BY LIZ SHANNON MILLER
Trust “Mr. Robot” to eschew the conventional approach to everything. For decades, it hasn’t been uncommon for popular TV shows to release tie-in novels, continuing the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise or the TARDIS in print form. But what creator Sam Esmail and show writer Courtney Looney have just achieved is something truly unique.
“Mr. Robot: Red Wheelbarrow,” the only official tie-in novel for USA’s Emmy-winning drama, is tricky to describe, as the hardback (and badly singed) handwritten composition notebook brings with it a unique spoiler dilemma. Technically, the book serves as a bridge between Seasons 1 and 2 of the series — hence its official “filename,” which classifies it as “eps1.91_redwheelbarr0w.txt” (bonus points, by the way, for making the file type “.txt”).
But pretty much right from the beginning, one of Season 2’s biggest twists is spoiled, and there’s enough overlap with the rest of the season to warrant not reading it until after you’re all caught up with the series. (Given the publication timing, this would seem to be the publisher’s intent.)
So, be warned — spoilers through “Mr. Robot” Season 2 below.
“Red Wheelbarrow” picks up pretty much at the beginning of Elliott’s time in prison, as the troubled hacker puts pencil to paper in an effort to do what he went to prison to do: learn to control the Mr. Robot facet of his personality. His detailing of daily life in prison introduces not only characters we met in media res during the season, but the mind games that he plays in search of sanity — while, of course, Mr. Robot himself makes his own opinions known.
Right now, you might be saying to the second personality that lives inside your head, “Hmmmm, on the show, Elliot’s voice-over musings can be a little heavy-handed sometimes, and they only last for a few minutes. Wouldn’t reading an entire book from that point of view be, y’know, a little much?” Expect your second personality to agree with you from time to time on that point — “Red Wheelbarrow” is fully committed to drawing you inside Elliot’s head, and his stream-of-consciousness runs at times for pages and pages.
Were the book only the rantings of a self-obsessed crazy person, it might only be bearable for Bret Easton Ellis fans. Fortunately, and almost predictably given the show, there are layers upon layers to explore. From the very beginning, we’re treated to margin commentary by Carla (literally — it’s written in the margins), who is a tertiary character during Season 2 but is a much bigger part of Elliot’s jail yard experiences, as chronicled by the journal.
There are definitely details dropped into Elliot’s recounting of events that speak to bigger secrets, especially when it comes to Leon and his unknown connections to the larger mysteries of the Dark Army. Also, an important note for those who are interested: There is a lot more commentary from Leon on the 1990s sitcoms he’s been watching on DVD. (Prepare to get a crash course in the episodic narrative innovations of “Mad About You.”)
Then, on top of the clues you might add to your understanding of what’s going on — oh, there are puzzles. Literal puzzles that a few casual minutes of noodling with numbers and letters will not help you solve. The means by which these puzzles are introduced are through physical objects, stuck between the pages of the book — be careful when reading, lest they slip out of place.
And that may be the most magical part of the experience. It’s somehow all-too-apt that a show which challenges us to assess the way we approach the digital world would create a uniquely analog experience. Let’s be clear about this — you can buy “Red Wheelbarrow” right now as an ebook, but doing so means denying yourself the visceral power of holding Elliot’s notebook in your hands, sifting through the clues.
The attention to detail put into creating the book is really remarkable — Megan Worman is credited for “handwriting,” which not only switches between personalities with clear believability but shifts in appearance depending on Elliot’s mental state. (When I say that this book draws you into his head, I mean things get pretty intense sometimes.) These pages feature the sort of staining and distress you might expect from a rough and tumble prison lifestyle.
It’s also incredibly impressive to see just how sharp Esmail’s sense of continuity is, a remarkable feat given not just the narrative’s layers of density, but its occasionally unreliable narrator. One example: In the journal, Elliot mentions his first date with Shayla, an event which has been filmed — just not for the show. Instead, it’s the focus of a virtual reality experience Esmail made for Within, which premiered earlier this year.
The book itself is not a short read, and the puzzles promise additional hours of decoding that undoubtedly lead to bigger mysteries. URLs revealed in printed material lead to real functional websites, and the codes and cyphers scattered throughout invoke the same level of gameplay that we saw during Season 2.
But the most important thing that “Red Wheelbarrow” accomplishes is making Elliott’s weird world feel all the more real, which is the highest achievement one can hope for when expanding the world of a television show beyond the episodes which air on television. You won’t see your typical CBS procedural pull this sort of thing off. Hell, they wouldn’t even think to try. But as we’ve said before, “Mr. Robot” is far from typical.
“Mr. Robot: Red Wheelbarrow” is available for sale now.