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[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Wednesday’s season-one finale of Mr. Robot.]
Elliot (Rami Malek) and fsociety finally pulled off their grand hack in the season finale of USA’s Mr. Robot. Although the hack turned the world — and particularly Evil Corp — upside down, just as fsociety had intended, Elliot still was dissatisfied, despite fsociety’s growing following. After wrestling with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) both physically and mentally, Elliot returned home to his apartment to be alone and was greeted by a knock at the door from an unknown visitor in the episode’s final moments.
However, the hacker drama didn’t end there. Further cementing the critical darling’s knack for truly unique storytelling, another scene after the closing credits showed the mysterious White Rose (BD Wong) meeting with one of Evil Corp’s top men at a lavish party, where he discussed the burning of Rome.
So what does it all mean? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator and showrunner Sam Esmail about the season finale, what’s in store for season two and those Fight Club comparisons.
That was a very surprising last scene, with the return of White Rose. What were you trying to illustrate with that very last scene?
The fact that it became a post-credit scene was more out of a negotiation on how to end the season. Do we end on Elliot? Do we end on this scene that sets up what the next season arc is going to be? The story has always been about Elliot, and it should continue to be about Elliot, so I felt weird ending the season on this other scene that had nothing to do with any of our main characters. I was trying to figure out structurally where to put it in the last episode, and because it does such a good job of queuing up our next season arc, I basically came up with the idea of putting it after the credits, which is something not typically done on television shows. I just thought, “OK, that’s a great way to use the classic strategy of creating a coda, which is exactly what it is, and allowing me to end the season properly on Elliot.”
Like you said, that’s not done a lot on TV. How receptive was USA to that idea?
When I wrote the script, I finished Elliot’s scene, and I wrote, “Fade to black, credits.” Then I wrote, “After end credits,” and then I put in the White Rose scene. Then when we got on the phone, their reaction to me was, “You can’t end a season on White Rose. You’ve got to end it on Elliot.” I said, “No, I agree, guys, but it’s after the credits. Don’t you think that would work?” They had no idea. They skipped those two lines, and then there was this moment where it clicked with everyone: “That’s f—ing perfect.” They were so into the idea that they figured out a way to do it.
How does that last scene set up next season and where you’re going with the show?
I’ve always said that the first season was the first act of my feature, so this is what I meant. I wanted the story of Mr. Robot to be Elliot actually accomplishing his goal, setting the world into chaos. What would happen to society if something like this occurred where, basically, if the consumer-debt industry were to be erased? What are the economics of that? What would the world look like? Would there be a revolution? Would governments take over? Would businesses take over? To me, that canvas was something I was interested in exploring, so, for me, that’s what that last scene sets up. We’re about to watch Rome burn. That’s the world Elliot’s going to enter next season.
What is the next big struggle for Elliot as he enters this world, now that the hack has happened?
First and foremost, the show’s about Elliot and his struggle to fit in, his struggle to connect with people. In terms of just overarching plot, it’s going to be him facing what he’s done: the consequences of his actions along with the other fsociety hackers. But at the end of the day, it’s still going to be that emotional journey. Specifically, the battle between he and Mr. Robot, who is going to continue on, and how does that manifest? How does that dramatize? What does that look like? That’s really going to be the meat of the season as this inner conflict between Elliot and himself.
There’s that scene in Times Square when he and Mr. Robot are fighting and he closes his eyes, and when he opens them, the area is completely empty and everyone is gone. What can you say about Elliot’s struggle between wanting to save the world and wanting to be isolated going forward?
When you meet Elliot, he chooses to be lonely, but then we see him cry in his apartment by himself because he can’t hold the pain all the time. He’s clearly not happy, and that’s not sustainable. So obviously, through the course of the first season, we’ve seen him having to branch out in this pursuit to bring down Evil Corp, and we’ve also seen him emotionally care and engage with other people in ways that he hasn’t before, specifically with Shayla. All of those things have come to pass by the end of the first season, and he’s come back full circle, saying he wants to go back to the way he was. I think that moment when he opens his eyes and everything’s gone but then his alter egos pop up on the screen … well this isn’t what he wants. He created Mr. Robot in order to combat his loneliness, and so now he’s gong to have to figure that out and negotiate that within himself. He’s kind of past the point of no return when it comes to that. Now we’re going to go into this mode of, how is he going to reconcile these different demons inside him?
There was that line the alter ego says: “You can’t leave us, and we can’t leave you.” What does his relationship with Mr. Robot look like in season two as he is reconciling those demons?
Whenever anyone asks me, “Well, what’s the show about?” It’s always been a hard question to answer, and it’s because it’s about this. It’s about, how does a guy who really has associative-identity disorder, how does he combat that in a realistic way? What does he do when he has these demons that he has to face, different parts of his own personality and his own identity? How does he come to terms with that? That’s something we’re going to explore for basically the rest of the run of the series, not just the next season. How all those things play out is still something that we’re going to figure out in the writers’ room.
I think once people figured out Mr. Robot’s real identity, they worried about how much Christian Slater would still be seen on the show. From what you just said, it sounds like he’ll be as much of a presence in season two as he was in season one.
It’s almost more so. It’s freeing because now Elliot is aware that Mr. Robot is this alter ego that he has to deal with. So it actually takes more of like a Jekyll and Hyde trajectory because now the audience is in on it, as well as Elliot, and now we’re going to basically go into that realm. But the story is really about the relationship that he has with his dead father, and how he could never reconcile the pain that caused him? How is he reconciling now as an adult male? Especially in the way that it’s manifesting itself.
It was very interesting to see how the outside world perceives Elliot when he’s having that confrontation with Mr. Robot in the restaurant and specifically Elliot holding himself up against a wall. Why was it important to show that?
Because I want to start stripping the subjectivity of Elliot’s world a little bit, giving us glimpses into what an objective version of this story might look like, even if it’s just slivers of that reality. Because I do think, in terms of telling a show that’s so deeply subjective into this unreliable narration, it can become untethered to a certain extent. As long we have those glimpses, I think that helps us keep track a little bit better and keeps the audience in check. But don’t forget, this is still in the eyes of Elliot, so we’ve started discovering these objective realities along with him. When Mr. Robot says that line, “This looks a little weird,” Elliot’s sort of realizing he’s doing this to himself. And then he proceeds on. So we’re still figuring this out with him, but I think that’s going to be part of this whole journey for Elliot, is trying to get into a more grounded reality.
The big reveal elicited a lot of comparisons to Fight Club, which you seemed to hint at with that cover of the Pixies song “Where Is My Mind” in the show. What made you embrace those comparisons?
I absolutely don’t deny that I was inspired by Fight Club, among many other television shows and films. I completely not only acknowledge it, I own it and love to nod to them as much as possible. … It obviously opens me up for criticism of being derivative, but the thing about it is that I know that when we make this show, we’re doing something really original and cool with it, even though we are inspired by other television shows and films. So, for me, that song that we played at the end of episode nine was just a nod to one of those great inspirations.
It also was revealed recently that Darlene is Elliot’s sister, but we haven’t learned a lot about their relationship and why they weren’t close. How much will we learn in season two?
That goes into the whole idea of the emotional journey that Elliot [takes]. We haven’t even cracked the surface of his past. What were the court-appointed therapy sessions all about? What was his family history was all about? Why Darlene helped Elliot create fsociety? There’s a whole backstory. Going even further back to childhood and what his relationship with his father was and how did that devolve? We got a little taste of it at the beginning of episode nine. Not to mention their mother. All of that is still in the wheelhouse of what we’re going to explore in the next few seasons because that’s all going to inform Elliot’s journey and how he battles his demons, aka Mr. Robot.
Angela made a lot of big moves in the finale. Why do you think she chose the path that she did? What can you say is the next step of her evolution?
Because this show is really about identity and about change and about these young people who are trying to find themselves, who are trying to find who they are and how they fit in the world, Angela’s character arc is really fascinating because she’s the path of the American dream. She is the sort of person that has the mentality of, if you work hard enough, you’ll get the big job offers, you’ll get the big job promotions, and you’ll work your way up the ladder. If you want to affect change, you do it within the system because the system allows for that, allows the younger generation to come in and influence society, and the point is to have a bottom-up strategy of having change come from the younger generation. Angela has that levelheaded, American idealism of trying to affect change from within. That, to me, is a very interesting parallel to have running through the series in contrast with Elliot, who’s very much trying to affect change from outside the system. We never try and spell out what’s right and wrong and who the clear good guys are versus the bad guys, and I just think that both the approaches of Elliot and Angela, you can look at from both good and bad sides, and that, to me, is interesting. When those two parallels collide, I think that’s just going to make for great drama and great story.
Can you say how long after the events of the season finale the season-two premiere will pick up?
We will have a continuous storyline, meaning we won’t necessarily time-jump in story and not ever give you the gap. I don’t know where exactly season two will pick up.
Following this hack, what can you say about Evil Corp’s trajectory going forward? What does that opposition against fsociety look like in the future?
Now that the hack has happened, I actually think it’s not just Evil Corp that will be, if you want to call them antagonists, of fsociety. Now we’re dealing with a much larger issue, and I think the law enforcement, in some way, will make a presence in season two, which I think is going to be an interesting new group of characters to explore.
There were several truly shocking scenes for a primetime cable show throughout the season, most notably the moment in the finale where Angela’s colleague kills himself on-air. What was your dialogue with USA like, figuring out what you could and couldn’t show? Was there anything that didn’t make it to air that you pushed for?
No, which is very shocking. USA has been incredibly supportive. Don’t get me wrong — I tried. I tried to scare them. They just never got scared. And I think, honestly, part of the reason why they were very supportive was because I always made everything organic to our world and our characters. There was never a choice in the script phase or in the production phase that we made that was gratuitous or to be showy or anything like that. It was always something in service of our story and our characters. As long as we did that, USA was incredibly supportive.
This is the first season, and this is your first series. Looking back, what is the biggest thing you’ve learned over the course of these 10 episodes?
If it wasn’t just for the extremely talented people surrounding me, this show wouldn’t have been as good. There’s just gratitude because this isn’t a one-man show, this is a huge collaboration. … My thinking was, best idea wins, and that went for every aspect of production. It went from my assistant, who’s now promoted to a staff writer for next season, to the network head. You just never know where all the great ideas come from, and that, to me, was just a huge lesson to not only be honored with, but to really carry forward into the next season. That part, for me, is what really resonates.
Mr. Robot returns for season two in 2016. What did you think of the finale?
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