BY RICHARD VINE
Spoiler alert: this review mentions details from the entire first season of Mr Robot.
Mr Robot’s three Golden Globe nominations this week (best drama, best actor for star Rami Malek, best supporting actor for Christian Slater) confirm what fans have been saying all year: it’s a modern classic. Launched without much anticipation on USA Network, a channel not known for going out of its way to make groundbreaking TV, it has become one of the sleeper hits of 2015. In the UK, it didn’t appear for months, until it was finally picked up by Amazon Prime (another one for the “2015: year of streaming” file). Judging by the number of buses driving around London plastered with Malek’s face, Amazon knew what they had on their hands.
“I don’t know how to talk to people,” says Elliot Alderson (Malek) early on. But he does know how to talk – and as his soporific monotone continues, he lulls us into watching one of the most original shows in years. A mesmerising, trippy tale of hacktivism, conspiracies and corporate evil, Mr Robot engages with anonymity and the massive streams of data that make up the modern world, plays with ideas of privacy and of lies; the lies we tell each other (“I’m not married”) and the lies we tell ourselves (“I’m not an addict”). It’s also funny, moving, exciting and a show that keeps us on our toes.
By day, Elliot is a socially awkward coder, working for Allsafe Cybersecurity; by night, he’s a morphine addict who hacks people’s lives, taking down paedophiles and drug dealers. He is drawn into a bigger hack by the enigmatic Mr Robot (a brilliant Christian Slater, finally delivering on his early promise for 80s fans), and soon he’s also moonlighting with F-Society, an Anonymous-style group.
Elliot tells us that he has trained himself to hear “E-Corp”, the name of the mega-corporation that Allsafe work for, as “Evil Corp” – and from that moment on, that’s what everyone in the rest of the show says; a little meme buried in the script like a mosquito buzzing in the background, hinting that we can’t trust what we’re watching.
It’s a great example of how to introduce an unreliable narrator on TV; like The Affair, which also played with the idea of presenting different versions of the truth this year, Mr Robot spends a long time building up a specific worldview, and then dismantles it around the edges, as we start to suspect that what we’ve been told isn’t the whole truth, that we’ve been watching Elliot’s paranoid delusions rather that what’s actually happening.
“What about society disappoints you so much?” Elliot’s therapist (played by Gloria Reubens) asks him. His reply? “Oh, I don’t know. Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he built billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit. The world itself is just one big hoax.” This is played out over footage of first Steve Jobs, and then Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby and Tom Brady.
Scenes like this lend the show a furiously anti-capitalist air (you imagine Elliot would appreciate the irony of being shown on Amazon). FSociety use their skills to take down not just Evil Corp, but also to change the world. The parallels with Anonymous (FSoc wear a mask when they appear on camera to deliver their demands to the world) are clear, but don’t feel laboured – it’s just one part of a much larger whole, a detail rather than the point. The show sweeps you along with the momentum of a heist movie, as F-Society mount an assault on an “impenetrable” data fortress called Steel Mountain.
The show is a highly literate pop culture chameleon, paying homage to everything from American Psycho to Taxi Driver and Fight Club, and a series that feels both cinematic in its production values and its scope. Writer Sam Esmail has said that the story was originally planned as a film screenplay, but then grew too big to contain in two hours. The minimal opening credits are simply the bold MR ROBOT logo stamped across the screen; the camera regularly squeezes characters into the bottom of the frame to create a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere; the soundtrack feels as if it’s in Elliot’s head, with songs cutting dead when people manage to get his attention.
One of the real gut-punch moments comes late on. In a moment of triumph, Elliot summons the courage to break out of his shell, and leans in for a kiss with fellow hacker Darlene – finally he’s getting the girl we think he should be with, someone who’s been on the journey with him, who gets him, understands his world. “You are seriously the best person I know. I love you so much.” Except … she recoils, freaked out: “Did you forget who I am?” We realise as he remembers: she’s his sister.
Throughout, Elliot speaks of “hacking people” as a kind of metaphor for understanding their motivations and personalities. Perhaps the big reveal is not just that Slater’s character Mr Robot is Elliot and Darlene’s father, and also dead, a figment of Elliot’s hallucinating, disturbed personality, but that Elliot has been “hacking” us, the viewer, the imaginary friend he’s been telling everything to.