BY DAVID HAGLUND
In interviews, the writer and director Sam Esmail has cited two experiences as inspiration for the absorbing, stylish TV show he’s created,“Mr. Robot,” which is about a young hacker named Elliott who decides to wreak havoc on a giant corporation. (The tenth and final episode of the first season airs tomorrow.) One of these experiences was connected with the Arab Spring. “I’m Egyptian,” Esmail told The Hollywood Reporter, “so I went to Egypt right after all that happened and what I thought was so cool is you had these young kids who were angry at what the country was, angry at society, and their biggest leverage was that they were young and angry.” Esmail went on to talk about how these angry young people used “social media and technology, which the older controlling generation didn’t know to use,” and “brought about really positive change.”
The other experience concerned a prank that Esmail pulled in college in order to impress a girl. “I was anti-conformist,” he explained, while the girl in question “went to this liberal arts college that was kind of a little conform-y, not really, but in my angry, young way I was like ‘Screw them!’ ” The college used an e-mail list to send “all these weird messages” to its students; “again probably normal,” Esmail concedes, “but in my mind they were controlling messages to the whole campus.” So he spoofed an e-mail from the college, with his own message, which read, “Don’t listen to this! They’re evil! Down with the whatever.” (He’s paraphrasing.) Administrators traced the I.P. address back to Esmail and he was put on academic probation.
From this, Esmail learned the obvious lesson that he should be more careful about what he did online. But for those of us hooked on the thrumming anxieties and just-past-your-grasp mysteries of “Mr. Robot,” the key part of the story is its picture of that young, angry undergrad, the “anti-conformist.” If you went to college, you likely had a class with that guy. Maybe you were that guy. A shade self-righteous, a little quick to see hypocrisy everywhere and to deliver harangues about the evils of society. If you visited his dorm room, perhaps you noticed a movie poster or two on his walls: “A Clockwork Orange” or “Taxi Driver” or “American Psycho” or “Fight Club.” (Probably “Fight Club.”)
If you dumped those four movies into a boxy old television, shook it up, and turned it on, the result, if TVs worked like cocktail mixers, would be “Mr. Robot.” This is partly a matter of form: the show skillfully borrows images and sounds from those films and others. But the connection runs deeper. The series opens with a voiceover from Elliott—played, wonderfully, by a bug-eyed, eerily still Rami Malek—who says he’s convinced that “the top one per cent of the top one per cent, the guys that play God without permission,” are following him. (We see men in black suits near him on a subway car.) Elliott works at a cyber-security firm, AllSafe, and the firm’s main client is E Corp, which is something like General Electric, Citigroup, and Microsoft rolled into one (though its logo was lifted directly from Enron). Elliott’s psychiatrist (played by Gloria Reuben, of “ER” fame) asks him what it is about society that disappoints him so much. “Oh, I don’t know,” he answers. “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 is just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our running commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy.” He goes on, though after he’s done we learn that it was all in his head—he wasn’t saying anything.
Elliott is clearly identified, then, as an Angry Young Man, a figure familiar from literature and the movies (and college dormitories) but seen less often on television. You could argue that the beloved antiheroes of the last fifteen years—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White—have some relation to this archetype, but those men are grown-ups, with families; they may be at odds with society on some level, but they don’t seem to see society itself as the problem. They don’t relentlessly spot phonies, Holden Caulfield-like, or spout anarchist aphorisms. Looking at recent and raved-about TV dramas, the closest analogue probably comes from “True Detective,” Season 1. Rust Cohle was more radical pessimist than anarchist, but his posture toward other people had something of the Angry Young Man to it: “everybody’s nobody,” according to Rust, who also says, in the first episode of that show, that “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.” That’s not the same as believing that all adults are sell-outs and hypocrites, but it’s a line of thought that stems from a similar sort of disillusionment.
This kind of character tends to attract a certain set of readers or viewers, many of them male, who feel a comparable anger at the world. (The fiercest fans of “True Detective,” in my experience, are those who think that Rust was basically right about most things.) Such characters have a seductive appeal even though—or perhaps precisely because—the most interesting among them are often, quite literally, crazy. Travis Bickle, for instance. Or the unnamed antihero of “Fight Club,” who is, we eventually learn, hallucinating an alter ego. There is something unyielding about these men, and solipsistic, and their stories frequently end in dramatic acts of violence. They are not reliable narrators. This could be one reason why these types have not, by and large, been the protagonists of TV series: while a work of prose fiction can stay with one untrustworthy voice for hundreds of pages, and a movie can stick with a limited perspective for a couple of hours, a TV show has to represent its world visually for episode upon episode upon episode. How do you do that from the point of view of someone the audience can’t entirely trust?
The boldest thing about “Mr. Robot,” formally, is how it tries to solve that problem. Other shows have fiddled with unreliable narration, often for comic effect. But TV shows usually indicate pretty clearly what is false and what is real; the technique has mostly been used on television when a character is remembering something—how he met the mother of his children, for instance—and remembering it wrong. (“The Affair,” which aired its first season on Showtime last year, is built around contrasting accounts of past adultery.) “Mr. Robot” is doing something different. In the first episode, when Elliott introduces us to E Corp, he explains that, “after a thorough, intensive self-programming,” whenever he sees or hears a reference to the conglomerate, he sees or hears it as “Evil Corp.” From that point on, “Evil Corp” is all we see and hear as well. This seems to be Esmail’s way of signalling to us that we are getting Elliott’s perspective, and that it may not match reality.
And so, when Elliott hooks up with a hacker collective called fsociety, led by an even angrier (though less young) man referred to as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, enjoyably evoking his roles in both “Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume”), and headquartered in an abandoned arcade at Coney Island, are we supposed to take this at face value? Or is Mr. Robot a Tyler Durden figure? When fsociety succeeds in commandeering networks and airs threatening, Anonymous-like videos, complete with a creepily masked, voice-disguised spokesman, is it all really happening? Or is it, at least in part, a hallucination, brought on by whatever condition that psychiatrist is supposed to be treating (there are meds Elliott hasn’t been taking), not to mention the morphine he’s addicted to?
The Mr. Robot question was answered in last week’s episode, though I won’t spoil it. For Esmail, in any case, the mystery of what is real and what is not goes far beyond that particular character. “Reality, in general, in my opinion, has gotten blurred,” he said in another interview. “So the show dives into that murkiness, and kind of swims in it.” These days, our online identities can seem more real, and more consequential, than our flesh-and-blood selves. Elliott hacks into the online profiles of nearly everyone he meets; in the pilot, he uncovers a serial adulterer, who has an Ashley Madison account. If anyone missed the moral ambiguity of his actions on a first viewing, they presumably can’t miss it now.
The wider world, too, increasingly comes down to a bunch of ones and zeroes, an endless stream of digits that have drastic real-world effects. Elliott’s politics are a bit vague, but his focus on sweeping inequality and the burden of debt (his hack of Evil Corp is aimed at erasing the debts of millions of people) is certainly based in reality. After the most recent episode, a countdown appeared on the show’s Web site, along with a distorted image, which, the site promised, would become less distorted as the season finale approached, eventually providing “an exclusive sneak peek into Mr. Robot’s plans.” It didn’t take long for the show’s most devoted fans to recognize the outline of the Greek Parliament building. We can guess, at this point, what Elliott wants to do about Greece’s debts, whether or not he could fully articulate why or what the consequences might be. That comes later, after the righteous fury. “Screw them!” as a young Sam Esmail might say. Down with the whatever.