‘Mr. Robot’ creator explains why season 2 is like ‘Empire Strikes Back’

We're into the second half of Mr. Robot season 2 (USA ordered a third season yesterday), and I've been covering the highs (dazzling visuals, excellent performances), lows (super-sized episodes that sometimes drag), and mysteries (what exactly is up with Elliot's new regimen?) in my weekly episodic reviews. Tonight's episode, “Handshake,” included several major developments, and I was fortunately able to get a few minutes on the phone today to discuss them and other aspects of season 2 with the show's creator, showrunner, and, for season 2, sole director, Sam Esmail. A few of my own thoughts on “Handshake” – with full spoilers – followed by my conversation with Esmail (which covered a lot but still didn't have time to get into last week's Full House homage) coming up just as soon as I enjoy the shrimp cocktail…

So, as Redditors and other fans have been theorizing since the season 2 premiere, Elliot wasn't staying with his mother in Jersey, but has been locked up in prison. The basketball court was the rec yard, the diner where he and Leon discussed Seinfeld was the cafeteria, his “mother” was actually a stern female guard, etc. More is still to come about why Elliot was locked up, the exact nature of Ray's position in the prison and his business, etc., but the broad strokes are all consistent with the big fan theory.

When Esmail and I spoke at the end of season 1, one of the things he said that stuck with me was his response to whether he hoped the Tyler Durden-esque nature of Mr. Robot himself would lead fans to start questioning the reality of everything about the series:

“No. It's not what I want. That could get really frustrating. I want us to be tethered. For me, it's about the authentic experience of what Elliot is going through.”

As I wrote early in this season, I felt much the same way about the possibility that the fan theory was correct: if the show can pull the rug out from under the audience at any point about a character or place existing only inside Elliot's mind, how can we invest in any of it? Near the end of “Handshake,” Elliot addresses us (his “friend”) on this very subject, saying, “I know what you're thinking. And no, I didn't lie to you. All of this really happened.” And that seems to be the demarcation line Esmail has set: events always have to be “real” on some level (Elliot is interacting with Mr. Robot, Elliot is outside his usual circle and routine), even if Elliot's mind is reshaping exactly how we're seeing them (Mr. Robot exists only in Elliot's mind, he's in prison rather than at home). Constantly scanning the frame for clues about what is and isn't actually going on isn't my preferred mode of television watching, and the minute I encountered the fan theory, it became impossible to watch scenes with Elliot and/or Ray without doing exactly that. But this revelation and its meaning isn't inconsistent with the one about Mr. Robot himself, and as Esmail notes below, he certainly didn't cheat the audience by introducing this out of left field. This is now officially baked into what we know of as Mr. Robot, and the other parts of the series remain compelling enough for me to accept that, even if I don't love it.

Now here's the conversation with Esmail:

Where did the idea come from that you were going to disguise Elliot's surroundings in this way?

Sam Esmail: It came from a two-prong approach. We knew exactly what the fate of Elliot was at the end of the last season, and we started breaking this season's storyline. We're always trying to stay as authentic to Elliot as possible, what he's going through. Knowing Elliot, from the very first episode, he definitely has interesting coping mechanisms. Even from the pilot, he has this ability to reprogram his life: E Corp was turned into Evil Corp. When we thought about him being in prison, what would be that coping mechanism, this came to mind. The other approach was his relationship to us – to his “friend” – and how we left him at the end of the first season. He basically didn't trust us anymore, he felt we were keeping things from him. So we wanted to develop that relationship as well. That was the one approach of, “This is what Elliot would do in this situation, to cope with being in prison,” and then the other of keeping it from us because he felt betrayed by us from the first season.

When we spoke at the end of season 1 about the Mr. Robot revelation, you said you would be hesitant in the future to do things that would leave people questioning the reality of the show. Did you have any concerns about doing another big, “This is what it really is!” reveal in that way?

Sam Esmail: I did. I remember bringing it up to the room. The one thing I also told you is I wanted to stay as authentic to Elliot as possible. And the truth of the matter is, the show is about mystery, and there will always be questions and we won't actually see the full picture all of the time. Having said that, if we can't invest in what is happening and what is going on, that would become very frustrating, to the point where you wouldn't feel any stakes. That was the test we ran through with this idea: is this actually happening to him? Is what he's experiencing still real? And can the audience still buy into this after the reveal? Those answers were obviously yes: the events that we saw were still very much real, and the consequences of them are real, and what Elliot went through is real. It's just the coping mechanism he used was not exactly what he saw. To me, it was definitely one of those things that prompted a real conversation. Like I think I told you last year, we're not in it for gotcha moments or shocking the audience, but we're in it for interesting reveals and deepening and enriching Elliot's experience. We felt that him going through his prison sentence in this way was more true to life to Elliot than actually having seen it as a prison.

But you understand how fandom works. Having done this two years in a row, you've now conditioned them to, whatever you do next, the fans will pick it apart frame-by-frame to explain what's actually happening.

Sam Esmail: Yeah, well, truth be told, don't you feel like it's already happening this season?

True. How did you feel about people having this exact theory of prison after only the season premiere had aired?

Sam Esmail: It was weird. One thing that we always do is we never want to cheat the audience. We never want it to be some extraordinarily contrived thing where we're basically lying to the audience and what they're seeing isn't actually happening, and we're fooling them. In doing that, and being honest with what is going on, even though the surroundings aren't actually what they are, we didn't really hide it that well, right? I didn't expect people to catch on from the very first episode, but I thought people would start to theorize and catch on. Look, a reveal is great when it's surprising, but it's terrible when it feels like a cheat. To me, the fact that some people who guessed it may not be surprised, it verifies that we didn't cheat anybody, because it adds up and makes sense to them still.

I'm sure much of this will be explained in future episodes, in terms of why Elliot was in prison to begin with, but was Ray a guard in the prison? How much of Ray's business involved prisoners versus the outside world?

Sam Esmail: That's going to get revealed in a couple of episodes.

By sending Elliot to prison, you also spend the first half of the season with him physically separate from the other characters, give or take a brief visit by Gideon or Darlene. What did you see as the advantages and disadvantages of having him apart from the rest of the ensemble, other than Mr. Robot?

Sam Esmail: I'm glad you asked that question. Obviously, knowing we were doing this, it was very important for Elliot to address this incredibly internal conflict that sprung on him at the end of the first season: that he has an alter ego that he can't control. That was the first and foremost issue that I wanted to tackle with Elliot. So of course the isolation of him being in prison really helped that. It meant that we get to basically do this deep dive into his internal battle with his demons. There is not much else for him to do. He couldn't escape it. So it was great on that level. I knew it was going to be a polarizing choice to go in this direction with Elliot, but for whatever reason, it felt organic and natural. But when I took a step back and looked at the whole season, I realized that, when I think about the sequels that I really love, or second acts of movies or larger stories, they tend to do this: to go into this inward battle after accomplishing this big Herculean hero's journey. The one uncanny similarity – which I only realized in hindsight – is Empire Strikes Back. At the end of the first movie, you take down the big band, the revolutionaries kind of win, but the second movie opens, they're still battling, they're still struggling, the Empire is rebuilding, and literally Luke goes off to another planet for most of that movie to learn to become a Jedi, while his sister is still out there fighting the good fight. This wasn't something planned, but I looked at it and realized we were literally following that same pattern. And it's not just with Empire Strikes Back. It's Godfather Part II. There's a lot of introspection that happens. That's often the next stage after this huge externl conflict comes to an end. Then it's, “Well, then what?” It's a hangover moment, of reflection and going inward. So that direction made sense for our story.

A few weeks ago, you tweeted an apology to the fans about the length of recent episodes. Overall, how do you feel about episode length and scene lengths? USA is obviously giving you a lot of leeway here.

Sam Esmail: I'm a TV viewer. I watch a lot of shows. I don't love the longer run times, especially if they come late at night, I'm not going to be able to finish the whole episode. That's honestly what that tweet was about. I think you wrote this: the run time doesn't matter if it's engaging or compelling, who cares? If you're in it, you're in it. And if you're not, 40 minutes can seem like two hours. The run time to me was a little arbitrary, and my tweet was more about it being us airing at 10 p.m., and I don't want people to stay up til midnight to watch my show. But I think the reaction was more because of the pacing. Because we went in a more introspective direction with Elliot, the pacing was a lot slower than the first season. On that level, for certain people, it wasn't engaging enough to justify the run time and to justify the pace. And for us, we were handling setting up storylines, the table setting of the entire season. We felt we were telling a compelling story that engaged us. That's always a judgment call that you have to make when you're in the edit bay. But as we moved into the season and got done with the table setting, our run times got shorter. I think moving forward, I want to keep that run time as tight as possible.

How has it been directing all of the episodes yourself while also handling all the other showrunner duties? How overwhelming or not has it been so far?

Sam Esmail: To me, it was a lot more streamlined than the first season, in terms of the creative decision making: everything from the color of that purse to what is the emotional arc of Elliot for the season. All those decisions have just become a lot more streamlined when I'm sitting in the directors chair for every episode. For me, it's so much about the filmmaking of it. For me, it's obviously overwhelming, and time-consuming, and takes a lot of energy, but it feels like there's no other recourse. It has to be done this way, because the filmmaking aspect of it is as important as the writing and the storytelling, because it's how the story gets told. So I look at it that way. I also just happen to really enjoy it. It's overwhelming, but in a good way.

How do you feel the show's visual language has evolved with you as sole director?

Sam Esmail: I think it's much more cohesive. It feels much more of one piece. That's one thing I'll say about the show – and I quite enjoy this season a lot more than the first because of that – the show relies so much on the visual language, and the way we choose our shots. It's not just what's on the page, but how that page gets adapted to the screen. It really really helps implant us in Elliot's brain in that way. In this season, which is one of the reasons I felt it was imperative that I direct every episode, knowing we're going to get really introspective with Elliot, and go really inside his brain, it was so important to really have that cohesive visual look to the show. The first few episodes really relied on that, heavily. So the deeper we get into his perspective, and the deeper the world warps to his POV, and the other characters, how deep we get into their world, and how that visual language changes with them, the more consistent the visual language needs to get. I think this season is definitely more consistent in that aspect than the first.

In tonight's episode, Mr. Robot tells Elliot that he shot and killed Wellick, but how much should Elliot – or we – believe anything Mr. Robot says, even at this more cooperative stage of their relationship?

Sam Esmail: (laughs) That's a great question. But I would put that question back to you: How much do you believe, given what you know about Mr. Robot, from what you've seen already? That's what we have to go on, and what Elliot has to go on. That's the intention: we know as much about Mr. Robot as Elliot does, and so we're so with him in that regard of whether to trust him or not. That's part of the journey you're going to have to go on.

This is a small thing, but with Whiterose, I've never been entirely sure which pronoun to use, particularly since we've encountered the Minister Zhang persona. Which is meant to be the real version of the character BD Wong is playing?

Sam Esmail: Oh, it's definitely Whiterose. Not Minister Zhang. Whiterose is the real person; Zhang is the mask.

What did you want to add with the addition of Dom as a regular law-enforcement presence on the show?

Sam Esmail: It's tough. I love cop shows and crime shows and crime films, but that storyline can be so filled with tropes. It's almost inescapable. Not that I know anything personally about law enforcement, but they do have to find clues, and based off those clues, try and hunt down the person. A lot of that just falls into cliches that you've seen time and time again. With Dom, I wanted her to feel as real as possible. A lot of times, when you see films and TV shows about detectives or cops, they tend to be the cliche of this loner: the Elliot Gould character in The Long Goodbye. By himself, can't keep his personal life straight, has a cat. That loneliness was something where I said, “That, I understand. That's a theme of our show, that's pertinent,” and so we took that, and as soon as I started to think about Dom as a character, I thought about what that looks like in the context of today. And that began to inform who Dom is. Grace (Gummer), by the way, is just amazing, and those scenes in the “Kernel Panic” episode where she's home by herself are so relateable – when she's up at four in the morning watching some streaming channel and surfing on her phone. And the way Grace plays it, it's not woe is me, it's not pity me. It's the flip side to Elliot, who maybe does wallow in his loneliness. Dom, on the other hand, has some gusto: “I'm alone, and I do feel lonely, but I've got a job and I'm going to get up and do it.” It's just a really good counterpart, I think, to Elliot.

Finally, I don't expect or want you to spoil what's coming next, but what can the audience expect thematically from the rest of season 2?

Sam Esmail: The way I'm going to answer it is to say that we are still going to continue this internal struggle with Elliot. I've said it before and I'm going to continue saying it: this is at heart about Elliot's emotional journey. The flipside of that is that, as with any mystery, you've got to start answering some questions. We will do plenty of question-answering in the back half, especially with all the things we set up in the first half of the season.

What did everybody else think? If you were paying attention to the fan theory the whole time, how do you feel about it being proved correct? If you somehow avoided it, do you feel the show played fair, and will this alter how you view the series going forward?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com