When vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson confronted a child pornographer in the pilot episode of USA Network sleeper hit Mr. Robot, we knew this series was unlike anything the network known for cookie-cutter dramas has produced before.
"I like coming here 'cause your WiFi was fast — you're one of the few spots that has a fiber connection with gigabit speed," Elliot (played by Rami Malek) deadpans to his target, the owner of a coffee shop who uses his business to mask his illicit activities. "That's good. So good that it scratched that part of my mind that doesn't allow good to exist without condition. So I started intercepting all the traffic on your network. That's when I noticed something strange. That's why I decided to hack you."
Elliot is no ordinary hacker. A security analyst by day, he hacks friends, acquaintances, and random people at night as a type of digital vigilante, revealing the criminals and sickos who hide in the dark corners of the Internet for who they really are. In the first episode, Malek's socially inept hacker Elliot emerges as a loveable anti-hero, equal parts Zero Cool from the 1995 cult hit Hackers and Dexter Morgan, the bloodthirsty serial killer of the eponymous Showtime series who channels his psychopathy towards taking down criminals. At the end of their confrontation, the barista-turned-child pornographer offers Elliot money. "This is the part you were wrong about," says Elliot, pulling his black hood over his head as NYPD officers enter the coffee shop, "I don't give a shit about money." With Don Draper and Walter White dead and gone, Elliot Alderson, emboldened with righteous anger, may be America's new favorite anti-hero.
But this is an understatement. Mr. Robot isn't just the spiritual successor to Hackers, an updated yarn about an alienated young man fighting against corporate greed and human corruption in an age of Facebook and Anonymous. In an age of prestige television, where our favorite characters are often the most morally bankrupt, Elliot and Mr. Robot offer us something entirely different: a descent into madness, stylized for your television. And, against all odds, it's almost perfect.
Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as the titular Mr. Robot.
The show's premise is almost foolproof in its simplicity: Elliot, a mild-mannered yet socially awkward security analyst by day and vigilante hacker by night, is recruited by the mysterious, Anonymous-like hacker collective fsociety, led by charismatic anarchist Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to take down international conglomerate E Corp (known as "Evil Corp," in a bit of heavy-handed symbolism) from the inside. The series follows Elliot's guerilla war against Evil Corp, which he holds responsible for sickening his father and his best friend and colleague Angela's (Portia Doubleday) mother in a chemical leak when they were children. This hero-bully narrative is perfect for an audience already nervous over the corrupting influence of corporate interests on American democracy.
This doesn't mean that Mr. Robot is without flaws. From the outset, the series appears a direct re-imagining of Hackers, with Elliot and his ragtag group of (remarkably diverse) hackers waging war against a corrupt corporation. The plot's not totally original: it's the cornerstone of basically every hacker narrative, including the ones real-life would-be digital insurgent feed themselves, and the series initially struggles under the clichéd internal narrative of a 21st century Holden Caulfield, rife with neurotic angst and railing against the shadowy forces who control "the system." Although the series brilliantly keeps its focus on Elliot's mounting anxiety as he tumbles into a web of hacktivists and C-suite thugs, the hero-hacker motif threatens to derail the series from the first episode.
But where Mr. Robot does excel is, ostensibly, in its gritty, morose realism. Rami Malek's blistering intensity saturates every shadow and every dirty street corner of each shot, and the show's been praised for its unusually accurate portrayal of the technical hijinks involves in modern hacking, a deliberate choice by creator Sam Esmail. Government computer crime expert Michael Bazzell told Vulture that the technical detail deployed throughout the series wasn't mean for procedural intrigue (read: enhance), but to maintain the show's familiar setting. "We knew if we weren’t accurate, people wouldn’t care for the show," Bazzel said. When coupled with the ubiquitous welcome screens of Facebook, Twitter and their ilk and the derelict amusement parks and apartments where most of the show's action takes place, Mr. Robot offers a far more convincing portrayal of the modern hacker than, say, Hackers' campy bullshit (with apologies to the comically nefarious Fisher Stevens):
But Mr. Robot stands out from its techno-thriller ilk because it's not entirely a show about hacking — it's a show about hacking told through the lens of mental illness. Malek's Elliot is a basketcase from the first scene, hampered by social anxiety disorder and clinical depression mediated through illegal drugs. But the serious goes gradually — and subtlety — more and more off the rails. Where Dexter's serial killer pathology was known and understood to the views, Malek is an unreliable narrator even to himself, aware of his own mental instability ("Shit, it's actually happened, I'm talking to an imaginary person," he muses in the opening monologue) but, just a few episodes later, shocked an unhinged at his weakening grasp over the world around him.
As the season progresses, Malek becomes less Dexter Morgan, a madman in control, and more Edward Norton in Fight Club, spiraling through an increasingly turbulent and dangerous world. The plot parallels are there, certainly: a young man disillusioned by the materialistic trapping of modernity who wages war against the system with (SPOILER!) the help of some unusual delusions set to a soundtrack of Pixies "Where Is My Mind" and a steady train of opiates. But Elliot's increasingly unhinged mental state isn't a mere narrative device, deployed in the service of unsettling viewers at home; rather, it permeates the entire series with a creeping sense of uncertainty. "The addict trope is often portrayed in a derivative manner with the same set of familiar outcomes — the characters walk away nice and clean or eventually something terribly permanent happens," praises addiction and recovery website The Fix. "Mr. Robot has arrived to challenge the tired tropes with a different take on addiction and mental illness." Elliot can't be placed in a box — not by his friends, the shadowy forces shaping his life, or his own self — and that's what makes him so appealing to watch.
The appeal of Mr Robot is probably best captured in Elliot's coffee bar shakedown, where his pedophile target leads with Elliot to show him mercy. "I understand what it's like to be different," says Elliot, his eyes bugging out of his skull. "I'm very different." Everyone seems to agree; USA opted to renew the series for a second season before the pilot episode even premiered. And with Mr. Robot's first installment coming to a close just in time for the return of the cookie-cutter fall TV season, we can only hope that the second season is as unpredictable as the first. But if there's one thing we can predict for certain, it's that Elliot's battle against the system — and himself — is far from over.
Photos by David Giesbrecht/USA Network