Tech support: ‘Mr. Robot’ is a paranoid thriller


[A version of this review appears in the July 30, 2015, edition of the rutland Reader.]

A couple weeks back, I talked about my quest to find a summer TV fling. As you’ll recall, I was discouraged. The Whispers was too dumb to be enjoyable. Wayward Pines, while sufficiently ridiculous, failed to do anything interesting with all its weirdness. And the less said about this season of True Detective the better.

Then I found Mr. Robot, an unexpected delight from the USA network of all places. Created and executive produced by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is a moody, paranoid cyberpunk thriller in which a volatile collective of activist hackers wages a cyber war against a malevolent corporation.

At its center is Elliot, a damaged and socially anxious computer programmer working for a small-time cyber security firm in New York. Rami Malek brings a brooding intensity to Elliot whose contempt for the way things are teeters on insufferable but never spills over into outright cynicism or apathy. Beneath his cold exterior is empathy and compassion.

Elliot is a good person who’s very much aware of how broken he is. He tells us as much via fourth-wall leaning monologues where he muses about the state of the world and provides context to his behavior, including a morphine addiction, which is slowly spiraling out of control.

These monologues are closer to voiceover narration than, say, Frank Underwood’s direct-address soliloquies in House of Cards. And where many TV shows often use such a device as a dumping ground for exposition, here it is effectively deployed to give depth to the character. Early on, we get the sense that Elliot is an unreliable narrator prone to delusions. As the season progresses, that suspicion is born out as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what is really happening and what is in Eliot’s head.

The central story arc of the series kicks off when a white hat hacker collective called fsociety recruits Elliot to help take down E Corp — affectionately referred to throughout as “Evil Corp” — a powerful global corporation that feels like a cross between Google, Bank of America and Halliburton.

The plan is to hack the company and erase the world’s debt, ushering in a new age of freedom and democracy through total economic collapse. Or something. It’s all fairly vague and annoyingly facile, to be honest. Would this actually work? I suspect this scheme would only make things worse for the very people these hackers are trying to help. Like fsociety, it’s best if we don’t over think it. Fortunately, the show’s strong characters and muted, slow-burn tone compensates for such shortcomings.

(This plan is also very similar of Fight Club, which is not the only place where shades of the book and film are present.)

Leading the hackers is the enigmatic Mr. Robot, a crusty anarchist played by Christian Slater who’s at peak Christian Salter here. Even masked and with his voice distorted, Slater’s Slater-ness shines through as he delivers opaque threats via Anonymous-style videos. Mr. Robot displays a dangerous combination of revolutionary zeal and unwavering tunnel vision. For him, the ends will always justify the means.

It’s in the Mr. Robot character where I find the closest parallel to Fight Club. I have a theory that he may be the Tyler Durden of this show — an alter ego created by Eliot to do the things his prime personality has suppressed. While the show provides enough evidence to make this theory plausible, it’s not an especially original twist. If this id the direction, we’re headed, I hope Esmail has found a fresh way to pull it off.

The supporting cast is strong even if they don’t have much to do than bounce off of Elliot. Portia Doubleday plays Angela, Elliot’s childhood friend, coworker and unrequited love, whose own hacker headaches are becoming increasingly tangled with Elliot’s.

As Shayla, Frankie Shaw is another Fight Club echo as Eliot’s very Helena Bonham Carter-y drug dealer and girlfriend. Darlene (Carly Chaikin), meanwhile, is an fsociety hacker whose dedication to the cause veers into recklessness.

The most interesting member of the supporting cast, however, is Tyrell Wellick, an ambitious and hubristic E Corp executive who’s been keeping tabs on Elliot. Martin Wallström does a solid job selling Wellick’s simmering megalomania as the show sets him up as Eliot’s chief antagonist. Wellick is an unsettling and intimidating presence — a man who takes what he wants and, like Mr. Robot, maintains a laser-like focus on his objectives.

Thematically, Mr. Robot is fairly heavy handed. Esmail’s Occupy Wall Street rhetoric can come off as strident and simplistic. At times, the show’s overarching philosophy feels like it was cooked up by a college freshman who just discovered Noam Chomsky. That said, the politics largely don’t detract from the show’s many positives.

I may have set out looking for an easy summer fling, but Mr. Robot gave me more than I bargained for. This show has a quiet intensity that is both exhilarating and suffocating (in a good way). It’s an unexpected thrill definitely worth checking out.