BY JOSH WIGLER
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's season three premiere of Mr. Robot.]
Make no mistake about it: Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is back in action.
The season three premiere of USA Network's Mr. Robot brought one of the show's foundational ideas front and center, as the hacker at the heart of the series went straight back to work, deftly navigating the digital space not quite one week removed from a gunshot wound to the gut.
Midway through the episode, Elliot and his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) visit a subterranean hackerspace, illuminated with florescent lights, positively brimming with energy as computer hackers seek refuge from a mostly power-free New York City by playing a digital version of Capture the Flag.
"These types of competitions are common in the computer security world — teams compete against each other to find a hidden 'flag' in multiple challenges," writer-producer Kor Adana tells The Hollywood Reporter about the scene. "In order to find these flags, players need to be familiar with a broad range of security concepts (e.g. cryptography, reverse engineering, web exploitation, mobile security). The flag could be a long string of random characters or a special password. Once a secret flag is found, you submit it to the game server. If it's correct, you’ll win points for your team, then it's on to the next challenge/flag until one team scores enough points to win the tournament."
In the scene, Elliot works swiftly and efficiently to end the game as quickly as humanly possible, so he can set about the real reason he's in the hackerspace: accessing a computer to shut down the Dark Army's plan to implement "Stage Two," an explosive act of violence that would result in a potentially fatal blow to E Corp, but at the expense of human lives.
"It had everyone firing on all cylinders," says Malek, remembering the experience of shooting the scene, which was filmed and presented in one shot — not the first, nor the last time Mr. Robot has delivered a sequence in a single take.
"We had to get everything right, everyone's movement. There were a bunch of actors that our camera operators, Carly Chaikin and myself were having to navigate through. Between all of the noise and all of the chaos of it, we just all had to marshal our best efforts forward, to be in sync with one another. By this third season, we have the benefit of having worked together for so long that we're able to do that in a pretty elegant way. It took a few more takes than I was expecting, but ultimately, it was very worthwhile. Because they're such long takes — usually an actor has an opportunity if they get something wrong to jump back in and reset and start from the beginning — but when you're trying to get everything done in one long take? It's an elegant and very charged advance. Everyone is working at the height of their capabilities in order to make sure that we get it done as well as we possibly can. That's the most special thing: When you finish a scene like that, it's a combination of everyone working at the top of their game and trying to make as few mistakes as possible."
As both the Mr. Robot team and Elliot in the context of the show worked their magic, another actor and character were at the rapidly beating heart of the action as well: Chaikin as Darlene. In the scene, Darlene spots two Dark Army agents, prompting her to sprint to a nearby bathroom and scream her fears into the void. Her pain is palpable, and more than understandable: Darlene was last seen in season two having freshly witnessed the brutal murder of her boyfriend Cisco (Michael Drayer) at the hands of the Dark Army, narrowly missing her own death in the same moment. She was subsequently brought into federal custody and forced to confront the reality that the FBI knows all about her and Elliot's involvement in the Five/Nine Hack.
Previously, we spoke with both Sam Esmail and Rami Malek about their long-term thoughts on Mr. Robot season three. Now, it's Carly Chaikin's turn to discuss the road ahead. Here's our conversation with the erstwhile Darlene Alderson, in which we discuss not only the aforementioned hackerspace scene, but the rocky road this once-confident revolutionary faces now that she's been stripped of everyone and everything she loves.
Starting with the bigger picture, how would you describe what we're getting into with season three as it progresses?
When it comes to TV shows, people are used to repetition, almost. In season one, we had a hack we were trying to get to pull off, and then we did it. A lot of times, season two would be, "Now we have another hack!" And other similar problems to overcome. But our show is really one continuous story. Each season is a continuation of the previous one, but also has very specific themes to it. Season one was this more fast-paced idealistic revolutionary and hopeful journey, at least for Darlene. Season two was about the consequences, and getting into the minds of all the other characters, and learning about them. I think it was a slower burn. Now, with season three, now that we have a better understanding of everyone, we can really dive back into the story and the excitement and the aftermath, and disintegration. We're trying to recuperate from everything. Season three is definitely a mixture of season one and two, with the vibes of each of those.
How about Darlene's story, specifically? Leaving season two, she was in an incredibly fragile place, between witnessing her boyfriend's death firsthand, being targeted by the Dark Army herself, and eventually in federal custody, staring at a board with a ton of information about the Five/Nine Hack's power players ...
Yeah, putting it simply? She's not in a good place. (Laughs.) When we last left off, we saw her between a rock and a hard place. She was literally up against a wall, having lost everything — everything she cares about, and everyone she cares about. It's a really hopeless and desperate place where she has no idea what to do and where to go. She's really stripped bare of everything. It comes across in my wardrobe. I barely wear any makeup this year. I have my hair down the entire time. I wear sweatpants and basically the same thing every episode. No jewelry. None of those things that she used to have, that she would mask herself with, or hide behind, or put this costume and persona on. She's really lost everything, from this revolution she was trying to start, to her boyfriend, to her brother, to losing her jewelry and nail polish.
That's an interesting way to physically represent Darlene's emotional journey, as she was someone who started out as one of the most caustic, confrontational and confident characters back in season one, with a lot of that falling away over the course of season two. Does it feel like the weight of the world has been on her shoulders for so long, that now she's starting to buckle beneath it?
Yeah, and it's really interesting as an actor in playing her, seeing her one way as this strong and confrontational and confident person, and all of those things, and then being put into situations where she's no longer that. And I've fought that — I've wanted to keep her strong, but really, the weight of the world is putting her in a position where she can no longer be that. As me, Carly, I'm experiencing that with her, and feeling that breakdown of not being able to be that and feel that anymore, and having that taken away. There have been things that she's held on to and things that were keeping her afloat, and it's just gotten to a point where she literally has nothing left. She's now in a position where her loyalty is wavering. All of these qualities and things that she was, and the things that make her her, are being tested and compromised. It's a really sad place that she's in, of course. It's something that nobody is equipped to deal with, let alone a girl in her 20s with the world on her shoulders and no one standing next to her.
What has it been like to play Darlene in such a compromised state? Has it been difficult?
It's tough. It's interesting, fun and tricky to play that — to play something so layered, where you're battling against yourself. My initial reaction to everything was to want to keep that "fuck you" attitude that I had in season one. Sam had to keep telling me, "You're not there anymore." That's teetering between a place of surrendering, and being in a position where you just have no other options, but still holding on to your core beliefs of loyalty and basically doing everything you said you would never do, or thought you would never do. The big thing to me that would always run through my head throughout this whole season, that helped me immediately get to that place, was that I would picture that scene in season one where Elliot and I were on the bench and I'm screaming because I'm so excited, and just how sad the difference is from that moment to where I am now. That this was never supposed to happen. It was never supposed to be this way. How the fuck did this happen? Having that picture in my mind, and then being in the situation that I'm in, with all of these layers, gave me everything I needed just in that one scene.
There's an incredible moment in this first episode, where Darlene rightly suspects she's being followed by the Dark Army, and she goes into a bathroom and screams, letting out all of the pain she's feeling. What do you remember about filming that scene?
It was a challenge. Especially when it's just all done in one shot! There's so much else involved that has to go right and is completely out of my control and has nothing to do with me. There were a hundred extras that day. It was a very big challenge, having to do something that emotional and vulnerable and intense, while at the same time being surrounded by all of these people talking and hanging out and adjusting your wardrobe and coming up to you and being able to stay in that headspace. That in and of itself is definitely a challenge. But even if none of that was there, just getting into that place was a challenge. The first take we did, I felt like I was very there and in it. And then I pulled out my phone and the phone wasn't working, and I was like, "Ahh! The phone!" I also broke the door one time from slamming it too hard. They had to fix the door. There were all of these different things that had to work and not just my performance. It's definitely the kitchen sink, dealing with that, while still trying to put out a good performance. It was really tricky. You use that frustration for the scene. But it was hard. The scenes are always hard, making that real and honest. That's where you see having these moments of vulnerability, where the audience can really feel for her and go, "Holy shit." That PTSD of my boyfriend dying, flashing before my eyes. "How did this happen?"
After that scene, Elliot and Darlene link up with Irving, the so-called "used car salesman" played by Bobby Cannavale, clearly affiliated with the Dark Army. What can you say about the character, and what it was like working with Cannavale this season?
He's so amazing. He's such a good actor. He's so funny. He's surprisingly funny in this role. Rami and I would sometimes just lose it, because he's so good. It's such a nuanced character. But it's awesome. He brings such a different vibe and something really fresh to the show. Plus, he's an awesome person. It's really great working with him and having him now be a part of this.
Let's end at the beginning of the episode. The first scene of this entire third season ends with a huge reveal: an inside look at the Washington Township reactor, which boasts some sort of massive device. In the past, Whiterose has talked about parallel universes, and of course is obsessed with time. If Mr. Robot takes us firmly into sci-fi territory this season or at some point moving forward, do you think it will fit with how you've seen the show thus far, thematically?
I have no idea, to be honest. (Laughs.) I think our show is so unpredictable. Sam has such a crazy and interesting mind. I have no idea where it's going or what's happening. For all I know, we could all become elephants. I really have no idea what's going to happen! But if it does end up going that route, whatever he does, he'll make it great and beautiful. But I have no idea.