it’s not like you wake up one day and you’re over a loss. You fold it in, and you keep the pictures on your desk and you move forward. Integrating that in a way that felt human and real was a huge goal of ours, and I’m really happy with the way it lived alongside and underneath the bigger plot moves you see resolved in our last couple hours.
AVC: Will you ever reveal what the idea is that Donna has at the end of the finale?
CC: [Facetious.] She creates Skynet with Cameron, which brings about the end of the world. [Laughs.]
For us it was less about the idea, going along with what Cameron says, that the idea can come later and they’re out of ideas and it’s really about the two of them. But we did take care with the director, Karyn Kusama, and the production designers to ensure that in every shot of Donna’s perspective in the diner, once Cameron steps out, there is some sort of correlation to some sort of digital innovation that we all use today. There are four or five that are in there that are very subtle—but again, we’ll never know which one she’s landing on.
AVC: Walk us through your determination that Netscape and Yahoo! would be the final nails in Comet’s coffin.
CR: It’s interesting: The show’s original intent was to tell you the story you didn’t know about the rise of personal computers. It got us into the habit of trying to tell you the history of a thing you thought you understood. When we approached “search”—which is this almost too delicious metaphor of “What do people want? What are they looking for?”—we needed to have a way to do that that felt like it was about the characters, that felt unexplored. If it was just about the rise of Google, that felt linear and unexciting, and so we stumbled upon this thing of Yahoo!, which is this hand-curated directory-based search versus algorithmic search—Excite is a really early one we looked a lot at and modeled what some of Donna and her team are working on. That seemed new to us, this last idea of the personal being in the equation, before the machines take over. Similarly, Netscape felt like the end of an era—the Netscape IPO a lot people call the big bang of the internet, and that happened in 1995. We saw that as one of those electric wires we didn’t want to cross with our series.
We tried to confine it to that space, but this season was even less about technology than last season—and last season was less than the previous and so on. The goal, by the end, is to have it be a family drama—a family of choice as opposed to a family of origin. They put themselves into the things they create, but in the final calculus, we spend those last four hours treating the rise of Yahoo! and the demise of Comet and Rover as almost an afterthought, because of all they’ve lost personally—and that’s the story we wanted to tell.
AVC: That definitely comes across in the scene when Cameron is trying out the Netscape beta. The camera hangs on that “Web Directory” button, but what we’re paying attention to is what’s going on between Cameron and Joe. Was that the intent?
CC: I think so, and I think to Chris’ point that they’re so wrapped up in their personal lives that they’re literally missing it. That shot—which was done by Daisy Mayer—is a good one. One of the few times in the show where we’re in a privileged perspective, and we’re seeing something before the characters do I think is good, especially for the end of our story, where they’re realizing that their lives are infinitely more complex than the race for the next big idea. And I think they’re really caught up in that in that moment.
AVC: One of the most resonant scenes for the last two episodes is Haley, in her car, psyching herself up to go into the fast-food restaurant and talk to her crush. The emotion, the choice of “Seether” by Veruca Salt, it feels so real. What does that scene mean to you and what did you want to show about Haley’s character in that moment?
CR: That scene crushes me. It’s hard to watch that scene every time.
Haley begins this season as this shut-down kid. Her emotions are a mystery and her parents are trying to figure out what she’s becoming. She’s crying and Gordon doesn’t understand why. In the course of the season, through her involvement with Comet, she meets this group of people that are like her who are a better fit than the people she goes to school with, she starts to discover things about herself, she starts to acknowledge some feelings that she’s having toward Vanessa—the girl who works at the Hound Dogs hot-dog stand. I think that’s Haley at the height of an openness. There’s a recklessness that follows the arrival of her father’s death, out of which she’s determined to be herself. The internet has shown her that she can be who she really is [online]—why shouldn’t she be here? And it’s just met with this crushing misread.
I think you’re just seeing a person in that car gather her whole self up like a bouquet to go give to somebody, in a way that I think we’ve all lived through. God, I know I did this—psyching myself up with some song before dialing a phone or something—only to run into the buzzsaw of reality. That was hard to do to the character, hard to do to the actress, but I think she pulled it off brilliantly. And Haley, who so much becomes this extension of Gordon, who carries him forward in the story after he leaves the screen physically, is someone we wanted to feel heard—in terms of her sexuality and who she is as a person—by the end of the episode, by the end of the series. And I think she is, when Donna and Cameron talk about her out by the pool. But that [Hound Dogs scene] is certainly a nadir, and it comes right on the heels of Gordon knowing who his daughter is and hearing it from Joe. They are primed to go home that night and talk more about it, and then Haley never gets to see Gordon that night. That scene is [Sighs.]—[writer] Mark Lafferty, Daisy Mayer, they did it to perfection.
AVC: The final episode is primarily about Donna and Cameron, this critical duo to the show who’d spent most of the fourth season apart. What did you want to achieve in that last hour with that pair of characters?
CC: The structure of the finale mirrors the structure of the show, where we begin with Joe, and then we go into a very plot-heavy story of Donna and Cameron, and that relationship carries us forward for much of the series. And then Joe returns in a big way, which is exactly what he does in season four.
We kept coming back to Cameron and Donna, and we wanted to honor the really bad schism they had at the end of season three, and we needed to be fair with that, and have that be painful for the two of them, and keep them out of each other’s orbit, and have them flirt with being in each other’s lines of sight for a little bit here and there. And episode eight is probably the first place where the dam can really break, and they can be present with each other and real with each other for the first time in a long time. But there’s still a lot left unsaid, because of the professional history that they’ve had.
And I think that we just wanted to have enough screentime. We kept coming back in the writers’ room to “Donna, Cameron, Donna, Cameron” and by the time we got to episode eight, we only had nine and 10 left, and it just seemed to require so much real-time processing between the two of them that it ended up earning most of the hour in the final episode. And I think that that’s okay, because I think it’s one of the preeminent relationships in the show. To see them deal with all their subtext and emotional baggage and history, while at the same time trying to get a hard drive stiction corrected is fun, because it takes the characters back to their basics, and it brings their relationship back to a cornerstone, and it allows them to examine how far they’ve come, and what the other means to the other in their lives, now, so many years later. And perhaps that they have something else in their future, and their professional history is far from fully written.
AVC: What was the genesis of the “Phoenix” sequence at the old Mutiny/Comet offices? Did you want to echo the way that the beginning of the season runs through Mutiny’s evolution into Comet?
CR: There were a couple things going on there. With Cameron and Donna, entering the season knowing we’d split them apart so badly in season three, the idea of getting them back together and what that should look like and how to earn that was a little bit more daunting than that appears. There is this binary relationship between these folks and all of their ties to each other—Gordon and Donna are fighting or they’re getting along. They’re married or they’re divorced—and similarly in the business partnership. With Cameron and Donna, we wanted them “getting back together” to feel new, to feel like an evolution of what we’d seen before, when they have these fights—which, if you want to be reductive, have Cameron being unreasonable and Donna being reasonable, and then they find a middle ground.
So we did that in two ways: We split up the emotional healing, and then the professional healing, and what you’re seeing in the finale is the professional healing. And it’s not just them saying “Yes, I’ll work with you again” or “No, we shouldn’t work together, I think it’s them using the hypothetical of this company, Phoenix, to salve those wounds, to address the things that caused them to stumble in the past, and to find a resolution. I think there is a moment at the beginning of that scene where it is a company they’re talking about and they mean it and it could really happen. And then in the middle of it, something incredible happens and they both realize that this will never be, but it’s this love letter to each other and they’re able to arrive at this place of being friends. The relationship they have, the connection they had is maybe the thing that mattered. It’s one of the few times the show indulges in a magical realism: This sign that comes on and flickers out. We thought that felt fair and new and a way to address what there was between them.
Not to mention: That’s a single shot. That’s just a camera pushing in on two people that whole scene. We felt like we had the actresses to give us a version of that that was special.
AVC: What made you pick “Solsbury Hill” as the song to send the characters off to the next chapters of their lives?
CC: Our music supervisors—which is a company called Super Musicvision—usually puts together mixtapes that are evocative of that era. Stuff from all walks of life at that time, and that feels reflective of the characters. And I believe that was one of the ones they had put on this mixtape. I know that the editor Robert Komatsu and the director Karyn Kusama tried [“Solsbury Hill”] at the end of the sequence, and when we saw it, it was just fantastic.
And we had used Peter Gabriel before in a very emotive moment—which was when Donna imagines she’s talking to Cameron when she’s high on mushrooms in season three. “Mercy Street” plays in that scene, and so it was nice to come back to that palette—and also it’s just an incredible song that feels so good and it feels so right for a possible new beginning for Cameron and Donna and a possible new beginning for Joe.
Thomas Golubic, who’s our music supervisor, would hate me for saying this, but I can’t help but mention some of the lyrics in “Solsbury Hill,” when Joe is getting out of the car. It just feels right for that guy, and it strikes the right tenor for this really out-of-left-field place we see Joe finishing up his story in—which is as a high-school teacher. There’s something life-affirming about it, but in a way that’s not sentimental. It just really feels like it works.