The ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Showrunners on ‘Redefining the Story of Losers’

Did you feel that people were expecting “Halt” to be “Mad Men” with computers? It seemed to be a comparison that was imposed upon you.

CANTWELL God bless you. [Laughs] I really feel like we got cudgeled at the beginning of the series by some unfair comparisons. I don’t think it’s the cultural zeitgeist’s fault, because we actually premiered behind “Mad Men,” so when you had the one that was the cultural gold standard followed by the new kid on the block going, “Hey! We also have a tall man who’s handsome!” there are easy parallels to draw there.

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Chris and I came up in an age where those male antihero shows were very good, very celebrated. That was a storytelling structure that was worthy of being investigated. I think the best shows crack that wide open and mine them for all they’re worth. But we entered with kind of a Trojan horse. We were looking to challenge that idea. It took us a bit to crack open Joe and figure out who he was. And to be honest, we were doing some of that even as we were a few episodes into the first season. I think we did find a fascinating, difficult, duplicitous, and yet very human guy who is all his own and not a carbon copy.


Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan in “Halt and Catch Fire.”

Bob Mahoney/AMC

Joe is perhaps the character that changed most.

ROGERS Lee Pace would come to us between scenes and say: “Can’t anyone just be nice to Joe? Can’t anyone trust Joe?” But I think that’s something we figured out pretty early — no one was going to trust Joe, and that also extended to the audience. We would always have the audience assuming he was up to something. I think when you have that established, you can play against it. What would it take to make people want to get back into rooms, let alone business with Joe? So while I think at first that was kind of a liability, it felt like the show could be about a man who will do anything to do a deal. You really get a story about a man becoming human. I don’t think it’s any kind of coincidence that it ends with him teaching humanities at a high school.

It really felt as if, with the daylong phone call episode this season, Cameron and Joe were going to end up together. Why unravel them?

CANTWELL Cameron and Joe have always been a challenge for us. When they met, they were both wearing masks that covered up a lot of baggage. Cameron is someone who appreciates and enjoys being a lightning rod or a divining rod for brilliance, and Joe is someone who is always looking for that kind of inspiration in himself. He’s good at finding it. She’s good at producing it. But as people, they were just so damaged. So this season felt like they were finally in a place where they could have a real go at it — in a way that felt healthy for the first time — now that they seem to be a little more grounded, more humbled.

I don’t think we ultimately knew the fate of that relationship until late in the process, and the asteroid that really hit was Gordon’s death. That really shook the characters to their very core. Joe’s desire to have children, and Cameron’s realization that she absolutely does not want to have them, is kind of a dividing line. But also, what we’ve been trying to say in this series, and exemplify with the characters’ lives, is that nothing lasts forever. And I think to give Joe and Cameron a good time, and to have it work for a while, felt honest and true. That seems to be how life works a lot, especially for these five.

A lot of people were worried you would flip it around and make Cameron get accidentally pregnant.

CANTWELL Yes! We debated this. [Laughs] It’s a really hard thing, and you see really great shows make this choice. They’ve got a female character, they don’t know what to do with her, and they just give her a baby. “There you go! That’s a complication.”

ROGERS Chris and I did talk about, What if Cameron did get pregnant? And we approached it from a place of, How would Cameron approach something like this? Because she’s a character who doesn’t seem very interested in having children. And we brought that back into the room, and our female writers — Angelina Burnett, Lisa Albert — they just said, “No [expletive] way.” Because we had this realization about Joe. …

CANTWELL This whole thing of Joe wanting kids. That’s something we totally discovered in the room after Episode 2. This unbelievable speech about his father. “Oh my God, maybe Joe does think he could be a dad now. It never occurred to him before.” So it tumbled out of that. How would that manifest in a relationship with Cameron? We didn’t think we could get all the way there. It’s a question of taking things to their logical end, and I’m happy that we didn’t settle on that one. I will say that one more thing that did not make it into the show that Chris and I came up with. …

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ROGERS I know exactly where you’re going with this.

CANTWELL John Bosworth having a ponytail this season. Chris and I lost several hours to the ponytail thread. We got Toby Huss involved, but it just didn’t materialize.

ROGERS Hair on the show is a saga unto itself.

We have the same problem this season that we had in Season 1, when the Macintosh computer beat their Giant. Here, Yahoo beats Comet by getting on the Netscape menu bar. Every tech battle they have is going to be a rigged fight, even if they have the better idea.

ROGERS We call it redefining the story of losers. History seems to gravitate toward narratives centered on big personalities, so when you talk about this world, you talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. If you talk about search, you talk about Google. But it’s so much more complex than that. It’s millions of people in obscurity who did most of the heavy lifting, only to have somebody step in and get the credit.

If the story were just about whether or not they built the machine, or ended up being the company that IPOs, it would be over. To a certain extent, the iterative process of technology, the way it ramps up and reaches some type of conclusion, that’s what we wanted to do in the character stories. We wanted to depict them on this cycle, with the idea: “The next project is the one that’s going to make me whole. This next relationship is the one that’s going to go on forever.” But that’s not really how it works.

This season, more than any other — the Yahoo of it all, the fact that Comet didn’t go to be the search box on your browser — almost felt beside the point. After they lost Gordon, Joe and Cameron were kind of losing each other, and we wanted to see the stakes devolve back into the personal. They get little wins instead.

AOL just announced that they were retiring Instant Messenger, and that felt like a “Halt and Catch Fire” kind of moment.

ROGERS No! Really?

CANTWELL My wife and I did some of our earliest courting on AOL Instant Messenger, at all hours. We were just talking about how if all we had was Snapchat, we probably wouldn’t have made it. [Laughs] The other thing about AIM, I can log on and it will still log me on to my college AOL screen name. I haven’t been there for 15 years, but you can just walk back in time and chat with Hulugirl16.

ROGERS Did you have a great Instant Messenger name?

CANTWELL SouthernComfortNWC, of course. That’s what a cool college guy picks when he’s 17.

ROGERS For some reason, mine was GodVersusSpiderMan. I don’t know why I picked that, but that’s what mine was. I’ve always used Cameron as a chance to get my 13-year-old self into the show, and I wrote passionate letters to the surviving members and the rights holders for Nirvana in each of the last couple of seasons, begging them to let us license at least one of their songs. I was not successful. That is my one regret about the show. No Nirvana!

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