My favorite weekly game of the TV summer: guessing at what point in the cold open the producers of Mr. Robot will deploy the show’s gorgeous title card, and being wrong every time.
That impeccable command of timing is on display throughout one of the summer’s most unexpected TV pleasures. It’s surprising, given that creator Sam Esmail originally conceived the show’s narrative as a single feature film, and has said that the first season represents just the first 30 minutes of that movie. Having seen 90% of the first season, I’m hard pressed to imagine how a visual palette this stunning and a narrative structure this obtuse could make for a coherent feature film. Luckily, they never did.
On the surface, Mr. Robot appears to be about the man fighting the machine. I always raise at least one eyebrow at any piece of entertainment funded and distributed by a corporate entity that claims to advocate rising above the corporate hierarchy and exploding the mind-numbing stasis of the modern world. The Matrix is a great movie not because it reveals anything profound about humans’ relationship with technology and enslavement to capitalism, but because it finds a clever and innovative approach to visualizing that relationship. Fight Club is most compelling for its examination of a bruised psyche.
In the same way, Mr. Robot works not because of its insight into the droning cycle of modern life, but because it presents flawed individuals (not unlike ourselves) grappling with their perceptions of and responses to that droning cycle. The hyperactive editing, gorgeous cinematography and colorful locations emphasize the contrast between the sensory overload bombarding protagonist Elliott Alderson (Rami Malek) and the crippling isolation he feels when confronted with almost anything. It’s one thing to think Facebook is ruining human relationships, but it’s another, more interesting thing to look at what people do when faced with that realization.
Mr. Robot is superficially derivative of those movies and lots of other pop culture. One episode is inspired by the heist caper genre, another by shows like Prison Break. It has many scenes of people staring at computer screens anxiously as numbers flash across their eyes. The show’s title character (Christian Slater) may or may not be a figment of Elliott’s imagination, not unlike Tyler Durden in Fight Club. (*Spoiler below.*) But it’s a testament to the vitality of the direction and cinematography, the brazen subversion of television tropes and several superb performances that Mr. Robot feels fresh.
The opening minutes of the pilot immediately establish the show’s unusual ambitions, even as subsequent episodes undercut them. In voiceover, Malek intones a haunting monologue about his sadness and confusion, and unlike 99% of TV voiceovers, this one adds to the show instead of subtracting from it. Malek’s voice carries us through the show’s abundantly (some might say needlessly) complex narrative threads and keeps the show focused on the character’s interior – what he says and does often differ from what he thinks and feels. And as the season goes on, Elliott’s instability seeps into the rest of the show, until every scene pulsates with the underlying possibility that it’s not happening exactly as we’re seeing it.
Later episodes expand on the supporting cast and build out the world beyond Elliott’s mind, even as everything eventually returns to his perspective. His childhood best friend and Allsafe colleague Angela (Portia Doubleday) emerges with a stronger spine than her initial appearances suggested. His dealer Shayla (Frankie Shaw) gets to be wiser and deeper than just a one-dimensional junkie. Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is a sassy hacker with complex motivations and a surprising connection to Elliott. The other hackers in Mr. Robot’s collective are an intriguing mix of people with legitimate reasons to resent societal persecution: one’s a wizened black man (Ron Cephas Jones), another an Iranian immigrant (Sunita Mani). Even Elliott’s apparent Evil Corps antagonist Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) reveals layers of disillusionment and self-disgust that go beyond the typical characterization of hardened business types.
But Elliott is the pivot point around which these characters float, and Malek’s performance brings welcome notes of fear and instability to the drug-addled, socially insecure genius. His eyes bug out of his head in moments of fear and disgust, and his voice drops to a raspy whisper when he’s lost in thought. He’s riveting even in the moments when the show hits the beats of the typical hacker story: getting one over on a petty techno-criminal, successfully entering a password at the last possible second, faking a rare moment of empathy. And when the horrific consequences of Elliott’s actions come crashing down around him, most notably in the drug trip mania of episode four, the gutting reveal at the end of episode six and most of the last two episodes, Malek’s chiseled features and sturdy visage seem to crumble under Elliott’s signature hoodie.
I rarely understand the particulars of what’s happening on Mr. Robot – I’m willing to bet that Google searches for words like “honeypot” and “rootkit” have spiked in recent weeks. But the “what” is never as important as the “why.” The answer isn’t as simple as “corporations are evil” or “hackers are mean” or “criminals are bad,” though the show engages with all three of those ideas. The show still hasn’t yet put all of its cards on the table, as every episode seems to reshuffle the deck. But it’s thrilling to watch a show unravel and evolve a sense of purpose and thematic ambition in real time. Perhaps next week’s finale will once again blow up everything the show seemed to establish as fact. Perhaps it will pivot to a new protagonist, a new antagonist, or a new patch of the gray area in between. Whatever it does, Mr. Robot has earned trust and patience by honoring the idea of each episode as both a unit and a component. And if a corporation like Comcast, which owns USA Networks, can fund a show with as much on its mind and in its heart as Mr. Robot, perhaps they’re worth sticking up for just a bit longer.
(*) Spoiler Alert: He’s a figment, confirmed at the end of this week’s terrific episode.