Mr. Robot is a drama on USA that has nothing to do with robots. (It also doesn’t start with a theme tune set to the melody of Black Sabbath’s “Mr. Crowley”, which is a damn shame). That’s what it’s not.
What Mr. Robot is, is cable’s new sleeper-hit drama, one that will be watched and re-watched and discussed until it’s built up the critical mass of viewers that pushes it from another TV show to national phenomena. Best of all, it has a secret weapon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like the show, I’d do better at telling you only what I think you need to know.
Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is the story of misanthropic software engineer Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). From the first moments it is clear that this show takes nothing for granted, least of all narrative conventions. Elliot, in the depths of his loneliness, creates an imaginary friend who becomes an important character as the show goes on. That’s you. Yes you, the one watching the show. Elliot narrates his experiences to the viewer, and as the story gets crazier, his questions to his imaginary friends (again, that friend is you) get more desperate.
Elliot works for All Safe, a cyber security firm that protects the biggest conglomerate in the world: Evil Corp. Really, they are called E Corp and their logo is a dead ringer for the now defunct Enron logo. You rarely hear anyone use their real name, even in writing. Elliot has conditioned himself to hear the company’s named as Evil Corp; he invented you, so now you hear it that way through him. You are very familiar with Evil Corp, through a labyrinth of legal loopholes they own Coke and Pepsi, Disney and Warner Brothers, McDonald’s and Burger King. They are the conspiracy theory about the 1% we’d rather not think about but all know to be real. An entity made of money that warps reality through its own unstoppable gravity, a god of human devising. It only needs to exist to pull everything towards its financial singularity.
So when Elliot meets Mr. Robot, a curmudgeonly but charismatic hacker and the leader of fsociety, an anarchist collective that operates out of a hipster-awesome secret base in one of Coney Island’s abandoned arcades, it’s as if he’s found his life’s purpose. But nothing can be that straightforward about Mr. Robot and as we learn more about Mr. Robot and his comrades, we learn more about Elliot. And since we only exist in Elliot’s mind, he’s learning all of this along with us.
The show I’ve heard Mr. Robot compared to most is Breaking Bad, and I can see why. Both are stories about male antiheroes, portrayed as outsiders. Both are technically brilliant across the board, combining stellar writing with top-notch performances, music, sound design, costumes, color, lighting, cinematography, and editing. This is where that secret weapon comes into play. Breaking Bad is the story of a sad middle aged white guy with a wife and a kid and a job. Mr. Robot is a lot more ambiguous, and has a lot more to say. Race does not explicitly come into play in Mr. Robot’s story, but Elliot’s outsider status is well earned. There’s no “Trojan Horse character” to borrow a phrase from Jenji Kohan, who used the phrase to describe Piper, the white main character on her Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The show demands your empathy, and is not about to lean on tired archetypes to ease you in.
The true reason for his disconnect from society is this: Elliot suffers from what starts out as a nebulous mental disorder (or more likely an array of nebulous disorders) which get explored as the story unfolds. In fact, Elliot himself is not clear on what exactly is going on with him. Far from the usual jaded tech genius with a superficial social disorder, Elliot’s mental health struggles are the heart of the show. Elliot doesn’t isolate himself because of some code or ethos he follows, he can’t connect with people because of his untreated mental health problems. His obsession with hacking stems from his desire to connect, to learn more about people. But inevitably, he uncovers some dark truth, some skeleton in their closet, and his disgust creates one more barrier.
In terms of criticism, one that I’ve seen lobbed at Mr. Robot comes from people who are less impressed by the political analysis than I am. I’m certain that I’m already predisposed to postmodern capitalist conspiracy theories than the average American, but the wider acclaim convinces me that the more out-there political message is resonating with more viewers than you might think. Take this as an example, from a rant by the titular Mr. Robot: “Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual software. The operating system of our world. And we are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality.” So ask yourself if you can buy into a world where money is the underlying framework. Ask yourself if that framework can possibly be altered. Ask yourself if that sounds like a fun fictional world to spend a few hours, or if it’s the one outside your window. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at these questions, perhaps the politics of Mr. Robot are not for you. If you find yourself intrigued, curious, and starting to ask questions, by all means, plunge into this show. And if you’ve been pondering all of this, sweating in your dimly lit apartment as you watch tall men in dark suits walk down your block, skip the show and get some help because you probably are Mr. Robot.