The funniest thing about Mr. Robot, USA’s deeply unfunny and usually badass new sullen-hacker dystopian drama, is all the passwords, and how easy it is for a sullen hacker to crack them. Your hero is Elliot Alderson, who has crippling social anxiety and a black hoodie permanently grafted to his body and the uncanny ability to hack anybody, from his hapless therapist (Dylan_2791, “favorite artist and the year she was born, backwards”) to a nefarious corporate lackey (olofsson66, “his wife’s maiden name and Sweden’s independence day”) to his childhood friend and probable soulmate’s doofy boyfriend (123456Seven, self-explanatory) to his drug dealer and occasional girlfriend’s psycho gangster supplier (eatadick6969, also self-explanatory). He cold-calls his therapist’s scummy boyfriend and tricks him into revealing his address, favorite baseball team, and dog’s name, bragging to us that that’s all he needs to crack’s the scumbag’s password, too. And it is, once he realizes the dude’s also using a fake name.
This running gag only lasts the first couple episodes, but it’s more chilling and upsetting than a lot of the super-grandiose and ostensibly chilling stuff that comes later. Throw in the inadvertent viral marketing of the Ashley Madison hack, and it’s enough to make you want to throw your laptop into the sea, possibly while Mr. Robot is still streaming on it.
I like this show! You should watch this show! It’s 10 percent The Matrix (“You sense something wrong with the world, something you can’t explain”), 10 percent V for Vendetta (mysterious dudes in stupid masks plotting plotting societal overthrow), and 200 percent a book/film juggernaut we’ll get to in a second. In fact ...
... but not yet. More math: Elliot works for a soulless web-security firm in thrall to the soulless and heartless E Corp, aka Evil Corp, a wildly nefarious Apple/Exxon/Nationwide hybrid that employs, among countless other creeps and murderers and mega-capitalists, the absurdly white-devilish Tyrell Wellick, who is 50 percent Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and 75 percent Pete Campbell from Mad Men. (He pays homeless dudes to let him beat them up and strangles a lady to death mid-coitus to the tune of FKA twigs’ “Two Weeks,” which gets a little ridiculous, but what’re you gonna do.) It’s Chaotic Evil taking on Somehow Way More Chaotic Good. The thesis here is that corporations are terrible people; in fact, all people are terrible people. Aesthetically, get ready for Kubrickian overtones out the ass.
A fun subtext here is that you’re watching this on USA, which is generally not a player in the prestige-TV racket, which means that between bouts of top-shelf psychological drama, you’re inundated with meta-seeming ads for Samsung, depression meds, and terrible-looking shows like Playing House and Royal Pains and whatever the hell Chrisley Knows Best is. It’s enough to make you want to join a mysterious über-hacker collective called “fsociety” at the behest of a mysterious and volatile über-hacker played by Christian Slater and nicknamed Mr. Robot, which of course Elliot does; their aim is take Evil Corp down, deleting all their data and thus releasing the world at large from the vast majority of its credit-card debt. But Elliot’s an unreliable narrator, and keeps addressing us in portentous voiceover as “my imaginary friend,” and is hooked on morphine, and openly fears that he’s going crazy, and (as portrayed by Rami Malek, a laconic and purposely misleading leading man) has a resting face that shows a genuinely disconcerting amount of the whites of his eyes ...
... and overall Things Are Not What They Seem. All of that sound familiar? Yeah, I know.
The season finale is tonight. Knock off work today and catch up! It’s dark and tense and edgy and pretentious, but that all mostly works in its favor—even the pretentiousness. The best (and most pretentious) running conceit is the Corner Conversation, in which two inevitably brutally lonely and inept people mashed uncomfortably into the lower-left and lower-right corners of their respective screens have an awkward, unfulfilling chat that usually ends with a super-awkward hug or an only slightly less awkward exchange of drugs. Like so:
By the half-dozenth time this happens, you’ll be really into it. As a way of conveying alienation and dysphoria and whatnot, it’s way more effective than Elliot’s constant monotone voice-overs, which consist mostly of wildly overblown hacker metaphors: We all have our daemons, we all have our bugs, we all have our exploits, you never want to click “view source,” etc. This show would suck if it were a novel. The tech-speak is constant, but authoritative-sounding, and actually more tolerable the higher it is over our heads. (Otherwise, you’re stuck with stuff like “Dude, someone is straight-up fingerblasting their entire network right now.”)
The visual style and Kubrick stuff is likewise creepier and more effective the more mundane the circumstances: There’s an extended morphine-withdrawal fever-dream montage that gets a little too loopy and probably could’ve ended halfway through when Elliot goes back to his childhood home and finds a barren field with a telephone pole and a single sheet of paper tacked to it that says, “404 Not Found.”
As for Slater, he pops up occasionally looking disheveled and psychotic, producing deeply corny video manifestos and delivering even cornier rah-rah overblown-hacker-metaphor pep talks, as when he tells Elliot to think binary and be a one, not a zero, which is basically Johnny Depp’s “Are you a Mexican, or a Mexican’t” spiel but significantly less funny and self-aware. But as a character, Mr. Robot is supposed to be corny, supposed to be off somehow—and Slater’s natural Hey Remember Me From The ’90s heartthrob-cheeseball affect then makes him perfect for the role—because from the very first time he’s onscreen you are led to believe ...
... that this is all just fuckin’ Fight Club. Which it is. It’s Fight Club! Yeah. It’s absolutely astounding, the degree to which this is Fight Club. It’s a sneak-attack Fight Club remake that’s not even sneaky: Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail told Reddit that “Fight Club is one of my favorite films of all time.” Even so, I can’t believe that last week’s ninth and penultimate episode, with Mr. Robot revealed as Elliot’s dead father and Elliot revealed to be pretty much as crazy as he told us he was and some sizable percentage of what we’ve seen so far revealed to be false or wildly misleading ... I can’t believe it all actually ends with a piano version of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” As you’ll no doubt recall:
Yeah. This is all so brazen and deliberate that it’s hard to even be mad at it. Maybe this happens to you all the time, but I’ve never watched a (really good!) TV show in which the central tension is whether the big plot twist is gonna exactly mirror a famous 15-year-old movie, and the big plot twist turns out to be that it mirrors the 15-year-old movie in even greater detail than you’d suspected. Its password was tyl3rdurd3n99 the whole time. Another reason not to get too pissed, though, is that this is Fight Club but stripped of most of the, uh, fighting—there’s no emasculated-dude proto-MRA subtext. The women of Mr. Robot get a little more to do now than merely stare at the crazy dude with a eroticized mixture of fear and awe.
Well, a little more to do. If I have one legitimate complaint about this show (and one concrete desire in re: tonight’s season finale), it’s that Shayla’s death has heretofore proved to be more or less meaningless, only serving to make the sullen hacker even more sullen. The scene itself got the horrifyingly adrenalized treatment of a classic Breaking Bad shocker, but in the handful of episodes since, aside from the flashback revelation that she was really into the Cure and a handful of references to Elliot’s “rough month,” she’s been forgotten. No “His name is Robert Paulson” tribute, even. She got a raw deal.
What Mr. Robot really shares with Fight Club, even above and beyond the plot-twist theatrics, is a colossally cynical view of humanity, and it can be hard to absorb this show’s blackhearted treatment of any character who is not a genius sullen über-hacker, from the poor demolished schlub who gives Elliot a tour of Steel Mountain to Elliot’s hapless anal-sex-obsessed therapist to the corporate boors Tyrell Wellick fires in a fit of impotent rage. (That guy needs to tone it down, BTW.) But I want the finale to somehow acknowledge that Shayla was the smartest person on this show, if only because she spent the least amount of time on her computer. She was the only remotely happy or at least relatively carefree person onscreen, and losing that life raft makes her death and its indifferent reverberations a raw deal for us, too. There is a difference between making you want to throw your laptop off a bridge and making you want to jump in after it; if I wanted to contemplate suicide, I’d watch literally anything else on USA.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin’s culture editor. Yes, there is one. He’s on Twitter.
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