'Mr. Robot' showrunner Sam Esmail talks season finale, 'The Sopranos' and what's coming next

  USA Network

USA Network

BY NATE SCOTT

After a week delay due to a similarity between one scene and the shooting deaths of two Virginia journalists, the season finale of Mr. Robot aired tonight on USA Network. Creator and showrunner Sam Esmail, fresh off a newly announced engagement to actress Emmy Rossum, hopped on the phone with For The Win to talk about the first season, the finale, his favorite episode of The Sopranos, and what to expect in Season 2.

Obviously enough, there are spoilers below. You can read the recap of the season finale here.

  USA Network

USA Network

Can you talk me through the decision last week to postpone the final episode?

You know, it was one of those things where it’s a hard thing to figure out. I was grateful to USA in that they included me in the decision. They called me up to talk it through.

Obviously, it was a tragic thing that happened and we wanted to be sensitive to it. The best option was to move the show, and I fully supported it. It was a no-brainer, yeah. I think we made the right call.

Let’s talk about the finale. All season we built to two climaxes, I believe — both the climactic final hack of Evil Corp and a final showdown, if you will, between Elliot and Tyrell. Why did you decide to not show either of those on-screen?

Ultimately, the show is always about Elliot’s emotional journey. I’ve always wanted to stay true to that. And the series is really about his alter-ego, and — let me back up a bit — just the awareness of just how far his disorder goes, this dissociative identity disorder and his break, and him having to face those demons. All of that is personified with Mr. Robot.

And in order for me to start that arc, we have to start opening up what the ramifications of that would be. We have to start losing time. Elliot has been making decisions that he’s not aware of, that he’s not conscious of. And I thought, here we are, we’re at the culmination of this plan he’s been working on, and he’s now losing time. This goes as well as him having to face Tyrell.

And that’s where we’re going to kick off next season, having to figure out what happened in those three days.

For me, that also keeps us on track with Elliot’s emotional journey. If you think about it, it’s sort of crazy, going on experiencing this with Elliot in terms of: What if you start losing touch with reality? If you literally don’t remember what you’ve been doing. That to me is just a great starting point for next season as we continue to explore Elliot’s emotional journey.

  USA Network

USA Network

You mention losing time, and you brought up the idea of hacking time this season. The men and women who are trying to raise up and tear things down, Elliot and fsociety, they’re interested in hacking people, whereas Whiterose and Phil the CEO, the people in power, are much more interested in hacking time. It’s an interesting idea and I’m excited to see where you go with this, this idea that the true nature of power is being able to beat time.

[Laughs] You’re coming dangerously close to some stuff so I’m going to have to plead the fifth right now.

OK. Speaking about time, let’s take it to the format with hour-long TV. From what I understood, you wrote this script as a movie. You’ve never been a showrunner before, but I mean, I can say you’ve taken to it quite well. What do you think it is about the TV format that suits you as a creative person?

I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea. I think the only thing that suits me is that I’m longwinded. It’s weird, I’m in a rush to get this show done. Like I’m in a rush to get to the ending of this show. It’s just probably going to take 40 to 50 hours to tell this story.

I think that says more about me than it says about me adapting to television. I have no interest in prolonging it or dragging it out or now that we have this great momentum with this show, you know, tacking on a few more seasons.

  USA Network

USA Network

The great thing about features is the compression of time. You have to be so economical in how you spend those two hours or those two and a half hours to tell your story, and you have to be so effective. With television, I assume most people don’t look at it that way because you can just sit with things and explore things in a more rich way, but I’m still operating under the compression of time from the feature world.

And I think that’s just indicative of the fact that our episodes tend to have a lot of stuff going on, because I have all these elements that are needed to tell Elliot’s story … so I guess, yeah, I have no idea what makes me good at television.

As a writer though, it has to be fun to be able to do an hourlong heist episode or a prison break, just from a creative standpoint?

Oh my god, yeah. That is something you really can’t do with films, that you can do with television. Though again, those things sort of spring up organically because of what’s going on in the story. It’s never like, “Oh, here’s where we’re going to put the heist episode.” It just kind of came out of the story.

The weird thing is, I remember being in the writer’s room when we did the Fernando Vera episode when we did the prison break, or we did the Steel Mountain episode, it’s like, “If we’re going to do this, let’s [expletive] do it to a ten.” That was the refrain that we had on every episode. Let’s look up and research every great heist movie that’s ever been. What did they do? What are the rules of heist movies? Because that’s what this feels like. And that’s what they need to do.

  USA Network

USA Network

It’s as if the characters themselves researched all the heist movies to see how they’re gonna break in, or the opposite with the prison break. It’s something to me where I just wanted every episode … you know, there’s a thinking in writing shows where you’re going to have slower episodes, or filler episodes. I think they even have another term: bottle episodes. And I just completely ignored that.

I just thought that every episode we have to get as much to the adrenaline and thrilling aspects as possible, and we got to do different things every episode. We got to play with different genres and tones, though, you know, tonally I think we were pretty consistent. But yeah we could pull from different tropes, yeah. That was fun.

You mentioned Fernando, and I think this is a good transition to the actors that you have on this show. Elliot Villar was just spectacular in that role. When you’re watching him perform, is there a temptation to do what other shows do? You know: “We stumbled upon something great here, let’s maybe keep it going for a while, see what happens for a few more episodes, and then we’ll get back eventually to the original story.” If only from the performance you’re getting from him.

Absolutely not. Other people were like, “Dude, this guy’s awesome. Let’s keep writing towards him.” I personally think that I can smell that on other shows when I watch them. I can smell that they’ve started doing that.

Maybe this is dumb confidence, I was like: “Let’s do a million Elliot Villars. Let’s create [expletive] amazing characters every episode that we can just throw away the next episode.” I just personally think that if you keep going off track and tangents like that, your overall story and overall show is going to suffer. No matter how great Elliot Villar is.

Though again, that’s not to say that’s the last we’ll see of Elliot Villar. We do have a lot of things that are premeditated for the next few seasons that may include Elliot Villar.

But yeah, there’s always been that dumb confidence that we’re going to be good every episode, no matter what the episode is about.

Aside from Elliot Villar, the acting you have on this show has been spectacular. Do you feel like a dude who just won the lottery with this cast?

Absolutely. Let me tell you this, if we didn’t have Rami [Malek] this show wouldn’t work. The criticism you could say about this show is that everything is so unreliable that it’s hard to be tethered to anything. It’s hard to stay on solid ground with anything. That could get really frustrating for an audience, and there’s a temptation to check out.

But because Rami is delivering such an authentic performance to this character, we can really hold on to him, we can stick to him. That gives us, as the writers and the filmmakers, just a lot of latitude to keep going off in these interesting directions because Rami keeps grounding it and makes it feel real and let’s people connect with the show through him.

  USA Network

USA Network

How quickly did you know he could play this part?

Right when he auditioned. We must have auditioned over a hundred guys, and a lot of them were great, great actors. And I remember thinking maybe the script’s not that great, because these guys are good and it’s just not feeling right. It feels like this guy is cold and disconnected and I can’t feel him, I can’t connect to him.

And Rami, he’s just got that great mix of awkwardness and quirkiness, but yet charm. And he’s got amazing eyes that let you see right through his soul and the vulnerability, even when he’s being cocky. He just blew me away.

In an interview on the The Andy Greenwald Podcast, Rami recounted a conversation you guys had where you said you just wanted to get the audience past the fourth episode, then you thought you had them. Was that about having an audience get through that wild dream sequence, or was it more that you felt you needed four episodes to establish this world before you could start having fun?

So my favorite episodes of other shows tend to be the ones with weird dream sequences, and probably from what I can remember, it’s the Sopranos one that stayed with me the most.

I remember when I would have conversations with people the next day about those episodes. I mean, hands down “The Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos is still my favorite episode, but my friends and colleagues, there’d be a vehement polarization. Lots of people would hate it. “It’s not progressing the story forward.” But then lots of people would be on my side and love it and have a lot of passion for it.

The thing about it is, what’s great about dream sequences, if done well — and, look, your typical dream sequence is your cheesy, stylized canted shots and the weird lights and really obvious, on-the-nose symbolism. Those aren’t the dream sequences I’m talking about. I mean the ones that feel really true to what a real dream might feel like, those can really reveal a lot about the pathology and psychology of the character.

  USA Network

USA Network

And I know that I wanted to do that with Elliot early on. The weird thing is, The Sopranos did that in the second or third season. [Ed.’s note: “The Test Dream” is from Season 5.] It’s a tough thing to pull off in the first season, within the first four episodes, because you’re just going to tell people who aren’t into that stuff anyway that, you know, “OK, this show’s not for me” and they check out.

And it was, hands down, the most polarizing episode we had. People had no idea what to believe or what not to believe. But I remember hearing that, even in the writers’ room, people saying “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And I remember thinking: “Great! Perfect! That’s what we want.” And if you’re willing to keep with us, that’s exactly where we want you to be. We want you to just not know what’s going to happen next.

And that’s sort of what I meant when I told Rami that. If people are still enjoying the show after four, then they’ve succumbed to the pressure that this show is not going to give them exactly a straightforward answer. That it’s always going to be up in the air, and the answers, we’re going to have to dig for them.

  USA Network

USA Network

I know you have to go, so quickly, I wanted to ask you this idea of the “robot.” As I know you know, the word comes from the Czech for “servitude,” and as I watched this season, I grew to watch Elliot less and less like a revolutionary and more like someone who was desperately searching for a master, someone to submit to. Am I way off in my take on that, and secondly, if I’m not, do you think that’s true of all rebels and revolutionaries, that they’re just people looking for a new master?

Again, you’re scratching at some things …

[Laughs] Sorry.

I will say, the whole idea — there’s hacker terminology: “I owned you” or “You got owned.” That speaks a lot to what’s happening with Elliot and Mr. Robot. I mean, at the end of the season that’s what I wanted to accomplish, especially after that Times Square scene where Mr. Robot is saying to him “We’re not going anywhere.” At the end of the day, Elliot got owned.

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/09/interview-mr-robot-season-finale-with-showrunner-sam-esmail