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 major spoilers from season three, episode six of USA Network's Mr. Robot, "eps3.5_kill-process.inc."]
What happens when you put Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) and the full force of the Dark Army together? Stage Two. That's what happens.
First threatened at the end of the second season of Mr. Robot, the Sam Esmail drama finally executed on its deadliest attack yet in the latest installment of the series — effectively the second half of a two-pronged movement launched in season three's fifth episode, presented to viewers in a single take. In both episodes, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) fought desperately to combat Stage Two, a deadly terrorist attack designed to destroy a New York City facility housing the paper records that would allow the so-called "Evil Corp." to effectively undo the damage done during season one's Five-Nine Hack. Despite his valiant efforts to thwart the assault, Elliot couldn't see the bigger picture: Rather than targeting the New York building as a single point of failure, the Dark Army targeted 71 different facilities across the United States, leading to a catastrophic death toll numbering in the thousands and counting.
It's a harrowing conclusion for any episode, easily the most destructive moment of the series to date, as well as serving to remake the entire Mr. Robot landscape moving forward. Elliot's own actions were at least partly responsible for the execution of Stage Two, thanks to his darker half, played by Christian Slater. Elliot's best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) was actively involved in pushing the Dark Army's agenda, and Elliot's sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) could have informed the FBI with enough time to at least attempt to stop the attack. Then there's Tyrell, always on the villainous end of the spectrum from the moment he took his frustrations out on a homeless man in the third episode of the series, now one of the men directly responsible for the Mr. Robot universe's single most destructive moment.
There's much to parse through in the aftermath of the unnerving episode, which is why it's a good thing writer-producer Kor Adana is once again on hand to sift through the proverbial rubble. In the latest installment of our weekly conversation, Adana speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about putting Stage Two together, how to reconcile the players involved, why it feels like it hits so close to home and what's coming next.
Stage Two. That happened. Is this the end of the world as we know it?
That totally happened … and I feel fine.
Talk me through the decision to execute Stage Two and for the Dark Army's attack to result in the deaths of thousands of people nationwide. Was it ever even a consideration that Elliot would avert the attack? When was it clear that not only would Elliot fail, but the attack would be even more catastrophic than he and we initially realized?
When we started the season three writers room, Stage Two was all about the New York recovery center. We planted this idea in season two and we knew we wanted to pay it off at some point this season. So in a way, yes, we always knew Elliot would end up failing, but it seemed too expected for it to be just the one building. We had some early arguments about how idiotic E Corp.'s consolidation plan was to begin with. I remember discussing how no corporation would be dumb enough to move all of their important documents to one building and create single point of failure like that. We ended up using this stance as motivation and commentary for Elliot. He calls E Corp. out on their stupid plan and attempts to wade through the bureaucratic bullshit to initiate a secure and redundant consolidation approach. He also did his hack on E Shipping to reroute the paper documents so the Dark Army wouldn't be able to follow through with Stage Two. This was presented us with a glorious opportunity — what if Elliot's efforts to stop Stage Two resulted in magnifying the scope and destruction of Stage Two? Even better than that, what if he thought he won by saving the New York building, only to learn how badly he lost when he learns of the 71 buildings exploding? Everyone was on board with that. We decided that not only was Elliot going to fail, but his well-intentioned attempts to protect people and stop Stage Two would make him fail even harder.
There's a sensation of extraordinary tension all through the episode, and there's absolutely zero relief by the end of the hour — except for the fleeting moment where you think Elliot and Robot have settled their differences, and it all will be OK. How crucial is that momentary relief to the resulting feeling of gut-punching nausea?
The tension in this episode is relentless. When I watched the first cut, I had that sensation of feeling like a normal viewer who knew nothing about where the story was going. That rarely happens to me when I'm reviewing cuts. [Series composer] Mac Quayle delivers some of his best music in a series of high energy intercuts. Some of the intercutting was scripted, but our fantastic editor, Justin Krohn, went crazy with the intercutting in order to build as much tension as possible. The "glitch" effects were also more drastic than what we saw in last week's episode. We wanted to amp up the tension in an exciting way. The glitches represent a new conceit though, because we see Mr. Robot taking over in smaller and smaller time increments.
The false win for Elliot felt necessary in order to set the stage for the final Stage Two reveal. Elliot has been combating Stage Two and Mr. Robot all season. For him to (seemingly) get through to Mr. Robot and utilize his help in stopping Stage Two delivers on the promise of the season, but nothing is ever what it seems on this show. We needed Elliot to experience that glory in order to make the final realization even more heartbreaking.
Among the many reasons Stage Two's implementation feels so impactful is that it's tragically evocative of what we fear in reality: the notion that you can be walking on the street, and your cell phone vibrates in your pocket, informing you of an astonishing act of violence that's just taken place — let alone the other horrible possibility, that you are going to be caught in the middle of such an act. Was this a point of conversation in the writers room, just how much Stage Two (and the public reaction to it) evokes the times we're living in? Was it ever a concern that this might feel too real?
The realism is something that we never shy away from. If anything, there may have been a concern about how believable it would be that the Dark Army targets that many buildings and enacts such an ambitious and destructive plan. I guess the fact that not only is it believable, but it feels a little too close to home, is a sad sign of the times that we live in. We wanted to capture those initial moments of learning about a disaster, but in a realistic way. That's where the scene of everyone looking at their phones came from. The pill that might be a little difficult to swallow is that a conglomerate like E Corp. exists and it controls 70 percent of our world's consumer debt. Past that, we try our hardest to ground the psychology, technology, reactions and impact on the world as much as possible.
You can point the finger at so many different characters over what's just happened here in the world of Mr. Robot. Elliot's the man who dreamed up Stage Two initially, as much as he tried to fight that part of his personality. He blames himself for the attack, calling himself the "single point of failure." Tyrell is the man who executed the attack with the full force of the Dark Army. Angela was complicit. Darlene didn't reveal what she knew about Stage Two to Dom (Grace Gummer), who may have been able to at least evacuate civilians, though who knows how she would have handled the political red tape. The point being this: So many characters walk away from this episode with some measure of blood on their hands. Will they ever be clean again?
You're right. This is definitely a game changer for everyone on the show. Most of our major characters are complicit in some way. In the room, we were really interested in the reactions after the catastrophic events of Stage Two. That's part of the reason this tragedy happens near the middle of the season. It's our challenge, as writers, to push these characters to the edge and attempt to bring them back. Elliot had a really naive perspective about the Five/Nine hack in season one. He wanted to break the system and bring it back to zero ...
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! here is my space.
We saw how he dealt with the regret of that decision in seasons two and three. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how he, Angela and Darlene come to terms with their involvement in Stage Two.
There has been some reticence within the fan community over the possibility of time travel or parallel universes actually making their way into Mr. Robot. But after an incident like Stage Two, speaking if only for myself, I have never rooted harder for something that can undo this level of carnage. Was that a goal of the moment — to put the viewer in Angela's position, essentially, hoping beyond all hope that whatever Whiterose (B.D. Wong) is dreaming up can actually be accomplished?
Yes, definitely. Ignoring the time travel or parallel universe theories for a moment, having the viewer empathize with Angela was one of the goals of this episode. That's why I love this teaser so much. I tear up a little bit when I watch it now, and I've seen it hundreds of times. I want to believe what she believes by the end of that teaser, just so she can somehow see her mom again. That's before we get to any of the carnage of the episode. Kyle Bradstreet [who wrote the episode] did a great job of recontextualizing the situation so we can see things from Angela's perspective. This belief that was planted by her mother was used by Whiterose at the end of season two. What I love about this predicament is that it's such a beautiful contradiction. You and I know that people are dying and we understand, from a biological perspective, what happens when people die. Planting the seeds for Angela's journey and witnessing how her belief motivates her illogical actions instills some of that hope in us, too.
We're delivering a shorter version of our column this week, since you joined us on our podcast to talk in full about this week's episode. Is there anything we didn't touch on in that conversation you want to bring up now?
We briefly spoke about the music, but I believe that some of Mac Quyale's best work is in this episode. There's also a fun needle drop in the Dom/Norm "let's go to lunch" scene where we hear "Reel Ten" by The Plugz, from the film Repo Man. That was one of Justin's picks and it works beautifully. The sound team — Kevin Buchholz, Bill Freesh, John Cook, Ben Zales — did an amazing job with music mix and the sound design with those glitches. Their work during Elliot's moment of realization at the end of the episode is superb.
Tease us up for next week, Kor. Where on earth does Mr. Robot go from here?
I'll tell you. The human condition is a straight-up tragedy, cuz.