BY JOSH WIGLER
Producer, writer and technology expert Kor Adana joins THR every week to discuss the latest episode of the USA thriller.
[Warning: this story contains spoilers for season three, episode eight of USA Network's Mr. Robot, called "eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko."]
"So do I!"
Three words, five letters, said more about Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his present state of mind than any of his many memorable monologues could have accomplished. Reeling from the events of the past three episodes of Mr. Robot, in which a massive terrorist attack killed thousands of people across America (thanks at least in part to Elliot's own efforts, as much as he tried to sabotage his alter-ego's destructive plans) including scapegoats Trenton (Sunita Mani) and Mobley (Azhar Khan), Elliot spends the first acts of the most recent outing, "Don't Delete Me," prepared to take one final action against the Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) side of his personality: suicide.
Instead, Elliot found salvation in the form of Trenton's younger brother Mohammed (Elisha Henig), a stubborn youth wrestling with his own rage over the death and wrongful accusations toward his sister. Over the course of the episode, Elliot winds up playing the role of reluctant babysitter to Mohammed, first catching a very special viewing of Back to the Future II, later engaging in a soulful exchange with the young boy inside of a mosque. There, Elliot articulated the depths of his own despair in those five short words, responding to Mohammed's taunt: "I wish you were dead!" And in expressing the words, Elliot realized how wrong he was — a good thing, too, as it turns out that Elliot might have another chance at righting some of his own wrongs, the inadvertent ones and otherwise.
For more on the emotionally powerful episode, which deals not just with Elliot's averted suicide attempt but also widespread Islamophobia in the wake of the Cyber Bombings through a surprisingly spiritual lens, we turn once more to writer and producer Kor Adana. In this week's THR column, Adana discusses the themes reverberating throughout "Don't Delete Me," written and directed by series creator Sam Esmail, how the Back to the Future throwback came together, and much more.
"Don't Delete Me" takes place three weeks following Stage Two, or the Cyber Bombings as they have come to be known. It shows the Islamophobia that has swept the nation in the wake of the deaths of thousands of people, falsely tied to Iran and pinned on the late Trenton and Mobley. It chronicles what Elliot believes will be his final day on Earth, before committing suicide — an act that's prevented thanks to an impromptu babysitting assignment, a serendipitous Back to the Future viewing, and the kindness of a young stranger. In the sea of emotional Mr. Robot episodes, this one stands apart. Can you shine a light on some of these powerful, important and tragically timely issues that are being explored here in "Don't Delete Me," including the exploration of suicide, religious persecution, and even religious empowerment?
Thank you for the kind words. We're all really proud of this episode. With regard to the timely issues that ended up in the story, much of it developed as a result of exploring Elliot's emotional state. Elliot didn't expect the negative fallout that took place after Five/Nine, so there's no way he was prepared for 71 buildings blowing up and Mobley and Trenton losing their lives and taking the blame. We wanted to create a character-driven story the felt specific to Elliot's emotional needs.
For days, we talked about what he would organically do in this situation. He's already tried everything to get rid of Mr. Robot. The amount of damage he's caused registers with him here, and the only solution he hasn't tried yet is suicide, which is what led to that exchange with Darlene (Carly Chaikin) at the top of the episode. We had to tread carefully though, because the idea of Elliot killing himself can quickly enter schmuck bait territory. You and I know that there's no show if Elliot kills himself, so where's the tension in teasing the audience with something that will never happen?
Then we started thinking: what would he do before committing suicide? Would he try to make amends (in some small way) to the memories of Mobley and Trenton? How? Is he capable of confessing his involvement to their families? We all really liked where that story was headed. That's what opened the door to Mohammed. Trenton often talked about Mohammed and we saw him briefly playing in season two, but we never explored who Trenton was to Mohammed. Crafting the relationship between Elliot and Trenton's brother is what gave us the heart of this episode. Creatively, it's what opened the door to Back to Future II, the Hasid in the ice cream truck, the mosque, and Elliot's arc of finding something to live for.
Was there a feeling in the writers' room that given the events that transpired over the three previous episodes, this would need to be in its own way the most emotional rollercoaster of the season, and quite possibly the series, to date? It starts in such darkness, with Elliot fully planning to commit suicide, before becoming an unlikely optimistic tale thanks to his relationship with Trenton's little brother.
To be honest, we broke this episode pretty late in the writing schedule. This was originally going to be the episode where Tyrell (Martin Wallström) turned himself into the FBI — our version of the "Detective!" moment from Se7en. The previous three episodes were rollercoasters with regard to plot and pacing. The impetus for this episode came from a desire to free ourselves from plot and create a quiet, minimalist story with very little dialogue. We knew we had to end with Trenton's email. That was the only plot beat we wanted to get to. Originally, this was going to be an Angela-centric episode with lots of mundane character beats. Then we decided to shift gears and make it a slice-of-life, Elliot-centric episode, but still with the weird and surreal tone of something like After Hours.
On the page, during the shoot, and in the cut, we wanted to do something we had never done before. Everything about this episode — from the framing, the 2:39:1 aspect ratio, the music choices, the tone — none of it really feels like our show. We wanted the viewer to feel "off" and experience the surrealism that Elliot was dealing with. All of those techniques help you to focus on the emotional spine of the story, which is this dynamic between Elliot and Mohammed.
Did we know it was going to be such an intense emotional experience? I don't think so. I can tell you that I didn't feel that catharsis during the writing or the shooting of it. But man, the first time I saw a rough cut of this, when Elliot yelled "So do I!" at Mohammed in the mosque [after Mohammed tells Elliot, "I wish you were dead"], that's where I started losing it. Tracking the viewer's emotional experience is a hard thing to gauge until you start seeing all of the cuts in order. I believe that the dark intensity and tension we experienced in the previous episodes helped to earn us the emotional punch that this episode delivered.
Who is the young actor who plays Trenton's little brother, Mohammed?
Mohammed was brought to life by a phenomenal actor named Elisha Henig. Not only is he a pro and a pleasure to work with, but he has the maturity level of an adult. I remember when he visited set to introduce himself to Sam and Rami for the first time. It was a few days before we filmed his scenes. He spoke to Rami about the episode, his character, and some ideas that he had. When he left, we were all like, "That kid is smarter than all of us."
What parallels do you see between Elliot and Mohammed? Is there a shared connection in Elliot blaming himself for what happened to his father when he was young, and Mohammed perhaps blaming himself for what happened to his sister somehow?
Definitely. In a sense, he's the perfect foil for Elliot. Elliot not only blames himself for what happened to his father, but he also blames himself for what happened to Trenton and Mobley. That kernel of truth that Elliot reveals to Trenton's dad, about her daughter being innocent, is what draws Mohammed to Elliot in the first place. It culminates in the mosque with Elliot placing the blame on himself.
Have we seen the last of Mohammed?
I would love to see Mohammed again. I hope that happens.
We see how the Mr. Robot universe has changed in the wake of the Cyber Bombings thanks to information gleaned in the background of scenes. Curfews are in place. Soldiers roam the streets, posted next to an internment camp. How critical was that visual expression to informing the viewer just how radically the world has changed in light of these attacks, another seismic shift within the same calendar year as the Five/Nine Hack?
The effect on the world is something we spent a lot of time fleshing out. We spoke with economists, FBI consultants, and professors about what a post Five/Nine (and a post Cyber Bombing) world would look like. We figured the nation would have to be in some kind of state of emergency — martial law and curfews in a world that's mourning. We discussed the aftermath of 9/11 a lot. We tried to imagine how the world would've reacted if 71 coordinated attacks took place instead of four. We looked for ways to visually showcase the effects of that even though we're deeply rooted inside Elliot's POV.
A few weeks ago, you mentioned how your experience at a travel ban protest at JFK informed the protest we saw at the midpoint of episode five. How did that experience, and other events weathered in our current political and societal climate, influence the way the world of Mr. Robot reacts to Iran, Mobley and Trenton's alleged roles in the Cyber Bombings?
We took inspiration from the rise of white nationalism, the Muslim travel ban, and even how darker skinned mass murderers are labeled differently than white ones. But honestly, some of this came from our own encounters with racism and Islamophobia. My parents are from Turkey, so I've had to deal with it before. I know that Sam had experiences growing up as an Egyptian kid in New Jersey. Those incidents definitely colored our political climate in a very personal way.
It makes me think of the discrepancy between the Goths and the "noble" Romans in this passage…
A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls:
He by the senate is accit'd home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths; 7
This is one of the most religiously and spiritually moving episodes of Mr. Robot, with the scene inside the mosque, and Elliot encountering at least an avatar for the Wandering Jew blasting War of the Worldsfrom an ice cream truck in the dark of night, assuring both him and us: "Things get a little farkakt at the end, but humanity actually perseveres." What inspired the religiosity of this episode?
We didn't set out to make it religious at first. It came about when we delved deeper into Mohammed's character. We were throwing out pitches about what Mohammed would ask Elliot about, where he would want to go, what he missed about his sister. The mosque is from Sam's past. Actually, the complaints that Mohammed had about the mosque (how it's terrible because your face is so close to another guy's butt) was something that annoyed Sam when he was a kid. I think the whole "putting your shoes on after prayer without falling down" is from Sam's past, too. Once we established that location, we were able to lean into the religious aspects of life and death and how they thematically relate to what Elliot is struggling with.
Turning back to that line — that "things get a little farkakt at the end, but humanity actually perseveres" — does this speak at all to a guiding philosophy in the writers' room as this story moves forward?
The guiding philosophy in the writers' room is to do what feels organic and true. I'm not sure if that will always lead to humanity persevering, though.
Mohammed gives Elliot a lollipop. What does that represent, in your mind? The final act of kindness that puts Elliot back on the right track?
This is a great example of how talented Rami is as an actor. When Elliot tells Mohammed he'll see him again, it's the first sign of sincerity and optimism about his future. So in a way, Elliot is experiencing the slow-burn realization that he wants to continue living, even before the lollipop shows up. I think Elliot's breakdown represents the weight of all the guilt/sadness he's been dealing with, but it's also an understanding of what he was about to do and having to reconcile those feelings in order to move forward. From Mohammed's perspective, the lollipop will make a sick Elliot feel better. To me, the lollipop is a physical representation of Mohammed tending to Elliot's emotional wound. It did what the bag of morphine couldn't do-- heal Elliot.
It would seem Elliot had Trenton's e-mail all along… is that the wrong read? Does Elliot only see he has Trenton's e-mail after this experience with Mohammed?
He's been out for a couple hours. That email was automatically sent to him about three hours before he logged in to check his inbox, so Elliot saw it for the first time after everything that transpired in this episode.
Trenton's e-mail is readable in full beyond the pivotal first sentence: "I may have found a way to undo the hack." For the layman, can you parse out what she believed to be the potential panacea for Five/Nine?
To put it simply, E Corp's data was encrypted with encryption keys. If you can obtain or regenerate the encryption keys, you can decrypt the data. Trenton learned that Romero (Ron Cephas Jones) had installed hardware keystroke loggers on all the machines at the arcade for some reason (devices that save everything you type on the computer). She knows the Five/Nine attack was initiated from one of those computers, so if data related to the keys got copied or exported on the night of the hack, those hardware keystroke loggers may lead to the keys. The problem is that the NYPD collected all of Romero's computer gear and they turned that evidence over to the FBI.
Some other odds and ends from the episode. Where did the idea for such a deep dive into Back to the Future day come from? Clearly, the Mr. Robot team hasn't shied away from the Marty McFly of it all in the past, but why the deep dive here?
We started writing season two in October of 2015. When BTTF Day rolled around (October 21, 2015), we all went to see Back to the Future II on the big screen. This season, when we realized that we were approaching that date in our Mr. Robot story calendar, we knew we wanted to incorporate BTTF Day somehow. (Some of our observant Redditors have been watching the dates closely and were able to anticipate this.) We actually moved some other dates around in the season three storyline in order to make October 21st the day Elliot wanted to kill himself. After that, we planted beats that would "earn" us the BTTF scene. We thought of starting the episode with a flashback in a movie theater because we've already established that Elliot and his father liked to go to the movies together. We then loved the idea of calling that moment back when Mohammed pressures Elliot into going to the movies.
Delving deeper into the past, we see Elliot and Edward Alderson in a really sad moment at the movie theater, some time after Elliot fell out of the window. Elliot tells his father he will never forgive him, and Edward subsequently passes out. Can you say if this was the day Edward Alderson died?
Yes, I can say that.
Expecting a non-answer here, but I have to ask because I feel like it's happening it's happening it's happening... Mr. Robot pushed Elliot out of the window on that formative day long ago, didn't he? It wasn't Elliot's father who pushed him, was it?
I'll say this… you'll get some more information about that formative day before this season ends.
Anything else from this episode we didn't touch on, that you feel we should discuss? Really, there's so much, that we didn't even mention Elliot and Angela's touching scene on either side of a locked door…
Speaking of that Elliot/Angela scene, I need to say that our fantastic editor, Justin Krohn, found one of the best music selections of the entire series. Fans of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure will recognize "In Time" by Robbi Robb. It's a perfect song to close out the episode. In fact, Justin only wanted to use songs that were released before the original BTTF II premiere date, November 22, 1989. Those songs, along with Mac's unbelievable score, helped to intensify the surreal tone of the episode.
Two episodes left this season. Tee us up for what's coming next.