[This article contains SPOILERS for Mr. Robot season 1.]
Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano. All three were at one point the center of the best television ever. These characters were deeply flawed, morally complex, and frequently at odds not only with those caught in the orbit of their planet-sized personalities, but also with themselves. Despite the sense of inner conflict, Don, Walter, and Tony shared another particularly interesting trait: they believed themselves to be the hero of their own story.
In many ways, those characteristics also describe Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the central protagonist of Mr. Robot, USA’s out-of-nowhere summer series hit from creator Sam Esmail. But while the computer hacking, anti-social, anti-corporate Elliot shares many obvious attributes with TV’s big three, there is a small wrinkle in his character DNA that distinguishes him from the pack. In Elliot’s mind, he’s not just the hero of his own story; he’s the hero in everyone’s story.
There is no denying that Elliot is a fascinating character. A great deal of that has to do with the way Esmail has steered the ship through the maelstrom that was the twist behind Elliot’s broken mind and his relationship with the titular Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Even more important than the way the series has handled its very deliberate Fight Club-esque reveal is how Elliot’s onscreen portrayal allows the character to be all things: hacker, morphine addict, loner, monster, and hero. Malek’s electric performance makes prolonged, detached staring into the middle distance a valid and completely necessary acting choice, but it’s the measured way in which the actor conducts himself from scene to scene that grounds Elliot in such a way he’s made attractive to the audience for more than his fractured psyche.
After the season’s penultimate episode, ‘eps1.8_m1rr0r1ing.qt’ (ugh, these titles, amirite?) pulled back the curtain on Elliot’s arcade-house fantasy of fashioning an anti-corporate utopia from the smoldering economic wreckage of one of the largest corporations in the world, a great many things snapped into place. Not the least of them was the realization the most interesting thing about Mr. Robot isn’t that the title character is a figment of the protagonists’ memory/imagination; it’s the compelling case the show makes for questioning Elliot’s quest as one of a hero.
Esmail has crafted a series where characters don’t just splash around in the gray waters of moral ambiguity; they have adapted to survive and thrive in the brackish recesses of greed, corruption, and corporate malfeasance. Take Martin Wallström’s intensly fascinating Tryell Wellick – a man whose apparent endgame was to become CTO of Evil Corp. and he was willing to do a great many things, up to and including murder, to get there. And let’s not forget Tyrell’s wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), whose pickle fork-induced labor and long lectures conducted in her native Scandinavian tongue puts her in the unique position of being the most interesting character on the show.
Tyrell and Joanna’s collusion to see the former claw his way up to middle management – though their real endgame is likely yet to be revealed – is a drop in the bucket compared to what scotch-swilling Terry Colby (Bruce Altman) has committed during his time at the top of the corporate ladder. The scene in which he confesses to Angela (Portia Doubleday) about the Tuesday he and a gaggle of executives made a decision resulting in the deaths of countless people (including Angela’s mother) is terrifying not because of the callous, life-ruining accord the suits had reached, but because of the banal details that spring to Colby’s mind when he’s asked to recall that day. There is a sense of real-world evil in a guy whose markers for an afternoon in which innumerable lives were subject to his whim was the weather and what snacks were served. Which naturally asks the question: Is shrimp cocktail really the best appetizer for a conspiracy to poison an entire town?
But what makes Colby even worse is that he understands and subscribes to the notion that this is business, this is the world we live in. Later, Colby approaches Angela with a job offer, which initially makes the viewer think how, like the land he poisoned, perhaps there’s something septic deep within this young woman that might yield a powerful partner in the business world. Just to make this clear, evil is a man who wistfully ruminates on aperitifs and murder with one of his victim’s children, and then proceeds to offer her employment with the company that not only made it all possible, but profitable.
Over the course of the first nine weeks, it became clear the show carves out time to focus on Tyrell, Joanna, and Colby not simply because they are fascinating, richly developed characters you can’t help but be curious about, but also because, by comparison, their actions help temper the conflicting nature of Elliot’s behavior.
Let’s be clear: Elliot is a monster. I don’t think the show has any allusions otherwise. Elliot’s relationship with Gloria Reuben’s court-ordered therapist Krista Gordon is “exhibit A.” The fact he was in court-ordered therapy in the first place is an indication Elliot has difficulty operating within even the most tacit guidelines of a society. But his behavior – the constant hacking, spying, interfering, and collecting data on the people who filter in and out of his sphere of influence – is where Esmail and the series demonstrate this anti-corporate keyboard cowboy cannot be the white hat-wearing hero of the story he’s narrating to the captive audience inside his head without occasionally swapping that Stetson out for one several shades darker.
Elliot is a product of the cultural hallmarks of the decade in which he grew up – or at least the malfunctioning part of his brain is. And that makes him something of a contradiction. Elliot is part Back to the Future II, Pulp Fiction, and, as far as anyone knows by the Pixie’s song scoring (in Elliot’s head?) the moment Tyrell stepped foot inside the Fun Society arcade, Fight Club. But he’s also part brassy destroyer of the mainstream. So, it makes sense that he would straddle the fence when it comes to the ethical concerns of launching a revolution.
Just look at the name of his clandestine organization that may or may not be comprised solely of Elliot and his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin). The moniker “F Society” hints at a rather dismal worldview, one that isn’t concerned with the immediate fallout of shattering a gigantic corporation that may be evil, but is nonetheless deeply rooted in the global economy. There is nearsightedness in his plan not too far removed from Evil Corp’s profit-first myopia that guides its woeful disregard for human life.
And yet, Elliot is guy the audience is rooting for. But why do we want to see him succeed? Part of that is based on curiosity of what the fall of Evil Corp. might mean in terms of the narrative as it moves into season 2. But part of it is because Mr. Robot has trained its audience to see Elliot as the conquering hero. Was there anyone who didn’t watch F Society’s surreptitious raid on Steel Mountain in ‘eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv’ and not think, “this is a storyline I could get behind on a weekly basis”?
But that’s just it, Elliot’s committing a crime, one that could eventually lead to cataclysmic economic fallout and an immense power vacuum just waiting to be filled by something just as bad, if not worse than Evil Corp. But because the show has conditioned its audience to reject the same things Elliot rejects, the crime is not only acceptable it’s downright crucial.
In that sense, Elliot’s storyline feels like it has come at the exact right moment in time, not only because hackers are frequently in the news these days (and they’re not rollerblading through Manhattan with names like “Crash Override” and “Acid Burn”), but also because the show has tapped into a growing sentiment that feels society has come to a place where, in order to do good, some wrong must also be done.
That puts Colby’s proposition to Angela in a new light, and should make the audience question the end result of Elliot’s efforts. Colby says, “If you want to change things, perhaps you should try from within.” Looking past the double meaning of “try from within,” there is disappointing logic to what Colby says. It lacks the drama and catharsis of F Society’s plan, but should Angela take him up – and essentially do wrong (join Evil Corp.) to do a greater good (change the company without causing an economic meltdown) – then maybe the question is: Who’s the real hero?
Mr. Robot will conclude season 1 Wednesday, August 26 @10pm on USA.