It’s not long into Mr. Robot’s premiere episode, that you realize that it’s far better than any show on the USA Network has any right to be. Granted, I haven’t watched USA–the home to generally-liked shows such as Monk and Psych–since the network was showing Wings reruns in the 90’s. Mr. Robot isn’t Monk and it isn’t Psych and it definitely isn’t Wings. Instead, this series from television newbie Sam Esmail, follows a much darker path, reveling in the paranoid world of cyber security and hacking in the post-Snowden era.
Mr. Robot drops us in the mind of Elliot, a cyber security engineer who serves numerous gigantic corporations in their security needs, including E-Corp, whom he refers to in perpetuity as “Evil Corp”. If Elliot’s moral proclivities weren’t apparent in his not-so-clever naming–or his inner monologues born straight out of the “Occupy” movement–then his weekend hactivism should get the idea across. When a strange hacker group reaches out to Elliot, the world he’s always wanted and the one he’s settled in come face to face, forcing him into his greatest moral dilemma yet.
In it’s series premiere, Mr. Robot does an excellent job of endearing us to a difficult and unique character in Elliot, and of guiding us through a well-constructed storyline that has us hooked by the end of the episode. Elliot, for one, represents a kind of character–the tech genius–that up until this point, has mainly been portrayed as inventive and entrepreneurial on the best of days, and disturbingly greedy on the worst. Elliot, on the other hand, is a creature built purely on his own ideals of morality, not caring one bit about the pursuit of money. While he does exhibit many of the same “techie” character tropes that we’ve become accustomed to–bet you didn’t see this one coming, but he’s not particularly great at socializing–Elliot’s interest in helping out the “little guy” brings a decidedly Marxian view to the realm of the digital power struggle. The episode is strewn with moments of Elliot receding into his own mind, dropping an angry soliloquy on the imbalance of power in the modern world and the average Joe’s inability to act against it–or willing ignorance towards it. It’s admittedly heavy handed at times, but the way in which Mr. Robot points out Elliot’s own submissions to the power of societal norms, pushes his thoughts–and their overall meaning to his character–in a much more interesting direction. There may be a few scenes that don’t quite land–in particular, one between Elliot and a newly minted “Evil Corp” big wig, sees the two having an unnatural conversation about Linux and GNOME, as if to say, “You better believe this big wig knows computers TOO.”–but the majority of this first episode, does an incredible job of riding the fine line between on-the-nose rambling and well thought-out societal critique.
A good portion of the dramatic gravitas that Mr. Robot is able to pull off here, comes from the fine performance of Rami Malek, who very carefully crafts a complex character that we root for from the beginning. Giving Elliot’s social anxiety issues, Malek could play this role with much more of a focus on those traits, as we’ve classically seen in other series and films, but he doesn’t. Instead, Malek accepts those qualities in Elliot and absorbs them, showing the character’s social problems through small ticks and eye glances, rather than big and broad sweeps that whack the viewer in the face. Malek also imbues the character with a thoughtful duality; the way he talks to himself and the way he interacts with the outside world, is completely separate but flow from scene to scene smoothly, truly placing the audience in Elliot’s shoes for the hour. Malek’s cohorts on the show aren’t slouches either. The clear love interest, Angela–played by Portia Doubleday–was seemingly written just to serve a “will they, won’t they” side story, but Doubleday takes what could be another “female in need of saving”, and turns her into a nice foil for Elliot; a woman who’s troubled sassiness plays well against his own relative shyness. Meanwhile Christian Slater–as Mr. Robot, the leader of the hacker group that attempts to recruit Elliot–is given some decent monologues, but isn’t yet bringing much more to the table than a casual performance. So far it works for the character, as the audience needs to feel as unsure of where the group leader stands as Elliot does, but I’m hopeful that Slater will get to showcase some of his more dramatic flair ups in the future.
The directing and cinematography raise the quality of the episode to the next level, in the capable hands of Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Tight, claustrophobic shots throw us in Elliot’s head space, playing up both his paranoia with the external world and the countless times that he’s left talking with himself, in some ways a prisoner of his own mind. Unique camera angles–Elliot barely in the frame in the bottom-right corner of the screen, for instance–also work to emphasize his differing outlook on modern day life and the societal norms that he’s confined within. In one scene in particular, Elliot comes upon a group of high-powered corporate execs, the one percent if you will. Cleverly, the men remain out of focus throughout the short scene, pointing out Elliot’s own inability to understand or comprehend what these men are all about and where their greed and lust for power comes from. When one of them–the Linux guy from earlier–finally comes into focus, we’re left wondering if there isn’t some point of connection between Elliot and this horde of formless blobs.
Mr. Robot‘s premiere does plenty to impress, including setting up an interesting path for the rest of the series. The characters are fairly well-executed, the writing is sharp on social critique and the stylistic choices push the narrative forward while dragging us further into the depths of this world. Most enticing of all, is the fact that Elliot could go either way with his allegiance from here, playing into our own ambiguity with the increasingly polarized society springing up around us. Elliot is Fight Club‘s unnamed narrator–sans Tyler Durden–mixed with Edward Snowden’s need to empower those around him. He wants to bring the world down, but for all the right reasons. Elliot may in fact hold the keys to his own destiny–the character’s driving desire–but his own naiveté is sure to play a role in things, before it’s all said and done. That’s a story for our times.