When “Mr. Robot” was first picked up to series, series creator Sam Esmail set his expectations low. Very low.
“I always thought, ‘Look, we’re not going to go mainstream or break through, especially in this age of Peak TV. But hopefully we’ll have enough of a following to justify our existence,’” he admitted in a recent phone interview.
Cut to a year later: Lavished with critical acclaim, the first season of “Mr. Robot” snagged Golden Globes for Best Television Drama and Best Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV, for co-star Christian Slater.
“Mr. Robot” also won a Peabody and three Critics’ Choice Awards; it’s widely expected to garner several Emmy nominations this week. The two-hour second season premiere kicks off at 10 p.m. Wednesday on USA Network following a recent surprise “leak” of the first half on the show’s Facebook page.
There’s no reason not to expect that’ll be one of the most-watched series returns of the summer. Esmail’s drama is unlike just about everything else on USA Network, a basic cable network known for its “blue skies” programming — breezy, easily digestible dramas following a case-of-the-week format.
Yet “Mr. Robot” hit a chord with viewers almost out of the gate, arriving at a time when the public has become more keenly sensitive to corporate influence in our lives and the growing intrusiveness of big data. Each episode is riddled with small, telling clues about the action that speak their own language to the eagle-eyed viewer.
Even the cinematography evokes a specific tone; frames often are dominated by wide blank space as key characters speak their dialogue from corners and fringes. They are the beating heartbeats of the show and yet, within the plot’s purview of corporate dominance and technological intrusion, they mean very little.
Elliot Alderson is a fascinating new take on the antihero, a guy hailing from the land of Anonymous. Played by the wiry Rami Malek, Elliot is far from physically formidable. Yet as the driving force behind the hacker group fsociety, he has the power to tear the world apart.
Esmail also gave audiences the ultimate unreliable narrator in Elliot, a man so thoroughly unable to distinguish between the real world and delusion that he can’t even tell family from friend … or real people from delusion. The first season’s big reveal, that the man Elliot had uneasily accepted as his guide was actually a hallucination of dead father Edward (Slater), only made the show that much more fascinating. (Season one is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)
Of course, that plot device also hearkens back to one of the most popular anti-establishment title of the ’90s, “Fight Club.” This intentional homage to Tyler Durden, who might as well have been 1999’s Man of the Year, feels oddly more relevant in this era.
But Esmail also drew a great deal of influence from “Lost” — specifically, its careful inclusion of “Easter eggs.”
“There was this huge other level of engagement that was also entertainment, and that expanded that world for me,” he said. “To me, that was I felt truly, the next form of entertainment, or at least interactive entertainment.
“The pure essence of storytelling is you want to know what happens next,” he said. “But with ‘Lost,’ I didn’t just want to know what happens next. I wanted to know what happened before, and what happened over there in that storyline … I wanted to know everything about the world, and not just about the story.”
Freshman outings as strong as “Mr. Robot’s” can be tough to follow, but the reception for the season two premiere has been overwhelmingly positive. The opening pair of hours (directed by Esmail, as are the rest of this season’s episodes) continue to explore the effect of our tacit relinquishment of privacy in the technological sphere, magnified exponentially.
“A lot about what season two is about is control,” Esmail explained. “Do we have it? Is it real, and is it not? That’s sort of embedded into Elliot’s journey, because now that he’s aware of what or who Mr. Robot is, how is going to negotiate that? And ultimately, we go into a larger thematic question of, are we in control of any aspect of our lives?”
Anyone in tech knows no code is absolutely perfect, even when created and executed by a man like Elliot, who prides himself on covering every angle, every possible cause and effect.
Along with his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and fsociety, Elliot may have achieved the initial goal of freeing the world of debt and delivering a crippling blow to the all-powerful, soulless E Corp. They also ripped a black hole in the technoverse by doing so. And when money no longer makes the world go ‘round, and all the machinery that made our life easier suddenly goes on the fritz, what happens to the average person?
Closer to Elliot, there’s the question of how fsociety’s hack will affect the people he cares about the most, specifically Angela (Portia Doubleday) who went over to the dark side at the end of last season, taking a job within E Corp.
That’s merely the beginning of Elliot’s problems. In the same sense that season one took cues from the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring, Esmail hinted that season two will borrow from a few prominent stories that dominated recent headlines.
“The whole Apple versus FBI story, that actually kind of resonated a lot with me, and it was happening while we were in the middle of writing the second season,” he said. “Although we don’t dive too much into the encryption debate, I think that’s all kind of intermingled into the second season.”
Beyond that, Esmail remains guided by the desire that brought life to “Mr. Robot” in the first place. That is, he continues to conceptualize each plot arc as part of a very long film, which is how he originally envisioned presenting the story.
“I personally just never wanted to deviate from what the movie would have been,” Esmail said, “… And this is why I always say the second season is going to be very different from the first, because it’s almost like you’re trying to compare the second 30 minutes of a movie to the first 30 minutes of a movie. It’s not going to have a new case or a new hack. It’s not going to be a reset. We’re just continuing along the same journey that Elliot started out with.
“I always said that I don’t want the show to be about hacking,” Esmail added. “I want the show to be about the hackers. So it’s not about what they’re doing, but it’s about who they are and how they’re doing it.”