BY SEAN FENNELL
After just a single season Mr. Robot has established itself as the show most in touch with the new wave of television drama.
There are no dragons, no zombies, and no expansive teams of period-piece costume designers involved in Mr. Robot, instead, there is the here and now. The show came out of nowhere and took over the summer of 2015, permeated the television landscape and Reddit message boards alike. It did so by placing its central drama, and its main character, square in the middle of our current world. Mr. Robot accomplished this impressive feat not only by infusing world headlines into its script, but also by changing both the way we look at a hero and the way we look at television drama arcs as a whole.
Creator, showrunner and sometimes director Sam Esmail has been reticent to embrace this notion. In an interview with Andy Greenwald of Grantland, he admitted that the symmetry between the events of Mr. Robot and real, often shocking world news has been coincidental, if not borderline creepy. He just wasn’t sure he was all that proud of it, joking that maybe a show about world peace would better suit the public good.
Hacker culture is not something that many people have a firm grasp on, myself included. It wasn’t what drew me to the show and honestly, it really isn’t what’s keeping me around. Like any good convention, hacking is like the code written to create your favorite program, cool to see but not nearly as useful or interesting as the bigger idea and final product. That being said, hacking needed a definitive place in drama, and Mr. Robot is undeniably that.
Almost in response to how current the idea of hacking really is, the opening sequence of the finalé was able to sneak in a little nod to current events by mentioning the well-known Ashley Madison “dumps”. Back in July a hacking team who call themselves, “The Impact Team” got their way into the website Ashley Madison, a site which allows married men and women to communicate and meet with other users in an attempt to have a discreet extramarital affair. “The Impact Team” hacked the site’s database and threatened to release all the user account information if the parent company, Avid Life Media, did not shut down the site forever. Eventually the data was released via the dark net and soon many of the emails surfaced which attached users everywhere to the morally seedy site.
This isn’t the first large-scale hack we have seen in recent years. The Sony hacks and even the hacks involving personal pictures of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton all made headlines in recent years, leading to increased paranoia and confusion about what hacking really means in our modern culture. What’s different about the Ashley Madison hacks is that they are the first big data breach that you could argue was for the public good. People who sign up for a website whose tagline reads, “Life is short. Have an affair.” are not people that get any sympathy. Avid Life Media has released several statements calling “The Impact Team” terrorists, but I think you’d have to search pretty hard to find someone in the general public who would categorize these acts anywhere close to terrorism.
Mr. Robot has similarly grappled with this idea. On the surface, what FSociety is doing is inherently seen by the public as good. They are taking down a multi-national cooperation whose business practices have been questionable at best and downright murderous at worst. At the same time, the members of FSociety, and especially Elliot, don’t always seem to be working from a place nobility. Part of Elliot’s motivation if pure revenge, which although is based in somewhat of a good place, is still not always the most altruistic source.
In the finalé the general public, in the world of Mr. Robot, seems to love that FSociety has finally followed through with their promise to take down E Corp, but when we see them it has only been a weekend since the hack and little is known about how taking down such a huge force will really affect the world. FSociety’s actions are surely more terroristic than that of “The Impact Team”, but the similarities are there, making the addition of the current event to the finale more than a clever little trick but an important reminder of how contemporary Mr. Robot really is.
As I said, though, hacking is simply a convention which the show uses for a bedrock from which to grow its true drama. The real drama lies in Elliot’s search for himself and his reconciliation with a tumultuous past.
I have already warned of impending spoilers, but just so the outrage is limited even further what I am about to discuss is something that should be seen before talked about.
If you made it this far you know that Mr. Robot is not what we were led to believe and in fact is not quite real at all. The head of FSociety is Elliot and the actions taken by the society can both entirely be credited and blamed on him alone. One of the many effects this had on the series as whole is that it changed it from what was kind of a double bill, to a decidedly singular performance. Mr. Robot is inside of Elliot’s psyche, making Elliot the be all and end all of the show.
It’s no secret that most television dramas seem to work best with a singular focus that stands out as the main vehicle for our view into the world of the show (Man Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos). There are notable exceptions (The Wire, Game of Thrones) but Mr. Robot was a show that needed a strong singular voice and it seemed to have it from the opening moments in the coffee shop. The real question that was going to be answered during the ensuing ten hours of television was what kind of character we were getting with this bug-eyed, intense central figure.
Much has been made about the many changes that have occurred in television drama, but one of the most prevalent began just before the turn of the century with Tony Soprano. Soprano was the first case-study in how a show can be wildly successful despite having a main character who is always doing horrible and unjustifiable things to good people. As is the case with all unique moments of success, this got repeated and repeated. It also created some of the best characters in television history, from Walter White to Don Draper to Jax Teller to President Francis Underwood. The list is goes on and on, and you will notice when combing through the list, that aside from House of Cards, every one of these shows is no longer on the air. These characters have run their course, some ending well, others not so much but one thing is for sure, they’re gone.
Two things could have happened during this changing of the guards on television drama. One, showrunners everywhere could have retreated back to their writing rooms looking to come up with the next bad, yet somehow admirable main character. Or, they could establish a whole different archetype.
In truth, something entirely different happened in the case of Mr. Robot. Creator Sam Esmail was not trying to make a television show centering on a new kind of hero, he was trying to make a movie about him. The thing is, he just couldn’t stop writing, and rather than cut up his script to get it down to a reasonable 120 or so pages, he decided to take it to Anonymous Content and see if they thought it could be a television show. When USA signed on, giving him a relatively long leash, he jumped at the opportunity, and thus a new hero was made.
Elliot Alderson is not an antihero, Elliot Alderson is also not a hero. What Elliot Alderson really is, is an archetype that has actually been around for centuries but has never fully been teased out in the way that Esmail and team have. Elliot Alderson is an unreliable hero. The moment we learn that Christian Slater’s character is nothing more than a machination in Elliot’s mind everything we have seen, heard or thought is jumbled around in a sea of uncertainty.
This turn works so well because from the first moments of our time with Elliot we have been placed smack dab inside his brain. He literally talks to us in a way that we could have only dreamt of with Heisenberg. We not only see what he’s doing, but we get hints as what he’s thinking about doing, why he’ss doing it, and what he may do next. It’s only after he learns that he can’t trust himself that we learn not to trust him, and by then we have done so, at least partially, for about eight episodes.
With more than any other character perhaps in television history, we are fully along for the ride with Elliot, and the ride is about as disorientating than any I can recall. Nowhere is this more evident than in the beginning of the finalé when Elliot, and we, wake up in Tyrell Wellick’s SUV with no idea what has transpired during the last two days. We don’t even get to experience the hack all because Elliot himself, doesn’t get to, and after all is said and done, we only truly get what he gets.
This idea of an unreliable point of view will surely be duplicated, but just the pure logistics of what it takes to make this work will make it hard to be done so efficiently. It remains to be seen whether some writer will be able to make something work the way Esmail has done, make a show decidedly for the here and now and be both different and familiar. It may happen again, but I would not hold my breath.