“Watching a group of young people rebel against the one percent — these are not new ideas,” Portia Doubleday, a star of the hit show Mr. Robot, explained to an interviewer. “They’re things that as a society we’re all thinking but don’t know how to tackle. He’s just relating to what so many of us are wondering, but don’t say, and don’t have a platform to,” she said, referencing the show’s talented creator/writer/director, Sam Esmail. We’ve seen this whole young rebel thing done, she’s right, but any good iteration usually has something fresh to communicate, and Mr. Robot is no different. The dark, sleek drama centers on Elliot Alderson, a genius computer hacker with a troubled past who’s trying to take down a global conglomerate with the help of his sister and others.
He reminds me of Brad Pitt’s disruptive Tyler Durden, riling up his fellow Fight Club members with anti-establishment rants. “An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need,” Pitt preached. Elliot, Mr. Robot’s split-personality hero, tends to pontificate in the same vein. He channels Durden when he answers a question from his therapist. “What is it about society that disappoints you so much?” she asks. “Oh I don’t know,” Elliot responds.
Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit; the world itself’s just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary of bulls*** masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books make us happy but because we wanna be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards.
I lept from the couch and pumped my fist in solidarity! I’m not a coercible pawn of the system! I don’t wanna be sedated! My next move, naturally, was to nestle back in with my popcorn and watch five more episodes, but Mr. Robot isn’t merely exploiting latent rebellious impulses and general unrest for binge viewership, the show’s peddling some truth.
From the start, Mr. Robot doesn’t shy away from existential contemplation. Elliot narrates the action when he’s onscreen, discussing in turn the numbing power of consumerism and organized religion, and his own struggles with identity and a difficult upbringing. He has an especially well-developed b.s. meter (that he doesn’t like to train on himself), and he tends to present his nihilistic personal philosophy in a rambling style reminiscent of True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The substance of what he says isn’t always that controversial or provocative, but his sauntering delivery heard in voiceover and his haunted, empty look reveal a profound loneliness.
His argument against God is one we’ve all heard before: that organized religion has done horrible violence to people throughout history and any god complicit in all that can’t be believed in. And not to ignore or belittle that line of reasoning, but his quip, “All we are to them are paying fanboys to their poorly written sci-fi franchise,” shows about what his atheism amounts to for the show: hip, witty wordplay and a critique of the church as another vehicle of power. In this purview, corporations, technology and drugs are all gods, leveraging money and attention for their own gains. His problem with religion, therefore, is the same one he has with authority, and Elliot doesn’t want to cede that to anyone. He resents and resists being controlled by others, but his grand ambitions for his hacker group appear to be destined for the end of most revolutions: to violently tear down the existing system and leave a power vacuum for another tyrant to step in, possibly Elliot. This is the old paradox of control. Striving to change the world for the better, Elliot’s mission along with his drug addiction, personality disorder and past all exert control over him.
No doubt, the show is unchristian and bleak, but when it comes to the way technology masters and alienates its characters, whose identities are fractured by desperate attempts at control, Robot tells the truth, albeit in a roundabout manner. As Sam Esmail described to an interviewer,
There’s not a lot of falling in love and breaking up and meeting and relating to one another. A lot of the characters are lonely. They have no spouse or significant other — they’re just on their own. The only relationships we have are bad ones. A lot of the drama is people in their rooms by themselves, either staring at a screen or communicating with someone through a screen. Maybe it is that we’re reflecting today’s anxieties, but I would go even deeper and say we’re exploring what loneliness looks like today.
Esmail sets up the shots very carefully to highlight his character’s loneliness and isolation. The camera comes in at noticeably high or low angles, confining faces to lower corners of the screen, and, thus, giving them an impersonal feel. The shots literally appear like a computer operating system, with most of the action happening in one corner and the rest surgically precise and unreal. This highlights the way our existence is permeated through a screen most of the day, via cell phones or computers, and gives the illusion of distance and disconnection from what the characters are saying to each other.
Esmail said he set out to debunk the traditional way that people communicate in TV and movies, acting on the overwhelming feeling that his life was taking place over text. “Filming Mr. Robot, I took the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, what would actually happen? In the context of today, how would people actually interact, without having them face each other?’ My personal life, my frustration with what I was watching, feeling like it wasn’t authentically representing how I was interacting with people, was what motivated me,” he said. Our lives, lived through screens, are more solitary and lonely, and the camera helps successfully communicate the depth of our disconnection. For example, people actually text each other in Mr. Robot, and they’re not the fakey messages Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt get from unknown numbers that lead them to the ticking time bomb. The anxieties that come with our constant connectivity are portrayed realistically in the show. And we feel them. These characters communicate like we do, and we learn about the world from watching them.
“What is Mr. Robot about?” one commentator humorously queried. “It’s about how hard it is to figure out what Mr. Robot‘s about.” Elliot has a bad habit of abusing his powers as narrator and lying to us, which makes the plot notoriously hard to follow. With all the intricacies in the story and the attention to detail in each shot (elements that make Mr. Robot so cool and appealing), there are a lot of opportunities to get lost. But that’s just another working example of a truth the show tells us about technology. We’ve become so attuned to processing and sifting through oodles of information in a given day, that only a small part of it sticks. Esmail tosses a ton of things at us, and we pick up on some and discard the rest. The characters are sponges for information, and they attempt to curate and control their intake on screen. One character seeks companionship from her Amazon Echo, and another listens to “positive affirmations” through earbuds on the way to work. Both are attempts to control and self-medicate, and responses to a world that has left them feeling hollowed out. Spending so much time and energy sifting through the daily tide of input has worn us out and turned us into shells, these characters seem to say.
Elliot isn’t the only person on Mr. Robot who struggles with control. Angela, a friend of his, now working for the oppressive conglomerate responsible for her mother’s death, is the best character of the second season so far (DZ will disagree with me here). She listens numbly to her superiors and those who harass and attempt to intimidate her and we watch her brain churning during conversations, trying to find the appropriate responses, but she remains opaque however much we try to read her. “My beliefs shape my reality,” she hears through her earphones on a busy New York City corner. She’s protecting herself by consciously bringing on a self-inflicted brainwash, an attempt at total control. “She’s re-programmed herself, much like you’d debug a network that’s been infected,” one writer puts it. She’s a shell of herself. This is either a natural consequence of her seemingly soulless career climbing or she’s you and me, sifting through the slime and trying to put her best self forward.
This is dragging on, so I’m going to tie things up. Bottomline is that Mr. Robot has the power to captivate and excite the way the best sci-fi can. It shows us a world we recognize, ripe with allegorical elements and clear present day parallels, and does so in a convincing, thoughtful way. We see a complicated portrayal of control and fractured identity in addition to what our loneliness looks like writ large and how technology may be affecting us. It’s all pretty cool, too.
I kept this post free of spoilers, but for people who’ve been watching along, comment thoughts/theories below, please!