A Post about TV?
Well, this is awkward. Not only does this post concern television (and not a movie), it’s also about an episode that premiered well over a year ago. But it’s new to me. And since I haven’t managed to post anything new for over a week now, I figured that a review of bit of television is better than no reviews at all.
If it weren’t for a class I’m in (hence, this review), I may have never watched Mr. Robot at all. I’ve heard a lot good things about the show, but I find it much harder to spend time on TV than on movies. The list of shows I currently keep up with is quite limited, and it takes a good deal for me to devote time to starting a new one (especially now that I’m a floundering graduate student).
While I was intrigued by much of the pilot, I was a little underwhelmed as well (this, undoubtedly, has to do with some of the hype surrounding the show). In fact, there’s a good chance I won’t be watching another second of Mr. Robot. But maybe I will. To this end, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show (no spoilers please). Based on what I write below, do you think it’d be worth the time-commitment for me to keep watching?
Basically, I’m late to the Mr. Robot party, and I’m not quite sure if I should stay.
There is no fourth wall, technology is as much as weapon as a tool, and money is “the operating system of our world”—such are the premises on which writer and show-creator Sam Esmail builds Mr. Robot. With its resemblance to David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), this dark techno-drama and character-study may not be as original as USA wants viewers to think, but it still stands out (or, apart) from much of the current TV landscape. Thanks largely to its fascinating lead, its timely themes, and its complicated relationship with reality, Mr. Robot’s pilot shows a good deal of promise.
Mr. Robot begins by addressing viewers directly. As they gaze on nothing but blackness, a hesitant voice pierces the dark: “Hello, friend…. Hello, friend.” The voice continues, “You’re only in my head. We have to remember that.”
Before presenting any images or putting a face to any of its characters, Mr. Robot puts viewers in their place. A person watching Mr. Robot is not in control. Those who watch the show are subjugated by the narrator, just as everyone in the show is subjugated by the greedy, shallow society that that same narrator hates so much.
The disembodied voice that opens the episode belongs to cybersecurity engineer and “vigilante hacker” Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). Importantly, Elliot is more than a narrator; he is also the material through which nearly all of the show is filtered. Elliot regards viewers as an object of his own making, and he controls their experience of his reality.
Control is something that Elliot takes seriously, something he wants desperately. As his interactions with his therapist (Krista Gordon), and his friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) demonstrate, Elliot is completely comfortable lying. He hides, and he uses deception to carefully control how much of himself he reveals. He even exercises control when it comes to his drug habit (he uses morphine regularly but won’t allow himself to become a “junkie”).
Elliot’s primary means of exercising control—and of combating the terrible specters of helplessness and isolation that haunt his every move—is hacking. Elliot hacks everyone: criminals, those he likes, those he doesn’t like at all. He regularly violates the privacy of others, and he does so for numerous reasons. But whether he’s exposing a creep, just passing time, or trying to “protect” people he cares about, the underlying motive remains the same: hacking is the one thing that makes Elliot feel powerful.
By beginning Mr. Robot with the words, “Hello, friend,” Esmail immediately begins setting Elliot apart from ordinary people. With this twist on the famous computing phrase, “Hello, world,” Mr. Robot likens its narrator to a machine. Elliot understands computers better than he understands people. Through hacking, he uses computers—instead of interpersonal communication—to manipulate others and to get to know them. Instead of social skills, Elliot has a key board. Shrouded in a black hoody that might as well be a shield, Elliot walks the crowded streets of New York without ever truly connecting with a soul. Elliot is not normal, but he can still use a computer to lay bare a person’s darkest secrets.
In keeping with contemporary trends, Mr. Robot gives viewers a deeply flawed protagonist, who displays a number of idiosyncrasies associated with mental illness. Elliot has suffered, though that suffering is not examined in the pilot. He is anxious, overprotective, and has trouble socializing. He is prone to bouts of rage, and he doesn’t like physical contact either. There is also a chance that Elliot is delusional, and that possibility colors every scene in which he is present.
Through Elliot, Mr. Robot blurs the boundaries of reality; in doing so, the show immerses viewers while giving them good reason to pay attention to its every detail. For instance, whenever characters other than Elliot say “Evil Corp” (instead of “E Corp,” the entity’s proper name), it’s clear that Elliot’s mind is altering the reality of the show. Like Elliot himself, Mr. Robot’s audiences cannot trust the evidence of their own eyes, and such mystery contributes to its appeal.
In addition to introducing the show’s core cast of characters, “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov” also sets Elliot down a path that will alter the course of his life. Figures standing along this path include E Corp (think Apple meets Bank of America meets something even larger) and a disheveled hacktivist touting financial revolution (Christian Slater).
Mr. Robot’s inaugural episode is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who is also responsible for the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)—another dark drama centered on an antisocial hacker. Along with the spirit of David Fincher, this influence leaves its mark on a number of Mr. Robot’s images (shots showing Elliot walking at night are a prime example). At the same time, Mac Quayle’s dark and pulsing sonic landscape echoes the recent work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The show also bears the fingerprints of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement and the hacktivist network Anonymous.
While some aspects of Mr. Robot are derivative, Malek’s performance compels viewers to keep watching. His large, piercing eyes look like they’ve seen too much—even as they seek out additional information. Elliot’s fear, discomfort, and desperation are all written plainly on Malek’s face. Elliot isn’t exactly talkative, but even when he’s silent, Malek’s lean visage tells viewers plenty.
Until Next Time
Since my last post, I’ve watched a number of films. Of those, those I hadn’t seen before are American Honey and Rope. Both films are worth seeing. Rope is a technical marvel, and has a black sense of humor that’s a good deal of fun. More importantly, American Honey shook me to my core. I watched it at the right (or terribly wrong) place and a very specific moment. Specific details of my own life probably served to increase the film’s power over me, but I’m confident that it’s a good film regardless. It’s imperfect, but so is the life that its about. Go see it if you have the chance.