'Mr. Robot': How Season 3's Craziest Episode Came to Life

Mr. Robot Still 2 Episode 305 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for season three, episode five of USA Network's Mr. Robot, "eps3.4_runtime-error.r00."]

With one single shot, Elliot Alderson's (Rami Malek) entire world came crashing down around him.

OK, technically there was more than a single shot at play during the latest episode of Mr. Robot, but the fifth episode of season three was presented in one continuous take all the same. Easily the most technically ambitious episode of the entire series, the latest Mr. Robot focused on both Elliot and his frenemy Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) racing through E Corp. headquarters as everything around them devolves into chaos in the face of Stage Two, the explosive Dark Army plot that could very well serve as the final nail in modern civilization's coffin — a race against the clock depicted in a single, commercial-free shot.

Given the stakes, and given the unique and pulse-pounding way in which the story was conveyed, there's no better time than now to check back in with writer-producer Kor Adana for another round of our weekly Mr. Robot column. Adana, it should be noted, co-wrote this week's episode alongside fellow Robot writer Randolph Leon. Here's his deep dive take on how the episode came together, how Elliot and Angela's stories are forever changed by the events, and much more.

An entire episode, presented in a single continuous shot. Insanity. How proud are you of this one?

This is the proudest moment of my career so far. When [creator Sam Esmail] first assigned the script to us, I was a little hesitant. I remember thinking, "Can we really pull this off?" After the script was written, it was well received by the room, studio and network. I remember thinking, "Well, we still have to shoot this thing." Even when we were prepping for it and filming it, that original thought kept creeping up: "Can we really pull this off?" I felt a sense of relief and newfound excitement when I saw a rough assembly of the cut. At that point, my mindset shifted to, "Holy shit. We're really gonna pull this off." I'm so proud of our cast and crew who worked their asses off to execute such an ambitious episode of television.

From very early on, Mr. Robot has featured many memorable single take sequences, even earlier this season. Was an entire episode presented in a single take the natural evolution?

Here's a bit of trivia about the Mr. Robot writers room. At one point, there was a list of sayings that we kept up on the whiteboard. It started with us memorializing some of the funny quotes that were uttered in the room, but it eventually evolved into a list of rules, which I dubbed "Sam's Rules To Live By." I can't tell you all of them, but rule number two is: "Always take it to the limit. When you're there, go one more." So, with that little window into our thought process, the previous oners (single take sequences) that we did were examples of us slowly taking it to the limit. This episode is us "going one more."

(Rule number two is not to be confused with rule number five, which states: "Don't get ridiculous with the limits. Dial it back a little.")

How did the idea for episode five to exist in one single extended sequence first come up? What's the origin story?

During the early days of the writers room, when we were still trying to figure out what this season was, we were talking about [some of the] earlier sequences — the sitcom and Adderall sequences from episode two, for example. We were having one of those days where we were all bored with every idea that was pitched. We realized that we had nothing fun or exciting that measured up to one of those aforementioned sequences. Sam agreed that we didn't have anything that pushed the boundaries, so we devoted the rest of the day to talking about it. One of our writers, Adam Penn, threw out the idea of doing an entire episode as a oner, Birdman style. Sam immediately took to it. We all did. The consensus was, "All right, let's do it."

When did it become clear this episode would have to air without commercial interruption? Were there fears of pushback from USA? What were those conversations like?

When USA first read the script, I'm pretty sure that they proposed the idea of airing it without commercials. Of course, we really wanted that outcome while we were breaking the story and writing, but like you, we were expecting some serious pushback from the network. It didn't happen, though. I think our execs mentioned the possibility of airing this without commercials on our first notes call for the script. They were going to look into how feasible that idea was, because everyone was excited about doing this right.

Why do you think the single take and Mr. Robot work well with each other? What is it about the way this show is created, the stories it's telling, and the one-shot as a vehicle for ingesting that information that makes a suitable match for you?

This show has always been about perspective and point of view. Mainly, Elliot's perspective and point of view. Whether it be through voiceover, framing, blocking, sound/music choices, editing or long takes … it always comes back to us trying to make you feel what our characters are feeling. The single take works perfectly for this episode because of the stakes. We're with Elliot as he "comes to" in the elevator. We're with him as he discovers that Stage Two is going today. We're with him as he tries to stop it from happening. We wanted every single scene to build on the previous scene to amp up the tension with each minute. We wanted the tension in this episode to snowball and crescendo without ever letting up.  

How does writing an episode that takes place entirely within one continuous shot differ from writing a standard episode of the series?

A technique that we often utilize in our scripts is intercutting action and leaving each scene with some kind of small hook or cliffhanger. If you look at an episode like "eps2.8_h1dden_pr0cess.axx" from last season, you'll see how we built rising tension by intercutting three different storylines together. Something is about to happen with Dom (Grace Gummer), then we cut to Elliot. Something is about to happen with Elliot, then we cut to Darlene (Carly Chaikin). Last night's episode was a different animal because there was nothing to cut to. We had to increase the stakes within a series of set-pieces that organically led to each other in real time, all without ever leaving Elliot for the first half and Angela for the second half. It forced us to break down every little thing Elliot would need to deal with in order to get to the HSMs. Every little roadblock became an opportunity for building tension.

Rami Malek and Portia Doubleday are tasked with some incredibly challenging work as actors in this episode. What do you remember about how they reacted on first learning about the concept?

I remember both of them being really excited about this one. Rami and I had some cursory conversations about Elliot's mindset and how he's kind of in a daze in the opening, but we ended up filming all of Elliot's E Corp. office scenes during the first week of shooting. It was a relief to get that chunk of the episode out of the way. Since the Angela scenes were later in the production schedule, I had more conversations with Portia leading up to the filming of her scenes. She was thrilled with the script and eager to film those moments. Both Rami and Portia were absolutely amazing in this episode.

What was the process for running through this episode — rehearsing and filming it? Was creating this episode almost more like staging a play than a television show?

Definitely. There was so much orchestration with many different departments and crew members who had to be in sync with each other. Sam, [director of photography] Tod Campbell and [first assistant director] Justin Ritson were instrumental in shot-listing this episode, deciding on camera movements, and figuring out how we would get in and out of our shots. Whether it be timing camera moves, focus pulls, directing background actors, executing screen animations or dealing with props, all these little parts had to align perfectly. I have to give a special shout out to our incredible camera/grip departments (Joseph Belschner, Michael "Godfather" Garofalo, Patrick Bracey and Richard Guinness). Aaron Medick was the camera operator who had to carry that heavy Steadicam rig for the majority of this episode, which includes the ungodly amount of takes we ended up doing.

In terms of computer screen animations, there was a lot of content we had to create. [Flash animator] Adam Brustein, [tech consultant] Ryan Kazanciyan and I worked for months to get ready for this episode. The screen animations were so complicated that whenever you see Rami sitting down at a computer, I'm actually hiding behind a nearby desk or cubicle, remotely driving the animation and telling him what I'm doing so he can react.

There must have been a few stopping points. Are there any you're willing to identify? Are there more or less than we might think?

There are a few, but where's the fun in me telling you where they are? Stop trying to kill the fun, Josh! I do want to talk about the work that went into the picture stitching, though. Initially, Rosanne Tan (the magnificent editor of this episode) had to make sure to seamlessly blend the shots together in the Avid. Thankfully, her assistant editor, Zachary Dehm, is very skilled with VFX. The two of them spent a lot of time planning and trying different methods. There were shots that were harder to make work in the Avid, so then Zachary would try it in After Effects. When Sam wanted to use a different take or a different performance, Rosanne and Zachary would look for areas to hide a cut. After all the temp VFX work was done, our VFX house would take over and do their magic.

Let's dig into the episode proper, which begins on an elevator. How did you arrive at this confined space as the starting point for the hour?

I know we wanted to start the story with the "ding" of an elevator. The original outline of the script had us beginning and ending with Elliot and Angela on the elevator, which was some fun symmetry, but we ended up revising the ending. There was also this notion of Elliot coming to … as if he's waking from a dream. He was in Mr. Robot mode for the weekend and he doesn't transition back into Elliot until this beat on the elevator. We wanted to explore the mental fuzziness that the transformations create for Elliot. Does he remember everything that happened in that secret warehouse? Does he remember seeing Angela and Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom) together? It's like those initial, fleeting moments of waking up from a deep sleep, trying really hard to remember your dream.  

A man next to Elliot speaks in German. Can you translate what he's saying?

These were originally scripted as German proverbs. In an early draft, the guy was screaming this shit on a crowded elevator (which we found hilarious). The idea here is that this German businessman is trying to psych himself up for an important meeting at E Corp., but he's not being respectful of elevator decorum or boundaries. It creates this odd mood and tone that perfectly fits the disoriented state we find Elliot in. The meaning and the contradictions in these proverbs are thematically relevant to this introductory scene and the episode as a whole, especially since he's looking at Elliot when he says them. "Aller Anfang ist schwer" translates to "All beginnings are hard." "Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst" translates to "Starting is easy, persistence is an art."

What's the song we're hearing at the top of the episode, which we hear again a few times later on as well? What's its significance to you?

Sam had the initial idea of using opera by Philip Glass and score by Mac Quayle to fill out this episode. Our music supervisor, Manish Raval, and his music team (Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Leahy) sent three album ideas/suggestions from three different artists. Einstein on a Beach, by the Philip Glass Ensemble, happened to be one of them.

Then it was Rosanne Tan's job to explore and find the right track(s) for the right moments. The EOAB album was two hours and 45 mins long, so it was quite the challenge. Rosanne kept playing the album on loop in the background in her cutting room and in her car when she drove home. After learning that album inside out, she found a common theme that worked out really well for the episode. "Knee Play 1" is introduced/teased at the top when Elliot is in the elevator with Angela. It's a great piece to complement Elliot's confusion in that moment. Then a little later in the episode, when the rioters are coming out of the elevator on the 41st floor, it was the perfect time to revisit Philip Glass. Except this time, "Knee Play 3" was used (a more amped up version than what you heard earlier). To come full circle, the Philip Glass piece at the end was "Act IV, Scene 2 – Bed," which slowed things down nicely, while still being mysterious the same time, as we stay with Angela till the end of the episode. 

To me, the "1, 2, 3, 4 …" counting motif used in the music relates to our time conceit in an interesting way. Time is such an important aspect of the show. Whiterose is obsessed with it. Elliot, Darlene and Angela are running out of it (especially in this story). That's a part of the reason why we named the episode "runtime error." The title works on a literal, technical and metaphorical level. I love how we start the episode with the more subdued version of "Knee Play" and then amp things up with "Knee Play 3" as the riot begins and there's a clear time crunch for both Elliot and Angela to get to the HSMs

We see a newscast in the elevator. It's the day of the U.N. vote over China's annexation of the Congo. Is that a shorthand to let us know exactly where and when we are: right at the knife's edge of Stage Two? 

Yes. The annexation of the Congo presents a looming event that's directly tied to Price and Whiterose's story and the execution of Stage two. In an episode where we can't cut away to Price or Whiterose, we felt that the news on the elevator was the best way to dole out some of this information in an anticipatory way.

Before he learns he's been fired, Elliot fires some truth bombs at Samar Swailem, his vulgar colleague who never stops bragging about sexual conquests. What came first: Samar as a character, or Elliot's takedown of Samar? Was it always clear that Elliot would have to emotionally eviscerate Samar?

Samar as a character came first. But for me, Samar was kind of a one-trick pony up until this moment. He was a fun source of comic relief in our E Corp. office scenes, but he didn't really show any sincere character depth of vulnerability. When we were discussing this episode in the writers room, we felt it was time to peel back a layer and get to know the real Samar. That's what gave us the idea of utilizing one of our "Elliot thinks he's talking to us but he really says this out loud" moments to actually hurt Samar's feelings.

Elliot gets up to one of his least favorite tricks in the book: social engineering. For someone so socially averse, he's pretty good at it! There are two different moments worth pausing down on: Elliot versus Edie and then Fred, and then Elliot stepping into the conference room. Can you talk through the discovery process with those scenes?

Well, I don't know if I agree with your assessment. Social engineering and being socially vulnerable with people are two completely different things. It's much easier to take on a part, wear a mask and manipulate someone for information than it is to connect to another person on a sincere, emotional level. Elliot's always been good at social engineering. We saw him do it in the pilot when he hacked Lenny Shannon. We saw him impersonate Sam Sepiol when he hacked Steel Mountain. Social engineering comes easy to him because he doesn't have to be vulnerable.

We wanted to throw as many roadblocks as we could into Elliot's path to HSMs. Those came in the forms of HR chasing him, getting on someone's computer, hiding from HR in a conference room, running away from security, etc. Edie sniffing white-out is a fun John Hughes reference to Edie McClurg's character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I also want to point out the name that Elliot uses when he slips into that conference room. Dave Kennedy is a real person who happens to be a genius. He's the founder of TrustedSec. He also created the Social Engineer Toolkit, which we've used a few times on the show.

It's a great moment when Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) enters the elevator, both technically and in terms of the story energy. These two have not interacted at all this season. How critical was this scene for this moment in the season?

What's interesting here is that Elliot isn't talking to the real Mr. Robot. This is Elliot having a moment of "What would Mr. Robot do?" The two of them are still completely separated from each other, but Elliot imagines this new version of Mr. Robot because he's questioning what Mr. Robot would do in this situation. It's building on the notion of Elliot "missing" Mr. Robot's presence. It's also why Mr. Robot disappears and Elliot says, "That was just my imagination. We haven't seen each other in months. We've been battling each other in our own voids." The discussion Elliot has with himself is what leads him to his next move, trying to evacuate the recovery building so the explosion doesn't harm anyone.

Can you describe the energy during the protest outside of E Corp.? It's ferocious through the screen.

If I remember correctly, we shot this on a Sunday so that there would be less foot traffic in the city. The mood on set was actually quite calm and composed. It's challenging when you have that many background actors to deal with, but our AD department did an amazing job keeping everything organized.

I do want to point out that the original version of the script didn't have a protest or a riot. That was added in later as a script revision. It was weird because the weekend before we decided on that, I ended up going to a real protest. Our embarrassment announced one of his first Muslim bans and there was a huge protest going on at JFK Terminal 4 because some people were detained. A couple of days later, we decided to add the protest and the riot to this script to help increase the action. In a way, it was serendipitous because I don't know how confident I would've been in writing the protest if I hadn't gone to the protest at JFK earlier.

Darlene and Elliot meet up, and she reveals her connection with the FBI. It fries Elliot's brain. Two-part question: Why does Darlene choose now to reveal this information, and is this an irreversible moment in Elliot's relationship with Darlene — in his ability to trust his sister?

In the last episode, Darlene decides that she needs to come clean. To me, that's what the moment of returning the Polaroid signifies. Just like she told Dom, she's going to do this and she's going to lose her brother in the process. So to her, I'm sure it's an irreversible moment in their relationship. She couldn't get a hold of him all weekend and she's worried about him. She knew he'd be at work, so that's why she shows up at E Corp. to confront him and come clean.

Elliot also learns about Angela's working relationship with Mr. Robot. How stunning of a reveal is this for Elliot, or is it a moment that causes everything to click into place? Which is the bigger gut punch, Angela or Darlene's secret revealed?

It was a delicate dance to write this because it is a strong one-two punch. Two huge betrayals of the season are revealed to him in the same moment and he doesn't have time for it because he's got a find a way back in the building. There couldn't be a worse time for this. While I think both betrayals are hurtful to Elliot in different ways, the Angela one is probably more gut-wrenching for him. That's why we ended the episode with the Elliot/Angela confrontation.

The episode takes a turn for the chaotic once the protest becomes violent, and on a functional level, it serves to bridge the Elliot and Angela stories together. What went into creating that transition, moving from the protest outside all the way to Angela's office?

I can tell you that the exterior of E Corp., the interior E Corp. lobby, the elevator, Angela's floor and the CSAT/HSM room are all different locations. So making it seem like one fluid camera move and selling it as one primary location was challenging. The rioters breaking into the lobby required a great deal of choreography and rehearsal. Again, I have to reiterate how effectively Sam, Tod and Justin decided on our in/out points and shot according to those plans in order to achieve the fluid transition.

Over the phone, Irving (Bobby Cannavale) guides Angela to give a series of instructions to Elliot. Angela decides to take on the job herself. Why, aside from the fact that he's not physically present? Does she know Elliot's not in Robot mode anymore?

First of all, I would pay attention to the Signal word pairs that Angela and Irving utter at the beginning of their phone calls. I put some fun references in there. The first one, BLANKENSHIP MENTOR, is a reference to Loyd "The Mentor" Blankenship who wrote the Hacker's Manifesto. Later, another word pair is a reference to Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal.

Angela can't take a chance on Elliot at this point. From that first scene in the elevator, she knows that he's back to "Elliot mode" and this mission from the Dark Army needs to be done right now. Upon looking at the directions, she feels confident that this is something that she can pull off by herself. She's taking matters into her own hands, seizing fate for herself …

Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. 7

Angela crosses paths with an agent, who becomes so suspicious that he basically takes her into custody — and in order to continue with the plan, Angela calls out to some of the intruders, who proceed to beat the agent viciously, perhaps even to death. There's no dancing around the fact that Angela's actions directly led to a man's death or at least to severe injury, is there? How does she justify this to herself moving forward?

She's totally responsible. I know this sounds cryptic and creates more questions than it answers, but Angela believes in Whiterose's plan so strongly that she doesn't feel she's caused this person any harm. Everything that she's doing … it's all for worth it for "the cause."

Can you walk me through Angela's scene at the computer terminal, both in terms of Portia Doubleday's performance, and also in terms of what she's actually doing?

This scene required a lot of prop work and action. Portia knocked it out of the fucking park. I'm so happy with how this turned out.

So, if you remember from the second episode of this season, Elliot installed a patch on the UPS devices at E Corp. that made it impossible to make any changes to the firmware without first having a digitally signed key. Since the firmware attack is how the Dark Army plans on creating the explosion at the recovery center, Elliot installs this patch to make sure that the Dark Army can't make any changes to the firmware. In this episode, the Dark Army wants a copy of E Corp.'s Hardware Security Module (HSM), which is basically a computer that serves as a vault for sensitive data like encryption keys and digital certificates. If the Dark Army can gain access to the HSM, they can use its keys to "sign" their UPS firmware malware so as if it were legitimate E Corp. software. Doing this would effectively get around Elliot's patch that he installed in the second episode. Angela is making a copy of the E Corp. HSM by using a mobile HSM. She then gives the mobile HSM back to the Dark Army. The mobile HSM is what lets the Dark Army get around Elliot's patch.

There's a fun Easter egg here, too. The user that the Angela logs on as (and the one that Elliot recognizes earlier in the episode) is Frank Bowman, which is a reference to two characters from my favorite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Angela runs into a woman named Lydia Riley, and passes the name along to Irving. Is this another future death on Angela's hands? Have we heard that name for the last time?

That's a good question. Probably something to keep an eye out for.

Throughout her side of the episode, Angela is relentless, but she's also reluctant each time she has to lie, with long and awkward pauses before each fabrication. Why do you think that is? Pure fear? Is she not cut out for this level of deception?

I think she's still conflicted. There's a part of her that's worried and afraid about what she needs to do. That part of her that makes her second-guess her faith. It doesn't outweigh her faith, but it creates a compelling contradiction for her and gives her a great deal of conflict at every step of the way. I do think she's cut out for this level of deception, but it's important for us to show how much of a struggle it is for her, too.

In order to make one final escape, Angela assumes the full fsociety regalia, mask and hoodie and all. How long have you been waiting for this moment? Has she gone full Robot?

This actually came up as a network note from USA. One of the execs there, Jake Castiglioni, brought it up one of our calls and I absolutely loved it. It fits so well in this moment because, in a way, she has to go full fsociety to pull this off, but she's also working directly against Elliot and fsociety. Her femtocell hack last season was the training she needed to execute the HSM in this episode. I love that both instances are colored with an fsociety connection, even though they're very different from each other.  

Once they reconnect over the phone, Irving tells Angela: "Just because we lit the fuse, doesn't mean we control the explosion." Is this a direct comment on the mission statement of Mr. Robot?

I think there's a connection there, but within the context of the scene, Irving is responding to Angela's complaint about the riot being the distraction. Earlier, we saw some rioters chase her down. Her life was in danger. She's telling Irving that his little "distraction" almost hurt her. Irving's reply indicates that they started the riot, but they can't control the entire group. It's not like all of the rioters there are working directly for the Dark Army.

OK, what's up with the guy who's always eating Red Wheelbarrow, showing up at all of these pivotal moments? Who is this man — as much as you can say about him in terms of the show, of course, but can you also shed some light on the actor? He must loathe barbecue by now.

You're referring to the legendary character who is known in the room as HAMBURGER MAN. Much like Hamburger Man, I need to stay silent on his purpose, whereabouts and importance.

The final image of the episode is Angela meeting up with Elliot: "Do you have something you want to tell me?" What does this final moment represent to you?

Elliot has just gone through all of this trouble to get back into the building, get access to the HSMs, only to find he's too late, and then finally find Angela. He's trusted her for this entire season and this is the moment of confrontation. To me, we've experienced five episodes of betrayal from Angela in order to reach this moment of reckoning. We loved the idea of ending this nonstop episode on such a compelling cliffhanger.

Tease us up for next week, sir!

Believe it or not, next week's episode is more intense than what we did last night. It's one of my favorite episodes of the season … maybe even the series.

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