‘Mr. Robot’ Mid-Season Review: How Does The Summer’s Surprise Hit Measure Up So Far?
Mr. Robot seemingly came out of nowhere to become this summer’s most exciting, talked about show. With the end of season five of Game of Thrones and the disappointing second season of True Detective, HBO has — at least temporarily — ceded its primacy to the unlikeliest of competitors; USA, a network not exactly known for its prestige television. The show features a breakthrough, star-making performance for its lead actor, Rami Malek, who plays the show’s anti-hero protagonist, budding hacktivist/tortured soul Elliot Alderson, with a ferocious yet understated intensity and charisma that demands your undivided attention from the first scene in the pilot. It has been hailed by many experts and hackers, including at least one member of Anonymous, the infamous hacktivist collective, for being the most accurate depiction of hacking, both technically and culturally, to ever grace the screen, immediately separating it from the cartoonish media portrayals of hacking Hollywood has lazily trotted out for decades.
‘Mr. Robot’ Review
Most important for its resonance with audiences, I think, is the fact that the show taps into two key components of the current cultural/political zeitgeist — the way vulnerabilities of information and security in our digitized world and global economy have allowed hackers to become major players on the world stage, for better or worse, and the populist, left-oriented backlash against rising economic inequality, corporate power and indebtedness in the United States that first found its voice in the Occupy Wall Street movement and has now gone mainstream with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. This has allowed Mr. Robot to transcend the realm of pure escapist entertainment or even an incisive character study to become an Important Show – one that uses its medium and story to comment on the definitive issues of our time.
Beyond these core strengths of the show, it’s stylistically tight and gorgeously shot, with striking, memorable images (Tyrell’s mirror speech and Elliot’s dream sequence immediately come to mind) and each episode features Elliot’s dark, original, poetic ruminations on both his own fractured psyche and the collective psyche of the people surrounding him by turning seemingly mundane computer functions into metaphors for the underlying drivers of human behavior (daemons, exploits, bugs, etc.). Elliot is also a classic unreliable narrator, which keeps the audience on their toes by forcing us to constantly question the reality of every scene that’s filtered through his perspective. The central story, fsociety’s conspiracy to destroy the debt records of Evil Corp in order to liberate the masses from the predatory capitalism of our post-Reagan, neoliberal era, has remained a tense, exciting, high-stakes plot through the season, culminating in episode five with (SPOILER ALERT) Elliot’s incognito infiltration of Steel Mountain, Evil Corp’s supposedly impenetrable data fortress. More spoilers ahead in this review, so if you’re a latecomer to Mr. Robot, I recommend you binge watch these five episodes on USA’s website before you read ahead.
The season is now halfway through, and with the failure of the Chinese hacker group, the Dark Army, to follow through on their end of the plan, the destruction of Evil Corp seems to be on an indefinite hiatus, which liberates the remainder of the season to go in some interesting, new directions. This is a show that seems happy to take risks and defy the expectations of the audience, as evidenced by the extended, metaphysical, David Lynch-esque withdrawal fever dream Elliot endured in episode four, so it’s impossible to predict where this story is going to end up, which is a good thing. If I had to guess, Angela’s decision to protect herself by infecting Allsafe with the Dark Army’s code, which probably has a lot to do with their decision to break ties with fsociety, and her discovery of her father’s insurmountable debt to Evil Corp will yield major consequences in the season’s second half. She’s been an ancillary character throughout the season, initially seeming important only because of her being Elliot’s only genuine connection to humanity, but I think that’s about to change in significant, dramatic fashion.
The show is not without its flaws, however, some minor (that last shot in episode five of Angela coming to a literal/metaphorical fork in the road was so on the nose it was almost embarrassing) and some that could prove to be significant detriments to its originality and overall quality. First and foremost, I’m not a big fan of the widely believed theory that the show’s titular character, Mr. Robot, is a figment of Elliot’s imagination – basically, his very own Tyler Durden. It seems difficult not to accept this theory, given the onscreen evidence presented thus far, but I really hope that Sam Esmail and the writers have something else up their sleeve. If not, this trite, abused plot twist isn’t going to surprise anyone except Elliot, and it will diminish the show’s dramatic impact, at least for me. I’m also not sold on episode five’s cliffhanger ending, wherein Elliot receives an ominous phone call from the drug dealer he busted earlier in the season informing him that he had one of his cronies abduct his new girlfriend, Shayla. The show hasn’t spent enough time on their relationship for me to be invested in it – it seemed like it was going to be a big deal when they became an item, but I can’t remember a single scene they’ve shared together since the dinner party at Gideon’s house, excluding the brief phone call in episode five. Right now, this story seems like it could be filler material and an unnecessary distraction from the more compelling plot threads – it’s as if the show wasn’t comfortable leaving the audience with the anti-climactic failure of fsociety’s plot to bring down Evil Corp and felt they had to immediately raise the stakes and keep the dramatic momentum going by any means necessary. That being said, the show’s formidable strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, so far, and I’m still eagerly anticipating next week’s episode and seeing where everything will stand by the season finale.