BY TODD VANDERWERFF
"I think [Elliot's point of view] is incredibly flawed. I think it's naive. I think it's very young."
Spoilers for the entire first season of Mr. Robot follow.
Few recent TV shows have risen as high as quickly as Mr. Robot has in its first season. It went from a show with a weird name on the USA network, best known for its easy, breezy dramas, to something seemingly every TV fan on the internet was obsessing over.
Much of that stemmed from the show's fascinating storytelling, which centered on the unreliable narration of its hero, master hacker Elliot Alderson (the brilliant Rami Malek). As the season went on, viewers had the rug pulled out from them in ways both expected — one major reveal was essentially telegraphed from the word go — and completely unexpected.
That storytelling was led by the show's creator, Sam Esmail, who originally conceived of Mr. Robot as a feature film. The first season is roughly the first half-hour of that film, and with Elliot's world — and society at large — now fully disrupted, the real story can begin. It's a tricky balancing act, but Esmail and his writing staff carried it off with aplomb.
In the wake of the first season finale, I talked with Esmail about building the season's biggest reveals, whether he takes Elliot's extremely anti-social point of view seriously at all, and why the show is ultimately about identity and internet loneliness. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On Elliot's fractured perspective: "I think it's naive. I think it's very young."
Elliot (Rami Malek) surreptitiously logs in in the Mr. Robot season finale.
Todd VanDerWerff: Elliot has many speeches about how screwed up the world is. Yet, he's also somebody who is mentally ill and has problems that he needs to deal with. To what degree do you buy his point of view? To what degree do you think it's flawed?
Sam Esmail: Oh, I think it's incredibly flawed. I think it's naive. I think it's very young.
I had that point of view when I was younger. I was nonconformist this and anti-establishment that, and I think it's kind of a rite of passage to a certain extent. Maybe it's an American cultural thing, but a lot of my friends felt the same way. I think there is that sort of counterculture growth that you go through. I think that comes from lack of identity or trying to find an identity, trying to find your place in the world.
There's no judgment to it for me. I find it pure, unadulterated honesty, because I think, even though they may be spewing anti-social sentiment, it comes from a good place of anger. What I mean by that is anger gets this weird negative connotation to it. Yes, anger can lead to negative consequences. I'm not denying that. But it's not necessarily a negative emotion. I think it's a very healthy one, and I think when channeled in the right way, it could literally produce some positive outcomes.
I always look back the Arab Spring. I'm Egyptian. When I went there after that went down, my cousins were in their late teens, early 20s, and were very angry. You channel that anger into this really positive movement to effect change in society. That to me is something that's always necessary when you want to effect a big outcome like that in the world.
In a weird way, when I look at Elliot and there's this young, angry outlook of society, I see a part of me in there, like that younger part of me that I'm happy with, that I'm encouraged by, that all young people might have. Going into the world with that bold brashness is something I think is awesome and amazing and totally encouraged. But I also see the flaws and I know that in 10, 15 years, that worldview might evolve and change. I love Elliot for it, even though I'm aware of the flaws. I find it encouraging that young people could have that passion.
Todd VanDerWerff: The first season was filled with reveals and reversals and really played up Elliot's status as an unreliable narrator. But so much of TV is about having a status quo to snap back to. Do you have a sense of how far you can push the unreality of certain things that happen?
Sam Esmail: Well, my rule of thumb with that is that we are connected to Elliot, that we have compassion for him, that we have empathy for him, and that he feels authentic and real to us. Any sort of characterization we have given Elliot, including his addiction, we treat it seriously, we address it head on, we don't shy away from it, and we try to stay as authentic as possible.
To me, that will be the one thing that will always tether an audience despite what Elliot's unreliable outlook of the world is. If he's our way in, and we authentically connect with him and engage with him, I think we'll always stay grounded, and we'll be on the ride with him.
Todd VanDerWerff: When you were plotting out this season, how many people did you let in on the show's bigger secrets, like the Darlene reveal?
Sam Esmail: The Darlene identity was probably a tighter group of people. The Mr. Robot reveal was something that basically all of the regular cast members knew. My DP and production designer, everybody had to know, because we had to construct all the scenes and basically produce the show around that, so that it made sense for the reveal.
I wasn't necessarily trying to surprise or shock the audience with it. In fact, we were kind of doing the opposite, telegraphing it in every episode. That was not as much of a secret as the Darlene reveal. That also was a circumstance of how we were shooting it. Not everybody needed to know that in order to produce the show, and that was always my metric in terms of what people needed to know and when. If it was going to inform their work, then I would always divulge those details to them.
Todd VanDerWerff: I assume you let Carly Chaikin [who plays Darlene] in on that question?
Sam Esmail: I had to let Carly and Rami know. I didn't want a sexual vibe unnecessarily going on there. I really wanted there to be this weirdly innate sibling dynamic between them. I also wanted the audience to feel that.
It's weird. There was this vitriol toward Darlene because she was shameless or intrusive in Elliot's life, which I did not expect. But then I think people finally kind of went back and realized that, "Oh, now that makes sense."
Todd VanDerWerff: Why was it important to you to telegraph the Mr. Robot reveal? It would have been easy to make the audience feel they were too far ahead of you.
Sam Esmail: I wanted the audience to be a little bit ahead of Elliot on this. In a weird way, I think that helped them absorb that moment more. It wasn't about the shock of the reveal. It was about how Elliot felt in that moment, how Elliot's going to process this moment and what Elliot's going to go through in that moment. I felt like if it was turned into a big shocking twist, it would be more about that, less about us empathizing with him. To me, you look at Rami's performance in that scene, I think it's absolutely brilliant. That's what that moment's for. It's his reaction, not our reaction.
On building the show's world: "We're just in the setup of all this"
Darlene (Carly Chaikin) turned out to have a fairly major reveal tied to her identity.
Todd VanDerWerff: You've said several times that this started as feature film screenplay, and season one is the first half-hour of that feature. How easily did that fall into a TV template?
Sam Esmail: Pretty easily. The show was always going to be about what happens when Elliot discovers he has this alter ego. What happens when a person discovers he has a mental disorder of dissociative identity disorder? What does he do after that point? How do you handle something like that, especially in the wake of realizing that you've basically committed this insane crime, if you could call it that? How do you negotiate with yourself anymore? How do you trust yourself anymore?
That's what the movie was going to be about. If you remember back whenThe Matrix came out, there's a whole mystery about what the Matrix was. Well, when you actually watch the movie, that was revealed in the first 30 minutes and then the movie wasn't about that. Now that we know what it is, what are we going to do with it? What are we going to do in that world?
That's sort of what the show, in its feature version, was going to be about, and for me, that's what this series is going to be about. In a lot of ways, one of the reasons I think it does work better in television than it could have in film was because it actually has this really cool engine for a show. There's a lot of different possibilities you can take something like this in. And we're just in the setup of all this.
For me, the interesting challenges are going to be, now that we know that Mr. Robot is a splintered identity of Elliot, what does that look like? How does that manifest? That to me is just going to be incredibly exciting.
I'm kind of figuring it out as we go, but what's cool is I had an ending for the feature in mind before I turned it into a television show, and the world's still heading toward that ending. I think that, to me, is at least something that I can ground myself to.
Todd VanDerWerff: Do you have a sense in your head of how long this could go?
Sam Esmail: I've always said four or five seasons. I'm kind of guessing, somewhat of an educated guess. I think it's about 30 or 40 more hours before we can arrive at that conclusion I was talking about. I'm sure we'll adjust after every season. Obviously, there are other storylines, some other characters that I'm not even aware of. I don't pretend to know every detail of what the story's going to be until the end. Those things will invariably come up and influence the trajectory of things, but I don't see it going past five seasons. By the way, if we get that far, five seasons of a show, I think anyone would be happy about that.
Todd VanDerWerff: This show's visual aesthetic has set it apart from anything else on TV. How did you develop that idea pushing people to the edges of the frame?
Sam Esmail: It's something I've always been fascinated with. I actually did a lot in my first feature film, Comet. It was something I saw in a lot of British television shows and British films. British cinematography seems to love this sort of off-kilter framing, and I love the feeling that I got from seeing that kind of framing. That was the plan to take with Mr. Robot, that it clearly is through the eye of someone who was a little off-kilter. I thought that framing gelled so perfectly with that.
Todd VanDerWerff: What would you tell people who were coming in to direct from week to week about that style?
Sam Esmail: I'll say this: They were all up for the challenge, and they did a beautiful job every episode. But it's scary! It looks odd, and it looks strange, and of course, you don't want it to seem gimmicky. There are a lot of risks involved when you try to adhere to a strong aesthetic like that.
But it's interesting. As you overcome that initial discomfort, it's like being a kid in a candy store, because you don't typically see things shot that way. Then you start finding all these different cool ways of shooting it that you've never even seen before. So you're in this virgin territory of filmmaking, which for me and for a lot of directors who work on the show is incredibly exciting.
On identity and what's coming: "Is [the internet] creating a new form of loneliness?"
Angela (Portia Doubleday) runs in parallel to Elliot in ways that could eventually prove explosive.
Todd VanDerWerff: Angela and Tyrell are out on the fringes of the story in a lot of ways. I saw some parallels between them, but they also have very occasional intersections with Elliot. What do you see as their role in this show?
Sam Esmail: For me, Tyrell is sort of the perverted byproduct of classic American capitalism, the selfish desire to do better and to pursue bigger profits at all costs.
Angela is starting off at a very early stage, and she's sort of the American dream. She's trying to make a change from within the system, whereas Elliot's trying to make a change from outside the system. When I look at those two, to me, that is more of a parallel than anything. I think both come from the same place and then veer off in these very two different directions, yet are motivated literally by the same thing: to make a change, to make a difference and to find their place in the world.
Our show is really, truly about identity, and here are these two young people who are going in very different directions, trying to find that identity for themselves. The other great thing about it — and this comes from where I love our show to live — is that morally you could see the good and bad of both sides.
Angela's literally working for Evil Corp, but she's living by the law and trying to work hard and figure out a way to change the system from within. Elliot's on the fringes of the law, but he's trying to make a seemingly altruistic change for good. These two storylines keep us in this murky morality. Even though they are parallel, when they do collide, it's just going to make for an interesting story.
Todd VanDerWerff: You mentioned that identity is a key theme of the show. To what degree are you talking about how we project different versions of ourselves online, versus the people we actually are in real life?
Sam Esmail: That is what the show is about. The word you used, projections, I think, is actually really spot on. Identity has never been more in question than in this post-internet era that we're living in right now. We have never had the tools or the means to create these different projections of ourselves. We are different people in our Facebook profiles, in our Twitter profiles, than we are in the office, than we are in the bedroom. It's strange how we think about that, how we reconcile that. I don't know what effect or influence it's going to have on our psyche and our personalities, but it's something that I want to stop and question.
The other theme to our show is something that Elliot always points out, which is loneliness. What I find interesting is tied to this: Are we authentic? Are we having authentic experiences when we're projecting such different versions of ourselves onto the world? Is that creating this new form of loneliness that we haven't really dealt with before?
Maybe we only talk to our grandmothers now through Facebook every once in a while, and that sort of has replaced real human interaction because we feel like that laissez faire communication is enough now, and we're settling on that. Putting that sort of component aside, was this totally a byproduct of a post-internet era? Are we fragmenting ourselves when we go online like that? I don't know. I just find it interesting.
Todd VanDerWerff: You leave a lot of things up in the air as the finale ends. What are you starting to look at as you begin work on season two?
Sam Esmail: I'm looking at the relationship between Elliot and Mr. Robot. Like I said, I wanted the story to be about this guy who discovered this huge thing about himself and how he's going to have to negotiate that with himself, especially in the wake of the actions and the consequences of that disorder from the first season.
That to me was the pivot in the season finale. It's not only the new world that our characters are going to live in next season. Now Elliot's aware. Now we're aware. How do we handle this? How do we address this? Is there something to be addressed? That inner conflict is the cornerstone of the series. That's what I've always intended the series to be about.
Todd VanDerWerff: Leaving that much unresolved, what were you hoping to leave the audience with, or sum up for viewers?
Sam Esmail: Well, I don't know if I'm summing anything up. But I raised a big question. It's kind of a battle between Elliot and Mr. Robot now. Who's going to take over, and who is the real Elliot? That expression that Rami does so beautifully in that last shot before he goes to the door: Is that Mr. Robot, or is that Elliot, or is that some combination of the two? Then obviously, who is behind that door? I don't think I've summed up anything. I think we've just raised a really important question.
Todd VanDerWerff : And in that post-credits scene, you pull back even further. This show started so tight on Elliot's perspective, and it's been pulling back ever since. How big can the world get?
Sam Esmail: We never think about that stuff. We never think about guest cast and the budget and how many characters. I only think about the journey that Elliot's going to go on and what organically comes out of that. Sure, certain characters we'll always have in mind, but to me, this is Elliot's story, and anything that encompasses Elliot's story is going to come into his orbit. At that point, we'll bring in that character and we'll expand that universe to allow for that.
"I don't think I've summed up anything. I think we've just raised a really important question."
For example, I do know that the fallout of this is going to have to include some law-enforcement world to come into play. That would serve as a new antagonist for Fsociety at the very least. That brings in another world or expands the universe to include that, but I also know that I want to explore the backstory of Elliot and the creation of Fsociety, the origins.
I'm really into mythology and world building. I think that's so fascinating. I think J.J. Abrams calls it a "mystery box," especially when at the center of this universe, there are all these interesting question marks. It does kind of spring out and allow you to open these worlds up, but at the same time, as long as it's tethered to Elliot's authentic emotional journey, I'm okay with this getting as big as it can.
Catch up on Mr. Robot via the USA website.