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The common greeting among Mr. Robot fans, “Hello, friend,” doesn’t feel entirely appropriate given the ghost from the past who just walked back into Elliot Alderson’s life… but hello, just the same.
Hours after the announcement of a fourth season renewal for the USA Network drama, Mr. Robot closed the book on season three, undoing much (though certainly not all) of the damage Rami Malek’s Elliot has wreaked over the course of the series. Though there’s no taking back Stage Two (at least not yet), Elliot found a way to undo the Five/Nine Hack, the massive cyber attack he and his fellow fsociety cohorts executed at the end of season one. With a single push of the button, and with an assist from a reconciled relationship with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot completely changed the status quo of the world in which the show exists.
But moments after undoing the hack, and immediately following the finale’s closing credits, Elliot’s earliest adversary resurfaced: Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), the drug dealer who escaped from jail with Elliot’s assistance back in the first season, only to repay our hero by killing his girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw). Vera disappeared into the night following Shayla’s death — the most brutal act on Mr. Robot up until that point — never to be seen or heard from again, until the final post-credits scene of season three, in which Vera surprised Darlene (Carly Chaikin) outside of Elliot’s apartment.
How will the return of Elliot’s worst personal nightmare impact the show moving forward? What will the future of Mr. Robot look like now that the Five/Nine Hack has been reversed? And how on Earth will creator Sam Esmail continue to direct every single episode of Mr. Robot as the series pushes on, now that a fourth season has been formally ordered, on top of his directorial commitment to Amazon’s Homecoming as well? For those answers and more, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Esmail for his take on past, present and future of Mr. Robot, and beyond.
In the past, you have talked about envisioning Mr. Robot as a five-season arc. Exiting season three and heading into season four, does that plan remain intact?
Honestly, I’ve always said it’s four or five seasons, and I’ve said that because I think it’s somewhere in between. Whether that means the next two seasons are two short seasons, or it could technically still be two full ten-episode seasons, we’re still kind of figuring that out. It’s something the writers’ room and I take very seriously. We never want to feel like we’re treading water. Hopefully it fits into two more seasons, but we’re trying to figure out that number.
Before season three aired, you compared Elliot’s journey to Return of the Jedi, and used the word “disintegration” as a keystone for the season. Do you have a similar word and pop culture touchstone in mind for season four?
Well, I can’t go into any of the Star Wars prequels… (Laughs.) It’s weird. I think it might still be a continuation of Return of the Jedi. I kind of look at seasons two and three as two halves of the second act of this whole story. As we go into the next season, it’s really this reenergized and renewed Elliot with a mission on what he wants to do now and with a clarity we’ve never seen before. I think that jives with Return of the Jedi.
Season three ends with Elliot reversing the Five/Nine Hack, or at least beginning that process. How will that change the show moving forward, tonally?
It brings the show back to its initial promise of Elliot wanting to take down the guys behind the scenes who are manipulating society. The journey between seasons one to three has been about discovering who the real culprits are. The hack was merely a distraction that was co-opted by these people, and it’s finally been revealed and exposed to Elliot. In a weird way, the next season will return back to that initial premise of the show and have Elliot be motivated by that, with this new clarity.
Every season ends with a post-credits scene that at least partly defines the next season. This year ended with the return of the “Savage Traveler” known as Fernando Vera, one of Elliot’s oldest enemies. Is season four the season of Vera?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Vera definitely plays a critical part in the next season.
How long have you known exactly how Vera would fit back into the story? Did you have his comeback in mind as far back as when Mr. Robot was planned as a feature film?
No, because in the feature, there was no Vera. He was definitely a product of the adaptation to a TV series. In features, with characters, you have to be careful and you have to streamline them as much as possible and be focused in on the major players. For Vera, he’s more of a character that I think can only be impactful on a TV show, especially with the way he disappears and reappears. That impact really hits you more when you’re on a long-running series and you have all of that time to let the audience feel the gravity and weight of his return.
Does Vera’s return signify the idea that even as the show’s scope has expanded, the next season will narrow its focus?
Absolutely. That’s essentially the pivot we’re trying to make at the end of this season, that narrowing of focus. The first words Elliot said to us in the pilot were about that top one percent. By the end of this season, he finally realizes who they are and he wants to target them. At the same time, I’ve always said this show is about Elliot’s internal and emotional journey. Vera hits that button, given the huge loss Elliot suffered in the first season — and really, I would say his only true connection we’ve seen in the show, his connection with Shayla. This absolutely brings clarity to Elliot’s mission moving forward into the next season.
Season two was told across twelve episodes, while season three (and season one) was told across ten episodes. Do you have a preferred episode length for the series?
Because every season is so idiosyncratic and specific to that stage of where we’re at in the story, I don’t think all of the seasons fit one size. The good thing we do in the writers’ room, with the support of the network, is we let the creative dictate those decisions. It’s all about how much story we have to tell and how efficient we can be at telling that story. That’s always the ultimate decision.
You have two seasons under your belt in which you directed every single episode. Are you still sane, for one, and will you continue to direct every episode moving forward?
I’m definitely insane. (Laughs.) But there are no plans for me changing that method. I guess the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results, right? So I’m going to keep repeating this. There are no plans for me vacating the director’s chair.
Season three’s fifth episode was presented in a single continuous shot. Looking forward, do you have ideas for how to top that episode in terms of form? Is it even possible?
It really comes from the episode, and the story we’re trying to tell in the episode. We never look at anything from the outside, asking ourselves what challenge we can bring to the story this season in terms of format, and then retrofitting a story into it. The challenges always come from where the story needs to go and has to go. What’s the best way to tell that story? Usually, because I have such an inventive and creative crew and writers’ room, we pick the hardest way to tell that story possible — but all because we get excited by the prospect of challenging ourselves and knowing that’s ultimately going to be the best way to tell that story. It tends to get decided in the writing phase, and the episodes tend to tell us how they want to be told. I look back and I notice a pattern where once every season, we do some sort of real format-breaking thing. But it’s honestly never intentional. It’s honestly never premeditated. It just always ends up being this one episode that wants to break the rules. Now it’s fun, especially at the start of a season in the writers’ room, thinking about which episode that’s going to be.
Elliot and Robot’s relationship, or lack thereof, was a huge focus of the season. They are finally speaking again as of the finale. What were your goals in terms of the two sides of Elliot Alderson this season, which culminated in the reveal that as much as Robot exists within Elliot, there are traces of Elliot existing inside of Robot as well?
We’re continually evolving that relationship. Whenever I talk about Elliot’s emotional journey, it really is about this relationship with Mr. Robot, that needs to face its reckoning at some point. The ending of this season pivots them to working together as a team for the first time in a genuine way. There’s this realization that they are pieces of one whole, and it’s something we haven’t quite seen before, especially given the tumultuous relationship they had together in season two, and then here in season three when they didn’t speak with each other for basically the entire season. We’ve now finally brought them to a point where they can work together as a team — and dare I even say, integrate.
Bobby Cannavale’s Irving walks away from the season alive, but also seemingly walks away from the Dark Army, at least for now. Will he return as a series regular next year?
I’ll leave it at this: I loved working with Bobby. He did such a phenomenal job, beyond my expectations, playing Irving. It was really fun to write for him. Nothing’s set in stone yet, but I would be excited to work with him again.
And you’re already working with him again soon, as he’s starring in your Amazon series Homecoming.
Yeah, absolutely. He’s a brilliant actor. Any chance and opportunity I have to work with him again, I’m going to take it, obviously.
How does Homecoming factor into your schedule in terms of what’s next for Mr. Robot?
Going back to what I said earlier, I’m going to have to plead insanity again, because I honestly have no idea yet. (Laughs.) I just know that I’m probably going to be working every single day for the next year. I hope I can come out of it as a sane person at some point. It’s a 2018 shoot, and we’re in prep right now. Production begins early sometime early next year.
What did you make of the Mr. Robot season finale, and what are your expectations now that Vera is back in the mix? Sound off in the comments below, and keep checking THR for more Mr. Robot news.
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