A culture blog, mostly focused on film and television. Warning: spoilers!!!
TV Review: Mr Robot (Season 1)
February 10, 2017
Mr. Robot is a uniquely styled and riveting TV drama about a morphine-addicted vigilante hacker with a deeply fractured psyche. Rami Malek gives a terrific performance as Elliot Alderson, who by-day is a brilliant programmer at AllSafe, a cybersecurity firm employed by a massive, international business conglomerate called E Corp. Elliot struggles with anxiety, paranoia, and a troubled family past, which causes him to hack into the lives of everyone around him in order to keep afloat. He also struggles to maintain bonds with the people who care about him, like his childhood best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), flirtatious neighbour Shayla (Frankie Shaw), and kindly boss Gideon (Michael Gill). When he is approached by a mysterious hacker collective known as “fsociety”, headed by a man he calls “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater), Elliot is given a chance to right perceived wrongs in a world run by powerful, faceless, exploitative men and corporations, possibly freeing others as well as himself from invisible social chains.
The college-level philosophizing by Elliot about the exploitative system of control inherent in capitalism and the shallow virtual lives seen in social media tips its hat toward anti-establishment movies like Fight Club and V for Vendetta while also leaning heavily on the rich, sinister, polished style and tone of directors like Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher. But what really kicks Mr. Robot into the next-level is the portrayal of Elliot’s mental illness, which allows the show to create uncertainty while engaging with and subverting expectations about plot elements. Truth and reality is questioned and heightened as Elliot provides voice-over narration and directly addresses the audience as figments of his own tortured imagination. His self-awareness, unspoken anger, and self-loathing are amplified by his isolated lifestyle and drug use, sparking hallucinations and creating an unreliable point-of-view. Indeed, the existence of one to several characters comes under scrutiny as Elliot constantly grapples with his memory and grip on reality. As an added bonus, Elliot explains that whenever he hears or sees the E Corp logo, his mind changes it to “Evil Corp” and all references to the company on Mr. Robot are also changed to Evil Corp. These and other indicators create a delightful tension in the show that is readily dissected by viewers online after each episode.
Of course, the biggest selling point for Mr. Robot is Malek’s impressive performance. With his overly wide eyes and unusually sharp features, Malek effortlessly draws and holds the gaze of the camera. His character is a rather taciturn one, who relies heavily on deadpan voiceover to communicate his stifled rage against society’s injustices as well as his desperation to belong and connect while plagued by a painful childhood and myriad other hidden secrets. Blessed with a performer like Malek, Mr. Robot avoids turning mental illness into a cheap trick. Malek masterfully leads the audience through Elliot’s social anxiety with barely concealed confusion written across his face and a posture that evokes extreme discomfort; through his periods of depression and withdrawal with childlike sadness and pain; and best of all, when he unlocks the ability to hack people in the real world by coolly and apathetically delivering verbal take downs while still retaining an element of discomposure. Outside his own head, Elliot may be the most robotic of all.
Far from perfect or subtle, Mr. Robot is nevertheless beautifully shot, well-acted, and uses attention-grabbing editing and music cues to craft an engaging story that feels close to a superhero origin story.