by Rita Aresta
Shortly before the debut of Mr. Robot, North American premium channel USA Network announced they’d be changing their programme strategy. The plan was to leave behind “blue skies” drama and optimistic procedural series, which inevitably go unnoticed by both audiences and critics, and to focus on more daring productions with longer and more complex plotlines. It worked.
In a time of arguably excessive television production, when content quantity available is so large we don’t even know what to watch first, Mr. Robot premiered in 2015 with an unusual proposition. The series managed to distance itself from others by introducing a mysterious and charismatic character, beautiful camerawork, and most importantly managing to clearly deliver a storyline which wasn’t all that simple. It was a success among audiences and critics, earning Rami Malek (who’ll be playing Freddie Mercury in 2017’s Bohemian Rhapsody biopic film) a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and one of the year’s best surprises.
Mr. Robot, showcasing Malek at his best, presents us a situation that isn’t that far off from today’s world: Elliot Alderson is an idealistic young man living in New York City who wants to make the world a better place. Immediate plot twist: we soon realise there’s something very wrong with him – we are, after all, his “imaginary friend”. Elliot suffers from some sort of mental illness, which needs to be part of the equation for his greater plan to work.
Elliot (Rami Malek), working at his apartment, “eps2.2_init_1.asec”
At first, we meet only the lonely and introvert Elliot, struggling with depression and anxiety, trying to cope through drugs and connecting with others through hacking them as a cyber-vigilante, in a portrayal that isn’t unlike that of Dexter – only we get a plethora of burnt CDs claiming to be Tool and Pink Floyd instead of blood slides (while we’re on the psychopath theme – Tyrell, portrayed by Martin Wallström, also gives off some serious American Psycho vibes). Working as a security engineer at Allsafe, the cyber security company that protects one of the biggest technology enterprises of the world, E Corp – or Evil Corp, as it’s perceived and referred to throughout the whole series – Elliot doesn’t come across as a huge threat to the world. Right in the first hour of Mr. Robot we’re also introduced to fsociety, a hacktivist group inspired by the real Anonymous, which is planning an online attack to erase all consumer debt. They recruit Elliot through Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), asking for his help to carry out their plan, and come complete with their own version of the Guy-Fawkes-meets-Mr-Monopoly facemask based on the faux made-for-purpose movie The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.
The fluidity of Mr. Robot’s storyline is surprisingly good. There are several characters which come and go, all of them significant to the central plot, but more importantly – to Elliot’s life. We also lose some characters along the way, but each of them has their story arcs well closed, with watertight storylines. Each one has its role in Elliot’s trajectory and fsociety’s bigger picture, whether it’s to help the project or hinder its development.
fsociety – Trenton (Sunita Mani), Mobley (Azhar Khan), Darlene (Carly Chaikin)
and Cisco (Michael Drayer), “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12”
Likewise, the somewhat experimental language used by the production team is also worthy of note. Elliot’s voice isn’t a narration, but more of a connecting thread. We need to know what’s going on in his head and get inside it in order to understand and watch the world through his eyes. His comments on those that surround him are inevitably full of judgment and sarcasm, and end up reflecting how complicated his own life is.
The visual works that we’re presented with in the series are also excellent: each scene framing is crafted beautifully, using different angles to convey the feeling of superiority or inferiority of a specific character. The scenes with Elliot, Mr. Robot and fsociety are always shot in a way whereas when one of them is communicating with fsociety the other stands behind. The opening vignette places the series’ title in important moments so that it too gets stuck in our mind. Even the episode titles are carefully chosen, with those in the first season named as if they were a computer file complete with video file format extension, and those in the second season having an encryption extension. In fact, the whole show is so full of Easter eggs you may as well hold a wicker basket while watching it.
Two Easter eggs in one go – flyer based on a Dr. Strangelove poster and Lolita sunglasses. Stanley Kubrick is one of Esmail’s favourite directors, “eps1.9_zer0-day.avi”
The inevitable comparison with Fight Club isn’t without fundament: both productions are similar in their plot, use of unreliable narrators and ultimate objectives. There’s even homage to it in the final minutes of the first season’s ninth episode. However, Mr. Robot doesn’t lose its authenticity, delivering one surprising moment after another, and manages to do so even when their outcome is predictable.
Renewed for a second season even before the first series debuted on television (the pilot episode was made available through online and on-demand services approximately a month before its television premiere), Mr. Robot finalised its first run without loose ends in the main plot, but with a massive cliffhanger: who was behind the door? (PS: Don’t miss out the post-credits scenes in both seasons!)
Romero (Ron Cephas Jones) and Mobley (Azhar Khan) watching Hackers. It took six weeks to clear this clip for Mr. Robot to use, “eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4”
Mr. Robot returned in July 2016 to show us that it can follow up further than Elliot and Mr. Robot, exploring several storylines that don’t involve the lead character. It’s extremely interesting to see the world through Elliot’s eyes as he makes us participate even though we’re mere spectators, continuously questioning himself and others while trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s clear that he doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on (…or does he?), as he constantly asks his “imaginary friend” what’s the next stage of the plan. The lines blur as to who’s in control – Elliot or Mr. Robot?
In its second season, Mr. Robot remained innovative and included some special scenes, including two moments recorded in 360º which were later made available in virtual reality format, and the delightfully twisted sitcom-style sequence of the second season’s sixth episode, complete with laughter tracks. The scene aesthetics, angles, interpersonal involvement, environment and references – everything remained meticulously calculated to give us the sensation of what it’s like to be inside Elliot’s mind. What it feels like to be under the control of Mr. Robot.
The sitcom Alderson family – Mr. and Mrs. Alderson (Christian Slater and Vaishnavi Sharma), Elliot (Rami Malek) and Darlene (Carly Chaikin), “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
The acting in the second season was even stronger. The actors, perhaps now more comfortable in their roles, managed to explore other sides of their characters we hadn’t seen yet, especially Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Darlene (Carly Chaikin), which are rendered so fragile and vulnerable to the extent of committing desperate acts matching their respective personalities. The episodes also added Ray (Craig Robinson) and Leon (Joey Bada$$), besides the excellent Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer).
The series, however, somewhat missed out due to an ego that was perhaps a little too big for its own good. Sam Esmail, creator, screenwriter and producer of the series in its first season, also decided to take charge of direction in all of the twelve episodes of the second season – and although his intentions were good, this is, perhaps, where some (although not much) quality was lost.
Esmail seemed to truly believe that his audience would manage to follow him no matter which path he chose – and he chose a tough one. There’s some overuse of technical terms inaccessible to those outside the IT universe. Mr. Robot aimed to tell several stories simultaneously, giving out minuscule clues along its episodes, with the final solution only being shown a long time afterwards. All of this took its toll on the narrative, dragging a season which although generally dynamic and involving, ended up at times seeming like its scenes were presented in the wrong order. Perhaps it would’ve worked out better if presented “Netflix style”, i.e. making all the episodes available in one go, which is the best way to watch this show – as it contains so many minute details and self-references, it definitely benefits from being watched continuously, without the weekly pause between episodes.
Darlene (Charly Chaikin) in the season two finale of Mr. Robot,
Mr. Robot is coming back for a third season and Esmail states he’d like to reach a fourth or even fifth. One thing is certain: if the following episodes raise as many questions as these twenty-two have, then we’ll definitely need another two years to compute everythingRating: 5/5
Best episodes: “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov” (S01E01), “eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v” (S01E08), “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z” (S02E12)
All images credit of USA Network