'Halt and Catch Fire' series finale postmortem: The creators on bringing it full circle

Kerry Bishé as Donna and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron on ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (Photo: AMC)
Kerry Bishé as Donna and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron on ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (Photo: AMC)

At its end, Halt and Catch Fire went back to the beginning.

The AMC drama wrapped after four seasons with a two-hour finale that set its characters on new, not-so-new, but always exciting paths into their future (and our past).

With the demise of Comet — thanks to a nascent company called Yahoo — Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is once again adrift, no longer tethered by his late business partner, Gordon Clark. And his relationship with Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) breaks under the strain of their different dreams and personalities.

Meanwhile, Donna (Kerry Bishé) steps up as managing partner of her firm, but after giving a rousing speech to fellow women in the tech industry, she fields a surprising offer from Cameron: to work together again. During a nostalgic trip to the old Mutiny office, they dream of what their new company, Phoenix, could be. Like Mutiny, even the mental version of Phoenix folds due to their differences. But unlike Mutiny, this time, their friendship would endure.

The finale ends with Donna hitting upon a new idea and asking Cameron not to leave town, but to partner again.

And as for Joe, he winds up back in a classroom, just like in the pilot episode. This time, he’s a teacher and he’s not the one coming up with the next big idea. He’ll inspire the next generation to come up with those.

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Halt and Catch Fire creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers about Joe’s transformation, Donna’s idea, and the hilarious scene featuring ourselves.

“Let me start by asking a question.” Sorry! I’m sure you’ve heard that opening a million times today.

Chrises: No, it was good! First time!

Did you know approaching the series finale that you wanted to repeat that line from the pilot?

Chris Cantwell: I would say no. We didn’t know where we were going to end up. We had some ideas going into Season 4 — Chris and I always put together a battle plan that we then pull apart in the writers’ room and make better and change a lot. But we didn’t really know where we were headed.

I think Chris and I always do nested structures of touching on something that feels like an echo of the beginning. The finale itself starts with Joe, very much like the series does, and then goes knee-deep into a heavy plot with Donna and Cameron, only to wrap up with Joe.

Season 1 through 4 are structured the same way, where Joe is centric in Season 1 and kicks off the story for everyone else. And then we follow all of them, and Cameron and Donna are responsible for a lot of the plot in the middle, and then Joe reenters the equation heavily in Season 4.

And then the concluding image is of that guy in a classroom, just like the beginning. We can’t help but enjoy little cinematic rhymes like that.

At a screening and panel discussion earlier this week, that theme came up — recursion and feedback loops. Did you go back to re-watch the pilot so that you could create this circular effect?

Chris Rogers: I think it’s on your mind, the pilot is, especially when you’re doing the last one. The theme of recursion — we also apply to the idea that these people always buy back into this cycle of thinking the next idea is the one that’s going to complete them. The finale has to tell you if they’re going to find a way off that wheel, or continue on the path they’ve been on.

Looking back at the people they started as, first off, it’s like, oh, the haircuts, oh, the changes. But is there some essence of the person they end up being that you connect things back to? With Joe, most explicitly, we went back and said, the way that guy walked into the classroom, where he was just going to take what he needed from the next generation of coding talent and bend it to his will, whether they like it or not — wouldn’t it be amazing to bring that same guy back into a classroom and be there to give something, be there to help, be there to teach?

I have to say, we re-watched the pilot even to get the words right, because what we scripted and what Lee Pace ended up saying in the pilot was different. It was a trip. It felt like a lifetime ago. It was this visceral experience of being lifted out of our lives in Los Angeles and taken to Atlanta and told that a TV show was going to happen and we were going to have something to do with it. So, it’s funny. I can feel it in my body when I watch the finale. So trying to bring some closure to that, too, was certainly on our minds.

The choice to use Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” over that last scene was so apt, since it’s all about taking risks. Did you write that into the script, or was it something that you worked on with the music supervisor?

Cantwell: It was very much the latter. I think that sometimes we do script songs into the script. I know that Zack Whedon did write in the Dire Straits song “So Far Away” into episode 8, and then we ended up being able to clear that.

But on the other side of the coin, the music supervisors are working to find music that is evocative of that period, that gives us the scope and palette of what was going on back then. They’ll make us these mix tapes that are really helpful. They will also research a lot of songs on their mix tapes and see what the rights issues are.

So, that song had surfaced in the background while they were putting together mix tapes for Season 4. We had cleared a Peter Gabriel song before, in another beautiful sequence, when Donna takes mushrooms in Season 3 and imagines talking to Cameron. It was cool to go back to it for that reason.

But I also think that [director] Karyn Kusama and Rob Komatsu, the editor, they looked at the tracks we had and threw that in there and boy, it just electrified the final sequence of the show in such an amazing way that we loved it as soon as we saw it.

The scene where Donna and Cameron return to the old Mutiny office and fantasize about starting another company together was so lovely. Why choose to explore it in that way?

Rogers: On a show, especially in its fourth season, some of the relationships are pretty binary in what you can do with them. The couple is together or they’re divorced. The partners are fighting or they’re getting along. Joe and Cameron are whatever their version of stable or not stable.

And so, with Donna and Cameron, who worked harmoniously at Mutiny and then split apart spectacularly last year, we wanted to find a way to bring them back together that felt new and like an evolution.

It was a two-part process. There was an emotional healing to be done, and that really centers around Gordon’s death and is beautifully executed in episode 8. But then there’s this deeper professional distrust that has to be overcome.

That Phoenix scene, when they go back to the old Mutiny space and remember what was and talk about what might be, only to realize it’s what will never be — we thought that was new. I think that scene and talking about what it would be — exorcising demons, war-gaming out where the stumbling blocks would be, only to realize what was important is this friendship and the connection between them — was new.

That was something Chris Cantwell brought into the room and it was really beautiful. And then we were able to cap it off with this rare magical realism moment with the sign that illuminates the beating heart of what’s between them. For us, that was a good way to finally bury the wounds of Season 3.

They have a funny moment, too, when they talk about their former Mutiny colleagues. But my friend who attended the screening with me was dying to know what happened to Lev and Yo-Yo.

Cantwell: We wrote it into the script, but I think we cut it for time. What did we write, Chris? The two of them had started a company and were taking meetings around town with VCs, I believe.

Rogers: And it hadn’t gone too well. It wasn’t the glory they deserved.

Cantwell: Yeah, I think they were having trouble getting funding for some company they had started. They were making a go of it, but it was tough sledding.

Rogers: Fifth season would’ve been all Lev and Yo-Yo.

Now, I have to ask about the Yahoo scene, of course. Donna just cracks up saying the name. What led to that scene and making fun of the yodel?

Cantwell: We couldn’t actually yodel — that was explicitly told to us by business affairs.

Rogers: This season for us was telling the untold story of search, as we knew it. I can’t tell you how many people, even in the reviews, have been like, “And one of the companies is Google.” Well, no, none of these companies are Google.

This is a time when it was these two different approaches to search. There’s the idea of algorhythmic — which I guess you can say gets us to Google — but it’s really more us talking about Lycos and Altavista and Excite. And then on the other hand, there’s this beautiful handcrafted approach that Yahoo had, as represented by Comet. We thought there was something there, in the human vs. machine of it all, that’s thematic to our show.

But at the same time, you always know the real history is coming. So, I think we were faced with making that drop dramatic and unexpected and also having it mean something to the character. And in the Yahoo scene, what makes it funny is Donna realizing she’s been Halt and Catch Fire-d.

Not only has it happened again, and all these internecine wars with both her old colleagues and her children and her husband have been for naught, but from a company that has an exclamation mark in its name. So, I think Donna is viewing the absurdity of her life and she’s taking it out on yet another officious oracle, or whatever the actual acronym stands for.

So, will you say what Donna’s new idea is in the diner, or does it not really matter?

Cantwell: We’ll never say! Obviously we want the moment to be more about Cameron and Donna, and even Cameron said that the idea isn’t what’s important, that’ll come later. I think that’s true for the two of them.

But in each shot of Donna’s POV in the restaurant between when Cameron leaves and when she comes outside, there is some sort of analogue trailhead that we put in.

And what’s next for you guys?

Rogers: Oh man, I wish we had a specific answer. I mean, this show is one we hoped to do at the end of our careers, and yet, we got to do it first, so we just want to make sure the next one feels as important. And I think we’re going to take some time to find that.