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Comic-Con 2016: 'Mr. Robot' panel

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Peter Kramer/USA Network

San Diego Comic-Con presents a challenge for USA Network’s dystopian psychological thriller Mr. Robot, a show that serves secrets with ambiguity and prefers to share them in the form of bold, dense storytelling. How to engage fans at a panel without spoiling or speaking conclusively? How to give them a fulfilling experience without giving them much of anything?

Moderator Chris Hardwick and Mr. Robot stars Rami Malek (Elliot), Christian Slater (Mr. Robot), Carly Chaikin (Darlene), Portia Doubleday (Angela), and Grace Gummer (Dominique) tackled the challenge with grace and good cheer at show’s panel on Thursday, delighting attendees while offering a minimum of revelation. Coming to Comic-Con for the first time (and recently showered with six Emmy nominations), the cast was clearly amped. “I’m all tingly!” said Slater as he took a seat.

Hardwick kept the questions broad and thoughtful. How does Slater describe the show to friends? “That’s the toughest question” he gets, said the actor. “It’s about a small group of hackers looking to wipe out from society.” Why does Chaikin think the show is so powerful? She cited the show’s filmmaking, honesty about real-world problems, and portraits of imperfect people. Does Mr. Robot tap the zeitgeist of dissatisfaction and the yearning for control? Malek agreed with that. It’s a show “about alienated, disenfranchised characters who want to change the world. The question of ‘But can they?’ comes up,” said Malek. Season 2 seeks to depict a world made worse by fsociety’s apparent Five/Nine victory, the actors explained. Creator Sam Esmail “has looked at these situations where small groups of people have gone against the norm or changed the way people live all over the world, and there are vacuums that are left afterward,” said Malek, adding that the show explores the ambition of wanting to do “something special and have a lasting effect.”

The audience seemed to appreciate the serious exploration of themes. But it wasn’t always this heavy. Doubleday offered insight into the show’s season 2 process, explaining how they use “block shooting,” which entails scenes being shot from a variety of different episodes each day. This can helpful for the actors, as they understand where the season and their characters are headed, but it can be disorienting, too. Malek said Elliot is “the greatest part” but the challenges of it makes him “kinda shit my pants.” Slater disclosed that he visited Times Square to rehearse Mr. Robot’s “kingdom of bulls—” speech before shooting it a couple days later. Malek and Slater discussed their working relationship, with Malek praising Slater for his savvy, precision, and surprise: “Some of our best takes are our first takes because he constantly shocks me — I never know what he’s going to do.”

There were lighter moments, too. Who among the cast plays Pokémon Go? That would be Slater. Slayer and Chaikin’s shared TV obsession? The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Asked to compare Mr. Robot to more “family-friendly” stuff he’s done like the Night at the Museum movies, Malek joked: “Elliot’s just like any kid next door. He’s very family friendly. Who wouldn’t want their daughter dating Elliot?”

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There were hints of things to come. Doubleday says the show will explore Angela’s obsession with positive affirmation self-help. “I think that there’s something really dangerous to be said about her obsession with these affirmations,” she said. “What that’s stemming from is something quite explosive. She’s a troubling character, and we see that shift from season 1 to Season 2.… What ends up happening, I think no one will be able to predict.”

Similarly, Gummer said we should expect surprises from her FBI agent character, who is currently hunting the members of fsociety. “What you see at first is not what you’re going to get. Like everybody else, she’s a very complicated, layered weirdo,” Gummer said of Dom. “She uses her work to cover up her own issues that she deals with. I see her as a bright light in a dark world. She’s trying to find the people who turned the lights out. She has an instinct about who did it and why they did it and she’ll stop at nothing to find that out.”

You can expect an inspired Neil Diamond music cue, a return to some serious hacking adventures, and some dance moves from Angela. Malek – responding sensitively to a question from an audience member deeply affected by the season 1 death of Shayla (Frankie Shaw) – said that Shayla “is going to haunt Elliot for a long time.”

No one was asked to comment on the popular theory that Elliot is actually in a psychiatric hospital or prison and hallucinating in the current season.

The panel ended with news that Esmail will be writing a companion book for the series, due this fall, and a look at a scene from next week’s episode. Hardwick requested that attendees keep the details to themselves and not spoil it. It’s sharp, funny, and affirms how valuable another new cast member, Chris Robinson, is to the season.

Entertainment Weekly is on the scene at San Diego Comic-Con. Go inside with all our coverage, available here.

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