We’ve talked a lot this year about Riz Ahmed, Aziz Ansari, and Hasan Minhaj, and the excellent work they’ve done representing Middle Eastern and South Asian identities in The Night Of, Master of None, and Homecoming King, respectively. And we need to provide Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot, with that same praise.
With the resurgent, inspired third season of Mr. Robot, Esmail put on TV each week the best representations of Middle Easterners and South Asians in drama—well-rounded, complicated, empathetic figures who were more than the terrorist stereotypes to which we have become accustomed. Yes, there have been multifaceted portrayals in other shows this year (the Iranian-American Homeland Security agent Dina Madani and her surgeon and psychiatrist parents in The Punisher come to mind), but in season three of Mr. Robot, Esmail built on personalities and characters already introduced, providing them with backstories and context that turned them into fully fledged individuals.
Many developments this season have felt like particularly pointed, extremely direct rebukes of President Trump and his supporters, and in no episode was that more clear than in the eighth episode of this season, “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” which aired Nov. 29, like a delightful Thanksgiving gift for us all. In that episode, Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson is in shock over the murders of fsociety members Trenton/Shama Biswas (Sunita Mani) and Mobley/Sunil Markesh (Azhar Khan), framed by the Dark Army as Iranian hacker agents who committed suicide after the 71 E Corp attack. Elliot knows Trenton and Mobley didn’t take part in Stage 2, but what he isn’t privy to is that the Dark Army set them up to divert attention from Whiterose’s (BD Wong) real plan of moving her secret project to the Congo and drumming up public support for the unqualified, unlikely candidate Whiterose is backing in the upcoming presidential election in an effort to sow maximum chaos and discord: Donald J. Trump. Shots fired!
But what can Elliot do? The media has bit on the bait, convinced that one Iranian flag and one fsociety mask is enough to tie Trenton, who is Iranian-American, and Mobley, who is South Asian (the show never specifically states his cultural heritage, but from character names, I’m assuming Indian-American), to that nation and airing wall-to-wall coverage blaming them for the deaths of thousands. The Dark Army is continuing to move on with their plans. And so Elliot decides to pay his respects to Trenton’s and Mobley’s relatives, visiting the Biswas family and Mobley’s brother Sandesh (Dileep Rao), before taking his own life.
Esmail has spoken before about his childhood spent feeling like an outsider, growing up as an Egyptian-American in a Muslim family in New Jersey, and how that shaped the character of Elliot and the mission of fsociety. The through line between the alienation Esmail felt as a child and what Elliot experiences through his mental illness, and what Trenton and Mobley experience as the children of immigrants, is clear. In 2015, Esmail told the BBC, “I tend to write about alienated figures who can’t connect with others and who are kind of distant from American culture. It’s not something I am consciously doing but it’s something that happens to be infused inside me because of my experience growing up in America.” In 2016, when talking to Southern California Public Radio, he took it a step further: “I had a funny last name and I didn’t look like everybody else and I got faced with a lot of racism. I got called ‘sand n——r’ quite a few times. … That was probably the cause of a lot of my social anxiety, and my parents’ distancing themselves from the culture. And I think that informs a lot of Elliot’s character — his sense of alienation, his sense of loneliness.” And finally, in a conversation with Vulture in 2016, Esmail addressed the casting of Malek and the writing of Trenton: “Wait a minute, I can’t cast Rami unless I address the fact that he is Egyptian in some way? I didn’t want that to now all of a sudden dictate anything about the character that would’ve happened had I cast someone white. But I couldn’t just ignore it either, right? Because it needed to inform who he was. … Even when I wrote the Trenton character, and I wrote her in as Iranian-American, I didn’t do that because I wanted to explore Iranian-Americans, I did that because I was thinking about what kind of people would join this group from all walks of life.”
“What kind of people would join this group from all walks of life” is the key idea there. It’s not that Esmail approached “diversity” as some abstract concept that would mean checking various races, ethnicities, or cultures off a casting director’s list, but instead truly considered who would be drawn to the idea of hacker-led rebellion—and made the connections between his own childhood, the experiences of his family members in Egypt during the Arab Spring, and the challenges faced by certain communities every day in America. In that same interview with Vulture, Esmail describes Elliot’s character as “obviously of mixed race”; in the first two seasons of Mr. Robot, we learn from Trenton that her parents came to the United States from Iran for new opportunities for themselves and their children, but are saddled by crippling debt and the destructive clutches of capitalism. And what we learn about Trenton and Mobley then links back to what Esmail continued to say in that Vulture interview when discussing diversity in casting: “Have a genuine curiosity about what would it mean to have an Indian-American in this part, in this character, that’s going to change how you write the character. And if you have that genuine curiosity, that to me is when you make that choice. I don’t know if there is a solution, but the solution is, why don’t we have more genuine curiosity? ‘Cause, man, aren’t those stories amazing?”
Yes, Sam Esmail, they are! And that’s captured best in that season three episode “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” my favorite installment of this series and one that had me, as an Iranian-American woman raised in a Muslim family, in tears throughout. It is in Elliot’s interactions with Mobley’s brother and Trenton’s parents and younger brother Mohammed (Elisha Henig) that Esmail really completes the loop on the motivating factors for Trenton and Mobley, on how their feelings of otherness led them to fsociety and to the hack that would change the world.
You can understand their different drives through each of Elliot’s scenes with their families. For Mobley, it’s clear that his sense of otherness was inside his own family unit: His brother Sandesh, a lawyer living in a bougie mansion in the suburbs, is enraged by Elliot’s suggestion that Mobley was a good person since his newfound infamy is reflecting badly on Sandesh: “That fat fuck doesn’t deserve respect from anyone. Do you know how much he’s damaged my career? My firm is on the verge of firing me,” he spits at Elliot. He’s trying to scrub all connections between himself and his brother, and has no interest in Elliot’s sympathies: “He’s been a fuck-up his whole life … a terrorist.” What kind of connection could Mobley have had with this person? Would he have even wanted to?
The opposite is true for Trenton: Her love for her parents and Mohammed is what drove her to the 5/9 hack, to the idea that ridding the world of debt and the stranglehold of E Corp would even out the playing field of the American dream—the opportunities that were dangled before immigrants like her parents but snatched away before they were fully within grasp. Trenton’s understanding that the hack actually solved nothing—that people like Whiterose and Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) from E Corp were still in power, while everyone else struggled even more—was what inspired her to look for a way to undo it, and to email Elliot with the possibility of a reversal of their actions. Her otherness wasn’t inside her family unit, but between them and the rest of the world, in the everyday navigation of being an immigrant in America. (Consider her hacking name—her very uncool New Jersey hometown, but where her family was together.)
The way Trenton found to undo the 5/9 hack—of setting things back to what they once were, sort of like going back in time—appeals to Elliot, but only at the very end of the episode, when he learns of it from the email she sent him before her and Mobley’s murder. Before then, it is Trenton’s little brother, Mohammed, who crystallizes for Elliot the possibility for change. There are scenes, conversations, and elements of this episode that I never would have dreamed of seeing on mainstream American television, and I am so grateful they exist, and all of them center on Elliot’s conversations with Trenton’s father and Mohammed, people who are confused and who are grieving and who, importantly, also happen to be brown and Muslim, presented in intricate, empathetic ways.
“This country now blames Muslims for everything,” says Trenton’s father Arash (Mihran Slougian) as he sorts through their belongings, deciding what to keep and what to throw away as they plan to move out of the city that has been their home for so long. “There’s no room for us here anymore.” He’s a defeated man, but perhaps Elliot is the only person who has really paid attention to him—or been kind to him—in some time. “Thank you for saying nice things about my daughter,” are his final words to Elliot, and it’s obvious that Elliot’s assurance that Trenton “was a good person” means an immeasurable amount to a man desperate for answers that will never come.
But that’s all precursor for Elliot’s day with Mohammed, who first seems like a figment of his imagination, magically appearing on Coney Island the exact moment Elliot decides to kill himself and volleying a series of “Like what?” and “Why?” questions to the increasingly irritated Elliot. The only way to kill time until Mohammed’s parents return is a trip to the movies, of course, where a Back to the Future marathon is playing on the film’s important October 21, 2015, date. While there, Elliot recreates with Mohammed the same memories he once had with his own father (mixing popcorn and M&Ms together, the best way to snack), but the movies are his formative place, not Mohammed’s—for the boy, it’s the mosque where he and Shama used to pray and where she would struggle to put her shoes back on before leaving. He had previously told Elliot that he finds praying “boring,” but this building is where he chooses to go, the place where he finally calls Elliot on his suicidal self-absorption. “You know, you talk about yourself a lot—and you’re not allowed to wear shoes here,” Mohammed deadpans.
Have we ever seen a mosque presented in American TV just as, you know, a regular place? Not a place of indoctrination or radicalization, but a place to hang out—full of light and mirrors, beauty and reflection? A place where a devastated child can find solitude and, maybe, a bit of hope—where he could feel confident enough to say, “Did you know I could be President of the United States? My sister couldn’t be. She wasn’t born here. My mom and dad couldn’t either. I’m the only person in my family who could be President. Isn’t that cool? If I were President, I would be able to stay here. In the house we live in. I would find a way to bring back my sister. I’d put the real bad guys in jail. And I’d make everyone eat Pop Tarts for dinner. And make everyone be nice to me.”
The introspection of Mohammed, his profound sadness coupled with his forward gaze, is what finally cuts through Elliot—because when Elliot thought the day was over, Mohammed asked if he could see him again; because when Elliot said he was sick, Mohammed gave him a lollipop. After his day with Mohammed, Elliot goes back to Sandesh and blackmails him into having a proper funeral for Mobley, and his declaration—“Your problem is you never knew him”—is an awareness that while Sandesh never knew his brother, Elliot never really knew Trenton like Mohammed did, either. His day with Mohammed is a combination of the past and the future, of an experience with his father that can never truly be remade and must only be remembered and a tomorrow that is totally open to possibility and must be intentionally crafted. “Maybe there are still things left for me to do,” Elliot says at the end of the episode. It’s undoubtedly the most sentimental Mr. Robot has ever been, but profoundly meaningful, too.
Esmail accomplishes this by tapping into the interiorities and identities of his characters, of the isolation and exclusion they feel as members of particular ethnic or religious groups and understanding how that would funnel into a sort of idealism and activism that was meant to improve the very world that so underestimated them. Their goal isn’t destruction, but creation—and when their goal is corrupted by representatives of unfathomable greed, they attempt to reverse their actions, not benefit from them. Others want to dismiss them as extremists because of how they look or what their names are or because someone in power told them to, but Esmail refuses those simplistic characterizations. He gives us a world where a Jewish ice cream truck owner would know the mosques in his neighborhood, telling Elliot “I have good friends in both places”; he gives us a world where two people of color, one a cynical man and the other a lonely boy, could bond over pop culture that speaks to them both. In the third season of Mr. Robot, Esmail presented the most well-rounded representations of Middle Eastern and South Asian characters that I’ve seen yet—and should be mentioned alongside Ansari, Ahmed, and Minhaj as one of the dismantlers of the brown stereotypes to which we have been subjected for so long.