Mr. Robot is a show so artistically brilliant that even its opening credits give me heart palpitations. Each frame of this dark and defiantly artsy thriller has been carefully considered to ramp up your unease. Much like its hacker collective (fsociety), Mr. Robot wants to get you where you live. And where we live is in helpless isolation, marooned with cold-comfort technology in a sea of political impotence.
Mr. Robot is the story of a lonely hacker named Elliot who, despite his social awkwardness, founds an Anonymous-like organization that, in Season One, succeeds in temporarily disabling America’s #1 corporate bad guy (and Goldman Sachs stand-in) EvilCorp. (Yes.) Already it’s a kind of revenge fantasy for angry liberals like me who long for 1%er perp walks. But the story is complicated by Elliot’s considerable unreliability as both a narrator and a “real” person. By the end of Season 2 it’s becoming increasingly hard to decipher how much his perception of the world has skewed our own. Played by the fantastic Rami Malek–whose huge eyes and poignant acting stab you–as they say–right in the “feels”–Elliot is both an unreliable narrator and a stand in for the every-hipster who can’t believe their failed society.
Mr. Robot’s signature shot is of Elliot’s face: cocooned in its hoodie while the (ecstatically wonderful) soundtrack throbs. The extreme close-ups and thrashing music–both prone to quick cuts–serve to underscore the instability of the world of the show. But the musical cues especially also emphasize the egocentricity of a set of characters increasingly dependent on technology for comfort. A frequent Mr. Robot bait-and-switch is for the soundtrack to decay into tinny static as we realize the rapturous, all-consuming sound is actually being played on someone’s headphones. In Season 2, a power anthem underscoring a sequence of a FBI agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) putting on her makeup , abruptly shuts off when DiPierro, disheartened, commands her Alexa to stop the tunes.
Di Pierro and her robot are a good example of the type of lonely person beloved by the show. Characters on Mr. Robot are largely isolated, and constantly nursing their isolation with technology. Elliot’s friend Angela (the wonderful Portia Doubleday) is constantly ripping off her headphones when real life–in the form of other people–intrudes, often pulling the audience out of an audio maelstrom and plunging them into the stark, silence of her own paranoia. (Angela has the most interesting role on the show: attempting to dismantle the corporation that killed her mother, she takes a high-powered job at the top of its ladder.) Several other scenes take place in the sound-muffling interiors of cars, grand symphonic music consuming the characters–until they slip inside and shut the door. All this creates a series of audio disruptions that mirror the technological and social disruptions in show. These soundscapes also serve to depict the inner lives of characters like DiPierro (who knows her empowering girl-ballads are but a mask on her loneliness) and the slimy CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) who, in perhaps the show’s best opening sequence, confesses his aspiration to be as powerful as God as Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1” gives way to a Satanic howler by Bleach. Not bad for capturing a villain’s duality: Price appears a refined Satie but he’s really “The Head that Controls Both the Left and the Right….”
Another great (and often remarked on) aspect of the show is its off-putting Kubrickian camera work. Characters are repeatedly framed off-center or with the camera drifting up or away from them. Appropriate for a show where sanity itself is a hard commodity to nail down. The show shares some DNA with David Fincher’s “Fight Club” but the overriding ambiance recalls Kubrick–particularly the shiny-surfaced “A Clockwork Orange” and the refined savagery of “Eyes Wide Shut.” In a particularly good bit, Gummer’s DiPierro runs in to a diner to arrest a suspect while the camera lingers out on the street. Soon enough, two masked killers (from a shadowy hacker group called “the dark army”) rev up on motorbikes and shoot the place up. Throughout the sequence the camera remains detached, the effect inducing a feeling of helplessness. We as the audience can’t even hear how DiPierro’s confrontation is going. Likewise we can’t be sure who has been shot. We’re as out of control as any of our protagonists–which is exactly the point show-runner Sam Esmail is making.
It is, of course, no accident, that the events of the show are scripted to run in tandem with our own. Mr. Robot is a paranoid techno thriller that wants to comment on the world as it is–and as it could, without our vigilance, be next week. The show is famous for getting President Obama to cameo, for referencing today’s events (the North Dakota Pipeline, Ashley Madison, BitCoin) almost as they happen. In the penultimate episode of Season 2, a callous Wall Street type makes a crack–no longer funny–about Trump’s candidacy. This is a show that grasps the discontent of the powerless, struggling tooth and nail to overcome the powerful. Aside from its obvious technical and artistic prowess, its writing captures the lament of any half-conscious person living though this exhausted age. “Is this the future I was fighting for?” Elliot ask as EvilCorp manages to wrangle the masses back into economic obsolescence. “We can’t beat them,” Angela agrees later-though she’s tried ever avenue–legal and il–to bring them down.
Mr. Robot, in the end, is an oddly comforting show–for we recognize in it the crie de coeur of our own times. With its isolating camera work, murky lighting, trippy audio, and scrappy cast, it captures the spirit of an era whose only sure bet is uncertainty.
For another great piece on Mr. Robot, try Sean T. Collin’s Summer Bummer: Why the Failed Revolution of ‘Mr. Robot’ Is Exactly What We Need