When Mr. Robot premiered in 2015, it was far ahead of the curve. Its head-on critique of technocratic late capitalism and focus on revolutionary politics, not to mention its depiction of an ideologically divided populace contending with the whims of a megalomaniacal leader, only became more and more timely as the series progressed. Yet, at its heart, Mr. Robot was about something much simpler: a mentally ill young man named Elliot (Rami Malek, in his Emmy-winning breakout role), wrestling with a changing world while learning to reconcile his divided personality. His hacktivist rhetoric and the violent fallout of his movement’s actions are filtered through this internal struggle of trying to connect with the people closest to him. Now, after four seasons and many twists and turns along the way, Elliot’s journey is finally coming to an end.
Vulture spoke with creator and director Sam Esmail about Mr. Robot’s final season, the evolution of Elliot’s relationship with his split personality Mr. Robot, optimistic readings of classic paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, the beauty of Christmas specials, and finding a measure of hope in an otherwise dark landscape. “This was never about ‘Capitalism: Is it good or bad?’ or ‘How can we fix the world economy?’ or ‘How can we fix the geopolitical nature of money?’” Esmail said. “This was about wanting to connect and not being able to connect.”
Did you have an idea of where you were gonna end this story before you got to season four?
I knew what the ending was when I started the show, because I originally scripted it as a feature. We kept that ending intact for these past three seasons, so the final two episodes were fully formed. Going into the fourth season, we were pitching the season arc, where we are at with the relationship between Elliot and Mr. Robot — that’s usually our starting point. We were talking in circles, so I stopped the conversation and said, “Let’s put the two episodes that we know we’re building toward up on the wall. How much story do we have left?” And that’s how we came to this last batch of episodes. What I did not want to do was tread water or start to go off on tangents. I just wanted to stay focused on that ending.
Can you talk about the relationship between Elliot and Mr. Robot — a.k.a his dad, or his image of his dad — and how that evolved from season one through season four?
The stages of it are pretty defined. The first season was an awakening, Elliot coming to terms with the fact that he’s been fantasizing his dead father as another personality within him. The second season is hardcore resistance. Elliot was desperate to shut this down, to treat this illness with a blunt force attack, to try to smother him out of existence. Then that culminates in the third season, which is this total disintegration between the two. He was able to smother him out, but not out of existence, just out of his own awareness, so he’s literally warring with himself in isolation.
This fourth season is the opposite. The keyword for this season is integration. Elliot starts to realize that there’s a lot of who he is in Mr. Robot and vice versa. So Elliot and Mr. Robot start to overlap and work together. We have a psychologist consultant in the writers’ room and we followed the model of how she treats people with this disorder [dissociative identity disorder]. It’s a little bit like the seven stages of grief, where there’s denial, and then there’s bargaining, and now we’re at the acceptance stage, where Elliot’s gonna try and reconcile with this disorder and what it actually means.
When you got to season three, I felt like Elliot was the thinker and Mr. Robot was the muscle. Now we’re in season four and Mr. Robot is doing things that Elliot might otherwise do and vice versa.
That was totally by design. We’re starting to see the two of them meld together into this one person because, in fact, they are. Season four kicks off with Angela’s violent murder, and Elliot has become unhinged in a way. He’s just out for vengeance. He’s gonna be like what Mr. Robot was like in the first season. Of course, Mr. Robot, throughout the last three seasons, has seen the consequences of that aggression, so now he’s taken a step back and has become more like Elliot. In a weird way, they flip-flop.
I was struck by the cliffhanger at the end of episode two, where there’s a piece of information that Darlene claims she told Elliot, and neither Elliot nor Mr. Robot remember it, so there must be a third person. My first thought was, “Oh, it’s the viewer.”
That’s an interesting theory.
Who’s he talking to? He’s not talking to Mr. Robot when he does his voice over. There must be some other person in there that we haven’t met yet.
I take it that you’re not gonna explore that with me here.
Now, why would I do that, to you or your readers?
Okay, fair enough.
[Laughs] Let me just say, you will get the answer to the end of that question. By the end of the season.
For all the shit that I’ve given you about big twists, you ended season three with the biggest one of them all: Phillip looks at Angela and says, “I am your father.” You really doubled down! [Laughs.]
It’s funny, that was something I had known since the first season. I actually thought we had tipped our hand big time at the end of the first season, when Price brings Angela into the fold and cozies up to her really quickly. I was okay if people had figured that out because I’m never really in it for the shock value. To me, reveals can be impactful when they’re earned. When they’re that mix of inevitable and surprising. That’s the story of this whole show. This was never about “Capitalism: Is it good or bad?” or “How can we fix the world economy?” or “How can we fix the geopolitical nature of money?” This was about wanting to connect and not being able to connect. The Price-Angela relationship was very key to all that.
If you think about how this whole thing unraveled from the get-go, the fact that this small cybersecurity outfit in Lower Manhattan was the firm for this huge conglomerate was a little strange. That was because Price wanted to have this indirect relationship with his daughter. Against his better judgment, he signs up this cybersecurity firm because his daughter works there. Angela then gets her best friend Elliot a job there, and then Elliot, of course, uses that to set this whole story in motion. When you boil down all the plot machinations, this is really about people and their relationships and their regrets and how they want to come together with the people that they love or the people that they think they want to love. Emotionally, this was about lonely people yearning to connect with somebody.
Over the years, you and I have had a number of conversations about the paranoid thriller, which is one of your favorite genres. One point of disagreement between us is that I believe it can’t be a true paranoid thriller if it has a happy ending. But I’m looking at season four and it really seems like you want hope, if not happiness, to come out of this. I can’t picture you leaving the viewer feeling completely shattered.
I always think about the Three Days of the Condor ending, which is very haunting, right? To some people, it’s clear-cut: The system has won, it will always win, and no matter what, Robert Redford has to live the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Or maybe not. Maybe you have that optimistic point of view that Robert Redford is gonna figure out a way to give it to the New York Times and the press is gonna blow this thing wide open. I love endings where you can choose.
But the thing about the paranoid thriller is it’s always man versus the system, and the system in our real lives continues on. Look at what’s going on with the whole Trump scandal. Even if it kicked out Trump, there’s still gonna be all these issues and all this corruption going on. That is the most salient point of paranoid thrillers: Even if you take down one tentacle, there’s still many others out there. And I wanna honor that. I don’t think you can just take down one Big Bad that’s gonna rule them all and then the world is a better place. That feels like a dishonest take on our world.
Would you classify the show as science fiction?
No. To me, science fiction is when you go outside our understanding of science. I don’t think we’ve done anything like that, or, I should say, haven’t done anything like that yet. [Laughs]
I ask because, in season one, I felt like I was seeing a cyber-thriller or a social satire up until the point when the 5/9 hack happens. And then we’re in an alternate reality where all these things have happened, but everything else is connected to the reality that we know.
You could call Mr. Robot speculative fiction. It is an alternate timeline. One thing that we specifically set out to do, even in the first season, is that the calendar in the world of Mr. Robot is slightly off from our calendar. I wanted to have that creative license to say, “This is a slightly altered timeline from our world.” But it’s done in such a subtle way that, unless you’re a Reddit fan that’s inspecting every screengrab, you’re not gonna notice that the calendar is slightly off. I wanted to do it gently so that it can give us a license to do the things that we did with Obama and the 5/9 hack and all that.
How did your conception of Elliot change over time as the result of Rami Malek playing the role?
The thing about Elliot is, he can be obnoxious. He’s very angry at the world. He names his hacker group “Fuck Society.” It’s a very delicate thing for an audience member to watch a character like that, week in and week out, and be able to root for them. The thing that Rami allowed me to do as a writer and director is that no matter how difficult Elliot became, no matter how inaccessible I wrote him, or no matter how closed off he needed to be, Rami found a way to add that vulnerability.
The gift that Rami gives me is that he papers over the plot. The plot is designed to have these characters connect to you. The emotional experience is all you’re after. And because Mr. Robot can get complicated, Rami has that gift of being able to ground it. I mean, look, we’re talking about some really byzantine plot machinations. We’re inside the guy’s head. We don’t even know what’s real or what’s fantasy, and Rami was able to always walk that tightrope and make us be with him, whether or not we understood what was going on around him. I can’t imagine the show working at all without that.
What’s the teamwork like between him and Christian Slater on a practical level?
I do this thing where I call every actor and go over the season in large brushstrokes and get their feedback. I really do involve them in their storyline and their arc, because I do consider them co-creators of each of these characters. At a certain point, I actually think they know the character better than me. Specifically with Rami and Christian, whenever we start a season, we have this conversation where we lay the groundwork of, “Here’s where you’re at now. Here’s how you feel about each other. And, specifically with this last season, here’s where you guys overlap.” It wouldn’t have worked in this last season if I had just said, “Okay, Rami, now you play the aggressive id that was Mr. Robot in the first season, and Christian, you’re gonna do the opposite.” The three of us had to calibrate that.
There were several moments in season four where I thought, “Oh, how nice that Elliot is finally reaching a place of mental health.” It seems like there’s a negotiated truce happening between him and his alter ego.
That’s the idea. This is a real thing with DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder], that the journey is to bring these disparate personalities together. It’s such a great way to tell a story about one person’s self-discovery, or discovery of their own identity. We can dramatize that because, to a person suffering from DID, they do feel like different people. We were able to turn this into a drama between a young man and his dead father in this really interesting way that is actually a touchstone of a real mental illness out there. We want to handle it very respectfully, but ultimately, the show has never shied away from the fact that it is about mental illness, and that this person is going through a real traumatic experience.
Why did you decide to set this whole thing at Christmas, and how do you think that choice differentiates these final episodes from the others?
When I used to watch the British Office and Extras, I found both Christmas specials so deeply moving. They were basically little features. Each of them is about a couple hours long and was the send-off to the series. It had this interesting melancholy without being overly grim or pessimistic. It wasn’t too sentimental, but there was something very touching and moving. Christmas is always like that to me. It’s a time of trying to connect with your family members or friends, and it’s a time to get together with those people who you love. It’s also a time you tend to be self-reflective over the past year. For all of those reasons, the tone felt right to end the show on that note. There’s just something about Christmas that was able to capture what we wanted the finale to feel like.
That’s a much more heartwarming answer than I expected.
It’s a little different than Three Days at the Condor, which is also set over Christmas. [Laughs]
And The French Connection. And every Shane Black film.
I’ll put Die Hard up there. And Eyes Wide Shut. Although, if you think about Eyes Wide Shut, that’s probably Kubrick’s most optimistic film.
At least when it comes to marriage! [Laughs]
He leaves you on a note of hope there at the end, that these two are gonna work it out.
On the other hand, a horrible crime has been committed and everybody’s agreed to just forget about it because they’re scared.
There’s a horrible murder committed [and] the people behind it are gonna get away with completely, but at least Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will continue having their marriage. That’s what you’re left with. When you think about all the other Kubrick films, that is oddly the most hopeful, you know? That’s the most hope you’re gonna get from a Kubrick film.