Creating shows in this golden age of television has pushed storytelling to new heights, bolstered network recognition with the debut of sole marquee series and driven top-tier talent to limited-event runs. But few of these hundreds of series to unroll over the past half-decade have also redefined an entire network while pumping out prolific content that’s rife with homages to an entire cinematic library, generating hundreds of speculative Reddit offshoots in the process.
So perhaps from a pressure standpoint it was for the best that when the writers’ room fired up for the fourth season of USA’s hacker-centric “Mr. Robot,” creator Sam Esmail wasn’t aware he was entering the show’s final season. As with the titular character’s true identity, that revelation didn’t come until later, when Esmail and other creatives deliberated how much story there was between the third-season reset-ending and the final two episodes he has always had in mind.
“We calculated how to get to that endpoint in an organic way that didn’t feel like we were treading water or stretching things out and that’s how we left the story: by letting the story tell us this was the last season,” Esmail says. “There were ways to reset and regroup while going in different situations and on these tangents to explore other ideas, but none of that felt right or as interesting to us.”
The result is an expanded 12-episode Christmas-themed run that creatively spans a week of time within the story — a nod to British series that typically end with a holiday installment. The season, which launches Oct. 6, also marks the year endpoint in the fictional lives of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), Darlene Alderson (Carly Chaikin), Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) and Mr. Robot/Edward Alderson (Christian Slater), wrapping 2015 in what Esmail has described as a “period piece for the current day.”
It’s a vision with which the former “blue skies” network has always aligned, allowing the then-inexperienced writer to showrun and ultimately direct every episode by the second season, developing what began as a film into a Golden Globe-winning series.
“The way it speaks to our culture and our increased reliance on technology has always been very present and very fascinating,” says Alex Sepiol, USA network’s executive vice president of scripted development. “Sam’s voice and his whole vision for this show have been one that reflects our world, but obviously heightens it in a really interesting way. I still remember the first time I read the script, and the ‘F— Society’ monologue that Elliot’s character had was revelatory. It was a voice that just wasn’t on the air or anywhere in TV or film at the time, and in a lot of ways still isn’t.”
In the four years since “Mr. Robot” debuted, USA has notably transitioned to darker series, emboldened by the 1.4 million average first season viewers who proved the broad appeal of what sounded like a niche series on paper.
“This show did something revolutionary. It latched onto a broader audience who collectively felt something defective in the way the system works — or perhaps does not work,” says Malek, whose delivery of the “F— Society” monologue won over producers during the audition. “That commentary and that voice channeling the anger and confusion and alienation that so many people feel as a result of a lot of structures in our society and technology, is what makes the show truly worthwhile.”
From a structural standpoint, making a show that broke traditional television tropes while honoring such groundbreaking films as “Fight Club,” “Pulp Fiction” or “Eyes Wide Shut” with layered shots and references was a goal for Esmail, as he challenged writers to push beyond traditional storytelling. Concurrently, as the show became known for its big character-and-plot reveals, it was an important balancing act to stay true to the characters and central themes.
“Growing up I was never really a fan of television because of the repetition,” Esmail says. “I remember feeling that shows get stale because they were literally following a formula that they were repeating with slight variations. You have to be very vigilant about being honest with the audience. And the thing about reveals isn’t that we’re trying to get one over on the audience, but that we’re trying to surprise them in an entertaining way while at the same time staying true to what the characters are going through. Otherwise it ends up being just a shallow exercise of ‘gotcha!’ with twists and turns. Those reveals have to be earned from a really authentic, character-based place.”
“Sam has this thing that he does when he comes to each season pitch-out,” Sepiol adds. “Behind him he has visuals, which represent what he’s talking through, and he has an enormous stack of index cards. And he goes through beat-by-beat-by-beat, every episode the whole season. And that’s usually pretty close to what we end up shooting and what airs. It’s a riveting, really absorbing performance. Always a couple hours, and it’s really intense, but it really is a distinctive way of getting the whole season. It’s unique among showrunners that I’ve ever worked with.”
Onscreen it’s been a unique experience for the actors from start to finish as well. Chaikin recalls her surprise over seeing first cuts of Season 1’s isolating corner shots and wondering at first whether the camera work had been a mistake. She promises even more creative camera moves in the final season, noting that working with Sam and his “unique and original style” is “the best acting class that anyone could ever take.”
Slater, meanwhile, recalls a moment in that inaugural season when the show had been renewed for a second run before the first broadcast. He turned to Malek and noted how special and rare “Mr. Robot” was.
“I really didn’t know how the show was going to be received or what people’s interpretation of it was going to be,” he says. “The final season will undoubtedly take people on an emotional roller-coaster ride, and some things may be difficult to cope with, and, of course, there will be some things that are shocking as they typically have been. They’re definitely not pulling any punches, and it’s nice to be wrapping it up when everybody is so passionate about it. It doesn’t feel like we milked it for anything. We really just told the story that Sam originally wanted to tell from the beginning.”