BY JEREMY EGNER
“Mr. Robot” began as a story about a troubled programmer but steadily expanded to encompass underground revolutionaries, global power brokers and a hack that disrupted the entire world. The USA techno-thriller returned for its third season Wednesday night with even broader horizons, as key characters like Whiterose (B. D. Wong) and Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) seemed to envision alternate universes, while the tormented hero, Elliot (Rami Malek), resumed his baroque existential struggles. The episode found him recuperating from last season’s culminating gunshot and pondering ways to counteract his Mr. Robot alter ego, specifically his world-shattering acts of cyberterrorism.
“The big question this season is: Can you put it together after you’ve broken it?” said Sam Esmail, the show’s creator. “Can he reverse what he did? Or is it going to be forever changed, given the set of events he set in motion?”
After debuting to near-universal acclaim in 2015, “Mr. Robot” put off some viewers last season with a slower pace and deeper focus on the internal struggles of Elliot and other characters. Season 3 will be “a lot more action packed,” said Mr. Esmail, who again directed every episode (and wrote five of the 10).
In a recent phone interview, he discussed why criticisms of Season 2 surprised him, and why the rise of President Trump is the latest real-world event to eerily parallel the universe of “Mr. Robot.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Where do things stand with Elliot heading into Season 3?
The internal battle he went through in the second season led to a certain kind of acceptance. In the third season we rip that all apart again, in a very different way. In the same way he is wondering if he can take back the 5/9 hack, he’s also dealing with his dissociative identity disorder and questioning whether he can put that genie back in the bottle.
“Mr. Robot” has always been interested in duality in its characters and structures. But this season it seems as if you’re getting into parallel universes.
We reveal more of Whiterose’s overall plan. It is still cryptic and still a mystery, but she clearly has an agenda and that agenda does involve parallel universes. The most powerful people in the world — not unlike a lot of people in our real world — go after these loftier goals because they can, because they have the money and the power to do so. In the “Mr. Robot” world there is a character who is fixated on this idea of parallel universes. Do they exist? And can she somehow find a way to harness that?
The first season of “Mr. Robot” was almost universally acclaimed but the reception for the second was more mixed. Did you anticipate that?
No, to be honest with you. I think the second season was much better than the first season in every way, from the performances to the writing to certainly the way the show was shot and executed. So I was a little taken aback that it did get the mixed reviews. But I think the ask on the audience was bigger.
I’m not a huge fan of very plotty shows. I’m much more of a fan of character-driven stories. The second season really delved into not just Elliot and his inner conflict, but all the other characters. It turned much more into an ensemble, and that’s something I appreciate.
At the same time, it had devices like the extended charade of the prison being rendered as Elliot’s mother’s house. Do you anticipate that viewers will figure out such gambits? Or are you hoping they will be shocked?
The thing about any sort of twist is you want it to work either way. Whether the person figures it out or not is not the point. Because it’s not a puzzle — I’m not trying to outsmart the audience. Every moment and every reveal should feel earned and should work whether there’s a surprise factor there or not.
Do you ever worry that the trickery will overshadow the story?
I’m hoping that’s dependent on the viewer. If you have the mind-set where you are examining the plot and looking for the details, then you’re going to go on Reddit, and you’re going to dissect it and crowdsource the answers with your friends or other fans. And if you’re not — and there’s a good percentage of the population that doesn’t do that — then you’re going to have a very different experience.
One of my favorite shows this year was “Twin Peaks,” and what I loved about it was it defied narrative logic. There was no way to come together and crack a puzzle and figure it out in that way, and I think that was very intentional. It was almost antiplot — it seemed like David Lynch was ignoring plot completely and just sticking to tone, and how it feels and the vibe the show gives off. That, to me, is what resonates the most: When I can get sucked into a show and not have to worry about the logic and the sequence of events.
Is Lynch an influence on you when it comes to things like pacing?
A hundred percent. In fact, a lot of the criticism for the second season was on pace and on the plot being confusing. Lynch is a master, so I don’t dare to compare myself to him. But that was kind of the point: We wanted to lift you out of the narrative logic of trying to always be a step ahead of where the plot is going to go.
“Mr. Robot” definitely has a strong, consistent tone but you take aesthetic detours, like the sitcom episode last year or the long, single takes. How do those fit within the overall storytelling?
TV was classically a medium where the writer was king, but for me it was always about the filmmaking. Any time I approach a scene, it’s not just what’s on the page — it’s how the camera’s going to show or not show what’s on the page. It’s which character are we going to align with and what music is going to be playing. In the writers room, one of the things we talk about in a scene is, what’s the first image we see? What are the sounds that we hear? Because it’s all about the experience and not just the story.
If all you care about is: I need to understand every moment in this episode, and I need to understand where it’s going and I need to understand what everyone is doing and what everyone wants, then just read a breakdown on Wikipedia. For me that’s so secondary to: How does this make you feel?
Why are you so interested in duality, as a concept?
I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of who we are versus who we want to be. We’re always trying to change our diet or exercise more or read more books or go out more. We’re always trying to evolve because we have some picture of what we think we should be. That sort of internal struggle is, for me, a lifelong one and one I think a lot of people face every day. It’s interesting, especially in the context of today, where you are constantly being asked to curate your identity on social media and in other parts of your life.
The story is still set in 2015 but in the premiere there was a montage that included footage of President Trump, which would be anachronistic. Was that an impressionistic element?
Yes, the specific sequence you’re talking about is Elliot kind of foreshadowing the doom and gloom that could come from a society that gives up and gives in to the powers that be. And sure, one of those moments actually happened here in our world a year after that moment in the show. That sequence in a lot of ways is meant to be impressionistic, but that whole speech ends with Elliot realizing that he’s at fault. He’s to blame for everything that’s happened. That sentiment was something me and the writers also felt during the election last year.
I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a conservative, the election of Trump is a national tragedy for multiple reasons. It will go down as one of the worst tragedies in American history. But he’s not a dictator. This happened because we either allowed it or voted for it. That’s the sentiment that we were trying to communicate in that sequence. And even though this is technically set in 2015, the feeling and the sentiment still apply to today.
What will surprise people this year about this season?
As I tell you that I’m so antiplot, I will say maybe they will be surprised that this year is a lot more plot-driven. [Laughs.] I don’t ever consider “Mr. Robot” to be an action-driven show but I feel like this season you’re going to see a lot more action.
Your personal Mr. Robot is a plot-obsessed puppet master.
[Laughs.] Yes my own internal battle has come to an end.