Despite the signs that USA Network’s Mr. Robot would succeed during its debut season — the pilot drew wide praise, and the show was renewed for a second season before its official premiere — Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot’s creator, had measured expectations. “I ultimately thought maybe we could [reach] a great cult status,” he said on the eve of the show’s inaugural season finale. “I imagined in my head that was the peak, but the fact that it broke out of that was a huge shock.”
We spoke with Esmail about why he believes the audience connected with Mr. Robot, how he continually wants to transcend typical television storytelling, and what avenues will be explored in season two.
When you were preparing for the show, and after SXSW, did you think season one would reach the heights that it did?
No fucking way. There is no way anybody would have told me anything close to this would have happened. We are doing a very complicated show with mental illness and drug addiction. Pitching that to an audience seemed like a dubious offer, and for the response we are getting, it did not feel proportional at all.
I am happy for it. On top of it, we are dealing with hacking, and it is a little cerebral, and we have these dark territories we go into. I still am in disbelief.
What connected it to people, then, in what is typically a quiet period for TV?
Here’s what I’ll say. I was watching The Gift, and it is really good, and I had no idea what would happen. It started to surprise me along the way. I left the movie thinking to myself, This is a rare feeling, and why is that? Why am I surprised to see unexpected twists and turns, because I am so used to seeing things that are so predictable? Here is the bad guy, and here is the fight, and the good guys will always win. I remember thinking, There is something to that.
Do you think there’s a dumbing-down of audiences?
I honestly think we don’t even expect to be surprised anymore by the movies or shows we watch. We know where it is going to go, and we go along with it because it is done really well, or maybe there is a performance that is really good, or the dialogue is clever. The one thing I wanted to do with Mr. Robot is say “fuck no” to all that. Once you think you have a handle on what the show is, we are going to go left, and then right.
There are risks inherent because you don’t want to do that for the sake of doing that. It has to feel organic and natural to the story arc. It all was, because initially, when I had this as a feature, this whole first act fell into place with what I had originally intended. At the same time, though, we were trying to keep in that classic storytelling technique where you want to know what happens next, and you have no idea what happens next. That was extremely important us.
And that is the thing that connected to audiences the most. They really could not predict the next steps. Sometimes they could, but they still couldn’t trust themselves, and for me, that is a fun place to be. That is a fun relationship to have with an audience. Unfortunately, it is rare nowadays.
Is that why season one ends with that B.D. Wong single-take scene? To keep the audience truly guessing?
I always knew I wanted to end the first season like that. I didn’t want the audience to come away thinking FSociety had won because they took down the bad guys. Evil Corp is done, so the stakes are gone. But I always knew there was another layer. We’re not even half-peeling this whole thing off yet, and we are going to show you a little bit of it. I always had that scene in my head as the last scene of the season, because I wanted to tell the audience the stakes are going to go even higher.
But I felt weird ending the scene not on Elliot. It didn’t feel right to end on these two other characters we barely knew, and that’s when I came up with the idea of putting it in as a coda. It always kind of was a coda, and we put it in the post-credits. It wasn’t trying to break new ground, but it felt natural for that kind of scene.
You’ve spoken about Joanna Wellick having a larger role for season two, but are there any other hints you can give about what to expect next season?
The good thing about the show is that we surprise you. One thing people have been asking is if Christian [Slater] will be around for the second season, and I will say 100 percent. Maybe to add a bit more spice: We will explore a little bit of Elliot’s family life.
In terms of his mother?
His mother, and even Darlene. Also, this show is about this person discovering that he has this disorder. That was what the original feature was going to [be] about, that’s what this show is just about to scratch the surface of. What we are really setting up for the second season is what happens when you become self-aware of your own disorders.
Are you aware of keeping the momentum for season two in light of other shows that have churned critically out of the gate, but then stumbled in the seasons following the debut?
You can’t avoid the fact that you have a lot to live up to next season. We have to be better next season, and better every season. That’s how I look at it. But I am not going to deviate from the plan. The honest and great thing about this show is that we are staying true to our track. We are telling the Elliot story, we have an end we are building up to, we are sticking to that, and even though we have gotten some momentum, we are not going to take the opportunity to linger or exploit it by adding extra seasons.
We have this track, and we know it. We have gotten a lot of confidence from the first season, and who knows? As the story progresses, other things may come up. But as long as we stay on the emotional journey with Elliot, I am never going to step outside of that and feel we have to do more than that.