It’s been a while since I’ve talked to you.
You’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows how the hacker types up a storm on a keyboard or dances their fingers across their tablet screen. And voila! The computer system is hacked. Instant access to networks, dirty little secrets or that last second rescue.
People can be hacked too. Scanning recent news headlines it’s all too real how a security breach can expose the parts of people’s lives they’d rather keep under the covers. In USA Network’s cyber drama/thriller titled Mr. Robot, hacking is not a convenient plot device, it’s the avenue by which many relevant issues of today are explored.
To put it succinctly, Mr. Robot is a damn great show. It’s exceptionally written and well acted. The story revelations are deftly handled and respect the viewer’s intelligence. There are certain parallels with Fight Club and American Psycho, yet I’d argue Mr. Robot has its own identity.
Mr. Robot is shot with a cinematic flair but you never get the sense that it’s trying too hard to be artsy. The eclectic song choices are spot on and add to the impact of the scene. The music score is intensely atmospheric, fitting in perfectly with the cyber thriller tone.
The series stars Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, a security engineer by day and a cyber vigilante by night. Elliot isn’t a person who can be easily summed up in a neat little sentence. Are any of us?
There’s a lot going on in Elliot’s head, which is where he spends a lot of his time. You see, Elliot suffers from social anxiety disorder. He’d rather be alone than struggling to awkwardly relate to his co-workers and friends. When we first meet him, he’s morphine dependent and on the edge of spiraling out of control.
I won’t set up the show any further, other than to say it’s a wild entertaining ride. You can watch the full episode of Mr. Robot Season 1, Episode 1 on YouTube. If you’re in Canada, you can watch Mr. Robot at Showcase.ca.
Please be warned that there will be a spoiled filled discussion ahead on Season 1 including the finale. You may want to catch up on the show first before reading further.
Are you still with me? Full Spoilers Ahead.
The counterpart to Elliot’s plan to topple the largest corporation in the world and change the free world as we know it is in Angela’s attempt to expose and get back at Evil Corp. Albeit, Elliot is going about it in an underground, cyber terrorist way while Angela is using the legal system.
There’s an anti-corporate sentiment that is clearly inherent to these story lines. I realize the actions of corporations affect our daily lives in both innocuous and headline grabbing ways, although in general I don’t spend much time thinking about how their values influence our society and the democratic process.
In the pilot, the imagery of faceless men in business suits sitting atop skyrise offices, while not entirely inaccurate, I feel is a little too simplistic. But as the series moves forward, we discover that Elliot is an unreliable narrator. We may see his world view but it can’t be trusted or at least cannot be taken at face value.
In Angela’s confrontation with former CTO of E-Corp Terry Colby, we get a step closer to a clearer picture. We learn that these faceless men are not necessarily evil tyrants stroking their villainous mustaches, but we can picture how drunk, shrimp cocktail eating corporate suits could be indifferent to the lives of their employees. Still, Mr. Robot has room to add shades of grey and nuance in its depiction, if that’s what it’s going for.
The basic analogy of Angela’s story arc that I like to use is that she’s up against a gigantic tidal wave. One she can’t out run and can’t truly fight. If she stands still she’ll be crushed. She can only be engulfed by it, becoming a part of what she once stood against. Or maybe the only way to destroy the beast is from within? Yet in the finale, there’s a brief but alarming ‘Devil Wears Prada’ moment where she snaps at the shoe salesman. At this point, I think she’s jumping down the rabbit hole, seeing where it leads and keeping her options open.
So how did Angela go from a seemingly innocent girl to joining Evil Corp? The time jump at the start of the finale didn’t fill in the blanks for us. However, based on her past actions the signs were there. She infected All Safe using her boyfriend’s computer work station. She put the jobs of All Safe employees at risk by lying about the break in chain of custody in order to get Terry Colby to go on record. Her actions speak to the strength of her convictions and at same time reflects her increasingly murky morality.
Angela’s arc is one of many examples of how Mr. Robot is really good at twisting and turning story lines in ways that felt earned. Another is in the flashback that showed Elliot meeting Shayla for the first time when he asked her for a particular drug which set off a domino effect, ultimately leading to her demise. Unless we are going with Joss Whedon’s definition of a hero – someone who gets other people killed; how heroic do you see the black hooded Elliot and his band of merry hacktivists?
I’m not saying I subscribe to Fsociety’s anarchy manifesto, but there is value in a voice of dissent to get people asking questions and open a larger dialogue. Elliot said he wanted to save the world and as much as he accomplished, we see in the season’s final scene that the truly rich and powerful aren’t scrambling to pick up the pieces. Perhaps then Fsociety’s accomplishment that deserves more recognition is in getting people to realize what they need saving from. And in doing so “we’re finally awake” like Darlene (Carly Chaikin) said.
The thing I liked about the reveal of Mr. Robot’s identity is that it didn’t hinge on being this big jaw dropping shocker. Many viewers would have clued onto that Mr. Robot was not real although I didn’t guess that Edward (Christian Slater) and Darlene are his father and sister. The revelation was meaningful to Elliot and spoke to some of the larger ideas the show is bringing up. Mental illness, of course, affects many people. On a broader level, we can understand how one can disassociate from the different factions of one’s identity. The finale does a good job of getting Elliot (or his younger self and family) to land on the thought that our authentic self is all of our past and present as much we compartmentalize who we are when we’re with our family, co-workers or on social media.
One other thing that the finale did well was playing with the idea of what is real and what is make-believe. Seeing things from Elliot’s perspective, the unexplained missing time period gave a disorienting feeling. The on-air suicide felt surreal as was the crowds of masked Mr. Robots in the streets. I kept thinking is this really happening? I was expecting the possibility that the writers would pull the rug from under our feet at the end and say it was all in Elliot’s head. But what happened, happened even if we have to wait till next season to fill in those three missing days.
I don’t disagree with terms such as “brilliant” and “thought-provoking” used to describe Mr. Robot, but it’s harder for me to pinpoint why the show is resonating. Beyond the story and character developments, I think Mr. Robot is tapping into a reservoir of cultural anxiety about existing in our modern age. It’s something that may not be at the forefront of our mind, more like a dark cloud ruminating in the background. We try to push it back and not to think about it, but it’s there whether it’s real or not.
Let’s talk again … soon.