Sam Esmail has been largely buried in the editing room this summer, and is about four or five episodes away from finishing Season 2 of Mr. Robot. The creator even skipped his show’s panel at Comic-Con. One would think that the wizard behind one of the most riveting, plot-twisting noir on TV would be like a kid in a toy store—pulling levers, changing tones and switching around scenes like toy blocks. But there’s a method to the madness around a show whose hacker protagonist is not only mad, but mad at the world.
“It’s about paring things down and focusing them a little more,” says Esmail about postproduction. “It’s not about changing the story. We plot out the whole season in an intricate way, and to change one thing would have a domino effect.”
But Esmail’s cast “spins my material in a whole new way from what I’ve written,” says the creator. Their subtle, nuanced performances in Mr. Robot are a testament to Esmail and his Emmy-nominated casting directors Susie Farris, Beth Bowling and Kim Miscia’s finesse in choosing actors who are organic in their craft. Esmail “isn’t about modulating or more-ism with his actors,” confirms newly minted Emmy nominee Rami Malek, who plays Elliot Alderson, a hacker who suffers from a dissociative identity disorder and imagines his late father, aka Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), as the catalyst for his cyber-criminal activity.
If there’s a favorite scene Esmail and Malek have from Season 1, it’s when Elliot, double-crossed by an imprisoned drug lord, finds his girlfriend in the trunk of a car, despite what he’s bargained for. In the cold light of dawn, Malek’s Elliot stands clenching his jaw, emotionally frozen as the camera swirls around him.
When it came to hitting the proper tones, Malek explains, “I already employ an acting style that is minimal, and Sam and I came with this idea that it wouldn’t be a melodramatic moment. We already do a lot of talking ahead of time in hotel rooms during the season, going over beats and moments, so that we see eye to eye on the character. So when it comes time to shoot, we’ve already got the philosophy out of the way, and it’s just about being precise on a specific day. There aren’t these big conversations that actors feel they need to have of, ‘Well my character wouldn’t do that.’ We’re well beyond that.”
Similar to Robert De Niro’s disturbed loner Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, who carried out his own sense of justice against a pimp and politician on the streets of 1970s New York City, Elliot is a modern crusader in a millennial society mired in the debt and greed of corporate illuminati and littered with dysfunctional parents. Sympathetic in his psychological suffering, and suspenseful because we’re not sure what’s real and not real in his timeline, Elliot has struck a chord with critics, a cult of viewers and the TV Academy, who lauded Mr. Robot with six nominations.
Like the soothsayer in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who screams, “Beware the Ides of March,” Mr. Robot warns that the 2008 financial crisis could easily rock our world again, lest we forget that we’re already living in a fertile environment where a Donald Trump-like demagogue could easily rise.
At the end of Season 1, Elliot and his hacker group, “fsociety,” have brought the financial world to its knees and put E-Corp in a near-Lehman Brothers-type sling. It’s a dirty company, whose factories in Bergen County, NJ caused leukemia in Elliot’s father and his friend Angela’s mother. Elliot learns by the end of the first season that the guy he’s been seeing—Mr. Robot—is, in fact, his deceased father, and as he looks at his family on the Times Square jumbotron, the hacker seems to come to some sort of acceptance.
However, in Season 2, we learn that’s not the case. Elliot has retreated to his bedroom in his mother’s house, having cut himself off from all technology. He’s journaling his every move, ensuring that he’s in full control of his actions and emotions, and that Mr. Robot isn’t controlling him. Eventually, Elliot’s sister Darlene lures him back. Not only do they have to take fsociety to its next hacking phase, but they also have to clean up their tracks, as the FBI and crackerjack agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) start sniffing them out.
If Season 1 was about revolution, Esmail says that Season 2 is “about the hangover of revolution. What I loved about Mad Men was that change is never fast. It’s slow, and at times it’s grueling. If you look at change in the world, it’s lumbering and slow.”
Esmail points to the Egyptian revolution as one of his inspirations for Mr. Robot. “They’re still going through a lot of growing pains. They went through one president and are on to their second. There’s not a miraculous fix to their society. That’s the sobering part of revolution,” adds the creator.
For the middle class, whose bank accounts can easily be compromised by petty hackers, it might be hard to see these cyber criminals as the Robin Hood types portrayed on Mr. Robot. But there’s a cache who angle on taking down organizations for various socio-political reasons, i.e. Monsanto and Scientology. The inspiration Esmail took from these hackers, as well as Occupy Wall Street protesters and his cousins in the Arab Spring, was their rants. And it’s those knock-on-society soliloquies we often hear spewing from Elliot.
“My cousins’ rants would be anger-fueled, one-sided, and somewhat irrational,” Esmail says. “It was always intriguing. The same thing with Occupy Wall Street. Some judged them for being too neo-Leftist. For me, I find people like that interesting because there’s such a passion, whether it’s left or right wing. We put that psychology into Elliot. Some people feel like we’re saying what he’s saying, but we’re not. Take a step back; he’s a character with all these issues.”
In constructing the character of Elliot, Esmail refers to a close friend in interviews, a person who battles with a similar psychological disorder. Out of respect, the creator keeps his identity secret — Malek hasn’t even met him. Speaking about his friend, Esmail says, “He’s a fan of the show. It’s flattering because it means we’re depicting it authentically. He gives me notes. But he’s not watching the episodes as fast as he wants to; it’s too close for him.”
In going from Season 1 to Season 2, Esmail acknowledges Elliot’s abrupt emotional segue, from accepting his parents in the season finale in Times Square, to his strict attempts to purge himself of his father’s voice. As 180-degree as it might seem to the viewer, Esmail asserts that it’s the most sensible arc for Elliot. “Elliot has made this tremendously unsettling realization about himself,” says the creator. “And it takes an enormous precedence over everything else in his life, even though he’s executed this global criminal act. His dead father, the gaps in his memories; any version of this story that ignores this, despite whatever cyber mission is going on, felt dishonest to me and the rest of the writers. There’s nowhere to go but internal, first. Elliot needs to find a realization where he will proceed from.”
In the episode “eps2.2_init_1.asec” we get a sense of where Elliot would like to arrive; an end game, a place of peace and sanity. He imagines re-connecting with Angela (Portia Doubleday), who he has kept at arm’s length, making amends with those he’s wronged, seeing his sister Darlene get engaged, hanging out gleefully with the notorious Wellicks, and sitting down at the same dinner table with his friends and family. When we meet Elliot in Season 1, he’s marinating in nihilism, which isn’t unusual for someone with Elliot’s condition. “Anyone who suffers from this debilitating mental illness goes into a downward spiral of depression, hits a paralysis point, and they can isolate themselves,” explains Esmail. Thanks to a discussion with his newfound friend Leon (Joey Bada$$) this season, Elliot is encouraged to battle through his demons and vie for his sense of bliss.
Says Esmail: “That’s what Elliot has to do: see that vision of the future he wants that’s worth going through all of this for. Not only does he want to live and continue, but he realizes that fighting Mr. Robot is a moot point and an impasse. Those two things have to be realized for Elliot to go to the next step.”