Spoiler Warning: Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the “Mr. Robot” season finale.
Sam Esmail admits he remains “100 percent surprised” that USA network allowed him the creative latitude that resulted in “Mr. Robot,” perhaps the summer’s most creatively heralded series, which concluded its first season Wednesday, after a one-week delay triggered by the live-TV killings in Virginia.
Looking ahead, the season finale seemingly paved the way for a new set of challenges for Elliot (Rami Malek), the troubled hacker, whose plot to bring down “Evil Corp” was ostensibly successful, but which revealed two potentially formidable antagonists, played by Michael Cristofer and BD Wong.
“Two great actors. I’m really lucky to have them,” Esmail said.
“The biggest thing is we saw that FSociety did accomplish their goal, they were able to take down ‘Evil Corp’ and take down their data. The coda said there are forces above that. … And the reveal that White Rose [Wong’s character], who we thought was a friend, may be a foe.”
Regarding the one major thread left dangling – the whereabouts of Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom), the ruthless young executive with whom Elliot had been grudgingly aligned – Esmail declined to discuss when viewers might see him again.
Although “Mr. Robot” was picked up for a second season prior to its premiere, Esmail said that played no role in the designing the arc of the first season or the series beyond that.
“I initially thought of this as a feature, so I knew how it was all going to unfold,” he said. “I don’t know every detail, I don’t pretend to, but I certainly know the big plot points ahead, and also know the series ending, if we’re lucky enough to get that far.
“I’m definitely thinking it’s either four or five seasons.”
As for the pacing, and the rapid way the series burned through story in season one, he added, “I’m not going to linger. I’m not going to stretch anything out. I always say I’m in a rush to tell this story.”
What that story fundamentally involves became clear, finally, in the penultimate episode, when it was revealed that Mr. Robot, the character played by Christian Slater, existed inside Elliot’s head, the specter of his late father. In terms of what that means for Slater’s role, Esmail said, “We’re going to be seeing him a lot. The show is about this relationship. The show is about a guy discovering in fact that he has dissociative identity disorder, and we’re with him as he’s discovering that, and what do you do … as you realize your personality is starting to fragment away from you.”
After directing three installments during the 10-episode first season, Esmail plans to helm at least that many in the second. And while it’s often difficult for showrunners to find the time to direct while overseeing the writers room, he suggested that because of the unique particulars of the series, his on-set involvement will actually facilitate the process, not impede it.
“The thing about the show is that it’s very specific visually,” Esmail, a first-time showrunner, said. “There’s a certain aesthetic and a certain style that I want the show to have. Honestly, from a production standpoint part of the reason I am going to be directing more is because it does make production run a little smoother, just because I inherently know [what I want].”
Although Esmail said he recognizes the perception that in TV the writer is king, with the power relationship flipping toward directors in movies, he added that as opposed to a writer’s medium, “I kind of looked at this as a filmmaker’s medium. I just looked at it as they’re both equally important, and one doesn’t give way to the other.”
Esmail acknowledged that he was afforded ample freedom in making the show, saying he was lucky to have the project land at USA at a moment “where they not only loved and embraced the pilot but they really wanted something like this. And they also really trusted me. I didn’t take that for granted.”
At the same time, the writer/director said he harbored some “mixed feelings” about the real-life parallels that occurred during the program’s development and run, including the hacking of data at Sony and more recently the dating site Ashley Madison (which was referenced fleetingly in the finale). The volatility of the stock market also seemed to dovetail with the program’s jaundiced view of high finance and indeed the entire economic system.
“It’s a weird relationship,” he said. “We got picked up on the day the Sony hack happened. On the one hand I do want to tell something urgent and relevant about what’s going on today. On the other, I hate being associated with anything devastating like the Sony hack or the Ashley Madison hack.”
In terms of another real-world echo, Esmail said he was “completely supportive” of USA’s decision to delay the finale out of sensitivity to the families and victims in Virginia, where a TV reporter and photographer were killed on air, admitting that it felt like erring on the side of caution. “It’s a hard thing to judge and figure out,” he said.
Asked about the reaction to the show, Esmail said he was “incredibly humbled and in disbelief” to hear that Matthew Weiner had sung “Mr. Robot’s” praises when he appeared at the recent TV Critics Assn. Awards, calling “Mad Men” “one of my favorite shows of all time.” Looking back, Esmail said he also feels incredibly fortunate to have found star Rami Malek after seeing “maybe 100 actors” audition for the central role.
“Obviously, the weight of the show was really riding on that performance,” he said, noting that once Malek was cast, “I was never worried about throwing anything his way. I knew he was going to be able to make it work.”