You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Mr. Robot: Rebel Without a Cause

Why the hacker show fumbles in its attempts at social critique.

Michael Parmelee / USA Network

There are many things to like about Mr. Robot, the most ephemeral and yet memorable of them being the opening credits. The title card appears somewhat suddenly, overlaid on the action, the scene behind it usually carefully chosen for effect. It’s always gorgeous and somehow, perhaps because of the shade of red the creators chose, always menacing. In an interview about the credit sequences Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, once said he was trying for the look of a movie. “The first images of whatever I’m about to watch fill me with awesome anticipation,” he said. They set the tone. This week, in accordance with the bleakness of the storyline, the image was a blank, dingy white.

The construction of an atmosphere seems to be Esmail’s greatest talent. Even when Esmail is not directing, Mr. Robot frames all the shots slightly off kilter, keeps the actors pallid in shadowy New York apartments. The result is a kind of tone poem that rivals some of the higher-prestige shows for having a look and feel so distinctive it could not apply anywhere else. You can tune into the show for a single scene and be utterly certain of which show you are watching. The only thing left for Mr. Robot to grasp, fortunately or unfortunately, is what it is truly about.

In the second season, which opened last week with a bewildering two-hour premiere, we are nominally post-climax. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) has pulled off the hack of the world’s financial systems with the help of his ragtag fsociety. But he’s cast himself out from the milieu, struggling still with the Mr. Robot in his head, who looks very much like his departed father (Christian Slater). His sister and co-conspirator Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is out partying, but is clearly somehow dissatisfied herself. The FBI is on fsociety’s trail. The financial system is in chaos, so that even President Obama announces in a press conference that some new kind of financial order will have to be established. Elliot is living at home with his mother, avoiding computers, trying to restructure his own life to make it look normal.

But in spite of himself Elliot is still wondering about Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), the fired Swedish EvilCorp executive who, in defeat, decided he’d take the blame (and the credit) for the hack that’s changing the world. Elliot isn’t totally sure Wellick is real. He isn’t totally sure reality is real. The most compelling moments of this show have him trying to puzzle that out. In the premiere that aired last week, Wellick’s mask slips for just a moment. He calls on the phone. He laughs like a cartoon villain, which hardly settles the question of the surreality of Elliot’s experience.

Sometimes Mr. Robot seems to want to be a traditional superhero narrative. Simply the name “EvilCorp” tells you that this is a comic-book universe, on some level. Indeed, the entire world outside Elliot’s head is populated by types. Darlene, his sister, is the rebellious spunky girl with a heart of gold. Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), an unrequited sweetheart from Elliot’s childhood, is just another disillusioned Girl Friday—though in these first episodes of the second season she’s had a kind of lobotomy and is suddenly loyal to EvilCorp, the same company that killed her mother. Tyrell Wellick’s main personality trait is his penchant for BDSM, a predilection that the actor playing him sometimes struggles mightily to make credible. His evil wife (Stephanie Corneliussen) fares only slightly better.

Given the way the news has been heading in America, it seems churlish to complain of how cartoonish Mr. Robot’s worldview can get. On the news every night we have someone who appears to be following a script on how to become a despot, by way of Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in the 1976 film Network. Banks turn out to have engaged in widespread predatory schemes. The biggest right-wing television news network in America is caught up in a textbook sexual harassment scandal. These are not shaded evils, gray areas in which good men and bad are hard to distinguish. The enemies are who they are, and even a child could figure them out.

But though there are all the trappings of social critique here there doesn’t seem to be the intent. Esmail is not a theorist. The show is not larded with discussions about or dramatizations of the nature of justice or vigilantism or capitalism. No one seems to understand the financial system all that well even though this is a show about the financial system. And fsociety’s revolutionary aims often seem incidental to the story. The show stumbles most, in fact, when it tries to treat the rest of the world as something sustainable independent of Elliot’s own life.

For example, Angela’s character has, in the first few episodes of the season, been sacrificed to that purpose. After spending the first season hating EvilCorp for its role in her mother’s death, she suddenly, for no very clear reason, takes a job there. And though she had the opportunity to be a spy for EvilCorp’s enemies, she turned it down. Perhaps this is all going somewhere but it’s hard to imagine where, exactly, and in the meantime it is awkward, confusing, and above all takes time away from Elliot.

After all it seems the real story the show is able to tell is about Elliot, who, both bewildered and detached from his increasingly dire psychological situation, is trying to make sense of himself. There is something political about the moments when the show manages to connect Elliot’s inner turmoil—his loneliness—with the outer world. The first season’s major plot twist, the discovery that the long conversations he’d been having with Slater’s Mr. Robot were simply long conversations with himself, made Elliot so awfully, irretrievably alone. But it also turned out to be the trigger that made him go through with the hack.

Mr Robot has the smarts and the smooth control to start carefully parsing the relationship between Elliot’s alienation and his desire to “change the world.” But it’s not completely clear if Esmail knows that that is the show he’s making, just yet.