BY MEREDITH GRAVES
For the past two seasons, USA’s breakout hacker drama Mr. Robot has artfully interpolated real-world techno-crises into its overall plot, from the Ashley Madison hacks to timely references to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, as well as last season's exploration into Tor, Onion, and the 'Dark Web.'
You’d be forgiven for assuming Season 3, which premieres October 11, would follow in the clown-shoed footsteps of American Horror Story: Cult, revisiting the last presidential election and its email scandals, misspelled tweets, and Russian interference to move the story forward.
But thankfully, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail is more subtle than that. On Thursday night (October 5), a few hundred rabid Robot fans and New York Comic Con attendees were treated to a night of champagne, canapés, and live music — and as our cohorts in fsociety kept reminding us, E Corp (or Evil Corp, if you’re Elliot) was footing the bill.
The entire night was staged as a luxurious gala, thrown in celebration of E Corp’s revolutionary new cryptocurrency platform and bitcoin competitor, ECoin. Terminal 5 was transformed from the outside in, all lush blue velvet curtains and unfeeling, focus-group floral arrangements splattered with the E Corp logo.
But there were levels to the immersive nature of the event, far deeper than visual branding: Fans initially had no idea that the caterers, security, and crew, as well a substantial percentage of Gala attendees and even the band, were all hired actors. Over the course of the night, specially selected guests would be pulled from the party for 'secret missions.' The lucky ones were led to a blacked-out school bus where they received instructions and a mask from fsociety, where one such mission involved stealing an object from E Corp CEO Phillip Price’s green room.
Series star Michael Cristofer, there to give the keynote speech in character as Price, recognized that fans are moved by the overlap between Robot and the real world, telling MTV News, “Maybe it’s because of the complexity of the show or the way it reflects a younger person’s life at the moment — their lifestyle, and hacking, and all that.”
During Price's big speech, in which he alluded to today's "dark times" and how "civilization only seeks new ways of destroying itself," the power went out.
Projections around the venue flickered, and when the lights came back up, fsociety had unfurled hand-painted protest banners from the balconies. The giant glowing "E" that had been suspended from the ceiling was brought down by masked vigilantes. The venue lights turned from blue to red, and as if compelled, the audience uniformly covered their faces with the masks they’d been provided.Scores of people wear fsociety gear (the show’s riff on Guy Fawkes masks, as worn by Anonymous) within the world of the show, but seeing it up close was genuinely terrifying.
And then: masks off. Because fsociety leaked the Season 3 premiere of Mr. Robot to the entire room.
If you want to know what it’s like to see exclusive content in a crowd of hyped Mr. Robot fans, imagine a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Occupy Wall Street. Expletives and fan theories held over from Season 2 were shouted at the screen; pained cries of “Amazon!” and “Google!” earned huge cheers.
Leaving the venue, I noticed that at some point during the hack, fsociety had ‘vandalized’ the entrance with graffiti: Anti-capitalist rhetoric glowed like a touchscreen under blacklight, while trays of champagne had been replaced with trays of stickers and masks. If the immersive nature of the event wasn’t enough, the entrance was now mobbed with anti-fsociety protesters, spilling off the sidewalk and up the street, ensuring attendees would be questioning their reality for at least as long as it took for their Uber to arrive.
While I waited for mine, I thought of what Cristofer had said to me only hours before. “The danger of the present world of [social media],” he said. “I’m nervous that it’s a way of hiding from being engaged politically; that it’s a way of feeling like you’re engaged, but you really aren’t. On the show, you can’t do script after script about hacking without going, oh my god, this is what we’re living with. This is now what we’re going to live with.”
"And the show is prescient that way; it does kind of lay out a terrible scenario that doesn’t feel very far from reality."
At times, Mr. Robot's grim reality feels a little too close to home, but that's what makes it such an uncomfortably visceral viewing experience. The lines between fiction and reality have been permanently blurred.
A few blocks later, a little less intimidated by the computer in my pocket, I reflexively checked Twitter. More headlines. More tweets. More leaks from anonymous internet sources. The world of information is so vast, and the actions of some corporations so reprehensible, that people on the ground aren't sure what constitutes 'news' any more, and what's just advertising.
And so I took out my Apple earbuds and slipped my iPhone, powered by Verizon, into my E Corp logo tote bag, where it stayed the entire way home.