Note: if you’re not caught up on USA’s Mr. Robot, two pieces of advice. One, catch up on USA’s Mr. Robot. Two, don’t read the text below until you have, as it contains lots and lots of spoilers.
When Christian Slater first appeared at the 33-minute mark of the Mr. Robot pilot, it took me all of two minutes to think, “wait…this guy might be a figment of Elliot’s imagination.” And compared to a certain kind of savvy viewer—the kind raised on The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense and Fight Club and various other rug-pulling psychodramas told through the eyes of unreliable narrators—I’m sure I was slow on the uptake. We’d just spent a half hour getting to know Elliot, the autistic/SAD/depressed/delusional loner played by the excellent Rami Malek, and it didn’t take a genius to understand that anything he saw, or said, or did, should be viewed with total suspicion.
In fact, the show already seemed to be toying with us, specifically with the way every character, good, bad, or ambiguous, used the words “Evil Corp” to describe “E Corp,” the massive soulless conglomerate at the heart of the drama. We were hearing the dialogue through Elliot’s ears—gone was the neutral, omniscient microphone—so why wouldn’t we be seeing things the same way? In fact, Elliot’s mode of narration emerges as a stream of dialogue addressed to his “imaginary friend”—us. Reality is skewed from the beginning, and certainty is a myth. As far as we know, the entire show could be the mental projections of an insane person locked up in an institution somewhere, and at the very least, any semblance of truth is laced with a dizzy kind of paranoia.
At the center of this ominous field stands Mr. Robot, Slater’s mysterious master hacker, and leader of fsociety (tag line: “fuck society”). He begins recruiting Elliot to help hack Evil Corp in that first encounter on the train, but we’re immediately suspicious of his motivations, his origins, and, of course, his very existence. If you didn’t heed the spoiler alert at the start of this article, then heed it now, because I’m about to blow the whole thing wide open: It takes nine episodes for the big reveal—Mr. Robot is indeed a figment of Elliot’s imagination. He takes the physical form of his father, who died of leukemia related to a toxic waste leak while working for Evil Corp in what became the formative moment of his son’s life. Elliot’s mission to destroy the company stems from his father’s death, and his delusions about the man serve to fill an emotional void—a desperate attempt to escape his crushing loneliness.
And the best compliment I can pay Mr. Robot is that the journey from introduction to revelation is so meandering, exciting, and totally engrossing that the season-long wait never bothered me. In a lesser show, the lingering suspicion about Mr. Robot, and the entire questionable nature of Elliot’s reality, would have given way to impatience and frustration. But not so here—it’s an odd, dark world that show creator Sam Esmail has manufactured from the raw material of New York City, and the pacing has been exquisite from the start. There’s never a rushed moment, but never a delayed one, either. Everything moves according to an invisible rhythm, and it compels the viewer as it compels the character, so that, even with 8 hours of television standing between the question and the answer, the drama proceeds on a tight line, drawing us along at a speed that feels both preordained and perfect.
The fact that USA, of all networks, has pulled off a show of this quality comes as a total surprise to me. Prior to this, I knew it as the channel responsible for Monk, that detective show that old people seemed to like, and not much else. (The full list shows that I wasn’t not missing much, beyond Suits...the track record here has been pretty dismal, and USA has basically occupied the role of AMC’s loser kid brother.) It shows that a flower can bloom even in the cracks of broken pavement, and also reaffirms not just that we’re in a TV golden age, but that the competitive landscape almost forces a company like USA to generate new ideas and fund people like Esmail, a 37-year-old relative unknown, which in turn leads to hidden gems like Mr. Robot popping up in unlikely places.
Not that the show is perfect. Before I list my complaints, I’d hasten to add the disclaimer that these quibbles pale in comparison to the show’s greater excellence, and seem instead like the last symptoms of an old illness; hackneyed tropes slipping into something absolutely original. But anyway, the gripes:
—The show has that Breaking Bad way of asking its viewers to suspend the hell out of their disbelief for some of the nuts-and-bolts, point-A-to-point-B sequences. This bothered very few people in BB, so maybe I’ll be a lone voice in the wilderness on this one, but I became annoyed, for instance, when Darlene hacked into a safe by looking at a diploma on the wall and using the dates as a passcode. In general, I’d love for computer-centric shows to understand that we live in a world where even idiots like me randomize passwords to the point of meaninglessness, and that hacking into systems by guessing birthdays or pet names will not be effective—especially around tech professionals. This happens several times, and it’s like watching the “Bosco” scene from Seinfeld, but without the humor.
That’s a minor example, and a major one would be watching Elliot instigate a jailbreak in the space of a few hours. In contrast to the Steel Mountain operation, which feels as realistic as it needs to be for a tech novice like myself, these deviations from even a baseline realism always end up slightly vexing. (Another example: Who thinks an effective way to hack somebody is to sell them a rap CD—which, former New Yorker here, nobody ever buys—and hope they put it in their computer?) The show functions impeccably on a micro-level, where, like a latent virus, people insinuate themselves into the lives of others. When that element disappears, shit goes off the wall, and we might as well be watching Landry try to cover up murders on Friday Night Lights. It’s just totally unnecessary.
(Although I will admit, I loved Elliot Villar as Fernando. But there’s no way he leaves Shayla dead in a trunk without killing Elliot too.)
—Also like Breaking Bad, there’s a female lead with a one-note acting style, and it’s not even the one who looks like a young Anna Gunn. Instead, I’m talking about Angela, whose perpetual look of grief—a stunned pout?—is melodramatic to the point of parody. I find scenes with her almost universally maddening, but not quite so maddening as scenes with…
—Angela’s boyfriend. Oh my God, MAKE THIS GUY GO THE WAY OF MARK BRENDANAWICZ, STAT. Even his name, Ollie, sucks.
—We don’t see him often, but Gideon is basically the male version of Angela. He has one facial expression—pained anxiety—and seems way too incompetent to be running a security firm.
—Diversity without character. Look, if you’re going to write in an Islamic female hacker in a very undisguised attempt to portray all the colors of the rainbow, you should probably take the next step and actually give her some lines, right? Otherwise, if looks like you’re trying to score social justice warrior points without any of the commitment.
Now that we’ve got that off our collective chests, let’s return to the positive. First off, the actor playing Elliot was always going to make or break the show, and Rami Malek has pulled off a stunning portrayal. Here’s a guy who looks like the coolest kid in the coolest frat at the biggest state school in America, and somehow he’s nailing an anti-social paranoid-schizophrenic Aspergers hacker. He’s doing it so well that he’s managing to disguise the difficulty in playing a character with a mental illness, just as Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man years ago. You believe in Elliot totally—his combination of distress, morality, addiction, genius—and you never see a split at the seams. Malek embodies the character totally.
Slater, of course, has been excellent in the quintessential Slater role—the cocky, abusive, charismatic leader of men, with a simmering pool of rage just beneath the surface. There has always been something terrifying about Slater, in film and real life, and it gives him an unmistakable intensity that he’s put to good use here. It will be interesting to see how he re-emerges now that we’ve literally seen him dead and buried, and I hope and suspect it doesn’t mark the end of his involvement.
As for the female leads, you could argue that they get short shrift (aside from Angela), but after the death of Shayla, Carly Chaikin has shown some serious chops as Darlene, Elliot’s sister. She’s almost as crazy as her brother, and she brings a wonderful sense of ambition, anger, and the ability to manipulate others that Elliot lacks.
Then, finally, we arrive at Tyrell Wellick, played by Martin Wallstrom (who was somehow not one of the two sadists in the U.S. remake of Funny Games). It took me a very long time to figure out how to relate to this character, because he’s essentially a comic book character with some insane ideas about how to advance his own career. There’s nothing wrong with that stylized approach—many aspects of Mr. Robot have a comics aesthetic—but I have to admit I was close to checking out after he beat up a homeless man for fun and seduced his rival’s secretary at a night club as part of some dubious career advancement plot. But I couldn’t look away from Wallstrom, and his creepy, lunatic expressions, and by the time he purposefully walked in on his boss’ wife as she used the bathroom, I had made the choice to stop worrying and love the psychopath. And let me tell you: It’s liberating! This is a fun, loopy, ridiculous character, and I’m loving every moment now that I’ve surrendered to his bizarre charm. And yes, I couldn’t be happier that he now seems to be teamed up with Elliot.
(Although, lingering question: Remember that scene where he met with Mr. Robot? If Mr. Robot is Elliot, essentially, how do we explain that?)
Tonight’s episode brings the first season to a close, and it will likely culminate with the Steel Mountain attack. However that goes down—check this space for a review tomorrow—the first ten installments have marked the start of something very interesting. Mr. Robot is the rare show that treats its audience with intelligence and respect, and even when we get a long-awaited answer, the writers never pretend that the solution is everything. There’s a beautiful moment when Elliot begins to panic, and wonders if his imaginary friend knows more than he does.
And we do—we at least know that something is amiss from the start, and Esmail takes the interesting step of keeping us one move ahead of the main character. We know Darlene is his sister, and Mr. Robot is his father, before it occurs to Elliot, and it’s a wise move. This show doesn’t need to invest everything in last-minute revelations. It’s important that they happen, but it’s more important that they happen naturally. It’s also important that the show moves us emotionally, as it did with Slater’s desperate monologue at the graveyard, when he begged his son to believe that he was real just as he was about to be exposed as a ghost. Wrenching scenes like this one give the show its heart, and without them, the plot turns would be meaningless. Esmail understands this, and so does USA, and it’s why they’ve avoided succumbing to the allure of the sudden twist, as a lesser drama may have done.
Like a timeless song, they know the melody isn’t surprising for its radical structure, but for the fact that it seems to have existed forever in its current form. And only now, with our ears tuned to the right frequency, have we managed to recognize something essential; something that precedes us even though it’s new; that feels oddly familiar and completely unique.