BY LAURA PRUDOM
USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” might feature a central character who can’t always be sure what’s real and what’s imaginary, but the show still prides itself on staying grounded by tackling some of the issues that currently plague our highly-connected society, from cyber security breaches to corporate greed.
Season 1 was produced against the backdrop of the Sony hack and subsequent data dump, and Season 2 promises to be similarly timely — albeit coincidentally. Creator Sam Esmail revealed to a packed house at Austin’s SXSW festival that the show’s upcoming second season will explore the themes of privacy and data encryption, an issue that is currently being debated between Apple CEO Tim Cook and the FBI over the government’s desire to bypass the security features on an iPhone recovered during the investigation into the San Bernardino shootings.
“What’s weird is we’re really going into thematically talking a lot about encryption and privacy, and this whole thing with Apple and Tim Cook happened, which I actually think is a really important issue that we’re really going to get into in the next ten years or so,” Esmail said. “It’s not something that I think people really understand the nuances of, but it’s going to be interesting public discourse about it, because it really brings up the idea of the rights to privacy and do we have them, do we not?”
Esmail shared that the show has technical consultants to advise them on portraying accurate coding, as well as FBI consultants, who obviously have their own perspective on data privacy.
“We talk to our FBI consultants about this, because they have a very strong point of view that encryption should allow for this third party side door thing, which I’m totally opposed to and on Tim Cook’s side — we should have encryption,” Esmail insisted, much to the approval of the tech-savvy SXSW crowd. “That was before this whole Apple-FBI thing happened — that was something that was already baked in thematically [on the show]. Privacy is going to be a huge issue in the next decade or two.”
Esmail said that he doesn’t include ripped-from-the-headlines plot points specifically to add commentary to the show, but rather to “bring it up and have a conversation about it … I don’t think people understand the nuances of that debate between Apple and the FBI. If our show at least contributes to that conversation and brings up that conversation again, I think it’ll help in terms of getting people to actually join this debate, ’cause I think it’s a really important one.”
In addition to tackling those real-world concerns, Esmail gave another small hint about what fans can expect in Season 2.
“Y’all know that Grace Gummer was cast — and she’s amazing by the way,” Esmail teased. “Elliott committed a crime in the first season, and we’re gonna see the ramifications of that in the second season, I think that drives a lot about what the second season’s all about. And that’s why there’s the introduction of law enforcement that was kind of intentionally not shown in the first season, so that opens a whole new dimension there. And really I think the second season is about [Elliott and Mr. Robot] — that internal struggle, what does that look like, and how are they going to reconcile it?”
The panel, titled “Coding on Camera: Mr. Robot and Authenticity on TV,” marks the show’s second visit to SXSW, following last year’s world premiere screening, after which “Mr. Robot” won the Audience Award in the festival’s Episodic Screening section.
When asked about the biggest changes between last year and now, actor Christian Slater recalled, “It was a significantly smaller room where we screened it [last year].”
“Physically, they let us bring a Ferris Wheel [this year], so we’re doing something right, and this place is packed,” star Rami Malek noted with a laugh, referring to the show’s outdoor activation, which included a t-shirt printing station, photo booth, hacker lounge, arcade and the aforementioned carnival ride, which USA Network is providing free to fans in support of the show through April 14.
“It was an interesting experience. It’s certainly a subject matter that has become more relevant and prevalent as we continue to film the show with all the things that are going on in the world,” Slater said of their first SXSW visit, crediting that premiere screening with launching the show on the right foot. “It’s been a remarkable privilege to be on this journey; winning the SXSW Audience Award was probably the most exciting thing from the get-go; that really did start off the whole journey and we couldn’t be more grateful.”