‘Mr. Robot’ Series Premiere Review: USA Introduces Bold, Timely Hacker Thriller
“What I’m about to tell you is top secret — a conspiracy bigger than all of us. There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about, the guys that are invisible. The top 1% of the top 1%, the guys who play God without permission… and now I think they’re following me.” And so we’re introduced to the grim, paranoiac, anti-establishment mind of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the anti-hero, hacker protagonist of USA’s Mr. Robot, through a voice-over monologue during the opening credits. It’s a stark beginning to this exciting new cypherpunk thriller, flaws of the pilot notwithstanding.
By day, Elliot is a cog in a machine that he despises, working as a techie with his childhood friend/secret crush, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), at Allsafe Security, a cyber-security firm that serves giant conglomerates like E Corp in New York City. Under the cover of darkness, though, Elliot sheds the corporate lackey costume he so loathes, covering himself with a black hoodie at all times, to enact vigilante justice against evildoers the only way he knows how; hacking and online surveillance. An early scene shows Elliot revealing to a successful coffee franchise owner that he has become aware of his proclivity for child pornography by infiltrating his shop’s wireless network, which he had marveled at for its speedy connection before he couldn’t help himself and started snooping. At first, Elliot’s target assumes that this is classic blackmail, but Elliot isn’t interested in money — he just wants to knock down respectable, powerful people who reveal their secret, ugly nature through their online activity. And so the police come to arrest the man as Elliot quietly slips past them into the nighttime city streets, and a new, potentially iconic 21st century anti-hero is born.
The show wisely opts to quickly raise the stakes by having Elliot embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow E Corp, a client of Allsafe that Elliot has trained himself to only see and hear as Evil Corp, which extends to the audience since we experience this world through the perspective of our unreliable narrator. The veteran hacker who recruits Elliot into this scheme is known only as the eponymous Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who is based out of an office in an arcade in Coney Island, across the street from a gaudy amusement park.
Now, many aspects of Elliot’s character don’t exactly seem revolutionary or particularly innovative — we’ve kind of come to expect that a hacker character is going to be crippled by social anxiety/awkwardness, anti-establishment in his worldview and determined to utilize his narrow set of skills to compensate for the other areas of his life in which he feels powerless and wayward. What makes this character so special and intriguing is the performance by Rami Malek, who plays Elliot with an unsettling, wide-eyed charisma and a simmering anger that seems poised to erupt at any moment, a man who can seem disturbed and incapable of human connection but who also seems to genuinely care about his friend, Angela, and the injustices wrought by American capitalism. Though he never expresses his true feelings to anyone around him, including his therapist, Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben), various scenes and narrative techniques gave me the impression that this was a young man who perhaps feels so intensely that he has adopted this extreme emotional unavailability, which leaves him bristling at any physical human contact, as a means of keeping his fragile psyche intact. His therapy sessions reveal that he is prone to delusions, the narration reveals his tortured inner-monologue and awareness of his own abnormal psyche, flashbacks that play out before his eyes reveal a childhood spent with an abusive mother, and one scene shows his need to self-medicate his desperate sense of loneliness and depression by snorting morphine pills. We also learn that his father died of leukemia as a result of radiation he was exposed to at work, though Elliot was unable to prove it. It seems that this personal tragedy has likely informed his anti-capitalist inclinations.
I decided to focus so much of this review on Elliot and Malek’s remarkable performance because this show does not look like it will be an ensemble piece like so many recent hits — it will be singularly focused on Elliot and we will continue to see this world and story through his eyes and his eyes alone. He was in just about every scene, so the success of this character and his actor translates into the success of the show as a whole. I see a certain likeness in tone to Taxi Driver in this show; we have one point-of-view character to guide us and his thoughts and worldview are similarly revealed to us through narration because he is incapable of expressing them through dialogue, God’s lonely man traversing a version of New York City beset by decay, except in this world he rides subways instead of driving cabs, the decay is a result of income inequality and multinational corporations rather than rampant street crime and two-bit hustlers, and our protagonist enacts his revolutionary justice with a keyboard instead of a gun.
There are some groan-inducing moments in the pilot — the rant against society that Elliot imagines during a therapy session is particularly sophomoric, excluding the jab at Steve Jobs and Apple for making their fortune by exploiting cheap labor in China. The use of documentary footage during this sequence felt clumsy and inappropriate tonally, as did the suggestion that some of Elliot’s anger could be fueled by the hypocrisy of public figures like Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby. Also, while the voice-over narration does generally feel appropriate and effective in characterizing such a withdrawn, socially isolated person, it is sometimes abused and becomes grating. And it seems like the show will likely feature a villain-of-the-week for Elliot to pursue to supplement the main story, which I find to be an unfortunate TV trope that too often can cheapen an episode and become unnecessary filler material. Still, I found myself immediately wanting more by the end of the episode, which is a pretty good indication that this was a successful pilot and an indication that USA may have finally found the show that will help put in the same league as AMC.