BY PAUL MACINNES
When Mr Robot first aired, two years ago, it was hailed for its timeliness. A serial drama about a nefarious hacking group taking on corporate power felt right for the age of Anonymous and banking failure. Now, in 2017, the existing two seasons can look a little dated; why spend ages plotting to bring down the west when the US president can do it with a tweet?
While a lot has changed in two years, there is a sense of vindication for Mr Robotcreator Sam Esmail. The ideas the 40-year-old wanted to explore in this drama – his first TV show, which he wrote, directed, produced and edited himself – are still playing out in reality.
“One thing I’ve noticed about the show is that it feels like a period piece of today,” Esmail says. “The world is so heavily influenced by technology and it has started to feel like it’s not on solid ground. The world has become unreliable, unknowable. Facts are vulnerable and things you have come to rely on are no longer there. It’s an overlap that I’m not going to be so bold as to say I predicted, but that was what I was thinking about when I constructed the character of [protagonist] Elliot [Alderson].”
Included among the unreliable and unknowable elements of Mr Robot are the following: whether Elliot is good or bad; whether he hacked the biggest corporation in the US under instruction from the Chinese government; whether he is living at his mother’s house or in prison; whether his father is alive and, if so, why he wants to kill him; and, finally, whether or not he is really friends with 80s sitcom puppet ALF.
Calling Elliot a hero has become something of a stretch. Indeed, as the show returns for a third season with him lying in a pool of his own blood, even Elliot is doubting himself. This is partly because he suffers from a dissociative identity disorder. Aspects of his personality have taken on their own forms in his psyche and the most visible, known as Mr Robot, not only looks like his bullying father, but also behaves in aggressive, unpredictable ways. Every son has to come to terms with turning into their dad; for Elliot, the transition is literal.
“That’s the main dramatic conflict within Elliot, his lack of understanding of Mr Robot,” says Esmail. “In this season, Elliot can’t hide from who he is any more. He owns what he did and he wants to reverse it, put back what he’s broken.”
That will prove easier said than done, no doubt. But watching Elliot work things out is always compelling. He is played by the drama’s breakout star, Rami Malek (you will see him as Freddie Mercury in a biopic about the Queen frontman soon), who gives a performance that is sometimes vulnerable, sometimes steely and always intense. Elliot is an idealist, but he is also a cynic. He confesses all to the viewer, whom he calls “my friend”, but a lot of the stuff he comes out with is hardly confidence boosting. “If you died, would anyone care?” goes one such train of thought. “Maybe they’d cry for one day. But, let’s be honest, no one would give a shit.” Cheers, pal.
Esmail says there are elements of himself in Elliot, an angry young man at odds with the world. Raised in New Jersey and of Egyptian descent, Esmail suffered racist abuse and bullying as a child (“I got called ‘sand nigger’ all the time,” he once told Rolling Stone) and retreated into other worlds. An avowed junior cineaste who staged Stanley Kubrick screenings for his friends, Esmail spent the rest of his time learning to code.
Mr Robot appear to be a direct outcome of Esmail’s youthful fascinations. He has a short CV as a filmmaker, featuring only one other full-length project, indie film Comet). Yet Mr Robot has drawn frequent acclaim for its virtuosity. The visual palette can range from semi-darkness to highly saturated hues reminiscent of a Snapchat filter. The tone can slip from political thriller to horror to indie romance. Esmail plays with the form, too: last season, the ALF incident – a dream sequence in which Elliot enters a 90s sitcom world and encounters the once-ubiquitous puppet – acted as an episode within an episode. He also bends the narrative forward and backwards in time and, playing on the unreliability of its narrator, tells the story once only to retell it differently later.
Not everyone has been thrilled by Mr Robot’s conceptual gambits. The second season was criticised for being too complicated and, conversely, a bit predictable. But Esmail is surprisingly assertive when he says he pays his critics no mind.
“I just can’t go off how other people react to the show,” he says. “I can only go by how I feel and I much prefer season two to season one. I appreciate and understand the criticism, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a flaw in the show. There’s a film out right now called Mother! that has also provoked a divisive reaction. I actually think it’s a masterpiece. It’s my favourite film of the year. My point is not to compare us to that, but to point out there is this grey area where people just have different tastes to you. Unless I can look and agree where the flaws are on a creative and taste level, it’s a slippery slope to start chasing it.”
Esmail believes a creator should never cave in to the demands of fans, but that is exactly what some programmes do, he says. “I’ve seen shows that start to go down the path of fan service and it really diminishes the quality,” he says. “What resonates with me whenever I watch a great movie or TV show is the balance of inevitability and unpredictability. And it’s a very delicate balance. When you go down the fan-service route, it starts to lose that for me.”
Another aspect of contemporary Hollywood of which Esmail is sceptical is diverse casting. Mr Robot not only has an Arab-American star in Malek, but also a gender fluid Asian-American villain and several unconventional female characters to boot. But Esmail believes diverse casting is often pursued for its own sake.
“I know there’s a lot of clamour now for diversity,” he says. “I notice people are choosing actors and writers and people behind the camera with that in mind. What I bristle at, and I’m not saying it happens 100% of the time, is that the intention starts to feel like a homework assignment. I never looked at it that way. I don’t include diversity on the show so I can talk about the issues of diversity. I think people are more than their heritage or their skin colour or their name or how they grew up.”
A late bloomer by Hollywood’s standards, perhaps, Esmail has used his apprenticeship to deliver a drama that is entirely his. Movie projects are upcoming, but he will once again direct every episode of this season and his commitment to the story and its characters is total. Delegation does not come easy to him. “Directing is the hardest thing to translate to other people,” he says. “This show requires such a specific tone and voice. I feel it has to be as consistent as possible.” For the foreseeable future, then, the creator of Mr Robot will keep listening to the voices in his head.
The third season of Mr Robot is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.