BY JOSH WIGLER
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season three premiere of USA Network's Mr. Robot.]
As a means of mixing two great phrases from two great shows: it's happening, it's happening, it's happening ... again.
Over the course of season two of Sam Esmail's Mr. Robot, THR regularly checked in with Kor Adana, one of the writers and producers behind the USA Network drama. Among Adana's core responsibilities: using his background in cybersecurity to lend authenticity to the hacking exploits of series lead Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and the other forces in this troubled individual's world. If you're fond of the ways in which Elliot relies on both computer and social engineering tactics to push forward in any given situation, much of the credit for that enjoyment belongs to Mr. Adana. Also, if you're looking for someone to tip you off on how to fight against hackers? He's your man.
This season, THR is upgrading to "weekly check-ins," not to be confused with Carly check-ins (though that sounds like a fantastic Mr. Robot column in and of itself), as Adana and THR are teaming up to discuss every single episode of season three, starting with the premiere. In these columns, Adana will provide insight into each episode for the less technologically savvy viewers in the crowd (not naming names, though you can refer to the byline on this article if you're so inclined), details on the decisions made by Esmail and others in the writers room and even clues about how to engage in the alternate reality game (ARG) aspects of Mr. Robot.
On that last point, if you see something in this column that reads in an unusual fashion? There might be a very good reason for that.
Without further ado, let's kick things off with Adana's thoughts on the season three premiere, including the descent into the Washington Township power plant, the Donald Trump of it all, the digital Capture the Flag tournament, and the introduction of Bobby Cannavale as Irving.
Before we dive into the premiere specifically, let's start with some basics. For those who don't know who or what a Kor Adana is, explain yourself! Who are you, what's your background, what's your role on Mr. Robot and what's your monster?
I love the way you phrased this question. "What" is a Kor Adana? I'll spare you the philosophical answer and tell you that I'm a writer-producer on USA's Mr. Robot. In my previous career, I was a corporate drone working in cybersecurity (much like Elliot Alderson at Allsafe in season one). I'm involved in every aspect of production on Mr. Robot. I'm in the writers room pitching ideas, helping to shape the story and writing episodes. I'm on set with our amazing cast and crew. I'm currently working with our editors in post-production. I have a team of amazing hacking consultants (Ryan Kazanciyan, Andre McGregor, James Plouffe and Jeff Moss) who help to make sure all of our hacks are authentic and realistic. I also collaborate with USA Digital and Curious Codes on our insane Mr. Robot ARG, or alternate reality game. And what's my monster?
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this, 11
Curious. OK! Let's quickly hash out where things stand with Mr. Robot heading into season three. The word "disintegration" has been used to describe both Elliot's relationship with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), as well as the theme of Mr. Robot season three at large. How did that word and that theme operate as a guiding light for you and the others in the writers room?
From the first week in the writers room, Sam knew that disintegration would be a major theme for this season, both on a plot and a character level. The theme is threaded into almost all of our character conflicts. Of course, we have the Elliot and Mr. Robot dynamic, which has shifted into a place of separation and disintegration. Elliot no longer feels the presence of Mr. Robot and it's not until the end of the episode that we learn that Mr. Robot is still around, but in a different way.
For Angela, there are clearly two sides of her personality now … the one that's manipulating Elliot and the one that's working with Mr. Robot. As the season progresses, it will become apparent that this kind of duality and disintegration is taken into account with many of the character relationships. Not only does it help create secrecy, tension and drama, but it's motivated in an organic way. Angela believes wholeheartedly that what she's doing will save the world and the people she loves. It actually reminds me of Elliot's ideology in season one. When she's lying to Elliot and working with Mr. Robot and Tyrell, a part of me acknowledges that she's working against our hero, but another part of me feels for her because I know she believes she's doing the right thing.
There are only 10 episodes in play this season, a shorter order than season two. In what ways did the tighter episode count impact the storytelling this year?
In terms of tone and pacing, I believe it helped us in maintaining a forward momentum with our storytelling. I know that the slow-burn of season two resulted in a somewhat polarizing reaction, but I feel the pace was necessary in order to flesh out some of our supporting characters. The pace of this season feels very similar to what we did in season one, which also consisted of 10 episodes.
The complex plot line demands viewers pay close attention to what's happening onscreen, but of course, there's another reason for close scrutiny from the audience: the Easter eggs and ARG components littered throughout Mr. Robot, which often lead fans to early discoveries about where the story is headed. You're at the heart of engineering these surprises for fans. What can you say about your work in that department this year? Any guidance on what to pay attention to in the weeks ahead?
Our Easter eggs and ARG are a collaborative effort between the team at USA Digital, the brilliant minds over at Curious Codes, and me. We've upped our game in many ways this season, so I'm excited for our fans/players to discover what we have in store. If I were them, I'd look for any and all QR codes, URLs and IP addresses in the episode. There might be more to find in other places, pages and publications.
Digging into the premiere, the first person viewers spend time with is Irving, played by Bobby Cannavale. In the offseason, he was described as a used car salesman, which doesn't sound too far from the truth, given what is seen of him in this episode. Clearly, he's also something of a Dark Army fixer as well. What can you say about the origin of this character? Was he envisioned with Cannavale in mind? How far back does he date — is this a figure the writers knew about as early as seasons one or two, or was he an entity that came into formation as season three came into focus?
We always knew that we needed some kind of Dark Army presence helping to facilitate things in the background. It was really fun to dive deep into that idea this season, specifically with Irving. I remember that early iterations of the character had him as much older or as a female. Once Bobby became a real casting possibility, everyone in the room was ecstatic. I've always seen Irving as our version of Winston Wolf [Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction]. Both characters have this eccentric personality, a knack for solving problems, and an ability to always keep their composure. They're also both inherently funny and mysterious. When I see Irving in this episode, not only am I happy to learn about who was helping to execute stage two from the Dark Army side, but I sincerely want to know more about what makes him tick.
How is Irving's favorite phrase — "ah-ha" — written out in the script, out of curiosity? Is Cannavale channeling a specific idea from you and the team, or is he bringing that voice to life all on his own?
I believe these instances were scripted as "uh-huh" and they popped up whenever Irving was listening to somebody during a conversation. It was never anything more than that in the script. The first day we heard Bobby's performance during our table read, he did the "ah-ha" in that voice and the whole room erupted in laughter. So, it was definitely there to begin with, but Bobby made it his own and elevated it. It's now one of my favorite aspects of Irving.
The opening sequence of the season concludes inside the Washington Township power plant, one of the single most important locations in the entire Mr. Robot mythology, heretofore unseen. Can you talk through the decision to take us into the belly of Whiterose's (B.D. Wong) precious project so early on this season? I know there's a lot of love for Lost in the Mr. Robot writers' room — was the opening of season two of that series, in which we start in the thick of the Swan Station, an inspiration?
This was something that Sam brought up early on in the room. Washington Township is so integral to Elliot's relationship with Angela, his relationship with his father, his motivation to enact the Five/Nine hack, to Whiterose's plans … and yet we've never seen it. All of us are definitely fans of Lost and we often end up talking about that series in the room, but I don't believe this idea was directly inspired by the Swan Station. To me, the significance of showing Washington Township helps to position us for the shift in Elliot and Angela's relationship. They are linked to each other because of what happened at Washington Township. She's also betraying Elliot because of what happened there and the possibility of "undoing" some of the events that took place there. Since so much of this episode deals with Angela's loyalties and her allegiance to Elliot, it seems fitting to show the place that was responsible for them becoming friends in the first place.
The music we hear as we're surveying the collider is Julie Andrews' "Whistling Away the Dark," from the film Darling Lili, about a German spy during World War I. This is certainly not the first WWI reference on the board. How much would you advise the audience to read into the song choice here, or is it nothing more than an appropriately haunting melody?
This song was definitely one of Sam's picks. There is something fitting and satisfying about opening our blackout episode with a song called "Whistling Away the Dark." John Petaja (the talented editor who cut this episode) and I have spoken about this at length. To him, this song choice is about Elliot whistling away his fear and pretending it isn't there. There's evidence of this in the scene where Elliot questions if Mr. Robot is there anymore. It's that naive side of his personality cropping up again, hoping the bullet killed Mr. Robot and all of this stage two business was in his head. It pops up again later when he assumes he can stop stage two by closing the back door. He comes to realize that he's kidding himself. He can't ensure that the Dark Army won't move forward with stage two, which is why he goes to Angela in order to get a job at Evil Corp … so he can attempt to undo the effects of the hack.
The show wastes little time returning to the action with Elliot, a week removed from his gunshot wound. Was there ever a scenario where Elliot spent more time in recovery, rather than hopping right back into the thick of the plot? It certainly wouldn't have been the first time we saw Elliot overcome a physical crisis through some sort of lucid state.
We discussed this during the first few weeks of the writers room. I think we all agreed that it would serve the story better if we picked up with Elliot exactly where we left off. We were also taking the story's pace into consideration. Spending time with Elliot as he recovers isn't as exciting as watching him seek out the Dark Army with agency and purpose. Also, we spent a lot of time researching gunshot wounds, recovery times and pain levels, which helped reinforce our plan of having Elliot spring to action when he woke up.
When Elliot catches up with his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), they visit some sort of underground hacker bunker, where the inhabitants are participating in ... what, exactly? Some form of digital Capture the Flag? Can you explain this one for the layman, i.e. me?
For the past two seasons, we've been itching to incorporate a hackerspace in the show, but there was never an organic way to get to one until this episode. The blackout presented a unique opportunity to have Elliot and Darlene go to an underground hackerspace for a fast and stable network connection. The horde of hackers in the underground space are competing in a Capture the Flag tournament.
These types of competitions are common in the computer security world — teams compete against each other to find a hidden "flag" in multiple challenges. 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.
When Elliot and Darlene walk into this hackerspace, the players are competing in a qualifier that would send them to DEF CON's CTF. DEF CON is one of the world's largest hacking conferences. The hackers in this scene are playing a terminal-based minesweeper game. Elliot takes over for one of the hackers and writes a script to exploit the minesweeper game and find the hidden flag. That's how he ends up winning the final round.
Elliot and Darlene eventually link up with Irving, who pulls some fancy maneuvers to evade the FBI. Can you talk through what exactly he's doing here and how the idea for this strategy came up?
The situation called for Irving and/or Elliot to perform some kind of hack that could stop the FBI vehicle from tailing them. One of our consultants, Ryan Kazanciyan, and I had multiple brainstorming sessions before deciding on a social engineering attack on an OnStar-like telematics service. Most of these services have a line specifically for law enforcement. Irving calls one of those lines and impersonates a police officer. He tells the service that he's in pursuit of a wanted suspect and he'd like to initiate a "slowdown." This is a real feature that these services offer to law enforcement. If the police are tailing you, they can contact the OnStar-like service and have them decelerate your vehicle — eventually bringing your car to a stop. This is how Irving is able to stop the car from following them to Red Wheelbarrow.
OK, so the three of them arrive at Red Wheelbarrow BBQ. Most important question of the week: What's the proper order here, and how many hole punches until your free milkshake?
I would go for the RWB combo, which is a pulled pork sandwich, a side of chips, plus a delicious chocolate or vanilla milkshake. (And that's a pretty fucking good milkshake.) Free milkshake after 10 punches!
In semi-seriousness, and going back to the first scene of the season, how does Irving's milkshake debate speak to the theme of the season — the abandonment of principles and the invitation of chaos, as it were?
It's interesting to me because the world is descending into chaos already at this point in the show's timeline. We've seen characters in earlier seasons abandon their principles and bring about these apocalyptic levels of change. I love that Irving somehow seems untouched by the world crumbling around him, but he's able to comment on the theme of chaos and how it comes to be.
After parting ways with Irving, Elliot embarks on one of his epic monologues, this one talking about his role in breaking the world. It's juxtaposed with clips from Donald Trump's rallies, and other assorted imagery of the modern political moment, well past the point of the 2015 setting of Mr. Robot. Can you talk through the genesis of this moment for the show, and what it means not only for the series at large but also for you and the others on the creative team on a personal level?
I can't tell you how many nights we spent talking about this monologue and Elliot's goals for the season. These conversations were taking place during the 2016 election — and I remember this feeling of helplessness, regret and a motivation to "fix" things. From an emotional perspective, this felt very true to what Elliot was going through at this point in the story. The dark future that he was imagining because of something he did is the dark future we're living through because of our own actions (or inaction). It felt like we needed to stay true to that. I remember the room discussing how season one was "fuck society." In season two, we did "fuck god." When someone pitched "fuck me" for this season, everyone immediately agreed that it felt right. (I need to point out that everyone immediately agreeing on something in the Mr. Robot writers room is a rarity.) Elliot messed up the world and he needs to take responsibility for that before he can sincerely try to fix things.
There's so much to unpack with Elliot and Angela's scenes together, but one of the big takeaways on a plot level is that Elliot wants a job at Evil Corp. How did the room reach the decision to put Elliot in the belly of the beast this season? What does it buy you, having Elliot sleeping with the enemy in this way?
Sure, if he ends up working at Evil Corp, I could see that as sleeping with the enemy … but the realization he makes in this episode is that Evil Corp is a necessary evil for the world to function. By destroying Evil Corp, he started us on that path to a dark future. In the room, we spent a lot of time talking about Elliot's arc and the narrative thrust for the season. If he wants to help Evil Corp recover from the Five/Nine hack, what better place to do it from than Evil Corp? It also creates some cool dramatic irony because we know that Mr. Robot is still around. Elliot working at Evil Corp is like giving Mr. Robot on-site access to an enemy territory. Personally, the idea of Elliot returning to Evil Corp reminds me of the Allsafe days in season one. There's a lot of fun to be had with Elliot inside of an office/corporate environment.
That's a whole lot of territory to cover, and it's just one episode! Is there anything we didn't talk about that you feel deserves an extra look after the first viewing?
I think the last scene of this episode is one of my favorites. Portia [Doubleday] gives a tremendous performance in that scene with Mr. Robot on the bus. There's a moment where the instrumentals in the music build — Daft Punk's "Touch" — as Angela talks about why she's doing this. It's a painful, beautiful beat where I feel so much empathy for Angela. Even though she's doing these terrible things, I forgive it, and it's because of how this scene is constructed. The power comes back on. New York City is illuminated by the street lights turning on in perfect sync with the song. As I'm thinking about what Angela said and considering one of the major themes of the series, Paul Williams sings, "You've almost convinced me I'm real."
What can you say about what we're in store for next week?
What are you in store for next week? A new sensation.