The day before USA Network was supposed to air the first season finale of its mind-bending mystery-thriller Mr. Robot, Christian Slater, who plays the titular character, reflected on the show’s surreal timeliness.
“It’s terrifying. The television show is supposed to represent this dystopian universe,” he told me. “Is this the world that we want to be mirroring?”
He was referencing the Ashley Madison hack, which is name-dropped in the episode’s opening scene. A cheating ex-boyfriend confesses to psychiatrist Krista that his name, credit card number, and email and physical address were exposed along with 32 million other affair-seekers’ private information. (The line was re-dubbed in post-production to keep up with current events. “And then that Ashley Madison hack happened and my wife found out about everything anyway,” douchebag Michael tells Krista.)
But the day after our conversation, Slater’s words resonated with new, unfortunate meaning. USA Network delayed that night’s airing of the finale, “eps1.9_zer0-day.avi,” after a Virginia TV news reporter and cameraman were gunned down during a live segment—a tragedy bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a graphic scene in the episode. In the scene, the disgraced CEO of E Corp—the monster conglomerate that controls 70 percent of the world’s consumer credit industry and which just so happens to have the same corporate logo as Enron—puts a gun in his mouth during a live TV interview and pulls the trigger. The feed stays live for a few horrifying seconds as blood pours out of James Plouffe’s (Richard Bekins) nose and mouth and gray matter slides down a glass window behind him.
The scene is one of several shocking moments in the finale, in which the fsociety hackers’ global revolution actually comes to fruition, freeing millions from the shackles of debt and bringing the 1 percent to their knees. And yet, everything continues to fall apart.
Elliot Alderson—our protagonist, a genius but delusional hacker brilliantly portrayed by Rami Malek—can’t remember pulling the trigger on this new world order. Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), the American Psycho-style sociopath obsessed with climbing the ladder at E Corp, is nowhere to be found. His wife, the Machiavellian Joanna, can practically smell the deception on Elliot’s face. And Whiterose (BD Wong), it turns out, has been secretly embedded within the financial elite this whole time.
Making matters worse, Elliot’s delusions—Mr. Robot, we learn in Episode 9, is actually a figment of his imagination, modeled after his late father—are taking hold of his entire reality (and consequently, ours as viewers; we are Elliot’s imaginary friends, to whom he narrates each episode). He hallucinates his entire family—mother, father, and himself as a boy—in the middle of Times Square and insists to himself, and to them, that they are “not real.”
“What, you are? Is any of it real?” Mr. Robot shouts back at Elliot. “I mean, look at this. Look at it! A world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the form of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertising. Mind-altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media. Controlled, isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You wanna talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century.”
That may be true. As Slater told me over the phone, “We’re living in a very peculiar and unsure time.”
Below, read The Daily Beast’s conversation with Slater about the finale, the Internet’s potential as a weapon of mass destruction, and what’s in store for Season 2.
Mr. Robot has always felt timely to a surreal degree. Ashley Madison was mentioned briefly early on, but in the finale an updated line about the hack and data dump had to be dubbed in. How strange has it been to watch the news sometimes mirror what’s going on in the show?
Yeah, that part’s funny. I guess it’s more scary than anything else. It’s terrifying. We’re living in this world and the television show is supposed to represent this dystopian universe. Is this the world that we want to be mirroring? Not necessarily. It’s definitely disconcerting and a little worrisome. We’ll be filming an episode and something will happen in the New York Stock Exchange and [the cast and crew will] all kind of be looking at each other scratching our heads going, “Hmm. Well, this is…” It’s definitely worrisome. There’s no doubt about it. We’re living in a very peculiar and unsure time. The Internet definitely could be a weapon of mass destruction—it’s not going to come in a bomb, it’s going to come as a cyberattack. It’s pretty amazing to see what a small group of people can do if they really know how to control the universe.
How much are you on Elliot’s side about the mission of fsociety? It’s a little hard not to be won over by its crazy, anarchic potential.
Yeah. I mean, the idea of wiping out debt, getting rid of student loans and evening the playing field is certainly a very interesting and exciting topic. It’s questionable. You don't necessarily know [how it’s going to go] and I think in Season 2, the aftermath will most likely be dealt with greatly. It’s going to be interesting to see, even for me, how that unfolds and what the repercussions of these actions actually are.
Has it been hard to keep Mr. Robot’s secret to yourself all season?
Oh, yeah. The whole journey has been very interesting, very unique, very different. Really, from Day One when I read the pilot I was certainly very intrigued by it. I did have questions as to whether or not I was there. I sat down with Sam [Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot] and he said, “Do you really want to know?” And I said, “Yes, I really think I do.” And he gave me the answer and I got extraordinarily excited because it was very much not the answer I had expected, you know? Usually shows tend to play things very safe and very pat. Sam from the get-go has made a conscious effort to shoot things and reveal things in a very unique way.
Sam has definitely trusted the audience to keep up with such a staggeringly complex show.
He’s trusted audiences to really pay attention. Even if the audience doesn’t have the answer, it really hasn’t bothered him. A lot of shows tend to just put things out there and sometimes tend to disrespect the audience a lot by serving things up on a silver platter. This has been an interesting experience to be a part of, where things have been doled out slowly over time in a very curious manner. At the end of the day, it’s such a fascinating investigation into the psyche of isolation and what that can do to a person and dealing with that kind of pain and frustration. It’s definitely been something fun to film and fun to view.
Even before Sam made the big reveal, did you suspect that Mr. Robot and Elliot were the same person?
I did! Yeah, yeah. I had a sense and then when Sam gave me that answer, I was glad that he and I were on the same page. It was like we were in sync from that moment on. And then we started to talk about the character some more and, really, he was very open to collaboration and ideas. He wasn’t precious about anything and I think he really looked at this thing as a total collaborative team effort, which is so unusual. With a show like this, you can tend to be very secretive and closed-off, which we have been with viewers. People have asked me, “Are you real?” and I haven’t been able to answer that. The only team I’ve been able to communicate with about this has been Sam and Rami and Carly [Chaikin, who plays Darlene] and Portia [Doubleday, who plays Angela]. It’s been a very small, tight-knit group and we’ve all sort of had to carry this thing around, anxiously waiting for everybody else to catch up.
So Rami knew from the beginning too?
Uh, honestly, I don’t necessarily have that answer. You’d have to ask him. I know in the beginning he wanted to know a lot of information but as the episodes continued to be written, he became less inclined to ask because he wanted to put himself in the mindset of Elliot. Elliot is definitely in a place of total, utter confusion and there are gaps in his memory where he’s completely blacked out. I think it adds to his performance the less that he knows.
There’s this great line in the finale where Mr. Robot tells Elliot, “I’m only supposed to be your prophet. You’re supposed to be my God.” What did that line mean to you?
Yeah, I love that line. It really did establish what the relationship is with these two. Elliot has emotionally and mentally created this being. [The line] certainly encapsulated what the relationship was and, initially, what it was supposed to be. I think throughout the first season there’s a push and pull between the two characters. But as the season has continued to unfold, Mr. Robot has grown and continues to grow and might be in more of a position right now to be pulling some of the strings. It’s almost like Mr. Robot has the answers. Elliott has them too, but Mr. Robot has them locked in a vault and is not necessarily going to reveal those answers to Elliot until he feels Elliot is ready to hear them.
Do you know what the status of Season 2 is? Has Sam started working on it?
Sam is the type of guy who works on episodes up until the moment he can no longer work on them, so up until the moment they’ve actually aired. His vacation will start as soon as the credits roll on Episode 10, he’ll go on vacation, and then he’ll get back to work in October.
So you don’t know what role Mr. Robot will play in Season 2, if any?
Well, after reading Episode 9 I definitely had, like, just a tinge of fear and panic as to what was gonna happen with Mr. Robot. Like, “Err… I’m not sure. I mean, this has been a great ride and I love this character. Will I still have a job?” (Laughs.) So I’m sitting in my dressing room contemplating my future and feeling all this fear and panic. I guess when I feel those feelings, they can kind of steer me into a place of clearer thinking. I thought, “Well, there’s really only one person I can call to get the specific answer. I’d rather rip the Band-Aid off now. I like a straight answer, so here we go.”
I called Sam and I asked him point-blank, “What’s the deal?” And he said, “Look, let me just tell you one thing. Mr. Robot is to Elliot what the Hulk is to Bruce Banner.” Whenever Elliott is sort of backed into a corner and feeling confused, feeling vulnerable—’cause you know, the thing about Elliot is he’s a very kind-hearted character. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t wanna pull that trigger, doesn’t wanna blow that company up. He’s gonna constantly question whether he’s doing the right thing. The one way he’s found to cope with that particular issue is Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot will be the guy that can step in and take action when action is necessary.
My last question is kind of a weird one, but it’s about an image that’s been nagging at me from early on in the show: Why does Mr. Robot eat so much popcorn?
I was always curious about that as well. I think the clue for me, I guess, was in Episode 9 in the flashback scene where I’m with young Elliott and we go to the movies. I say, “I wanna make sure I get my popcorn.” From Elliott’s memories of his father, popcorn was something that was extraordinarily important to his dad. It’s a thing that makes him feel safe and is a fond memory to incorporate into this current timestream.