More than a year after the last episode of Mr. Robot aired, the USA hacker drama is back, and by some critical accounts, it’s better than ever.
After a second season that — to use the word of creator Sam Esmail — was divisive, the third season arrives on the scene feeling like a hybrid of the first two. There’s the intricate, propulsive twistiness of the debut, plus the off-beat humor and focus on character from the sophomore season.
But rest assured Mr. Robot is very much still Mr. Robot, and that (among other things) means surprises and a provocative and cynical view of the world.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the season three premiere…read at your own risk!
In the premiere’s opening minutes, viewers caught a glimpse of something that BD Wong’s character, the ever-mysterious and time-obsessed Whiterose, is building. It’s a massive structure that could have something to do with gaining an unprecedented control over reality.
And then there’s Trump.
During one of Mr. Robot‘s signature tightly edited sequences, Elliot comes to the conclusion that his revolution has only tightened the grip that the Powers That Be hold over the world, allowing the kind of demagoguery and fear that results in a figure like Trump reaching the Oval Office.
EW spoke with Esmail about the premiere and the larger shifts within the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In terms of pacing, season 3 already feels like a much different show from season 2.
SAM ESMAIL: The feel is just an acceleration of what we’ve been doing. Because we’re marching toward an endgame, it happens organically by that storytelling nature, that as you progress, the stakes get higher and we’re potentially going to start accelerating the plot. Specifically, from season 2 to this season, where we had all of our characters spread out and deep in that reservoir, these characters are coming back and colliding, which is not just exciting but it also just starts to give off this propulsive nature to this show. That’s what I think you’re feeling the most in season 3. The first season is honestly just a huge setup and introduction to the world. The second season was a broadening of all of our characters and doing a deeper dive into each of them. Now, a third season is an acceleration point of our story and our march toward the endgame.
It’s more where you are in the story, rather than a creative choice?
Yeah, we sort of let the story tell us what the season wants to be.
For fans who were turned off by the changes in season 2, do you anticipate season 3 speaking more to them?
What I’ve learned is that I can’t go down that road because I’m always wrong. To be frank, any time I try to predict what people will or will not like, the audience surprises me. I actually have no idea. The only thing I do know is that season 2 will probably hold a special place in my heart. Obviously that was divisive with the audience. Every season is very different. That stands out as here, as opposed to other televisions I know where I come back every season, and it’s either a reboot of the same plot in a slightly different way or theme but the plot machinations are the same. We progress and morph into a different stage of the story every season. Because of that, I think it’s a little jarring at first because the audience has to readjust and realign every season. For me, that’s the exciting part of telling this story and going through the experience. It is continually refreshing itself and continually going to a different stage.
You caught some s— for your long runtimes last season. Of the six episodes I’ve seen from season 3, everything is under an hour. What changed?
Honestly, that had more to do with the production schedule. Our production schedule is very tight, and I wanted to put as much time and energy into what we could afford to put up on the screen. As far as long runtimes go, it’s a weird thing because runtime doesn’t really matter. I just watched the pilot of The Deuce, which is amazing and 90 minutes. I didn’t hear one critic complain about it, and that’s because it’s really great. When something’s really great, runtimes will never matter. Catching that s—, it had more to do with our execution or pacing or whatever. I have no idea. Runtimes are pretty academic. What matters is how engaged you are. Because the pace of this season feels so much faster, those issues from the second season won’t come back here in the third season.
The first episode is a big step toward clarifying Angela’s motivations and her meeting with Whiterose. What was it like working with Portia Doubleday in this phase of the story?
Because Angela’s motivation are so in the dark with the audience and what we’re showing them, that mystery really puts Portia behind the eight ball, so the speak. She really has to be convincing and really committed, even though we don’t entirely understand what she’s committed to. Like in the second season when we were keeping the audience in the dark about whom she was aligned with, here it is again, even bigger than that. What she’s committed to is also going to be in the dark. Portia just had to know that Angela was committed and passionate about it and emotionally tied to it. With Portia especially, she’s got this way about her on top of her extreme talent that just convinces me. I don’t know if it’s her eyes or if it’s the way she speaks. She convinces me that she believes. Whether or not I know what it is that we’re talking about, it’s just convincing and engaging. That monologue she has at the end of the first episode. I don’t even cut from her. That’s how intoxicating I find her. She just excels at being mysterious, but also being very clear with her emotional commitment.
The episode opens with a glimpse at some enormous piece of machinery, and there seems to be a big answer hidden in there. Is this mystery something we can expect to be solved this season?
Whiterose’s motivation has also been shrouded in a lot of mystery for those last two seasons. Even though I didn’t want to answer exactly what it was, I wanted to at least show the thing, and I really wanted to drill down on her obsession to control her reality vis-a-vis this technology she’s producing. That parallels any real-life billionaire in our world who’s obsessed with technology and makes these lofty claims, whether it’s anti-aging or singularity or A.I. or space. We kind of wanted to model Whiterose’s arc on that level. What if someone with extreme wealth and resources had this goal of being able to control their own reality and they really wanted to execute that through technology? That’s as much as we want to reveal right now to the audience. We’re going to give out more details later. It was important to set that up this season because I think we’ve been teasing it long enough. We thought it was important to at least show the thing, even if you’re not exactly clear on what you’re seeing.
Just as a general question, totally disconnected from Mr. Robot: Do you think season 3 of a television show is too late to introduce the concept of time travel?
[Laughs] The problem with time travel — I’ve always said in the writers’ room that whenever you introduce time travel, it’s game over. Then all of the rules go out the window. Throwing out time travel in the middle of a series run is a little late.
With the show technically set in the past, you finally caught up to Trump. It’s funny in a depressing way, or depressing in a funny way. What kind of discussions went into deciding how to include him?
For us, it’s no holds barred. If you recall the pilot, we went after a couple people there too, including Steve Jobs, who is beloved by a lot of people and is a person I actually admire as well. The cyber-punk roots of the show still exist and still have to be there. When it came to Trump, it was sort of a no-brainer. I think the risk one takes when creating a show — and I’ve seen it in other shows since the election — is that you become political or turn people off, that kind of thing. For me, the election of Trump is not political. It’s not a Republican-Democrat or conservative-liberal thing. It’s a guy who’s unintelligent and unprincipled and unfit to run a super power. We see now how dangerous that is, not just for the country, but for the world. It’s pretty apolitical for us to bring Trump into the fold, and — like you — I find it incredibly amusing.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.