After a breakthrough first season, Mr. Robot spent its second year alternately dazzling audiences and just plain confusing them. On the latest episode of The Watch, show creator Sam Esmail explained his thinking behind the second season, addressing why to write character instead of plot and how to juggle audience expectations when planning the show.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
“Plot Is an Excuse for Me to Explore Character”
Andy Greenwald: One thing I wanted to talk about was my feeling about the shape of the season, particularly like the prison stuff and the reveal. At the time, my feeling was that it was going on for too long.
Sam Esmail: Right.
A.G.: My feeling, with it in the rear-view mirror, is that it was good to have that for the show and for the health of the show going forward, because in a way, it allowed you to do these sort of stress tests — not to use the financial metaphor, but I just did — on the other characters and actors you had in the repertory.
Because all of a sudden, you could see or maybe you can just show to us that Portia Doubleday can hold her own on this show, that that character is an incredible resource, that this new character, Dom, is worth watching, that her show is a good show, the Angela show, the Darlene show is a good show. … In terms of how a TV show needs to build outward, that’s enormously valuable. And the experience that Elliot had on his own is valuable for the character and our understanding of him, but it was tougher to watch, week to week.
S.E.: And so, this becomes the question because, I don’t want it to be tough. I mean, I know that there are some writers and directors out there that are like, “Oh, it’s tough because what he’s going through is tough, but I want you to feel just as shitty as this person is feeling right now. And you have to slog through that.” I don’t believe in that. Honestly, there are a lot of great movies that I love that I will not watch again because they’re just tough to watch. Personally, my sort of taste in entertainment is I want it to be entertaining. I want it to say something. I want it to make it be about something. I want it to be challenging in the right aesthetic, artistic ways, but I definitely want it to be entertaining at the end of the day.
Number-one thing is, I don’t actually love plot. … Honestly, plot is an excuse for me to explore character and to explore worlds and to explore choices that the characters will make, but the plot itself, it’s like, you know, the plot of going and beating the bad guy — that’s every fucking movie. It’s how they do it and what choices they make along the way that’s interesting, right?
So with Elliot, I knew from the outset that it was going to be dishonest if he was going to essentially shrug this Robot thing off and jump back in. He really needed to be introspective and go deep dive into himself and, really, honestly, putting yourself in his shoes, he’s going to want to get rid of this thing, he wants to be normal. I mean, that’s the thing he’s been saying from the beginning of the show. So how do we dramatize that, in an entertaining way, and that will feel honest.
Well, you saw, we have the Adderall monologue. He decides to basically overdose to get rid of it. That doesn’t work. Then we have the, essentially, let’s-come-to-Jesus moment, let’s play a game of chess and let’s just battle it out, battle of the wills. When we watched that, when I pitched it, when I wrote it, when people commented, the one thing I would say is, “Are we too up our own ass here? Is this interesting? Are we saying something? Is he evolving?” The answer, always for me, had to be, “yes.” Again, it’s always mixed, right? I know what your reactions were and that was on the: “I’m not getting anything out of this. And I’m not getting engaged in this.” And there were those that were. And there were those that cherry-picked and said, “Well, that was engaging. That we could have done without.” And ultimately, I can’t convince you to do something, or be engaged in something that you are not. All I can say is, the choices were based on the fact that we found it engaging, we found it entertaining.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Unpredictable
Chris Ryan: I think you are basically teaching your audience how to watch the show, and they start to come to expect a certain … intensity, and that was kind of like, I think, the thing that I had the hardest thing [adjusting to]. … I will never be angry at someone who is like, “This is the show I wanted to make.” You know what I mean? I get pissed off when people make shows where they’re like, “I think this is the show people want me to make.” But I knew the whole time that you were like, “This is the version of the show that needs to happen to grapple with the version of the show that I made in the first season.” It’s just that people got used to being like, you can pull my hair out in 45 minutes so that when you do get a 12-minute Darlene and Elliot —
S.E.: We knew in the room, and we did in this season, we knew we were gonna do that. We were gonna do the plot stuff. The plot stuff, we’ll get to that. I mean, that’s all fun. But just like when you were talking about where we needed to broaden the characters, we wanted to broaden the scope of what we could do. I’m not pivoting to Atlanta but … a couple of weeks ago, you were talking about Atlanta and one of the things that you said actually struck me, because it literally was the thing I wanted to talk about, which is the elasticity of it. The fact that … every episode is like, I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight.
C.R.: There’s only, sadly, probably like 30 shows in the last 20 years that you can say that about.
A.G.: Most of them are in the last 15 years.
S.E.: That was literally one of the points that we brought up in the room, which was, let’s go for broke. Let’s do that. Because we know we can do this, but we want to do more.
A.G.: This is where we are: TV now begins to bump up against what TV used to be because TV, as groundbreaking as it is now, is still based on this relationship of expectation with an audience, where it’s a very intimate experience. People who fell in love with the first season have the thing that they love and they’re like, I want that again, and I want to experience that again. Whereas you’re looking at it as an artist and saying, “I did the bender season, now I can do the hangover,” and that interests you and you’re going to chase that.
S.E.: But let me just say this: I don’t think it’s good to do it again. I don’t think this season — it may have been more liked, but whatever, I can’t know in hindsight. But I know for me, as a viewer, too, because I’m looking at this as well, what do I want to see when I go home? If I were to see what you guys pitched, you know, he’s now hacking F Corp for Season 2 and there’s a new Shayla, you know, these are all — I’m sorry — terrible ideas.
A.G.: That’s right! I wanted you to specifically rebut what we turned into last week because we caught ourselves on this podcast being like, “Wait, we are the clichéd network executives.” We’re saying, “Make the protagonist more likable. Give him a girlfriend.” What is it about your show that turned us into these people that we rail against?
S.E.: I was actually talking to Noah Hawley about this because he watches the show and he was telling me how in the first season, you kind of touched a little bit on the rabbit hole.
A.G.: This is Noah Hawley, who created Fargo.
S.E.: Brilliant, brilliant. Both seasons, brilliant. Anyway, he was like, “You kind of touched on the rabbit hole. You went and dipped your toe into the rabbit hole in the first season, but it was mostly, you kind of understand where it was going. And then in the second season, you were just, like, we’re going down, deep down into the rabbit hole.” And honestly, the plot then just became the little side things where, “Oh, OK, we’ll get to that.” I just thought that was challenging, that was more interesting. And I think, clearly, we’re taking risks, and obviously what can happen when you take a risk is you get a divisive reaction. And one of the things was, like, are we gonna squander this opportunity? I never made a television show before. I got a chance to make a television show. Am I going to squander the opportunity to just please people and make sure they get exactly what they’re expecting?