The first rule of Mr. Robot and the limits of homage

  USA Network

USA Network

BY SCOTT BEGGS

Spoiler Alert: Spoilers Exist

In the first episode of Mr. Robot, the titular hero explains his devious master plan for righting all the wrongs of the world. Even through the heavy veil of Christian Slater’s eternal five o’clock shadow, it isn’t hard to hear the opening echoes of Tyler Durden: his hacking crew wants to erase the debt record and set everyone back to zero. In this fictional universe, that means attacking one, massive, global-consuming company called Evil Corp as opposed to Fight Club, where all the major credit card companies had to be hit at once. The other obvious difference is that Mr. Robot’s rag-tag crew of fsociety punks will do it using keyboard clicks instead of soap-based explosives, but the shout out is still there.

When I first heard it, I cringed. It’s one of those amazing, Bond villain-level schemes that could use further exploration in our post-Occupy times, but it’s also something firmly tied to the legacy of Fight Club. I imagine a lot of other storytellers kicked themselves when the film became part of the popular lexicon (the book was an underground hit, but not big enough to prevent further uses of the plot device) because David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s story utilized the concept so thoroughly. It’s not quite the same as making a shark attack movie after Jaws, but it’s not far off.

Still, Mr. Robot impresses enough that using the well-known plot driver of a well-known book/movie felt more like pointing to the bleachers. The show knows exactly what it wants to be from beat one, and it’s fascinating and engaging from the opening moments, so why not announce that you’re crafting a different spin on a harebrained idea? MacGuffins (even PlotGuffins) can’t be sacred forever.

At the same time, Mr. Robot‘s similarities to Fight Club raise an eyebrow, and when Mr. Robot himself reveals late in season one that he, in fact, is a figment of our troubled hero Elliot’s fractured psyche, it marks a transition from homage to mirroring. That’s obviously a fine line, but even dressed in a hoodie instead of a cornflower blue tie, it’s not difficult to see that Mr. Robot strides across it.

On its foundation, the show — created by Sam Esmail — uses the overblown society-shifting goal from Fight Club, the mentally troubled hero of Fight Club and the alpha-male-catalyst-isn’t-real twist from Fight Club. That’s enough, but it’s not necessarily all.

What’s interesting is that the twist has no narrative reason to exist in Mr. Robot, other than re-positioning Elliot/Mr. Robot in the way he relates to his hacker team and vice versa. We can watch episodes again for the fun Easter eggs that any twist offers, and we can grin at how a small crew of individuals led by a mad men, in fact, abandon that mad men during a challenging heist/drug withdrawal. The revelation that Mr. Robot and Elliot (played by Rami Malek’s eyeballs) are the same person also gives him someone to talk to, but, like the best stories with twists, you can easily imagine a version of the story without one.

This in itself isn’t criticism of the show. Choosing to include an imagined character is a structural choice — a tool that can add strength or detract depending on how it’s used. However, with the plot foundation borrowed from Fight Club already in place, choosing to also use its Tyler Durden twist in a story that could have been strong without it seems like a deliberate move beyond homage into something else entirely.

Add in little moments meant to wave toward Fight Club — the coffee hand off in the image above, the often off-kilter framing, Elliot saying, “He has the password, which means I have the password,” the use of The Pixies “Where Is My Mind” — and you have a show that’s not so much wearing its inspiration on its sleeve as it is wearing that inspiration’s shirt.

Mr. Robot even instigates a stranger into punching him/Elliot in the season finale to prove that they’re connected. This comes, of course, after Elliot grows a late-blooming conscience and attempts to turn himself into the police — something that The Narrator/Tyler does in Fight Club to near-ball-snipping effect.

If you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, Mr. Robot’s characters mirror some from Fight Club. Elliot shares the baseline mental instability of The Narrator, but it’s worth noting how different he is in the presentation. He’s still a worker bee technically humping it out under the heel of the corporate enemy, but he has a particular set of skills that The Narrator lacks, and his social awkwardness is far, far more pronounced. The Narrator is meant to be an everyman while Elliot is a rare, behooded butterfly.

Mr. Robot is a far closer analog of Tyler — alpha, showy, aggressive, zero pretense and fucks given. He pushes Elliot into taking on the impossible task with little need for coaxing beyond the force of his personality. The clear dominant half, he also speaks often in bizarre zen koans (and absolutes) about conformity and consumerism. His finale monologue is particularly Durden-esque, and there’s another slice of irony in the speech when he goofs on ideas branded by companies.

You also have the disheveled feminine appearance of Darlene or Shayla as Marla Singer — all figures who seem to survive solely on coffee beans and sticks of eye shadow — and Gideon as the clueless puppet of a boss whose left bereft by the machinations of the hero. These connections are more tenuous, but, like Fight Club, the underground group with a prankster mentality and its activities eventually build to a broad phenomenon which takes on an uncontrollable life of its own. (Mass movements being an obsession of Palahniuk’s writing.)

To the show’s credit, it’s fantastic. It’s sharp, often refuses the usual formula (I thought at first it would be a hack-of-the-week + the main goal type deal), and it’s probably the best photographed show currently on television. All of that does strong work to obscure the line between copy and homage. I have no doubt that if the show had been a pastiche with clunky dialogue, it would have rightly been buried for snatching several concepts. A poor copy of a copy of a copy.

Plus, Mr. Robot has gone far beyond its plotting to — like great television can — let us live with fascinating characters who are damaged, ambitious, ruthless and endearing. It’s an exploration of an impossible task, as well as the aftermath of its successful completion, and with a second season coming, it’s clear that it’s the closest thing both to Fight Club and to the movie sequel it hasn’t gotten yet. Below the surface of its plot, though, Mr. Robot is an exploration of the people attempting that impossible task, which sets it apart from the object of homage/its blurred source material. You could also argue that including the Patrick Bateman-esque Wellick livens up the mix the way adding Metallica to your Bob Dylan Pandora channel would spice up its origins.

  USA Network

USA Network

Even more than that, the identity twist works largely because 1) the show isn’t precious about it and 2) there’s a twist to the twist, letting us reel back when we learn that Darlene is Elliot’s sister and that the guy who we pretty much knew was fake to begin with is Elliot’s dead dad. Their version of Tyler is a real person with real meaning to our friendly psychopath, and because there’s genuine depth to the show, it makes all the borrowed material charming instead of irritating.

For proof, there have been several articles (PajibaDeadspinThe Observer) that note the show’s copycat formula. Not only do they accept it, they praise the show for how it presents familiar material. They recognize the Fight Club connections and don’t care. The show is bullet proof, yet you also cannot talk about Mr. Robot successfully pulling off its plot elements without also mentioning Fight Club pulling off those same plot elements. To do so would be to miss the giant billboard right in front of your face.

So we give Mr. Robot a lot of leeway, even though it’s copy/pasted its heroes’ goals, his incipient secret society on the verge of mass movement, its fake character twist, and some of its imagery from a popular piece of fiction. You can imagine the sound of a lesser show being ripped to shreds, but even though it regularly informs our opinion, quality doesn’t and shouldn’t inform our response to the line between homage and outright theft.

That’s why it’s frustrating to love Mr. Robot while questioning why so much of it had to be lifted from Fight Club. It’s encouraging that it hints at more twists to come (especially with a Vanilla Sky-ish moment in the finale that calls into question everything we’ve seen so far), but I still have to question what makes the act of borrowing acceptable.

The answer is an important one that’s often left out of conversations. It’s about ideas and their execution.

Even though Mr. Robot features several of the same plot concepts from a singular fictional source, a crazed man with an imaginary friend attacking the debt record is, at its base, an idea, and it’s what the show does with that idea (its execution) that truly matters.

It brings to mind Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix, which has been remastered for 2015 (above) and dives deep into the treacherous waters of copyright control. Nothing is original. All of it is patchwork. Some of it more obviously than others. In the case of Mr. Robot, it’s not enough to say that it wouldn’t exist without Fight Club (it goes beyond that), but even if it’s discouraging that the show doesn’t present fresher ideas, it’s still excellent to see a quality show tackling those ideas in its own way.

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