[This article contains SPOILERS for Mr. Robot season 1.]
In a short amount of time, USA’s Mr. Robot went from that show with a silly title and Christian Slater to the TV series that seemed to have everyone talking. Created by Sam Esmail, the show hit the zeitgeist sweet spot in nearly every way imaginable. The series, headed up by Rami Malek’s performance as the fractured Elliot Alderson who, unknown to him for most of the season, was also an anarchic hacker seeing visions of his dead father in the guise of the titular Mr. Robot. In addition to Malek, the series proved to be chock full of terrific performances, all of which were bolstered by stellar writing and direction and, especially, through the unique visual rhythms set forth by cinematographers Tim Ives and Tod Campbell, whose work often framed its subjects like the series framed itself: a little askew and positioned in such a way you wonder what it is you’re not seeing.
Following the exploits of Elliot as he discovered the truth about himself and worked to bring down E Corp, one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world, season 1 was a meticulously arranged blend of techno-thriller, social commentary, and pop-culture appreciation that rose above its late-game twist to offer the audience something more. Mr. Robot didn’t pin its ambitions on the curveball it threw the audience (because, really, how much of a curveball was it?); instead, it offered those watching – and Elliot, too – the chance to take part in a much larger story once the proverbial curtain had been pushed aside.
Now, the series is prepared to launch season 2. And since the season 1 finale (and the entire season, actually) left off with more questions than answers, now is a good time to revisit that story and its characters, and to take a look at all that transpired over the first 10 episodes, from the first time Elliot greets his audience all the way up to the Five/Nine hack that started a revolution.
The Premiere is a Great Hour of TV
Mr. Robot is one of those rare series that begins with an episode so good it could, with a few tweaks, stand on its own as movie. Even when it’s obfuscating certain elements for obvious reasons, the premiere is still telling you everything you need to know about the show. It’s rare that a series knows exactly what sort of visual language is best suited to telling its particular story, but Sam Esmail’s series opener certainly seems to know how to speak it right out of the gate.
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), eps1.0_hellofriend.mov makes setting up a large, complicated story and getting inside the main character’s head look easy. Sure, it has the benefit of a first person voiceover (more on that below), but the hour is still working on several different levels that go well beyond Elliot’s paranoid narration and his invasions of other people’s privacy (both friend and foe) that begin to sketch out breadth and depth of his delusions and his tendency for self-righteous behavior. It’s a complex portrayal that’s mixed with drug abuse, moments of extreme vulnerability, and when he helps stop a cyber attack on E Corps’ servers, a real sense of the world that Elliot lives in and how he functions (or doesn’t function) within it. Introductions are hard, especially when you’re trying to set the stage to throw the audience for a loop later on. Somehow, the Mr. Robot premiere manages to knock both out of the park.
An Unreliable Narrator
Who is Mr. Robot? Well if you’re thinking it’s Elliot Alderson (Malek) you’d be right… sort of. Elliot begins the series by bringing down the owner of several NYC coffee shops, an entrepreneur who also dabbles in terabytes worth of child pornography. It’s the sort of thing that has the audience thinking one way about Elliot long before his persistent paranoia has them thinking something else entirely. Before the premiere is through, Mr. Robot will confirm the man at the center of its story has a lot more going on than some late night cyber vigilantism. He’s socially awkward and isolated, he self-medicates with morphine to battle his crippling loneliness. Elliot is invasive, and sometimes controlling; he spies on his therapist and his best friend (as well as her fratty boyfriend), under the guise of helping or looking out for their best interests.
Mostly, though, Elliot is leading a double double-life; one he knows about and one he doesn’t. By day he’s a cyber-security expert and by night he’s busting porn peddlers and cheating husbands. But what he really wants to do is free everyone from the shackles of corporate oppression and the greed that keeps the rich in place and the rest compliant in their pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of stuff. What Elliot doesn’t know is that, long before the words “Hello, friend,” came out of his mouth, he was wrapped up in a scheme to make this dream come true.
Elliot is the epitome of unreliable narrator. But one of the ways Mr. Robot makes use of his unreliability is by putting the audience right in the middle of it. Elliot’s direct address isn’t to the audience sitting at home watching, but rather the audience there with him, in his head. It’s a terrific device that justifies the use of a first person voiceover. But, more importantly, it limits what the audience can ever actually know about anything. And when a show like Mr. Robot is dealing in the unknown as a selling point – one that becomes increasingly important even when what is known seems to have already been divulged – the space in which the series unfolds becomes curiouser and curiouser.
The audience is Elliot’s “friend” and it’s also nothing at all; another mixed up signal in his brain. Just because he’s talking doesn’t mean he’s talking to those watching, and it doesn’t mean anyone should listen to what he says. Following Elliot into his story is appealing for obvious reasons but one of them is the tacit understanding that what you are seeing and what you’re being told isn’t necessarily the whole story. This is a guy who forgot who his sister was until he tried to kiss her. Elliot might be the character from whose perspective the series unfolds, but when it comes down to it, that perspective is like trying to take in the majesty of the Grand Canyon by peering through a pinhole in a piece of paper.
The Big Plan
Not so much a shadowy organization as it is a ragtag group of like-minded individuals who fancy themselves keyboard cowboys, f-society’s goal is to bring down E Corp (Evil Corp) and to start a revolution. Everything about them is anarchic and unpredictable, especially their leader Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). It’s an unlikely cross-section of humanity that, at the same time, seems just as you’d imagine a group of hackers might look like. The primary group includes Mr. Robot, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), Mobley (Azhar Khan), Romeo (Ron Cephas Jones), and Trenton (Sunita Mani).
They have a solid but incredibly risky plan in place, one that includes an incredible heist-like sequence at a place called Steel Mountain around the halfway point of the season, but f-society isn’t doing it completely on their own. They’re tentatively working with a Chinese hacker collective called The Dark Army, headed up by an individual named Whiterose (B.D. Wong), whose involvement is, let’s say, more self-interested than f-society’s.
Elliot may be painted as a loner hacker who avoids connection and yet is deeply lonely, but he is by no means alone. Mr. Robot has positioned a compelling group of characters in the periphery of Elliot’s story, using them to deepen the unsettling nature of his fractured psyche but also to build a contradiction in his first-person account of the narrative. First is Elliot’s best (and only?) friend Angela (Portia Doubleday). The series initially positions her as the unrequited love Elliot thinks he’s protecting because of her horrible taste in in men. Then there’s Elliot’s drug-dealing pseudo girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw) and Darlene, Elliot’s f-society teammate and sister he doesn’t quite remember. These are in addition to the ever-present Mr. Robot, Elliot’s boss Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill), and Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his indomitable wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen).
While Elliot seems tormented by his isolation early on, the series takes measures to slowly reveal his connections with these characters, and, more surprisingly, their connection with one another. Both are often far deeper than they appear. Case in point: the offhand manner in which it is revealed Angela and Darlene not only know one another but share a history that includes Elliot. The way the show peels away at its characters’ shared personal histories is another example of how successful Mr. Robot is at overturning first impressions and demonstrating nothing is as it seems.
Meet the Wild Cards
Tyrell Wellick and his wife Joanna get mentioned twice because they aren’t your typical supporting characters. They serve a similar function, but they have their own complicated story going on both inside and outside of f-society, E Corp, and everything Elliot is wrapped up in. Tyrell is outrageously ambitious but his aspirations pale in comparison to what the very pregnant Joanna expects to result from those objectives. From the get-go, when Tyrell tells Elliot “it’s going to be fun working with you,” it’s clear something sinister is lurking just beneath the surface. And when Joanna is introduced, it’s clear she’s a big part of… well, something.
It can be difficult to read either Tyrell or Joanna throughout the first season, and that’s a big part of their appeal. They seem to be the living embodiment of heedless determination, one that includes the seduction and manipulation of anyone in their way and, when that doesn’t work, Tyrell at least, will resort to murder. Not being able to get a read on Tyrell makes it easier for him to be the kind of person other people need him to be. As a result, you can never quite tell if Tyrell’s working with, for, or against Elliot and f-society. And his disappearance during the season 1 finale, along with a noticeable dearth of marketing material featuring Wallström’s visage suggests the Wellicks will still have a mysterious role to play in season 2.
It’s Not Just About the Hack
Even though Elliot spends most of his time weighing the pros and cons of joining an anarchic hacker coalition and dreams of bringing down one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world, Mr. Robot season 1 featured a subplot with remarkably high stakes that didn’t work out in Elliot’s favor. After taking the next step in his relationship with Shayla, Elliot and she run afoul of her ex-boyfriend Fernando Vera (Elliott Villar), who wound up on the wrong side of Elliot’s keyboard after a few tense meetings between the two. Sending a guy to prison isn’t the best way to make friends, so, with nothing but time on his hands Fernando plotted to put Elliot’s skills to work for him, using Shayla’s life as a bargaining chip.
Breaking Fernando out of prison runs on the extreme side of Mr. Robot‘s love affair with hackers; but while the premise sounds like the plot to a John Travolta movie, the show pays it off with a stunningly simple escape sequence. Elliot and Fernando’s right hand man watch under the cover of darkness, as all hell breaks loose at the prison in the distance. In the end, Fernando gets his freedom and Shayla pays with her life. It’s a shocking moment that demonstrates the series’ ability to explore powerful storylines that run outside the main plot. Shayla and Fernando could have been throwaway characters, but instead they afforded the series a major turning point that also happened to be one of its most unforgettable moments.
If you noticed a similarity between Mr. Robot’s twist and a certain David Fincher film from 1999, you’re not alone. But the show isn’t being derivative of Fight Club; it’s owning the inspiration by playing an instrumental cover of the Pixies’ ‘Where is My Mind’ not long after Elliot learns Mr. Robot is cooked up by his brain and made to look like his dead father. By doing this, Esmail is, in essence, paying homage to the films that influenced him as a writer and filmmaker, but also adding another layer to what makes Elliot tick, and how, despite protestations to the contrary, he is a product of the things he consumes. In this sense, Esmail suggests that maybe the manifestation of Mr. Robot is, in some way inspired by the movies Elliot saw during his formative years. And because going to the movies was something he did with his father, it doesn’t take much to draw a line between those experiences and what he’s going through now.
There’s more to the reveal than learning one of the series’ most influential characters is another’s mental illness made manifest. The twist put Elliot in the driver’s seat with regard to f-society –even though that’s where he’s been the entire time – while also repositioning Mr. Robot’s role in the series as an even greater source of conflict and inspiration moving forward.
The Revolution Has Begun
The season 1 finale of Mr. Robot didn’t just pull the trigger on the f-society vs. E Corp storyline, nor did it just set up season 2 by getting its ducks in a row. The finale brought about a brave new world with the Five/Nine hack, one that’s sure to have a number of ramifications moving forward. Those consequences won’t just be of the legal variety, even though Tyrell Wellick and f-society are enemy no. 1 as far as the government is concerned; they’ll be of a personal nature, too. Elliot will have to move forward knowing what he does about Mr. Robot, his family, and Darlene. Meanwhile, Angela has to make a choice now that the door at E Corp has essentially been opened for her.
The same goes for the effects of f-society’s strike on E Corp. Given that Whiterose is seen in the company of E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer), the future of both f-society and The Dark Army may be in question. Perhaps the little hacking collective that could might not survive long enough to strike again. Speaking of survival, who wants to know what happens to Tyrell and what exactly was going on with Joanna when she met with Elliot after the hack? It’s the kind of finale that is at once a satisfying conclusion to the first season, and a maddening series of questions about what comes next. There’s no telling where things will go now that f-society launched the first salvo, but one thing’s for certain: the revolution has begun.
Mr. Robot season 2 premieres Wednesday July 13 on USA Network.