'Halt and Catch Fire' Season 4 premiere postmortem: Showrunners talk the dawn of search

Kelly Woo
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire
(Photo: Erika Doss/AMC)

Jurassic Park was playing in theaters, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” was blasting on radios, Bill Clinton was president, and a browser called Mosaic would change the world.

Halt and Catch Fire Season 4 premiered Saturday with another time jump — this one to 1993. Joe (Lee Pace), Gordon (Scott McNairy), and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) had built their own web browser, which performed dismally. Joe blamed Cameron, still living in Japan, for being MIA. At least Gordon’s internet service provider business was booming.

With Mosaic basically putting Joe’s browser out to pasture, he needed a new idea — and hit upon indexing every web page in existence. He was doing it by scrawling URLs on Post-it notes, which Gordon’s daughter Haley (Susanna Skaggs) turned into a directory.

Meanwhile, Donna (Kerry Bishé) heard about Joe’s idea and used it to pivot her VC firm project into an algorithmic search opportunity.

Halt and Catch Fire creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers talked to Yahoo TV about the premiere’s time jump, the search showdown, and moving into the ‘90s.

The premiere’s first 10 minutes cover the span of three years in what looks like one long take. Why did you decide to do a time jump that way?
Cantwell: We didn’t want the time jump to feel like the time jump we’d already done, so we decided to root it in Gordon. Gordon is a character who has felt a little unstuck in time because of his neurological condition in the show. The title of the episode is “So It Goes,” which is a reference to Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, who himself moves through time pretty fluidly, so we thought it would be fun to move through progressions with Gordon rather fluidly and be in his almost lyrical POV.

That was our way of covering what had happened in between Season 3 and Season 4 and not missing too much, giving the audience just enough and then depositing them right at the time when everything is going to heat up and pick up steam, both on the technological front and also the personal front with the characters. You’ve got things like Cameron returning to the United States, and Joe finally emerging from that basement, and a lot of things are starting to fire at once.

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan and Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire
(Photo: Erika Doss/AMC)

So, Joe comes up with this idea of searching the Web, which as we know, has some merit to it. Why go that route?
Rogers: The show always felt like it was an opportunity for us to tell you the story you think you know about the dawn of technology. Originally, the entry point was the reverse engineering of the IBM PC, which was a moment when IBM ruled the computer world and we didn’t really think people knew that story. It was kind of, “Hey, technology was created by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and it was always this way.” But no, there was this moment where all these people were kind of ripping off big brother and we thought that was an interesting place to set our drama initially.

We think the dawn of search is similar. We think that most people — even when we talk to them for these interviews — think this is going to be the story of Google, because we know where it ends up. But the dawn of our search era is really about this idea of algorithmic versus directory-based search. You know, this company called Yahoo came along and made a fortuitous alliance with Marc Andreessen and his friends and Mosaic and later Netscape. And for a while, I think really did a beautiful job of kind of putting the personal touch into search. If our show has been about how people who create things put themselves in the things they create, that just felt so right to us — the idea of human categorization and the ontological approach of having a bunch of people in a room try to decide where things should be filed versus an algorithm. That was just irresistible to us.

We think a lot of people are going to be surprised by the story we tell this season. We think there will be a lot of people who think they know how it ends, but that’s usually where we like to be dramatically — teaching you something you didn’t really know about the story, but through the lens of people who hopefully you care about a lot more than the technological project.

Donna sort of steals this idea from Joe to pivot her VC company into algorithmic search. Is Donna the new Joe?
Cantwell: I think that Donna and Joe have always been a little bit more similar than both would have liked to recognize. They are at definitely different stations at the start of our series, but boy, they have a lot of similar qualities — both good and bad. I think that’s what makes them complex and interesting.

What’s fun about Donna coming up with the algorithmic search idea — you can make an argument that she’s stealing an idea, but you could also make the argument that she’s merely subconsciously iterating on an idea or pieces of things she’s heard in order to formulate something new.

And boy, if that isn’t the gray area history of technology. I mean, did Steve Jobs steal the graphical user interface from Xerox, or did Microsoft steal it from from Steve Jobs, or were they are all playing in similar fields and excited by something? And then one tweaks it and makes it better and it takes off, and then someone tweaks that and it subsumes the other and people end up getting pissed off at each other. That to me is a microcosm for how this industry works.

It’s so much fun to play that out between Gordon and Donna, these two people who can antagonize each other so intensely and yet remain connected because they have a sort of mindmeld. I think that’s what their love and marriage was built on, the fact that they get excited about the same things. And the accusations can fly after the fact. It’s messy, and that’s what’s cool about it.

Now that we’re firmly in the ‘90s, are you going to miss the ‘80s references?
Rogers: Oh, interesting slant on that question. Most people ask if we’re excited for all the ‘90s references. And the answer to that is: yes, absolutely. All the music and stuff because we are ourselves children of the ‘80s and came to maturity in the ‘90s. But I do think we’ll miss the ‘80s. I think Halt always endeavored to take the ‘80s seriously, whereas we felt at the time we came around, it was treated like this punchline.

It was a weird emotional thing to leave behind. That said, I think the ‘90s presented a really nice new chapter for us. The show is so much about reinvention and iteration. The look of the show in the 1990s is different, just in terms of the choices that the DP is making and the costumes and the sets — setting aside all the references to the Fresh Prince and the grunge songs.

The show’s ability to consciously change is one of the best things about this show because we think that’s one of the themes — it’s about iteration and something cyclical.

Halt and Catch Fire airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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