'Mr. Robot' and the Power of Subjective Storytelling

USA Network

USA Network


As ‘Mr. Robot’ picks up sole ownership of water-cooler status following the end of ‘True Detective,’ we need to appreciate how truly unique it is as a pop culture phenomenon.

Mr. Robot’s true charm comes partially from its use of a storytelling strategy that puts us deep within the mind of a character who we understand from the get go is not completely stable. He narrates his actions to us through an “imaginary friend” and repeatedly questions his own sanity.

*Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Mr. Robot Season One*

The voice-over alone is not all that special. It’s something that pops up here and there to varying degrees of effectiveness in both TV and movies. It’s a useful tool on Mr. Robot, though, because creator Sam Esmail has others in his arsenal. The subjectivity of the story is heightened further by visual perception, and an understanding that we are not just hearing Elliot’s take on what happens to him, we are hearing and seeing events as Elliot’s mind sees and hears them. This is most evident in the repeated use of E-Corp by other characters in dialogue, which Elliot and the audience hear as “Evil Corp.”

In the first several episodes, this subjective point-of-view plays out through an understanding that Mr. Robot the show may be pulling from the Fight Club well by ultimately pulling the rug out from under its audience and revealing that Mr. Robot the character is some sort of delusion. This trick alone is clever enough, and would make sense when viewing Christian Slater’s performance. In the early episodes, he only speaks and interacts with Elliot, and, though he attempts to talk to other characters, he appears to be ignored. Slater begins to interact with other characters, though, and it feels as though viewers eager to theorize about Mr. Robot’s relationship with Elliot have been fooled. The twist revealed in the show’s eighth episode felt like the bomb that viewers had been waiting for, one which revealed Slater to be Elliot’s father.

  USA Network

  USA Network

Having satiated viewer interest with a twist, it would follow that the final two episodes of the season would offer us answers to some questions and create new mysteries. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Instead, Mr. Robot subverted expectations by compounding its own twist. Slater’s character was not only Elliot’s dad, but also a delusion. Elliot had been Mr. Robot all along, and he had created fsociety with Darlene.

This kind of twist is a predictable one. Many suspected it for weeks, and Sam Esmail seemed aware that it would be something that people saw coming. Elliot asks in voiceover, “you saw this coming, didn’t you?” We were supposed to know before he did. From the very first episode, we’ve understood that this was a story that came straight from Elliot’s head, and we also knew that that was a dangerous place to be. When he first meets with fsociety he asks himself whether or not it was real, after all.

What the subjective storytelling does, though, is make us believe in a narrator that we know is unreliable. We consider that Mr. Robot could be a figment, but eliminate this possibility when he starts talking with and interacting with other characters. Then, because we assume there will only be one big reveal in a narrative like this, we write off the possibility of an illusion when we realize who Mr. Robot is. What we come to understand, though, is that this second “twist” is something that isn’t supposed to be surprising. What it allows the audience to do is begin to sympathize with Elliot, who appears to have lost everything now, including his sanity.

In giving us this second reveal, one which puts Elliot in a truly unstable place, the show has re-branded itself into one focused on the characters at its core. Darlene and Angela work off each other wonderfully in the ninth episode, as do Elliot and his imagined father. The show has used its ability to put us squarely inside Elliot’s head as a way to move the show toward a more long-lasting balance.

It’s no longer a show just about plot. It’s one with characters we care for, ones who have problems that matter and seem accessible. The greatest power subjective storytelling has had this season has not been to keep us hooked. Elliot’s head is a dangerous place for the audience to inhabit. He’s unreliable and untrustworthy, but we also understand him in ways that we never could otherwise. Elliot’s journey is one we care about because it seems so terrifying to be unable to rely on your own reality.

So pay attention to what happens next on Mr. Robot. Who knows? Maybe its biggest surprise was one that distracted our heads so that it could sneak up and deliver a gut punch. That’s storytelling at its finest, subjective or not.

Mr. Robot’s finale airs Wednesday at 10:00 PM on USA.