Mr. Robot's Sam Esmail talks Whiterose, long episodes, and season 2 reactions
Regardless of your specific reaction to season s of USA’s Mr. Robot so far, it’s safe to say the new set of episodes have felt… different. This is a darker part of Elliot Alderson’s story. The episodes are longer (tonight’s being the first episode this year to clock in at under 60 minutes). And the pace is slower than the hack-focused plotting of last year, when Mr. Robot broke out in a big way.
And there have been some growing pains. Complaints about runtimes have cropped up, and creator/executive producer Sam Esmail has acknowledged this publicly (albeit in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion).
EW caught up with Esmail, busy in post-production on the rest of the season, to talk about some of the biggest moments in episode 4, “eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc,” and address some of the reactions to the series this year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were the early conversations about Ray and the role he would play in Elliot’s life?
SAM ESMAIL: Ray, to me, was a character that I always had in mind to represent the Silk Road archetype, meaning if you think about the morality of something like a Silk Road, you’re essentially creating a marketplace that anyone can do trade on and you’re just going to ignore what they’re actually doing. It’s actually free trade without any laws or limits. For Ray, he’s the guy looking the other way. He’s making a lot of money, but he’s trying to ignore what’s being bought and sold on there. We just thought that was an interesting moral gray area to explore with a character. I thought it would be an interesting intersection to have Elliot confront someone like that, who is a decent guy but who could actually commit the atrocities that are on this marketplace. He’s indirectly allowing them to happen. Elliot is trying to not be that vigilante anymore. He’s trying to move away from that. I just thought, here we have two guys in murky areas in their lives, and they cross paths. What does that look like? What are the effects of that?
It also feels like the first time we’re starting to see the full, real Elliot in season two.
There is a thing in Elliot. There’s the good side of his vigilantism that wants to save the world — the thing that he said at the end of the first season — that he’s locked away. He locked it away with the bad side effects of that, which is in essence what Mr. Robot embodies. He’s locked away the good and the bad and essentially zombified himself because he feels like it’s the only way to control it. This is the first time that temptation has come back to him. That harkens back to the Elliot we saw in the first season, but it’s a very reluctant Elliot. He actually doesn’t act fast enough, and he gets punished for that.
That rattail is one of the grossest things I’ve seen on TV in a while.
[Laughs.] Yeah, we’re trying to set the bar.
Whiterose has gotten some more of the spotlight in these last two episode. What did you want to convey about her life and backstory as we begin to see a fuller picture of her?
The one thing about Whiterose that’s very interesting is the mystery, right? It’s not what you know about the person; it’s more about what you don’t know and how to keep that intriguing. A lot of the charm of Whiterose is the way BD [Wong] plays it. He’s so brilliant at playing coy and complex and mysterious and just fun. He’s got this great smile. In tonight’s episode, he walked down the stairs, and he’s got this serious look. Then it switches to a smile. I love that moment. That’s the only thing that I want to convey about Whiterose, that she has a passion. We don’t know what that passion is, but she is very diligent and very deliberate and very methodical about what she’s after. If she doesn’t get it, she quickly adjusts and figures out an alternative way of getting. And she holds her cards very close to her vest. I think what we’re seeing is her methodology, but also in tandem with that, we’re seeing her passion and seeing how much she cares about the causes she’s taken on right now.
And we’re seeing a sadness in her in the scenes with Dom. What made them interesting sparring partners for you?
You’re right. There is a sadness, and I equate that with passion. She’s going through this inner struggle with her identity. She feels so much like one person, and she doesn’t feel like she can be that person. That’s part of her passion. She wishes she could. I think what she sees in Dom is that same notion. We haven’t gone down Dom’s path yet, but there is something about Dom that has that same sadness, the same hiding behind the mask. Is she the person she wants to be? Does she feel like she can be the person she identifies with? What I love about it is that Whiterose always goes to the background for people. She doesn’t talk to Santiago, who is the head figure. She goes to the person that she sees is a little more cunning, a little smarter and more on her game, but just doesn’t fit into her identity as well as she could. I think that’s the connection Whiterose feels with Dom.
This week’s episode was shorter than the others this season, and you tweeted about the runtimes, apologizing. Why were episodes running long before?
To clarify my tweet, because I think maybe people took it the wrong way, I don’t apologize for those episodes because I actually really love those episodes, and I think everyone did a really good job. The problem was that, as a viewer, I know that if I have to watch a 65-minute episode that night — I’m talking about any great show that I love, Fargo or Game of Thrones — I know I’ll probably watch half of it and then watch the rest the next night. Sometimes it’s good to just get a 42-minute episode, so you can sit there, watch it, and bang it out in a night. That was really what was behind the tweet.
Obviously, I think people had problems with the pacing of those episodes, and that’s a very subjective thing. We in the edit bay and people I showed the cuts to, we felt very proud of those episodes. The thing I want to say about pacing is that an episode can have a slower pace and still be compelling. There are a lot of television shows that have very slow paces. It doesn’t go through a lot of story and it’s still compelling and entertaining. Obviously, that’s where we were at with our whole season this year, because we know that the pace got slower from the first season. That was by design, but we felt that we were putting out pretty compelling, entertaining stuff.
For the first few episodes of our season, those long runtimes were necessary to get through what we needed to set up for the season. There wasn’t anything we could really do, and I think we really tightened it and made it as polished as possible to set up those beats and tell those stories. Unfortunately for some people out there, it wasn’t as engaging, and for others it was. That’s the nature of the beast.