There are two things to know about USA’s “Mr. Robot.” One, it’s been praised for the surprisingly accurate way that hacker culture is portrayed on screen. And two, it keeps predicting the headlines.
A group of hackers go after consumer data held by the fictional conglomerate E Corp in the show’s pilot, and, a few weeks later, the cheating site Ashley Madison was hacked, spilling user data onto the Internet. In a later episode, characters steal a minivan by hacking into its computer system. Shortly after, Wired revealed what it’s like to ride in a Jeep that’s been remotely hacked.
“I was a huge nerd growing up,” creator Sam Esmail told The Huffington Post, explaining why he’s motivated to keep the show as close to reality as possible. “I think I was told numerous times in the industry that nobody wants to watch a guy on a keyboard.”
But watching a guy on a keyboard in “Mr. Robot,” starring Christian Slater and Rami Malek, keeps you on the edge of your seat. The show follows Elliot Alderson (Malek) as he’s drawn into a hacktivist collective led by Mr. Robot (Slater) while battling drug addiction and an unidentified mental illness. It’s been steadily gaining attention since its June debut, and not just from techies — although infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick has tweeted support.
HuffPost recently spoke to creator Sam Esmail about the successful series. Here’s what you should know.
No, the writers aren’t clairvoyants — the show just speaks to the degree we’re now enveloped by technology.
“Obviously, I can’t see into the future,” Esmail said. “So I don’t know these things are going to happen and write them into the script, but it’s strange how we’re really paralleling what is happening in the news.” The team was just beginning to write out the first episodes when Sony’s computers were hacked last winter, he explained. For many, that event served as a sort of crash-course in data security — an issue that isn’t going away, no matter how much faith we place in computer systems.
“I always say it’s like trusting the weather,” Esmail told HuffPost. “The only thing you can do is prepare for the worst-case scenarios, and have warning systems in place in case things go wrong. Because … whether it’s in the right hands or in the wrong hands, hurricanes are going to happen.”
On the technical aspects, the show’s writers consult with actual hackers, some of whom have criminal records.
Esmail describes himself as something of an entry-level hacker-slash-hobbyist. So in his quest to make the logistical aspects of the show as accurate as possible, he’s pulled in some help from his circle “of nerdy people.”
“We throw them a challenge: If we wanted to hack this, how would you go about doing it? What are some of the challenges you’d hit along the way?” Esmail explained. The team was actually prevented from hiring one individual on as a consultant because of his past.
“Apparently, it’s not kosher with our studio to hire people with prison records. He didn’t pass the background test that they had to do on them,” Esmail said. “Of course to me, that’s awesome. He doesn’t pass the background check? That’s legit, let’s fucking hire him.”
And Esmail has something of a record himself.
The series creator told HuffPost about a time at New York University when he worked at a computer lab and did “something stupid.” After getting caught and fired from his job, the school put Esmail on academic probation.
“Ever since then I’ve been sort of paranoid about what I do online, what I say online, because everything’s recorded and it’s never erased. It can always be recovered, even if you think you erased it,” he said.
The “Mr. Robot” hacker group’s objective — to erase consumer debt — is grounded in Esmail’s own personal experience with student loans.
“I’ll be honest with you — this is no bullshit — I paid off the rest of my student loans yesterday,” the 38-year-old Esmail said, proving debt doesn’t care who you are. “That, to me, is ridiculous!”
The system of loans “feels corrupt,” he explained. “It feels like a system that wants to keep people in debt, whereas its intention was to boost the economy.” And yet, while the idea of hacking into a big, bad banking corporation to wipe out everyone’s credit information seems excellent — especially in the eyes of Elliot — Esmail stressed how impractical it’d be.
“There are going to be repercussions [to the hackers’ plan]. It’s just not the way economics works.”
Reality is a big theme on the show. And fans can expect to discover who is real on “Mr. Robot” by the end of this season.
Many fans have a theory that the titular character is, in fact, a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a la Fight Club, a known inspiration for Esmail’s work.
“What is real, or what isn’t, is obviously a question” grappled with in the show, its creator said. “But that wasn’t just to be about [Mr. Robot] specifically — it’s supposed to be about everything.” Because when we live half our lives in an intangible, online space, it can be hard to discern which actions have “real-world” consequences. (See: tweeting someone’s address or teens using social media.)
“In this day and age, there’s a whole catfishing syndrome,” Esmail explained. “You don’t even know if the person you’re communicating with online is actually that person. And your persona on your social media — your Facebook or Twitter — may not be the person you are in real life. So then, who is the real person? Is it somewhere in between? Is it the person behind closed doors or is it that person you’re playing online? Reality, in general, in my opinion, has gotten blurred. So the show dives into that murkiness, and kind of swims in it.”
For all the praise Season 1 has received, though, the real plot doesn’t start until Season 2.
Esmail started writing “Mr. Robot” as a feature film, but turned it into a television show when the project got too long and unwieldy. And so for all the mold-breaking hacking scenes and drama we’ve seen so far, Season 1, in the showrunner’s eyes, is basically exposition.
“I don’t even consider what we’re doing this season to be that huge. It was just the setup for the real story which really begins next season, which would have been Act 2 of our film,” he said.
Fans can expect more focus on the relationship between Elliot and Mr. Robot, he explained. We’ll see Elliot’s mental health issues slowly made clear, too. And more of this season’s most underrated character: E Corp suit Tyrell Wellick’s wife, Joanna, a classic “old-school Lady Macbeth” type, Esmail said.
Yet because a lot of fans are tech-savvy themselves, Esmail is sort of afraid of messing up.
“There was a moment where I was like, ‘If we don’t do our jobs right, we’ll get trolled,'” Esmail explained, referring to the sometimes harmful pranks hackers occasionally stage. “Thankfully, so far, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the hacking community.”
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