“What’s Mr. Robot?” I wondered aloud.
“It’s a TV show about hackers,” was the response.
That’s all I needed. A hacker I’m not, but in my world as a writer, hackers can fill the role of hero or villain very nicely. They can save the world or horrify us all as much in a good story as they do IRL. I decided to watch it.
The pilot begins: “Hello, friend.”
That’s Elliot Alderson [Rami Malek] in his annoyingly droney and psychotropic-stupor-induced voice, telling viewers in a slang even we geriatrics in our mid- to late 30s understand, that he is narrating his own story to us, his imaginary friend. It’s with that hook we’re lured in, by line and occasional sinker. Tearing down that fourth wall can be risky, but here, it’s sublime.
The script for the pilot is available online. It’s good on the page, perhaps the best pilot I’ve personally ever read, but it plays even better visually. It’s safe to say, if you don’t like the pilot, you won’t like the show, period.
The shooting style is unique and edgy without being over the top and is among the show’s strongest attributes. Some scenes in its so-far two-season run, often with wonderful musical cues, are arguably among the best in television in terms of impact. Thankfully, the camera crew doesn’t bounce the gear for cheap thrills, using angles and lighting for effect instead.
Wikipedia claims Elliot suffers from anxiety disorder and clinical depression, but it’s quickly evident he’s got more than a little good old-fashioned neurosis and mood disorder. He’s truly psychotic, presumably schizophrenic, on top of having a substance abuse issue with morphine, apparently requiring an emergency stash of Suboxone for withdrawal.
Nonetheless, Elliot seems to hold down a computer security engineering job at a cyber-security firm called AllSafe, run by a fretful Gideon Goddard [Michel Gill], thanks to his childhood friend Angela Moss [Portia Doubleday]. AllSafe’s largest client is mega-conglomerate, E Corp, which Elliot mentally morphs to Evil Corp, both visually and aurally. We eventually come to understand E Corp was somehow responsible for the deaths of the main characters’ parents. The CEO of E Corp is Phillip Price [Michael Cristofer] who sees opportunity in crises.
After a DDoS attack against E Corp, Elliot happens across a .dat file in the company’s network which he discovers was implanted by something called fsociety. Intrigued, he leaves it intact. In the subway, he later meets up with a man who we will learn is Mr. Robot [Christian Slater]. Mr. Robot urges Elliot to Coney Island where he is introduced to fsociety, a misfit underground anarchistic vigilante hacker group, co-led by a troubled young woman named Darlene [Carly Chaikin]. The fsociety objective seems to be to erase all consumer debt and disrupt the world as it exists. They are somewhat successful. This is where the story deepens.
Often through Elliot’s point-of-view and diminished mental status, we watch his perceptions of the grim reality around him, never quite sure how accurate it really is. We hear his questionable account of fsociety hacking, through voiceover, to us, his imaginary friend. By the end of season 1, we’re given an unsurprising revelation as to his supposed identity, thanks to Mr. Robot. Darlene’s identity is further revealed, as well. (No real spoilers here.)
The story doesn’t always unfold linearly, and the storyteller is unreliable, so there’s always some uneasiness as to what it is we’re to make of it. Plan on second-guessing a lot. If you’re not a fan of speculation, pattern matching, or hunting for Easter eggs, this may not be your show.
As wonderful a show as creator Sam Esmail has created, though, it’s not without some problems. The cast of characters other than Elliot could be developed more fully. To be fair, season 2 endeavors to do this.
The hodgepodge of characters is certainly appropriate in the setting of Gotham City, where people of all cultures and backgrounds are densely packed into shit-hole walk-ups, cooking with not much more than a hot plate and sleeping on Murphy beds, but even so, it sometimes seems more like a nod to diversity hiring than enriching the story, at least so far.
The women on the show are generally quite vacuous, and not relatable, serving the narrative by primarily by being victims of different types of abuses, intentional or otherwise. The dialogue, especially for the female characters, but some male ones as well, is almost embarrassingly on the nose. There’s also plenty of exposition through dialogue, though I’ve never been particularly put off by that in this or other shows. What’s depicted here on computer screens is minimized, and is purportedly grounded, thanks in part to a technical consultant, Andre McGregor, brought in for season 2.
In the adult hour of TV, there must be the occasional obligatory sex or romance scene. In the case of Mr. Robot, though, that cannot happen with dysfunctional Elliot, unless, perhaps, it’s with a close blood relative. One is left presupposing the writers’ room consists only of lonely men. (Surprisingly, it isn’t.)
One female character, an FBI agent named Dominique DiPierro [Grace Gummer], who sucks a roll-your-eyes Tootsie Roll pop à la Kojak, shows some promise. She quickly evolved to become insightful, and a bit alienated herself, talking to Alexa in bed alone at night, amplifying the dystopic alienation of people in the digital age, even or especially in densely populated areas, amidst trying professional and personal circumstances. Her goal, of course, is to foil the evil hackers who caused such disruption. At the end of season 2, we believe she may just do so.
Speaking of which, a gripe of mine continues to be the underemphasis of the crisis that would emerge in a world where people cannot easily access their money. Surely it would be more chaotic than depicted. The few scenes attempting to show this do it well with wonderful set pieces, but several months after the so-called 5/09 attack, one would expect more reaction from an alarmed world and the bureaucrats trying to contain the unrest.
Out there in the nether world of Mr. Robot is White Rose [B. D. Wong], a transgender woman and head of the dreaded Dark Army, who morphs into Zhang, China’s Minister of State Security. Where all this goes next is anyone but Esmail’s guess. It could succeed or bomb spectacularly. I’d be up for this character to be used to draw out a sophisticated plot line or character arch based on currency (or Ecoin) manipulation by the Chinese, furthering the idea that monetary control is illusory.
Regardless, I’ll be lurking around for the duration of Mr. Robot if only to see how Esmail and his room worm their way through this dark matter. Having invested a fair amount of time to the series, I’ll be annoyed if USA pulls it before it receives an honorable ending. I’m fairly optimistic it will, however, as the series has generally received critical acclaim and won some awards, even if the audience ratings aren’t especially stellar.
I’m further encouraged by the fact that Esmail apparently originally wrote Mr. Robot as a feature, which suggests he envisioned a beginning, middle, and end. This should lessen the chance it will devolve into an unwieldy mess that highly serialized shows are prone to becoming under network executive pressure to either wrap too soon or drag on indefinitely. Still, the second season had some pacing problems.
So what is Mr. Robot?
The logline could be something like, “Under the leadership of an identity-disordered, delusional cybersecurity engineer, misfit millennial hacktivists seek vigilante justice to avenge their parents’ deaths and to change the world by attacking the computer architecture of the world’s most ubiquitous mega-conglomerate.” The theme centers around the notion that “control is an illusion.”
Mr. Robot is a hybrid.
It’s a dystopic psycho-techno-eco-thriller reality and time bender mind-fuck where you really must chose your own adventure.
It’s as intriguing as it is hard to quite grok. That’s not a bug, it’s its feature.
Whether Elliot turns out to be the ultimate hero, villian, or antihero remains to be seen, but for now, we can just take him at his word — that he wants to change the world.
Mr. Robot has been renewed for a third 10 episode season on USA Network beginning in October 2017, all directed by Sam Esmail.