Sam Esmail broke the predictive model of summer cable shows with the psychological thriller Mr. Robot.
Elliot Alderson is our hero, and from the first utterance of his shaky voice we’re introduced to a hero locked in a struggle with mental illness and isolation in a world begging for his interaction. This circumstance is so well understood by Elliot that he’s forced to conjure an imaginary friend to help him cope, the only entity he can communicate with both openly and securely. And while this archetype of the mentally ill hero is nothing new–it’s actually one of the most common tropes in television and film of the past twenty years or so–this is one of the rare opportunities that a characterization of one actually stands up to scrutiny. The psychological and social complications Elliot has to struggle with present themselves as albatrosses rather than personality trinkets that make him quirky or particularly gifted, separating him so far from others in his field that he reaches a laughable demigod status. Elliot has problems, they hurt him both internally and externally, but he’s also intelligent and capable yet not to a degree that someone else couldn’t step in to fulfill his role. Essentially, he’s a believable person with this particular social and psychological profile. He feels authentic.
Despite Elliot coming off a certain way, he isn’t merely the product of Esmail’s writing. Unlike a novel, for example, the true presentation of character on screen is largely the product of the actor, and a better one couldn’t have been found for this role. Rami Malek is not a new face, but his portrayal of Elliot feels like the debut of some hidden alien talent that hadn’t been seen before in this kind of role, in this sort of setting. The range of emotion he displays from pilot to finale is circumstantial and appropriate, making the audience’s role as the imaginary friend more meaningful, as though you truly were seated inside Elliot’s head, riding a roller coaster of instability that is worsened by this chapter in his life.
Without question, Elliot is the hero of this tale. Whether it’s the hack against Evil Corp to remove the world’s debt from their servers or his constant battle against depression, anxiety, drug addiction and social impotency, he is our main guide. But he isn’t entirely alone.
Despite his isolation, Elliot’s life is filled with people, some trying to help him, others to subvert his efforts, some lost in the space between. Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Angela (Portia Doubleday), Shayla (Frankie Shaw), Gideon (Michel Gill), Krista (Gloria Reuben) and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) act as a support structure that tries to help Elliot cope with his mental health, job and FSociety. Tyrell (Martin Wallström) acts as something of an emissary from an Illuminati like enclave of powerful men who’d like to keep their grip on the world just a little tighter, men who remain invisible up until the very end of this season’s run.
The show takes time to explore all corners of Elliot’s life and the people who inhabit it. It gets nearly uncomfortable at times, seeing the juxtaposition of people close to someone who’s mentally ill, how they treat them up close, how they discuss them when they’re not around, the stress they take on by having someone like that in their lives. It never comes off as malicious, but rather honest. Elliot’s way of being and reacting to people impacts those closest to him, and at times his judgment, shaped by his isolation and illness, leads him to inadvertently harm people while trying to help them.
And this undesirable state of loss and consequence is ever present. Elliot at times thinks he’s cleverer and more capable than he actually is, and this overestimation leads to harm, like how suboxone consumption didn’t actually curb his addiction to morphine, or how taking on a psychopathic gangster can lead to violent reprisals. But like anyone in his condition, surprises are abound, and that abandonment he thought was a permanent fixture in his life proved to be exaggerated. But it’s this power struggle that’s fascinating. Help is available to Elliot whenever he wants it, from Angela, Gideon, Shayla, Darlene, he just has to speak up. The problem? His mental conditions keep him from being able to do so. This leaves him stuck, trapped in a state of agony, a way out within reach, him unable to get there. It’s fascinating to see these kinds of relationships portrayed honestly, to see how something so simple can actually be quite complex. It’s truly a first in television history.
In the end, FSociety was successful in their aims, and Season 1 concludes with an exposure of corporate misdeeds and a rally cry to the world’s disaffected, launching campaigns of protest Anonymous could only dream of. But the shift of Elliot’s judgment brought on by the revelation of secret identities along with the casualties of his actions along the way makes the audience question with him whether it was the right decision. We’re left colored by a wash of gray, much like the rest of the show. Was the hack right? Had Elliot’s actions been wrong? Who gets to decide when even our hero is unsure of what he has done?
On top of being a success in the act of storytelling on the small screen, the production quality of Mr. Robot are unparalleled. The only show that comes to mind when comparing care to photography and direction is House of Cards, and that’s no mistake when you consider the many David Fincher references in how Mr. Robot and that that aforementioned show is produced and has been directed by that famous director. Scoring is also worth noting. Mac Quayle managed to channel Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Michael McCann (Behavior) to produce music that relies heavily on synth while still remaining earthy, heavy and original. Mood is often reliant on sound as its heartbeat and that is not lost on this production.
At the end of this season I feel both excited by the introduction of a new intelligence property that challenges me as a viewer and satisfied with what I’ve been presented. If there were nothing else to follow, I’d be fine. Debt, corporate greed, mental health, the dwindling social fabric of our society, the imprisonment we feel through employment–Mr. Robot had no business being as good and honest as it was. I’m surprised something like this even made it to cable and wasn’t some Internet gem found on Vimeo, limited to a tiny audience.
And I find myself wishing at times that this was the end of the series. After Episode 8, everything feels too reliant on exposition, tying loose ends that could’ve been made to fit in one episode rather than two. I’m not sure if that’s because of the development cycle deviating from Esmail’s original plan for production, but it feels almost like those last two episodes are there to keep a quota for the season, lacking the urgency and importance of the first eight. However, anything that comes from this IP is something that already has command of my attention. Mr. Robot is a show we haven’t seen before, and I’m fairly confident it won’t be replicated for a long while to come.