BY NEIL DRUMMING
There’s a scene during the sixth episode of USA’s “Mr. Robot” in which the lead character, a painfully anxious computer hacker named Elliot, pulls off an extraordinary feat. He cripples a prison’s security system to free a single inmate: a drug dealer whose thugs have been holding Elliot’s girlfriend captive. After he frees the bad guy, he is handed the keys to the car he’s been riding around in all day. In the trunk lies his girlfriend, dead.
The hand-held camera pivots around Elliot’s face. With his jaw clenched and bulbous eyes downcast, the reaction of the actor Rami Malek is so minimalist as to be disturbing. Sam Esmail, the creator and show runner of “Mr. Robot,” said that there had been a question about how to approach the moment. “Finding this person that you really deeply cared about dead in the trunk and you’re not exploding in tears?” Mr. Esmail said by telephone from Los Angeles. But, he continued, “We were never worried about getting the audience to like Elliot.”
It is that sort of stubbornly confident storytelling that has made “Mr. Robot,” which has its first-season finale Wednesday night, one of the most acclaimed shows of the summer. Critics have praised Mr. Malek’s performance, the show’s hacker-world verisimilitude and its visual aesthetic. And even though the show’s ratings (which started at 1.7 million viewers and have declined to 1.3 million) still fall below USA stalwarts like “Suits” and “Royal Pains,” the network renewed the show for a second season even before its debut.
Mr. Esmail, who released “Comet,” his first film, in 2014, conceived “Mr. Robot” out of a passion for socioeconomic causes — and tech. He cites the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring demonstrations as sources of both frustration and inspiration. “I’m Egyptian,” said Mr. Esmail, who was born in New Jersey. “And to see my cousins over there in their late teens and early 20s channel their anger for this really positive change using technology, that was incredibly moving to me.”
Mr. Esmail wrote an overlong screenplay about a gifted hacker with debilitating social anxiety who falls in with a loose cadre of radical hackers intent on destroying the world’s largest corporation, E Corp. He eventually decided the spiraling narrative would be better served as a television series.
“Mr. Robot” features a largish ensemble, but the show hinges on Mr. Malek’s Elliot, who is both its delusional protagonist and grim, unreliable narrator. Remembering how he prepared to audition for the role, Mr. Malek, 34, said, “I watched De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ many times over.”
Sitting in the Bowery Hotel lobby, wearing a backward baseball cap and sneakers, Mr. Malek, probably best known for his role in the 2010 HBO mini-series “The Pacific,” gives off nothing of the tightly wound, cornered-animal vibe to which viewers have become accustomed. The raspy voice, though, is unmistakable. “I had my hair in a way that was reflective of that — not a mohawk, but a high and tight fade. I came into the audition with that and Sam was like, ‘Keep it.’ ” (For the record, Mr. Esmail doesn’t remember it that way. Also, “Rami did not know his lines in that first audition,” he says. “Did he tell you that part?”)
Like Mr. Esmail, Mr. Malek is of Egyptian heritage. His father was a tour guide in Cairo, who, after moving to the United States and selling insurance door to door, began emphasizing to his son that he do something “special” with his life. For Mr. Malek, special has always meant more than seeing his face on billboards looming over the town where he grew up. It’s meant “looking at the world and seeing how I can affect it,” Mr. Malek said.
For the show’s creator, when he looks at the world, it’s one in which technology is an alienating force. “There is a loneliness associated with the modern lifestyle,” Mr. Esmail said. “There is a paranoia around technology and that’s palpable. You can connect. You can see old high school friends on Facebook. Then that loneliness creeps up. Where is it coming from? Are all of these tools at your disposal somehow making it feel worse? Whatever that inexplicable feeling is, that’s the thing that I think is resonating with people.”
But while “Mr. Robot” may have tapped into millennial angst, the show has not wallowed in it. Over nine episodes, it has been relentless, sensational and unabashedly suspenseful. The musical score is pure, distilled paranoia. The cinematography often pushes characters to the edge of the screen, leaving swaths of empty space around their heads. And the plot twists, even the predictable ones, have ratcheted up the action. “I wanted every episode to be a 10,” Mr. Esmail said.
Comparisons have been drawn to films by David Fincher, particularly“Fight Club.” (Viewers caught up with the show know exactly how apt that comparison is.) To that, Mr. Esmail adds other late-90s thrillers like “The Game” and “The Usual Suspects” and such high-wire ’70s fare as “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and, of course, “Taxi Driver.” (“The best film about a character that I have ever seen,” Mr. Esmail said. “You got inside the head of this guy in such an intimate way.”)
Mr. Esmail, a staunch advocate of voice-over, has not only allowed the audience into Elliot’s head but also vice versa. The character repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience — sometimes conspiratorially, sometimes antagonistically — creating an uneasy sense of intimacy with the viewer. “The spin I’ve taken is that we’re his friend,” Mr. Esmail said. “We can betray him. We can believe in him. We can be complicit in his actions.”
To maintain that delicate connection, potentially over multiple seasons during which Mr. Esmail plans to explore Elliot’s mental health in depth, the show’s creator and star decided that the actor would typically internalize even the character’s strongest emotions rather than “going big.”
“When things leak out of your eyes or your facial expressions,” Mr. Malek said, “it’s so much more effective than spilling it all.” Hence, Elliot’s response to his girlfriend’s murder. But while Mr. Esmail maintains that the reaction was firmly predetermined before shooting, his star’s version of the story differs slightly.
“He goes, ‘How are you going to play that moment?’ ” Mr. Malek said. “And I’m like, ‘Do you want to know or do you want me to surprise you?’ ”