the vulture tv podcast

Mr. Robot Creator Sam Esmail on How He Handles Criticism of the Show

Mr. Robot - Season 2
Photo: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

After being hailed as one of the best new shows on television last year, the second season of Mr. Robot has been received with a fair amount of criticism, and series creator Sam Esmail has been following every minute of it (on Vulture and elsewhere). He was a true sport when he joined the Vulture TV Podcast this week post-finale, to discuss how he handles criticism of the show, why he took so long to get to that twist, and how disappointing the conversation around diversity on television can be. Hear the full conversation on the Vulture TV Podcast, and read an edited transcript below:

Sam Esmail: Oh my god, I’m huge, huge, huge fans of you guys, I’m kind of geeking out right now.

Gazelle Emami: We’re very excited to have you.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Well, that answers the question of whether or not you were mad at me about today’s column.

SE: I am very mad at you, Matt, but I love your criticism and I read every single review where you trash our show. [Laughs.] But I definitely don’t take it personally and I see where you’re coming from and I’m glad we can talk about it because you never can usually do this. So it’s awesome.

MZS: That’s true. Usually it doesn’t happen.

Jen Chaney: How much of the press and conversation about the show as its airing do you pay attention to? I mean, obviously you’ve been listening to us.

SE: All of it. I’ve read every article of yours, Jen. [Laughter.] And by the way, I’ve read criticism since I was a kid. I used to want to be a critic. I think it’s an awesome job. You get to watch all this stuff and then write about it and analyze it and give insight into it. That’s an amazing job. I was terrible at it, though. And so when I read criticism of the show, sure, I’m not inhuman. In the moment I’m like, okay, I’m really hurt and really upset and it hurts my feelings and all of that, right? Then I get up the next day and I can read it and be like, well, wait a minute, I disagree with that person. I disagree with this, I disagree with that point. And oh, I can see that point, I see where he’s coming from there. It’s like the team of rivals thing — it can only make me better. It’s that Sorkin quote, you don’t surround yourself with smart people who agree with you, you surround yourself with smart people that disagree with you. And I really, truly take that in and believe that.

MZS: I would just respond only for myself, but I think it’s easy to forget when you’re reading a critic every single week or multiple times a week, that most of us who do this job, and have been doing it for a long time, understand that this is basically a parasitic profession. I don’t mean in the sense that we’re evil bloodsucking creatures, but we couldn’t exist if we didn’t have something to analyze. And I’m always conscious of that. So whether I like or don’t like a particular thing you do, my point of view is always that of an appreciator. I just like to be in the world that you create.

SE: Oh, thanks. But can I just say something? Obviously all three of you guys have watched the season — we took a lot of risks, right?  We knew this was gonna come, we knew not everybody was gonna love all the wacky things we were gonna do. And that’s just the price, that’s the price of what you do when you take a risk — you may fall flat on your face, you may swing and miss. And I think that’s okay. Because when you read good criticism, and I really mean this, they understand that.

MZS: And also I could be wrong. Five years from now I might watch season two again and go, oh boy, did I get that wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. [Laughter.]

JC: I think there is a public perception, too, that critics, they want to not like things. And that could not be further from the truth. I always go into things wanting to like them.

SE: I think that is so stupid. There are conspiracy theories about critics getting paid, this whole Suicide Squad thing where people are getting paid to shit on the movie. Honestly, those just really hurt fanboys. I don’t know. There are some critics that will just write provocative stuff to get attention, but I would say most of the time that’s not the case.

GE: Let’s talk about season two. One thing viewers have noticed is that the secondary characters got a lot more airtime.

SE: One of the reasons why I turned this into a TV show was because in the feature film version, Elliot was in every scene. It was Elliot all day long. That was the half-hour drama Matt always talks about. [Laughs.] Maybe it could’ve been the most brilliant movie ever made, but that was the movie. What made me turn it into a TV show is when I started writing it, we started drifting off into these other characters. I started loving Darlene, I started loving Angela, I started loving Tyrell, I started loving all the other possibilities that these people could take the story into.

And I was hamstrung in the first season because I was like, well, this is really only the first act, I need this thing to happen, I need this plot, whatever, the hack thing to happen. Because for me, plot is always an excuse to explore characters. ‘Cause who cares? The plot is the same plot that we see in basically every movie and TV show. But how we tell that story, what choices these characters could make …

So when we got into the second season, and Elliot goes into this introspective mode, I was like, wow, great. The biggest selling point we had in the writers room was that now we can really dive deep into all the other characters that we really couldn’t get into in the first season.

MZS: Why did you make the decision to delay the revelation of the real nature of Mr. Robot until late in the first season, and why did you wait to confirm that Elliot was in fact behind bars in the second season? Why didn’t you just let us in on that from the beginning?

SE: We talked about that. We said, okay, let’s just tell the audience, right? And then he’ll be in prison and then he’ll imagine it away and go into his reprogramming mind, similar to what we did in the pilot. And then someone was like — that someone was probably me [laughter] — what if we didn’t tell the audience? Okay, all right, what does that mean? What do we get out of that? Is there some added value to that, and if not, we shouldn’t do it.

I started looking at it as, well, if we start hinting something is going to be off here, we’re not going to hide it that well. It’s gotta be real. It’s gotta be like, no, there is something a little off, we’re hinting at it, we’re really in his coping mechanism, what Elliot would do, but the audience is going to sense it and is going to maybe predict it, maybe not. I mean, I didn’t really know, but I didn’t really care either way.

In our show, reality becomes our subtext. So if you have a scene with two characters, one of them loves the other, it’s more interesting for that person to hate that person on the surface but subtextually you feel, oh, well that person actually loves them. And you sense that maybe or maybe you don’t, and then you’re surprised when that comes out. Either way, there is another layer of engagement. It’s a lot more interesting. If everybody is saying on-the-nose dialogue to each other, if everything is on the surface, that becomes less intriguing, that doesn’t let me engage on it on a level that I think could be deeper and richer.

We have this opportunity with our character, who is obviously narrating to us and considers us a friend, felt betrayed by us the first season. What if he feels like, well, I’m gonna lie back, I’m gonna withhold from you and I’m not gonna tell you everything. I mean, I’ve not seen this done before, but now we’re developing this weird relationship with the audience. Whether you saw the prison coming or not, that’s not the point. The point is that now you’re having this subtextual relationship with him that you didn’t have in the first season. And then to add that now, under the unreliable narrator device, not only do we see it through his eyes, but he could also be lying to you. That’s another storytelling device that we could throw in.

And Matt, I really hope that you ask that we go down this road a little bit …

MZS: Well, sure. I must say what an unusual situation it is to be talking to you. Can I just start by saying, contrary to what people ask me on Twitter everyday, I don’t hate Mr. Robot. I really, really like it. [Laughter.] And I’ve said this, James Agee said this about the Marx Brothers, the worst thing you could make would be more interesting than the best of what other people would make. I’m on board all the way to the end. You’re like a musician where even if I don’t like every one of your songs, I’m gonna go see you live. In case you had any misconception about that.

It’s just there are certain things as a viewer that didn’t work for me, and I guess one of the things was this thing you were just talking about. What threw me was I was not clear on how much of a tip-off you were giving us, like how closely held is this secret? Are we supposed to not know or are we supposed to be in doubt? That was what I didn’t like about it. It wasn’t the idea that he’s looking at reality and seeing something other than reality, it was the execution that threw me.

Jen Chaney: And if I could ask in addition to that, I was wondering what the calculus was in terms of figuring out when you were going to reveal that he was actually in prison, because obviously that happened a few episodes in. Did you think about revealing it earlier and then you decided for whatever reason you wanted to wait?

SE: We knew that we wanted Elliot to get to a place. Elliot’s motivation was very, very clear in the beginning, which is he wanted to get rid of Mr. Robot. He wasn’t gonna do that, obviously, in this season at least. So the point in which he was going to get to that level where he was gonna make peace with the fact that he exists, he’s a part of him and he’s not going to get rid of him, but maybe he can live with him. That was the point where we thought, okay, he doesn’t need to be in isolation anymore. That’s the intersection. So when we mapped out the season — and this included all the other story lines and all the other characters and how they intersected with each other — that’s what determined the length of the prison reveal.

Obviously the reaction was I’m trying to get one over one everyone. I could have really lied and you would’ve never guessed. And it’s weird ‘cause I didn’t think we would get that, because in the first season everyone kind of knew and I was very open and honest about, well, look, guys, you knew from the beginning that we were telegraphing it. And we undercut it so much.

I forget the filmmaker that I’m paraphrasing, who said that you’re trying to train the audience how to watch. We thought we did that in the first season, you know what I mean?

GE: So what you’re saying is it wasn’t supposed to be a big twist, but the conversation obviously did become about, What is really happening. I imagine that can be frustrating when it becomes too focused on this element, where that is just the subtext, as you’re saying. Has this made you less inclined to do this kind of thing going forward, just because of how much we live in this kind of Reddit culture where people dissect everything to this degree?

SE: I’ll respond by saying that I don’t mind. I don’t mind that people dissect. And like I said, when they figured it out … I mean, it was really quick, it was like the first episode [Laughter]. I remember everyone was bummed out because we were still shooting and everybody on set was like, Oh shit, this is fucked up. [Laughter.] I think somebody at Vulture actually really hit a home run on it.

And I’m like, that’s awesome, that means we didn’t lie, that means we actually did our job. To think that people could decrypt our show… and ‘cause we do a good job, I think, of adding details and adding layers and adding symbolism. The fact that people could read that that quickly, I was impressed by myself, ya know? I never really took it as a slight.

So if you’re asking me about going forward … see to me, I know that people complain about it. I’m kind of trained to read the note behind the note. I don’t know if that was the problem, if that was what they were really having issues with. I guess in my opinion, I can’t take the storytelling device of “reveals” away. I think they are so interesting and so impactful and if you execute it well, it really works. Our show is really a big mystery tale and that we are unraveling it layer by layer. I don’t know if I would take that away. So I guess my answer would be “no,” I would probably still do it again.

MZS: Why is it that when you show violence, often extremely brutal violence, you show it from a distance?

SE: I think it’s more brutal that way. In classic action films, and I think Spielberg probably is one of the best at directing action sequences, it’s those wide shots, it’s where you know what’s going on and it becomes more real and therefore more brutal. It really hits you more.

I remember when we did the Tyrell scene where he’s punching the homeless guy in the first season, and we got tight coverage and that was the instinct. And I’m watching it in the edit bay and I just completely zoned out because I had no idea what was going on and it’s really desensitizing. But when you sit in that wide shot and you see this guy just taking it and he’s punching him in the face, it really disturbed me. For me, it’s just a much more powerful method.

MZS: Related to that, when you shoot a scene like that or when you do a long, long take, and you’ve done a number of very long, like True Detective long takes on this show, do you leave yourself an option in case it doesn’t work? Do you have a second camera shooting stuff or are you just like, nope, this is how we’re doing it, let’s hope it works, guys?

SE: I never leave [another option]. It sucks because in TV you really should shoot two cameras every single time. That’s the thing you do because you have to work so fast. I really don’t like doing that. I’m really into composing the shot, making sure it looks right, and it’s all about the details, it’s not just the composition, it’s the production design and all that. If I have to worry about that with two different angles — it really drives me up the wall.

But when we do those oners, there is no other way. We can’t shoot coverage, because what are you going to shoot coverage of? The oner is taking Angela from the elevator into a hallway which then goes into the FBI and then into the bathroom. I mean I don’t even know how to … I intentionally block it in a certain way so I know I have no other option. And we just have to do it until we get it right.

GE: Can we talk about Angela a little bit? Her scenes were probably my favorite this season — you have that emotional karaoke scene, but you also have that episode where she’s doing the hack that set my heart racing. Had you always envisioned this type of role for her?

SE: No, no. This is the great thing about TV is that when you discover certain strengths in an actor you can then begin to exploit them in really fun ways. I was shooting the season finale last year, the shoe store scene, and she says that line about the Prada. I’m watching this scene in the edit bay, and I don’t know, is she enjoying this or is she embarrassed, is she shameful about how she treated this poor guy or is she actually getting off on it? I actually thought, Portia has this weird, uncanny ability to be right there in the middle. She was the one that spoke to me and guided what the journey of her character was gonna be this season.

MZS: A lot of times when I interview writers or filmmakers or showrunners, it seems like they fall into two camps. There are the ones who work intuitively with the characters, and there are others where they know in a general way where everybody is going to end up. And then they’re looking for psychologically consistent things to happen at each point along the way to lead them to that destination, provided that the show lasts long enough for them to get there.

But you just said something very interesting, which is that you didn’t know how to read this character, who is your character. I know that’s probably partly due to the performance, but how intuitive are you when it comes to understanding your characters?

SE: Well here’s the thing, I did know on the page and then in the scene I said, “I don’t know.” On the page I was like, she should be shameful. And I also knew I didn’t want that, I didn’t want that person because I thought that was too cartoonish. What Portia did was somewhere in the middle, that was nuanced, that was human. That was the, I’m the nice girl, but I’m tempted by this and that’s who I am, I’m that grey area.

I am never stringent about where we solidify things in the writers room because I feel like that’s always a dangerous mistake. The things that happen on set, the things that happen in production, and the things that happen with the actors and in the blocking and where the camera is going all inform you of what feels authentic. I kind of feel like that’s my only job, to gravitate to where the authentic moment is gonna be at any given time.

JC: I wanted to ask about the music in the show, especially the second season, which I think have been great musical choices, but they are also very carefully chosen. So I was wondering if you could talk about what that process is, if you’re writing things into each episode as you go, and then just hoping you can get the rights or how do you go about that?

SE: Music is the soul. For me, the biggest thing is not about the plot or the story, sometimes it’s not even about the characters but more than anything, it’s really about tone. It’s about a vibe or an emotion or a state of mind or whatever you’re trying to put your audience into. And once you get them in there, I feel like then you can do things with characters that are interesting and then you can do things with plot.

But you have to establish that, which is one of the reasons why I never wanted an opening theme song. I’m like, every episode is gonna have a different feeling. I want to be able to control how we kick off this story and this episode and that could vary tonally from episode to episode. A theme song to me will just lay down the gauntlet of, this is how this episode is going to feel at the start, and I never wanted that.

Sometimes I do write into it in the script. I think that’s always a best guess, because how the hell do I know until I see it come together in the edit bay, and that’s honestly where everything comes together. And sometimes the editor throws out a suggestion and sometimes a friend will, but it’s usually me and the editor. We’re sitting there and we’re going though a fuckload of songs per choice. We do not make song choices lightly. And sometimes it’s about silence or cutting off the song at the right moment. Sound in general is such an important ingredient in the show and because I believe it really affects the tone.

JC: In the second to last episode, you used a bunch of songs from Back to the Future and they were not the obvious, like, “Power of Love,” that telegraphed immediately what it was. But to anybody who watched that movie a million times or had that soundtrack, I’m not referring to myself of course, it immediately jumped out at you. Is there a reason for that? Were you trying to telegraph something to us?

SE: Obviously we have detailed, meticulous choices, right? And there are certain reasons and logical explanations as to why we did this and that and whatever. But I gotta say the driving force of a lot of this is, does it feel right? Are we getting the right tone out of this? And maybe we think about, well, why does it feel right.

In that episode, it’s a huge Whiterose moment. And obviously Whiterose has a thing about time. The first song we threw in was “Night Train” in the van. And then we got out of it and then we moved on and we cut other scenes, and we got to the end and we’re with Tyrell. I think someone had put some other song in there and it wasn’t really working so we’re going through, and we did “Earth Angel.” That’s when it was like, wait a minute, there is something about this that feels right. And then we went back and we put in “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and then “Time Bomb Town” in the cab, and then we were like, wait a minute, we’re just playing Back to the Future songs in here. That Whiterose scene I knew should not have music, but I knew it should be surrounded by it, it should be surrounded by something that was referencing it but not directly. And that’s kind of how it all went down. It just felt right.

GE: You’ve talked about how the Arab Spring has inspired the show a bit in terms of the theme of revolution. And, along those lines, this season we see the revolution not working out. But it’s also a very American story in how it focuses on what it feels like to be an outsider. Your star, Rami Malek, is Egyptian-American, as are you, and one of the members of fsociety, Trenton, is an Iranian-American. Are you partly trying to play on the feeling of being an immigrant in America, in terms of building the mood and tone of the show?

SE: Yeah. The thing about it is, when I made those choices, some of them in the screenplay, some of them in casting, which then inspired certain character choices, it was never to talk about it. Elliot is obviously of mixed race, his mother and father are different ethnicities, but we do not talk about it. Trenton, we dip our toe into it, but we do not talk about it, we let it just inform it.

And the reason why, and I did that very deliberately, because when I wrote Elliot I didn’t know, right? I didn’t know who it was gonna be and it didn’t really matter to me. And then when I cast Rami, who is obviously brilliant and perfect for the part, how do I reconcile his ethnicity — is he Egyptian, not Egyptian? I mean is there something here, should I be diving into that? And then I felt like there’s some reverse racism going on here. Wait a minute, I can’t cast Rami unless I address the fact that he is Egyptian in some way? I didn’t want that to now all of a sudden dictate anything about the character that would’ve happened had I cast someone white.  But I couldn’t just ignore it either, right? Because it needed to inform who he was.

And then that’s when it grew out, what you were saying, this outcast status or this outcast look about him, that then felt intrinsic to how Rami plays Elliot and how potentially I wrote Elliot. And it all becomes a more subconscious choice. Even when I wrote the Trenton character, and I wrote her in as Iranian-American, I didn’t do that because I wanted to explore Iranian-Americans, I did that because I was thinking about what kind of people would join this group from all walks of life. I’m also kind of reflecting on my own reality, my own circle of friends … that this type of person felt that way, that it felt right to be in this group.

And so it all came from this really genuine place of what organically makes sense, what informs this character that I’m trying to write, or trying to come across in the best way without it being about like, okay, here is this really diverse cast. And honestly, I think that’s really important because one of the things I get worried about with this diversity thing that’s going on right now, I don’t want people to look at it as homework. I don’t want people to write something and say, well, now we’ve gotta make them black and we gotta make them Native American.

GE: And that’s partly kind of what’s happening.

SE: Yeah. And I think that’s really sad. I think, have a genuine curiosity about that. Have a genuine curiosity about what would it mean to have an Indian-American in this part, in this character, that’s going to change how you write the character. And if you have that genuine curiosity, that to me is when you make that choice. I don’t know if there is a solution, but the solution is, why don’t we have more genuine curiosity? ‘Cause, man, aren’t those stories amazing?  I can rattle off Master of None, Atlanta, all these amazing shows where we’re not seeing terribly different stories than what we’ve seen prior, but because you have now taken this different perspective, it’s totally new and original and unique. No one else wants to tap into that? It’s like gold right there.

MZS: When your star dedicated his Emmy to the “Elliots of the world,” what did you take that to mean?

SE: I think it’s about people who feel a little alienated, who feel a little lonely, who feel they have some social anxiety and can’t really talk to people. By the way, Rami is not anything like that [laughter], but he does play a character that speaks to a lot of people like that.

I’m like that. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of that is what I wanted to write about with the character. I think that triggered a lot of people. And Rami can sense that. That’s where the connection is. I don’t think it’s just young males, I think it’s anybody who has that alienation.

MZS: What kind of comments do you get from fans of the show about that specific thing, about feeling represented, what do they say?

SE: It’s really interesting. Obviously I get a lot of, like, I want to be a hacker and you’re talking about me and I don’t ever go out, and that kind of stuff, which is great. And then there’s the other group where there’s a lot of people who have real serious issues with social anxiety. I mean people can say social anxiety because, whatever, they say stupid things at a party. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say they have serious issues with social anxiety. It means that they can’t function in social settings without really being terrified or panicking. And so they isolate themselves, and then there’s that double effect of then feeling incredibly lonely, and then they feel like it’s their fault, and then there is all this shame that goes into it. Those are the people that really write to me and talk to me about this show.

I can sit here and tell you that I intended for all this to happen and I’m changing lives and all that, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know. I was just talking about some of my experiences and putting a lot of that into the character of Elliot. And when I get that kind of reaction, it’s obviously incredibly moving.

GE: Now that you’ve done a whole season where you’ve been super-involved on every level — you were directing every episode, you’re writing — is that something you want to do again just given, I’m sure that was an insane amount of work?

SE: In a weird way, I never wanted — I don’t consider myself a very good writer. I consider myself okay, I don’t consider myself great. There’s Woody Allen and Aaron Sorkin, there’s Quentin Tarantino. I’m not ever gonna be on that level. But I do consider myself a good filmmaker. That’s all I wanted to do, I just wanted to direct. And then I was reading stuff that I didn’t love, so I was like, well, let me just write the stuff that I want to direct, because I was very specific and I really couldn’t work with other writers. So that’s how I started writing.

So directing all the episodes — I barely slept, it was exhausting. I worked every day, I was editing on the weekends, I was shooting every day during the week. But it streamlined everything in a way that did not happen in the first season. And I can feel it. I know that maybe it’s minor to everyone else, but I know there is more of a visual cohesion in the second season than the first season.

And that’s not to knock any of the great directors that worked on the first season, ‘cause they were great. But it’s just, how do you keep up that level of cohesion without having that? Especially when you’re a show this specific, and I do have a specific vision of the show. And it’s all about standing there in the middle and saying “yes” to that red dress, no to Rami wanting to add a line. It’s all about those little choices and it just makes for a more cohesive experience.

In terms of the writing, I have embraced my writers room in a way second season that I didn’t really do in the first season ‘cause I had never worked with the other writers before and I plan to just keep doing that in the third season. But the filmmaking aspect I think is gonna stay the same and I will probably continue directing all the episodes.

MZS: Do you ever feel like you need a break from being inside Elliot’s head?

SE: Every day. [Laughter.] The world is so layered and so cryptic, and that’s why when I read reviews about, Oh this is too opaque and I don’t know what’s going on, I get it. But at the end of the day, if I’m gonna be honest with how Elliot sees the world, I keep going back to that. That’s my only metric. It all comes down to that. Do I get tired of it? Yes, but at the same time, it’s the same thing I would say about directing. Do I get tired? Definitely. But at the same time it exhilarates me.

JC: Do you have a sense of how many seasons you need to tell the story that you want to tell?  I think you have said in other interviews that you imagine it going to four or five seasons, but do you have a sense of that at this point?

SE: I think it’s maybe five. I’ll say five. I have upgraded from four or five to maybe five. [Laughter.]

GE: In terms of season three, where are you at in that process?

SE: We start the writers room in two weeks. I literally did the mix on Monday, the day after the Emmys, for this week’s finale. Or I just finalized it, I should say. I don’t really get a break from Elliot.

GE: Are you taking a vacation or anything?

SE: I am. I’m a big Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist so I’m going to Bermuda this weekend. [Laughter.]

GE: In terms of season three, is there anything you can tell us about what vision you have?

SE: Here’s what I’d say. I always look at every season as the stages of Elliot’s evolution. So the first season is this naïve Elliot who goes down the rabbit hole and has a shocking realization about himself by the end of the season. The second season is this all-out battle with himself and Mr. Robot, and trying to battle this realization away, basically.

So when we go into the next stage, I always say it’s the disintegration part. Now all bets are off. These guys, there is no way they can be copacetic, so now they’re gonna disintegrate. I know that sounds cryptic but it wouldn’t be Mr. Robot if it wasn’t.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Mr. Robot Creator on How He Takes Show Criticism