The world is a dangerous place, Elliot, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on, and do nothing.
(SPOILERS) With all the accolades proclaiming Mr. Robot the best new show of the year, the tale of a self-styled “vigilante hacker by night and regular cyber security worker by day”, intent on bringing down E/Evil Corp, the largest conglomerate in the world (as opposed to multinational Comcast, the 2014 “worst company in America” which owns the USA Network, home of Mr. Robot), I expected something a little more substantial than a refitted Fight Club, “refreshed” with trendy (well, a few years old) references to Occupy, Anonymous/hacking incidents and a melange of pop cultural signposts from the last fifteen years. There are times when the show feels entirely suffused with its abundant derivations, rather than developing into its own thing, its lead character’s pervasive alienation a direct substitute for Edward Norton’s Narrator. And yet, it has a lot going for it, and the season concludes at a point (creator Sam Esmail’s end of first act) where it has the potential to divest itself of its rather suffocating trappings and strike out as its own thing.
I hope it does. The last three episodes, even though they include the entirely obvious reveal that Mr Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of hacker group F Society, is Elliot (Rami Malek), break some intriguing new ground, pushing to a point past the end of Fight Club (in which Project Mayhem is to eradicate all debt, Elliot’s goal here). Perhaps those who have been able to wholly embrace the show don’t have David Fincher’s movie in their heads as an overpowering cultural signifier, but Esmail feeds off it so overtly (even going so far as to include a version of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind?) that to my mind it ultimately detracts from the material, rather than feeling like playful homage. The elements that strike out on their own come late, that Mr Robot is a simulacrum of Elliot’s father, and more strikingly, that Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is Elliot’s sister.
Outstanding as Malek is as Elliot, his character is something of an indiscriminate catchall for societal woes and pop cultural references, a Morose Paranoid Dream Geek filtered through the undiscerning USA Network strainer. He’s demonstrably socially awkward, definitely on the Asperger’s spectrum, shunning physical contact, but as a TV show here he immediately beds his neighbour (Frankie Shaw’s Shayla, a likeable presence, unfortunately exiting the series too early) at the merest snort of some morphine (Elliot’s equivalent of getting pissed).
The show is very well directed, keenly aware of how much it is presenting subjective states, and includes a fine soundtrack from Mac Quayle, but this mostly amounts to window dressing. Fincher’s movie had subversive intent and became a cult phenomenon following its disappointing cinema run (said adulation was given to frequent misinterpretation and misidentification). Mr. Robot is too studied, too frequently a mash-up of others’ ideas (Esmail name checks Taxi Driver as an inspiration for the narration, but really you need to go back to Fight Club again); the second episode overtly references JFK, early Angelina Jolie crap-but-fun pic Hackers appears in the fourth, Slater says of Pulp Fiction in the ninth “Never heard of it” (‘90s nostalgia, huh?) and the last episode even pulls a Network.
There’s also the obligatory referencing the world as a virtual reality creation (The Matrix, with Mr Robot as Morpheus). Sometimes the show is just trying too hard, or perhaps not hard enough (in 1.7, where Elliot sees his office workers with signs round the necks, expressing their inner truths). It has yet to develop into a show where the references are side salad rather than the main meal (Joss Whedon was successful at this, even if he was and is hostage to over-referencing pop culture, such that all his characters sound the same).
It’s indebtedness to American Psycho (and House of Cards) plays out less overtly and more twistedly than the main plotline, however, with Martin Wallstrom’s Tyrell (Blade Runnner) Wellick’s senior VP of Technology at E Corp a less ruthlessly efficient Patrick Bateman. Wallstrom’s blue-eyed, sculptured veneer quickly proves to be a crumbling façade, as we see him venting his aggression on homeless people for being passed over for promotion (the closest it gets to an actual Fight Club), and his indebtedness to a steely partner (the unreal looking Stephanie Corneliussen,who offers a particularly striking and strange performance; just check out the street scene in the final episode) have a vital spark, and his interactions with co-workers at Evil Corp, particularly Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell) the incumbent CTO, are electric.
The whole plotline leading from the unnerving Knowles dinner date to Tyrell strangling Scott’s wife (Michele Hicks) on the roof of the E building is superbly sustained, keeping the viewer from pinning down just where it is heading. Notably, Tyrell ultimately aids Elliot for reasons of revenge, which is also Elliot’s less than noble principle motivating factor.
While the corporate intrigue intrigues, and Elliot’s enervated episodes are diverting, there’s a lot of padding in these ten episodes. In particular, Angela (Portia Doubleday), Elliot’s best pal never has an arc worth sustaining, be it in respect of her louse of a boy friend Ollie (Ben Rappaport) or her attempt to persuade former CTO Terry Colby (Bruce Altman, an excellent portrayal of executive indifference) to testify in the toxic waste lawsuit that did for her mother and Eilliot’s father.
Likewise, while Frankie Shaw’s presence is winning and Elliot Villar (as Fernando Vera, Shayla’s drug dealer) is suitably unhinged, this side never feels more than sub-Breaking Bad filler (reaching its zenith, or nadir, if you will with 1.6’s prison break). Elliot’s visits to his shrink (Gloria Reuben) serve to emphasise the extent of his behaviour (“Her radar needs fixing” he tells us, deciding it is appropriate for her duplicitous ex to reveal all to her), but do little for her character and prove to be no more instructive than his denigrating the lowly office worker in 1.5 (“The few people who feel obliged to go to your funeral would probably be annoyed and leave as early as possible”).
One area the show might develop is the extent to which Elliot stands in for the surveillance state; the show doesn’t really have much to say of this aspect, but Elliot personifies that force, habitually breaks into the systems of everyone he comes into contact with and snooping on them without restraint (Ed Snowden commented that the tech in the show is “more accurate than what you usually see on TV”). He’s the hero of the piece, who hacks for a better world (pretty much the argument of the NSA), and one with a God complex requiring him to take punitive steps against those who threaten him or his (pretty much the attitude of the NSA; “He can’t be allowed to exist any more” Elliot says of Fernando).
It’s in the last episode, and more especially the post-credits scene that the most intriguing element of Esmail’s scenario lands. Whiterose (D B Wong) the trans woman representing hacker group The Dark Army, instrumental in bringing off the big E Corp hack, now dressed as a man, meets with E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Christopher, recently very good playing the paedophile priest in Ray Donovan, whose performance here as an unnervingly gracious and upbeat sociopath might be the show’s standout). Price indicates that he knows who is responsible for the hack, and will deal with him, but the darkened, formal setting is suggestive of arcane deeds and general chicanery. Is Whiterose just another face of the Illuminati (The Dark Army, like a true morally compromised corporation, will “hack for anyone”)? Are the apparent opposite poles these two occupy nothing of the sort (following, on a less all-consuming scale, the conspiracy-minded claim that the Cold War was merely a smoke screen and nothing to get worked up about), such that any development is ultimately foreseen and controlled?
After all, if Elliot succeeds and debt is reset who will rise from the ashes with a shiny new system and shiny new (lack of) controls? The same individuals as before, with anarchists merely serving their agenda in the long game. That is, unless an entirely new model can usurp the untouchables’ place and status. Prior to this, Price invokes some of the more out-there aspects of conspiracy lore, dismissing the perpetrators of the hack as not being aliens, Zeus or zombies; “Whoever’s behind this, they’re just people”. It remains to be seen how far down the rabbit hole the show is willing to go, but it could be a lot of fun if it goes for broke.
Of course, that would lead to a very nihilistic text, but it might at least be one that justifies Matt Weiner tag of a TV show with the “first truly contemporary anti-corporate message”. Mr. Robot needs to make that kind of leap if it’s to be more than just another fashionable, zeitgeisty show sprinkled with references to Steve Jobs making billions off the backs of children, election rigging, hating Facebook, how “money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard”, and swipes at the bailout (“The White House will protect everyone’s money”) and Ashley Madison, “Is he drinking Starbucks?” A show that has its cake and eats it through being replete with quirky contemporary self-gratifying (essential pro-consumerist) characterisations and foibles, not really following the line through to its conclusion.
It would be a shame if Mr. Robot ended up more like the Darlene character, who can only see the immediate consequence and fireworks, but there’s a tendency for series with subversive potential (Channel 4’s Utopia) to become distracted by their own stylistic idiosyncrasies, rather than furthering the ideas they laid claim to in the first place, the ones that made them so refreshing. Mr. Robot has a chance to hit that ground in its second run; hopefully it will make the most of it.