From the opening scene, USA Network’s techno-thriller Mr. Robot establishes that its protagonist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is very different. We first encounter our cyber-Batman acting as a vigilante of the web’s darkest alleyways, cornering a child porn peddler in a coffee shop. Elliot may not be “jerking off to little kids” different, but he’s different too.
Elliot’s uniqueness comes in many different flavors: he’s a morphine addict, he suffers from severe depression and paranoia, and he thinks he’s being followed by men in black. The pilot spends a lot of time teasing out each of these quirks, though one of the most interesting of all is set up in this opening scene, when the internet pedophile accuses our hacker-hero of blackmailing him: Elliot doesn’t give a shit about money. From the beginning, the greatest departure for this strange permutation of the superhero genre is that this tortured hero doesn’t want to save the world from a cackling clown-anarchist or a monster-of-the-week plucked from a rogues gallery, but the evils of capitalism, represented by the financial conglomerate Evil Corps. Mr. Robot reduces complex webs of accountability and translates them into high stakes drama, fleshing out the often-invisible machinations of corporate villainy and giving them shape, color, and stylish suits. Its lack of subtlety is shockingly effective, even satisfying.
There are plenty of references at play here, from Taxi Driver to American Psycho to Fight Club, even whiffs of Office Space in the show’s rare comic moments exploring cubicle-ridden corporate hell at the cybersecurity firm Allsafe where Elliot works. His constant stream of voiceover narration introduces us to his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben), his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and her boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), and the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Whether or not this narration is reliable remains to be seen, though the show provides plenty of fodder — from Elliot’s addiction to his history of hallucinations — to suggest it might go the Fight Club route. Creator Sam Esmail’s vision contains echoes of the precise yet stylized aesthetic of many of David Fincher’s movies. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev’s skewed, off-kilter frames suggest that we’re trapped in Elliot’s myopic worldview — a perspective that’s not to be entirely trusted.
While Elliot’s narration might not be completely reliable, it does help to make sense of the sometimes incomprehensible hacker jargon. The show lags the most when it tries to dramatize the cybersecurity hacking at Allsafe. For a show with such high stakes, there is little “action” in the traditional sense because the big show-downs are all happening in cyberspace — for the most part, the show skillfully avoids this potential tedium by developing enough context and character drama for the tech-heavy scenes to remain meaningful.
As yet another show set in New York, Mr. Robot navigates these well-traveled waters more astutely than many of is peers. It manages to capture both the chromed ultra-wealth sequestered in the pristine oblivion of the Financial District, as well as the seedier bohemia of the boroughs. These poles are represented by the icy Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), who looks like he might be the show’s Patrick Bateman stand-in, and Mr. Robot, who introduces Elliot to his hacktivism lair in a Coney Island arcade. Here Elliot beholds the faces of f.society, a misfit team of cyber savants who mean to emancipate the masses from Evil Corps debt slavery, busting the myth of American meritocracy once and for all.
While the crisp, imaginative frames and Esmail’s clever writing make for a riveting pilot, it’s Rami Malek’s compelling performance as Elliot that makes it a stand-out. In Malek’s deft hands, Elliot is both fragile and powerful, endangered and dangerous — a tortured, hoodie-swathed bundle of utter precarity and thereby a unique fixture in the television landscape. Elliot is a departure from leads like the uber-handsome Don Draper or the malevolent gravitas of Walter White or tough-guy Tony Soprano. Most shows would put the jittery hacker-genius in a supporting role, but Malek’s talent makes it clear why he’s worthy of the pilot seat. He offers enough voyeuristic creepiness and smugness that Elliot’s certainly no saint, offset by almost uncomfortable levels of vulnerability — his narrations are so private and painful that it feels like we’re sneaking a peek into his diary. But our presence is very much deliberate, so much that the audience is a character in and of itself — we are Elliot’s imaginary friend. We confirm his reality. In moments of hysterical doubt, he implores us, “please tell me you’re seeing this too.”
If Elliot is branded crazy, then we’re joining him on Mr. Robot’s paranoid fever-dream. With insanity this gripping, it should make for a fascinating ride.