MR. ROBOT: SEASON 1
FROM NOW / CERT. 18
WHEN CABLE channel USA Network announced Mr. Robot last year, the response was weary indifference. After all, hackers ranting anti-capitalist screeds were so 2014, while its star was a character actor best known for playing the pharaoh in Night At The Museum. Now, buoyed by critical acclaim and with a pair of Golden Globes bouncing around in its backpack, Sam Esmail’s jittery tech thriller is getting the attention it deserves.
What Michael Mann failed to do with $100 million and a box of jazzy CGI, Esmail and director Niels Arden Oplev (2009’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) manage in a single, hour-long pilot: they make using computers look fun. We don’t need byte’s-eye views of data skittering down glowing pathways — just a relatable, believable character exploiting human fallibility to unearth close-kept secrets: be they corporate misconduct or a therapist’s predilection for anal porn.
That the first episode plays like a movie is no accident. Originally conceived as a feature, this first season marks what would have been the first act of Esmail’s film — subsequently re-worked and pitched for television after growing beyond its original scope. Esmail’s influences (among them Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club and The Matrix) are worn proud and loud, and Mr. Robot makes no apology for its cinematic aspirations.
The character at the heart of the show is Elliot, a nervy recluse with the social skills of a lunchbox, cursed with a menu of unspecified personality
disorders that render him incapable of normal human interaction. Instead, he moves through the world alone, aided by a carefully administered morphine regimen and connecting with people by violating their personal data. It’s a harmless, if creepy, existence until he becomes entangled with masked hacktivist group ‘fsociety’, fronted by a flamboyantly nutso Christian Slater as the title character. Along with Mr. Robot and his rag-tag band of nerd vigilantes, Elliot executes an elaborate plan to take down über-conglomerate E Corp (or ‘Evil Corp’ as Elliot dubs them), erasing all the world’s debt into the bargain.
Elliot’s misalignment with social norms, illegal second life (his day job is cyber-security for Evil Corp themselves) and persistent narration brings to mind Dexter, except with server racks instead of kill rooms. He’s an awkward, fragile and deeply vulnerable protagonist, played to perfection by the show’s secret weapon: saucer-eyed star Rami Malek. Shouldering most of the dramatic load, Malek’s function as the show’s narrator and principle point of view places him at the heart of almost every scene, each of which he quietly steals, even from Slater’s maniacal grandstanding.
When Elliot does take a back seat, the secondary plotlines are picked up by his childhood (and only) friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), and Evil Corp’s VP Of Technology, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström). The latter in particular lends the show a sinister tone. Tyrell (a nod to Blade Runner’s corporate overlord) is a darkly predatory character, neither ally nor true antagonist, with a penchant for violent tantrums and BDSM with his heavily pregnant wife. The secondary threads twine around the central story before (deliberately) undermining it completely, when it becomes apparent to the viewer just how unreliable our deranged narrator really is.
It’s here where Mr. Robot truly shines. That there’s a third-act rug-pull may seem like a spoiler, but Esmail’s prestige is heavily signposted from episode one. Elliot’s inner voice manifests within the show’s reality (his nickname ‘Evil Corp’ is adopted even by its CEO), resulting in a delirious, dream-like quality and clear indication that everything is not what it seems.
A zeitgeisty exploration of cyberterrorism in the modern age, shot through a nihilistic lens, this is among 2015’s best shows. The finale is a curveball — neither what you expect, nor necessarily what you want — but it marks the end of a sharply written, refreshingly original ride.