Back in September, Mr. Robot threw fans for a loop when it revealed the identity of, well, Mr. Robot. And yet, it was a twist that series creator Sam Esmail expected fans to guess. EW talked with Esmail after the twist, before the show’s finale, about his game plan. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that conversation below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Mr. Robot began as a feature film, and I’m fascinated with what this script must have looked like, because if this is the first act, it would have been an insane movie.
SAM ESMAIL: The thing was that I really wanted to tell a story about this guy who discovers that he has dissociative identity disorder, while at the same time enacting this crazy plan. How does he live with that? How does he negotiate that? How does he reconcile all of that? That was literally the end of the first act. It’s funny because the whole reveal of Mr. Robot was considered this big reveal for our season ending, but from the film that I was going to write, it was essentially going to be the big setup. I likened it to The Matrix. If you remember, the marketing was “What is the Matrix”? When you watch the movie, you get told what the Matrix is 30 minutes into the movie, and then the movie is about that. The movie is, “Okay, now that you know this, let’s get into it. Let’s tell this story.” That’s what Mr. Robot was always about. So the first season was a huge setup for what the real story is going to be about going forward.
So we’ve seen the elevator pitch so far?
Exactly. This is the logline.
That makes sense because of the way you handled the Mr. Robot reveal, which had the tone of saying “We know you guessed this.” Did you figure people would pick up on that right away?
Not only was I predicting it, we were basically telling everyone throughout the season. For me, it was about you empathizing with Elliot, being in Elliot’s mentality. That was one of my biggest goals for the first season, that you got inside his brain, so that when the reveal happened, it had nothing to do with you being shocked. It had to do with you being in Elliot’s shoes when he finally realizes what’s going on and that you get the emotional resonance that Elliot gets in that moment. That was our whole goal. I know a lot of people wanted the shocker — and perhaps the Darlene twist in the episode before satisfied that itch — but for us, that moment with Mr. Robot was strictly about the audience and Elliot aligning. I actually think now that we’ve gotten past that, it’s freeing. Now we can deal with the consequences of that. Knowing this, what are we going to do with Elliot and Mr. Robot? That’s where I think the interesting stuff starts coming up.
Were you trying to communicate that to the audience by using “Where Is My Mind”?
I’ll say this right now. I rip off of every movie and TV show I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m a film nerd. That’s what I did growing up. Other than being on the computer, I was watching TV and movies. I make no apologies. Fight Club was one of my big inspirations for the show. I think the nod or the acknowledgement with “Where Is My Mind” at the end of episode 9 was, yes, in part letting the audience know that we’re very much aware that Fight Club was an inspiration, but at the same time, we make no apologies about it. We own it. The thing is that by doing that, by making that bold choice, I think we open ourselves up to the criticism of being derivative, and that’s the challenge I take. I think we’re incredibly original, despite the fact that we borrow so much from American Psycho, Taxi Driver, and Clockwork Orange. The list goes on and on. It was an unapologetic homage/nod/acknowledgement to the audience that Fight Club was one of our inspirations.
I laughed. I thought it was really bold. So many people are too precious with what their influences are.
I never get that, and I don’t get people avoiding things because other things have done it. Movies and television show build on top of each other, succeed one another. In a large way in terms of filmmaking aesthetics, they evolve because they can’t help but be a consequence of all the movies and TV shows that came before it. I don’t mind context, which I think this is. We are a 2015 television show that has been made in the wake of all of these great films and television shows before us. I’m happy to own it.
You’ve talked before about how many years you see this show going. Do you still have a number?
I still stick to four or five. The problem is that our episodes are really long sometimes. I always have to recalibrate. It’s a hard thing because to figure out 40 more hours versus 30 more hours, it’s difficult. It could even be somewhere in between that. I think that’s something we’ll always have to adjust after every season. I definitely don’t think it’s more than five.
Are there certain story aspects that you’re beholden to at this point? How concrete is your outline?
It’s very dangerous to be concrete about certain things. I wouldn’t dare say that I’m concrete about everything. That’s for sure. What I am beholden to is that I did have an ending in mind when I wrote the feature, and I am building the story toward that ending. One thing I never wanted to do with this show was to take a road where we can just go on and on and belabor this until the ratings drop and they cancel it or we end it. I really wanted the narrative to have a purpose. We are heading toward that ending. Along the way, there are going to be other characters and storylines that collide and expand and take us into different paths, but all of this will be the building blocks to that initial ending. I’m keeping it both ways. For me, the utmost importance is having a clear narrative engine and a clear ending that we’re moving toward.