Why Mr. Robot is the summer’s most (and least) original new series

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In the opening minutes of the pilot for USA’s Mr. Robot, superhacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) meets with the shifty proprietor of a chain of coffeeshops. Over the course of their conversation, Elliot reveals the flaws in his cybersecurity—flaws that enabled Elliot to uncover this fellow’s immense cache of child pornography. The topic shifts: Who is Elliot? What does he want? Money? Before long, though, Elliot heads out and the cops storm in to mete out justice. That, it would seem, will be the blueprint for Mr. Robot: the story of yet another maladjusted genius with One Weird Trick for solving crimes while disregarding the rules, man. He’ll track down hidden bad guys, overcoming his obvious social awkwardness and seemingly timid nature, and expose them to the world with the help of cutting-edge, buzzword-heavy technological innovation. After all, this is USA, the home of Burn Notice, Graceland, Monk, Psych, White Collar, etc. (Not to mention the place to find CSI and Law & Order SVU in syndication.) Enjoyable as many of these series are or were at their creative peaks, the USA brand has long been synonymous with series that locate a formula early on and stick to it more or less religiously every week, with serialized elements cropping up as needed for gravitas (usually restricted to premieres and finales).

As “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov” (even the series’ episode title format is designed to provoke) continues, however, it becomes clear that Mr. Robot is not going to be just another USA series. Its tone is misanthropic, bordering on puckish or (at times) outright juvenile. Its hero is not merely an oddball or a social outcast, but a mentally ill drug addict with a serious grudge against predatory capitalism. Elliot is sort of like Batman, if you replace the thugs who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents with Big Oil, the Batmobile with a jail-broken iPhone, and a double life as a playboy millionaire with crippling paranoia, hallucinations, and anxiety. What’s more, Mr. Robot almost never lets you leave Elliot’s uncomfortable headspace, since his narration is omnipresent, constantly addressing the audience, anticipating our reaction, even sometimes directly accusing us of being privy to information he has coveted.

Over the space of its first nine episodes, Mr. Robot has emerged as one of the year’s most fascinating series, in part because it’s attempting to be about so many things at once, while also attempting to synthesize a host of stylistic and cultural touchstones into a satisfying and contiguous whole. It has the swagger of a series that’s been refined to perfection, yet it struggles to service its many warring themes. As a result, it’s been able to both innovate and undercut itself at every turn, making it one of the most maddening, yet fascinating, new series in recent memory. To really understand why, it’s worth diving into each one of the season’s major thematic and stylistic veins.

 

Major spoilers for the first nine episodes follow.

 

The invisible hand

Despite the fact that we’re neck-deep in the [n]th Golden Age of Television, precious few series exist that make an effort to engage with a reality the average viewer might recognize. Characters are still almost universally wealthy or at least very comfortable (whether or not the work they do would realistically grant them that status), and rarely reflect on the broader social conditions of their individual televisual universes. From the get-go, however, Mr. Robot announces that it’s very much interested in making a statement about Our Tense Present, sometimes by using anti-capitalist rhetoric that is extremely unusual to hear on television—at least, coming from the mouth and mind of a protagonist, rather than a mad bomber on a breathless procedural. (For more on the political dimension of the series, consult this fine piece over at In These Times).

Since its first few episodes, however, the series’ depiction of (and thoughts on) class disparity, corporate malfeasance, and the insidious influence of late capitalism on our lives has turned from sharp to cartoonish. With Elliot’s story increasingly revolving around mental illness (see below), Angela (Portia Doubleday) and her attempt to bring E(vil)corp to justice have shouldered the burden of servicing those themes, and while some individual scenes have been stunning (in particular, her first verbal showdown with Terry Colby, played to sleazy perfection by Bruce Altman), the overall direction of her subplot has felt very familiar. (It’s unlikely that Mr. Robot will have the flexibility to handle the notion of “changing the system from the inside” with anywhere near the grace and humour of Angel’s fifth season, for instance.) The “invisible hand” Elliot frets over in the pilot is no longer the principal threat to our collective sanity and safety, which seems a shame, since that much more banal evil is a much greater threat than any shrimp-cocktail downing, hobo-assaulting executive class.


Gender politics and subjectivity

The strongest section of Mr. Robot’s very ambitious freshman season is its middle stretch—episodes four through six, to be specific—in which fsociety, the Anonymous-esque hacker crew with which Elliot finds himself aligned, conceives and executes the first part of a plan to wipe Ecorp’s credit data and free millions from debt and Elliot is forced to deal with threats both monolithic and intimate. There’s a confidence and verve to these episodes that surpasses that of the rest of the season, with moments of bracing cruelty (Elliot’s merciless verbal takedown of an Ecorp underling), surprising tenderness (the blossoming relationship between Elliot and his dealer Shayla, played by Frankie Shaw), and disorienting trippiness (Elliot’s withdrawal-induced visions, complete with Keith David voice cameo). Episode six, in particular, in which Elliot must finally reckon with drug kingpin Vera (Elliot Villar), hops from one hyper-tense sequence to another, all the way to a bruising conclusion that, while effective in the moment, may have helped to hobble the season’s final third.

One reason these episodes are so strong is that they seem to open up the series beyond Elliot’s perspective, even as they play host to his most participatory character beats. While the use of narration and intense subjectivity is one of Mr. Robot’s most distinctive elements, the increase in time spent away from Elliot, exploring the separate trials and budding friendship of Angela and Shayla, as well as the increasingly disturbing saga of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), his Machiavellian wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), and their quest to make Tyrell the new CTO of Ecorp. These episodes do a lot to dimensionalize Angela and a little to add some depth to Shaya, who sometimes veers dangerously close to Manic Pixie status. It would have been very easy to get Angela to recruit Elliot to help her in her legal quest, or with the hackers threatening to take down the network security firm where they work, but she takes it all on herself, leading her to make some tough decisions on her own. (Angela’s total abandonment of her philandering every-bro boyfriend, in particular, is a vital and refreshing character moment.) Angela’s increasingly independent story has really helped to undercut Elliot’s overwhelming paternalistic streak, even if that streak is meant to be powered more by Elliot’s paranoia and delusions than any urge towards patriarchal control.

Unfortunately, just as Shayla begins to come into her own as a character, the conclusion of the sixth episode finds her dead in a trunk, and the flashback opening of the seventh (which reveals that Elliot’s pharmacological needs are what put her in contact with Vera in the first place, thereby more directly implicating Elliot in her demise) makes it clear that Shayla is meant to be more of a season-arc plot cog than a person, just another reason for Elliot to spin further out of control. Since then, Mr. Robot has re-centered squarely on Elliot’s perspective and experiences, which has reined in the series’ emotional breadth considerably.

“Hello, friend.”

Since the end of Mad Men, there has been a general sense among TV critics that the era of the Great White Male Antihero is effectively over—or should be. At first glance, Mr. Robot threatens to act as a sort of recent-past throwback, yet another serialized drama in which a brilliant-but-damaged outcast outwits his foes in spite of the fact that his superior intelligence makes his personal and/or professional life a fraught one. The truth is more complicated, and not just because Malek is of Egyptian descent. (Mr. Robot has already been accused at least once of racial erasure.)

Where most TV antiheroes exhibit standard-issue misanthropy or social anxiety (of the sort Elliot self-diagnoses himself with in the Mr. Robot pilot), Elliot is a morphine addict who seems to suffer from some sort of disassociative disorder, albeit one that has never been explicitly identified within the series itself. It’s impossible to separate Elliot’s innate mental issues from what may be simply maladaptive coping mechanisms that could theoretically be trained out of him with the correct treatment. Moreover, it’s impossible to know how much of his distrust and paranoia is borne of an earnestly earned worldview and how much of it is a symptom of his mental state. Elliot’s mental makeup is inextricable from his secret work as a budding cyberterrorist and vigilante, and given that series creator Sam Esmail has stated that the series’ first season is effectively a prelude for Mr. Robot’s true story, it seems likely that the second season will see Elliot’s mental state stabilize enough to allow for more conventional plot momentum. For now, though, the centrality of Elliot’s perspective, combined with his profound lack of insight into his own psychology, has made this first season refreshingly disorienting in terms of audience identification. It’s also refreshing to see mental health come to the forefront in a scripted series without the benefit of a clear-cut diagnosis; mental health is discipline constantly in flux, and sufferers often don’t get the benefit of definitive categorization or ideal treatment.

Another element complicating the audience-Elliot relationship: his constant breaking of the fourth wall. He sees us as an imaginary friend, one he ultimately comes to resent for seemingly having a greater understanding of Elliot than he does about himself, even though he repeatedly clarifies that we are merely a construction his mind has devised. By the time some very-expected twists crop up in the last couple of episodes of the season, Elliot has come to treat us with angry contempt—if we’d guessed so much, why did we not warn him? In this way, Mr. Robot has managed to portray Elliot as both a cunning mastermind and a routine player in an openly predictable psychodrama. Which brings us to…

The Fincher Factor

The overt familiarity of Mr. Robot’s plot mechanics brings up the most vexing aspect of the series so far: its tendency to lean too hard on its cinematic forebears. The most obvious is the filmography of David Fincher, from the grungy colour palette to Mac Quayle’s Reznorian synth-driven original score, and especially the hyper-precise use of camera movement. Occasionally, the series will threaten to develop its own visual language—especially through off-kilter framing, such as its tendency to tilt the frame up to an unusually high angle until characters are only visible from the neck up, as if to mimic Elliot’s difficulty in relating to others—but too frequently, the series seems content to build atop existing aesthetic references rather than developing its own voice. (That’s not to say that its style swiping isn’t effective; in terms of the potency of its visual storytelling, Mr. Robot isn’t likely to be rivaled until Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick returns in the fall.)

By the same token, it’s impossible not to notice the season plot’s immense debt to Fincher’s Fight Club, in which an an office drone who works in a field he despises develops an alter ego in order to enact an ambitious plot whose ultimate goal is to wipe out global credit, thereby crippling the forces of capitalism. The series itself rubs our faces in the similarity, to the point where the ninth episode scores a key sequence to a piano version of “Where Is My Mind,” the Pixies song made ubiquitous by its deployment in Fight Club. Esmail isn’t just wearing his influences on his sleeve, he’s weaving them into the fabric in garish colours, shouting, “We know you know, and we did it anyway!”.

(The garish use of “Where Is My Mind” is doubly surprising because the series’ soundtrack choices have otherwise been lovingly idiosyncratic, from the use of FKA Twigs’ intimate “Two Weeks” during a very distressing murder sequence, to Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic “Some Velvet Morning” gracing Elliot and Shayla’s final scene together, to selections from the likes of Tangerine Dream, Perfume Genius, and, in what must be a TV first, goth-jazz greats Bohren & der Club of Gore.)

What is the intent in making the Fight Club parallels so overt? Is it some sort of meta-statement on Esmail’s part to suggest that visions of rebellion in the modern age are too easily dismissed as ludicrous fantasy, thereby confirming that late capitalism has thoroughly defeated the collective imagination once and for all? (It is perhaps not a coincidence that Elliot repeatedly disdains pop culture’s most widely-consumed rebellion narrative, The Hunger Games.) Is it an elaborate troll on modern TV audiences, the sort who obsess over minute details in the same way Elliot obsesses over the minutiae of other people’s lives? Or is it just lazily self-aware meta-modern storytelling at its most obvious? The jury’s still out on that score.

 

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“Sometimes I dream of saving the world.”

There’s one remarkable aspect of Mr. Robot that requires no qualifiers: its timeliness. When the Ashley Madison hackers released their data dumps last week, the response across the world was both fascinating and depressing. Social media moralists used the hack as an excuse to get up on high horses on the subject of adultery and just desserts. Meanwhile, press outlets wrangle with the degree to which they should engage with the leaked information and regular people (who suddenly have easy access to searchable databases of the hacked data) have had to decide whether they should violate the privacy of people in their own lives. When the walls that separate hackers from ordinary net-dwellers fall, how do they behave?

Mr. Robot has been grappling with the decline of individual privacy in the age of Facebook since its pilot, and Elliot’s theoretically altruistic (but in actuality, totally creepy) approach to hacking those he cares most about, in order to pre-emptively shield them from the unknown perils awaiting them in life, is a wonderfully relevant one. On one hand, it’s an insidious inversion of the notion of a superpowered entity; after all, that idea can denote Superman, but it can just as easily refer to a state, or, reasonably, a conglomerate. Elliot takes his abilities seriously, but he doesn’t stop to ask for permission before he interferes in the lives of those he sees as being in need of “saving”—in other words, he infringes on liberty and privacy in the name of security. Does that sound familiar? Elliot combats oppression and evil with the same sense of supremacy and invisibility he denounces when it’s wielded by Ecorp, in much the same way that those theoretically in favor of individual privacy might still enter their neighbors’ email address into that Ashley Madison hack search.

What’s doubly remarkable about the series’ interest in concerns that really do affect nearly all of us is that it backs this up with an attention to technical detail that is unprecedented for a story of this kind. For decades, hacking-based stories have been the subject of derision from anyone with even the slightest notion of what computer technology can and can’t do. Even now, CSI: Cyber is churning out sensationalized techno-nonsense on a weekly basis. Since watching stone-faced characters punch in code is inherently boring, filmmakers have felt the need to add ridiculous graphics or inflate hackers’ power to operatic, ludicrous levels. Mr. Robot, on the other hand, trusts that if it sticks mostly to real-world technologies and hacker problem-solving, the legwork will result in unique rewards. Indeed, this more grounded approach adds a pleasingly MacGyver/Walter White-ian problem-solving element to the series, but it also serves to keep Mr. Robot outside the realm of outright science fiction, which makes it considerably more distressing.

Yet science fiction is the genre that it feels most comfortable to associate with Mr. Robot, in part because the series’ stakes are so absurdly high. Elliot’s primary enemy may be his mind, but his real-world target is very tangible: he wants to rewrite the very rules by which our lives operate, to rewire the systems he deems faulty. In the pilot, Angela presents Elliot with a copy of his “favorite movie”: Back to the Future II. It’s notable that Esmail chose the future-set sequel and not the past-set original; after all, Elliot spends most of Mr. Robot’s first season with his past as an irreconcilable jumble. If only he can set the future in order, “save the world,” perhaps he can put his ghosts to rest. As for the future of Mr. Robot itself, well, that depends on its ability to definitively step out of the long shadow of its most obvious influences and tell the distinctive, powerful story it is so uniquely positioned to tell.