By Jeff Hewitt
This year the ImportantCool team has studied the disappointing shark-jumping of House of Cards season three, as well as the artistry of Mad Men’s triumphant final season. We now turn to 2015’s unlikely success story, Mr. Robot.
Mr. Robot has been described as the USA Network’s Breaking Bad, which is apt for a couple of reasons.
First, before Mad Men and Breaking Bad came along, AMC was best known for exactly what its full name suggests, American movie classics. Similarly, the USA Network is better known for more mainstream fare such as CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, Suits, and Modern Family. Who would have thought that the purveyor of such entertainment would end up releasing one of the most original, compelling, and edgy shows of the year?
Second, like Breaking Bad, Mr. Robot can make for uncomfortably intense viewing, rendering it perhaps less conducive to binge-watching than other shows. Little breathers between episodes are recommended, although new viewers will no doubt discover for themselves that they are in need of regaining their composure after a particularly bracing episode, of which there are many.
Mr. Robot draws heavily on modern flashpoints of social upheaval, such as the Occupy and Arab Spring mass protest movements, Wikileaks, the Anonymous hacktivist collective – rebranded here as Fsociety – and post-Global Financial Crisis anti-corporate sentiment.
Watching Mr. Robot, one can get the sense of tapping into latent, subversive forces in the collective unconscious that never really went away. It’s a mischievous look at the way we live now dressed up as a techno-thriller. The results are both exhilarating and utterly unpredictable.
Mr. Robot is the brainchild of the relatively green Sam Esmail, whose only notable prior credit was directing IFC’s low-budget and little seen 2014 comedy/drama, Comet. Remarkably, Esmail had only worked on a couple of television documentaries as a lowly crew member prior to Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot looks and feels like the work of an auteur rather than a major cable network. It’s a spectacular debut, the televisual equivalent of a young unknown session musician suddenly releasing Appetite for Destruction.
Esmail draws on his own life as a young hacker and slave to student loans to tell the story of Elliott, a young hacker and morphine addict whose childhood friend Angela is a slave to student loans. Elliott is a maladjusted loner who looks at the modern world with fear and loathing, like Travis Bickle with a laptop. Disgruntled with his day job providing cybersecurity for an evil corporation called EvilCorp, he meets the mysterious Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater, and falls in with a group of hackers committed to nothing less than liberating the people of the world from debt and corporate hegemony.
This is pretty heady stuff, but Esmail avoids drowning out genuine human characters and emotions with it by exploring both Elliott’s inner and outer worlds. When he’s not trying to bring down the global financial system, Elliott is talking to his psychiatrist. Voiceovers frequently reveal Elliott’s inner thoughts, which provide for a strange intimacy given that it quickly becomes apparent that he is also an unreliable narrator, the kind who sees ominous men in black suits on the subway who may or may not be there. We get into his head, but we’re never quite sure if what he’s seeing is real. It’s clear that Elliott is alienated and disconnected from society, but to what extent is he also disconnected from reality?
Such storytelling serves to unsettle and wrong-foot the viewer, which Mr. Robot pulls off repeatedly with an almost palpable relish. Indeed, as others have noted, Mr. Robot seems to be as much about hacking audience expectations as it is about hacker culture. Brimming with left turns and WTF moments, Mr. Robot has numerous shocks in store for the uninitiated.
Slater’s eponymous character and Elliott, played by magnetic newcomer Rami Malek, together form the enigmatic heart of this show, but the supporting characters are no less rich and interesting.
A special shout-out goes out to Tyrell Wellick, a sociopath in a suit that Swedish actor Martin Wallstrom plays like a cross between Patrick Bateman and Mad Men’s Pete Campbell: he may appear to be frequently flustered and pathetic, but he is also extremely dangerous.
There are also minor characters whose impact outlasts their limited screen time. Tyrell’s wife, Joanna Wellick, played by the cartoonishly beautiful Danish actress Stephanie Corneliussen, despite being ostensibly cordial and non-threatening nonetheless inspires a sense of vague, bone-chilling, Lovecraftian dread. There is also the mysterious hacker known as White Rose, a ghost whose motivations and intentions remain maddeningly unclear. Despite only appearing in two scenes in the entire series, White Rose is unforgettable, and, it would seem (though nothing is what it seems in Mr. Robot), absolutely central to the show’s arc.
Mr. Robot has a striking visual aesthetic, the actors frequently framed in such a way as to emphasize their smallness relative to their surroundings, whether that be a soulless glass-and-chrome office, or a busy New York City street. Adopting a technique known as “the rule of thirds”, whereby an actor only takes up one-third or even less than one-third of the screen, Mr. Robot’s cinematography evokes a sense of vulnerable, all too human characters constantly being dwarfed and overwhelmed by the greater world around them. As explored in the video No Rules for Composition – (Mr. Robot) from Vimeo Semih.
It is particularly impressive that a show inspired and informed by the zeitgeist now looks set to become a part of the zeitgeist itself. The USA Network even had to delay the airing of the final episode by a week, given unfortunate similarities between one gruesome scene and the traumatic, real-life, live-on-air shooting murder of a television reporter and cameraman in Virginia.
The showrunners apparently took advantage of this one-week break by writing and shooting new dialogue for the finale’s opening scene, wherein two characters talk about the very-recent-at-the-time Ashley Madison hacking scandal.
It doesn’t get any more finger-on-the-pulse than that.
As Sam Esmail puts it, he was told “numerous times in the industry that nobody wants to watch a guy on a keyboard.” From its riveting opening scene to its revealing final one, Mr. Robot proves the naysayers wrong. Who would have thought that nerds with revolutionary fervor would be so entertaining?
Mr. Robot has emerged out of nowhere to become the best new show of 2015. Viva la revolution!
Mr. Robot Review Panel (Youtube) CONTAINS SPOILERS