By Andrew Niemann
“Hello, friend.” With these two words, we are introduced to Elliot (Rami Malek), an emotionally disturbed hacker who works for a security firm called Allsafe. He is quickly drawn into the world of fsociety, an Anonymous-like group led by the eponymous Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), whilst avoiding the machinations of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), Senior Vice President of E (“Evil”) Corp. Elliot is aided by his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), and his girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw). This is only a brief introduction to the complex show that Mr. Robot becomes over the course of its first season. Mr. Robot, a surprise hit on USA, stands out among the basic cable network’s mostly bland offerings.
At its core, Mr. Robot is a noir, but it also contains elements of cyberpunk and crime drama. Your standard action sequences are replaced with hardcore hacking sessions and, for once, they are highly realistic. The show doesn’t handhold the audience by dumbing down any computer terminology, while at the same time, these scenes are rarely boring and showcase aspects of the Internet that are very, very real. There aren’t any outdated “cyber-reality” sequences like you’d find in a movie like Hackers (humorously riffed on in one sequence with a few of the minor characters), or falling down elevator shafts laptop-in-hand from movies like Mission: Impossible. Most of the hacking is done by simple physical acquiescing of data, such as a malicious hacker spreading his virus by putting it on a rap mix CD to hand out to his target in Times Square. Episode titles are even labeled in Internet file speak such as “eps1.3da3m0ns.mp4.” In the wake of the Sony hacks, Mr. Robot may actually be 2015’s most relevant show. In fact, the first season finale was delayed because of its similarity to a shooting filmed and uploaded onto social media.
Unusual subject matter aside, it’s the performances that really make Mr. Robot stand out. Much has already been written about Malek’s deer-in-the-headlights portrayal of Elliot, but it’s the show’s women who make the strongest impression. Darlene, in particular, is a standout performance as the fsociety hacker who “initiates” Elliot into the group. Her introduction in Eliott’s apartment presents her as a woman who owns the world, especially online. Chaikin takes a tired character type and makes it more emotionally nuanced and likable. Angela, Elliot’s friend and coworker, also gets her own time to shine in dealing with her garbage boyfriend and helping Elliot take down Evil Corp. Her relationship with her broken father is comparable to Elliot’s, and the show contrasts how each of these characters deal with their childhood traumas. Shayla is the most wild card female character in the show; she serves as a flawed romantic figure who comes to an unfortunate end.
Mr. Robot’s frank portrayal of sexuality also bucks TV trends. The show’s villain, Tyrell Wellick, is bisexual, and he sleeps with both men and women to acquire access to their data. Tyrell is not necessarily an evil character; he, in fact, has a (platonic) affinity for Elliot because he sees himself in him. Tyrell seems to be a sociopath, much like Elliot, in that he can’t have normal relationships with anyone. A transgender character played by B.D. Wong named White Rose even ends up as one of the minor antagonists near the end of the season. White Rose also isn’t necessarily evil, and is merely the head of a Chinese group called The Dark Army, which allies themselves with fsociety at the very beginning. White Rose remains one of the show’s mysteries, clearly being set up as a major antagonist in Season 2. Thankfully not all the show’s queer characters are villainous—Elliot’s boss, Gideon, who is gay, is very helpful to Elliot’s operation even if he doesn’t approve of it. The second season of Mr. Robot is promising in how it will further portray the diverse sexual identities of the characters.
Mr. Robot’s only true flaw, and most criticized component, is its portrayal of Elliot as the quintessential “nice guy.” Elliot’s crushes are generally in the grips of macho men who have no regard for them, while Elliot is presented as a better option despite being emotionally frayed himself. At times, the contrast borders on cartoonish. It’s an unfortunate portrayal and even leads to a female character getting fridged, which sends Elliot in a spiral to determine Mr. Robot’s true identity.
The mystery of Mr. Robot’s identity is very engaging and central to the themes of the show. The season manages to hide the solution across many episodes by tossing out red herrings to keep the audience guessing. When Mr. Robot is finally revealed, the answer feels earned, even if the resolution is maybe a little obvious. Part of the enjoyment relies on Slater’s charismatic yet off-putting portrayal of the character. Slater manages to channel that oft-compared Jack Nicholson charm, especially in heart-to-heart scenes with Elliot. My favorite scene is in the first episode where Elliot meets Mr. Robot in a closed amusement park Ferris wheel. Not only is the scene a direct homage to Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man, but it also establishes Mr. Robot’s misanthropy. He needs Elliot on his team so that he can take down high society, one bureaucrat at a time. Mr. Robot is slimy yet charming, like a cobra with a particularly colorful head-flap.
Mr. Robot is not a show for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of focus and resolve to get through each of its intense episodes. It’s an experiment that the network has thrown its support behind, and hopefully, this continues further in its second season this year.