BY EMMA DIBDIN
"Sometimes I dream of saving the world." That's one of the first things we hear from Mr Robot's alienated protagonist Elliot (Rami Malek), a hacker with a vigilante streak who'd seemingly fit right into a superhero narrative. Forced by day to work in cyber-security for the corporations he hates, Elliot redresses the balance by night, delving into people's private browsing data to expose their wrongdoing. One early episode sees him sell out his therapist's cheating boyfriend - a plot turn that foreshadowed the Ashley Madison hack by mere days.
Creator Sam Esmail, who originally conceived Mr Robot as a feature before adapting it as a limited (now not-so-limited) series for USA, could scarcely have imagined just how relevant it would feel by the time it aired. But real-world parallels aside, it's a breathtakingly confident and wholly original series that's part cyberpunk adventure, part character study, part psychological puzzle.
Unlike many of TV's other antisocial geniuses, Elliot is in no real position to save the world - he's delusional and possibly psychotic with a barely-controlled morphine addiction, and has court-mandated therapy for reasons we never learn. His snarky disdain for humanity is hugely entertaining to watch but has also left him desperately lonely, able to connect to people only by hacking them.
All of this should add up to a familiar archetype, but Malek's extraordinary performance makes it fresh, his wide, expressive eyes a compelling contrast to the Dexter-esque monotonous voiceover in which he addresses the audience. It's clear from the depth of repressed feeling Malek conveys that Elliot's an essentially good soul, lost in an internal maze of his own making, and in that struggle he's nothing short of magnetic.
It's always compelling to see a disconnected character forced to connect, and here it's mysterious anarchist Mr Robot (Christian Slater) who is the catalyst, bringing Elliot in on a small, disorganised group of hackers who call themselves "FSociety". Their goal is to erase consumer debt and bring down the corporations that keep up all enslaved - and they're starting with the aptly nicknamed Evil Corp, a company whose multitude of sins includes covering up the toxic industrial leak that killed Elliot's father 20 years prior.
One of the most discussed aspects of Mr Robot has been its twist, or rather its maybe-twist. There's a pronounced question mark over whether the sometimes deranged, sometimes fatherly Mr Robot is real, or a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Elliot's splintered imagination. But the show knows better than to try surprising its audience with a twist in the age of Reddit subforums, where every possible narrative eventuality has already been dissected weeks in advance - it knows exactly what questions we're asking when, and even throws in a piano rendition of The Pixies' 'Where Is My Mind?" to fully acknowledge the Fight Club overtones.
The show is structured so entirely around its protagonist's slippery mind that even we, the audience, are a potential delusion - through his fourth wall-breaking voiceover Elliot addresses us "Hello, friend", as in the imaginary kind. "I wish I could be an observer like you - then I could think more clearly," he muses, acknowledging the dramatic irony that often puts us one or two steps ahead of him. "Do you know more than me? That wouldn't be fair." Later on when the show's undulating narrative takes a sudden twist, he looks to camera and asks, accusatory, "Were you in on this?"
All these meta tics could become tiresome on a lesser show, but Mr Robot has a lot more going for it than narrative trickery, beginning with sharp, often laugh-out-loud funny writing - Elliot dryly writes off a dudebro colleague whose Facebook interests include Transformers 2, George Bush's memoir and the music of Josh Groban - which offsets the overwhelming bleakness of its outlook.
Any singular hero needs an equally singular villain to face, and Elliot meets his match in E-Corp bigwig Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), a sleek, sinister Patrick Bateman descendant who's tech-savvy enough to be a genuine threat. The ruthless ambition Wellick shares with his equally conniving wife (Stephanie Corneliussen) makes the Underwoods' antics in House of Cards look like child's play.
The show's attitude to sexuality is refreshingly frank and fluid - same-sex encounters between both men and women are portrayed without undue fanfare - and perhaps the greatest surprise is how thoroughly it develops its female characters, giving them defined relationships to one another outside of their relationship to the male lead. Elliot's childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), his prickly fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), and his neighbuor/dealer/friend-with-benefits Shayla (Frankie Shaw) are all introduced as seemingly one-note devices to serve his story, but grow deeper very quickly thanks in large part to their interactions with each other.
Mr Robot poses plenty of questions about the ethics of hacking, and though corporate America is depicted as monstrous, Esmail and his writers seem ambivalent at best about Elliot's crusading mission to bring down "the guys that play God without permission", since he's clearly doing the same thing himself. But more than a show about technology, it's a show about humanity, often re-purposing the language of coding as description for madness, ambition and loneliness. In a summer unusually packed with great television, it's a dizzying standout.
Mr Robot's postponed finale will air in the US next week. A UK distributor is yet to be announced, but here's hoping that changes soon.