‘Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank; give a man a bank and he can rob the world.’
If you could wipe all of your debt, would you do it? Not just your debt but your family’s, your friend’s, their families, would you do it? If you could, would you take down the monstrous corporations and the banks? The corporations that have taken over our lives? That don’t pay any tax? The banks that gave home loans to people who couldn’t afford them? Who forced millions of people out of their homes and their jobs? The question really isn’t would you do it, but rather how could you not? Similar to David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club, this is the crux of the television series Mr Robot (2015- current).
Mr Robot was created by Sam Esmail, an Egyptian-American, who originally planned for the project to be a feature-length film. This all changed as he was writing the script. In an interview with Forbes’ Merrill Barr, Esmail said, ‘When I got to Page 90 and I was still halfway through Act 1 that’s when I decided, “OK. This can be a television show.”’
Elliot Alderson. Just a tech.
The series follows Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek – Need for Speed), one of the most compelling and complex characters I’ve seen on television in a long time. Elliot is a hoodie-wearing IT specialist with a cocktail of personality disorders who works as a tech at a large cyber security company, Allsafe. Allsafe’s major client is E Corp—think Google, Microsoft, and Apple all combined into one massive, multi-billion dollar company that permeates every aspect of our lives. Elliot meets up with some computer hackers, led by Mr Robot (Christian Slater – Mind Games), who are trying to find a way to hack into E Corp’s systems, take the company down, and the banks with it. The problem is, Elliot is also a paranoid schizophrenic and has trouble distinguishing between reality and his hallucinations.
The season begins with a black screen; we hear Elliot’s voice. ‘Hello, friend,’ he says. Then, ‘Maybe I should give you a name. You’re only in my head, I should remember that.’ He tells us about the giant conglomerates that run the world and the powerful men in charge who play God. He also tells us that he thinks he’s being followed. Elliot talks to us throughout the series via voice-over. He lets us into his mind, tells us his thoughts. He thinks we exist.
The top one percent of the top one percent.
We first see Elliot in Ron’s Coffee Shop somewhere in New York City. It’s late. He sits down at a table in front of a man and starts talking. The man is the shop’s owner, Ron (Samrat Chakrabar – Equity). Elliot knows a lot about Ron—his real name, his family, and more importantly, his Wi-Fi password. Elliot also knows that Ron deals in child pornography because Elliot hacked Ron’s computer. Elliot hacks everyone’s computer. Elliot has Ron’s incriminating evidence in a file. Ron thinks Elliot is blackmailing him and offers him money, but as the police arrive at the coffee shop in response to Elliot’s anonymous tip, Elliot walks out the door and says, ‘I don’t give a shit about money.’
Ron (right) is about to be arrested.
At work the next day Elliot’s boss Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill – House of Cards) tells Elliot that Allsafe was hacked the night before. Elliot, Gideon, and Elliot’s childhood friend Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday – Mr Sunshine) are about to have a meeting with Chief Technology Officer for E Corp, Terry Colby (Bruce Altman – Show Me a Hero) to find out what how the hack happened. Although Colby is CTO of the largest tech company in the world, Colby is a dolt. So too are the rest of his team, except one, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström – 100 Code), E Corp’s Senior Vice President of Technology. From our first brief encounter with Tyrell, it’s clear to see that he actually knows what he’s talking about. Tyrell takes an interest in Elliot. A kindred spirit perhaps?
Elliot has also hacked his therapist, Krista (Gloria Reuben – Falling Skies). He lies to her and hides his true self. He tells her that he’s not seeing men in black following him anymore. He tells her that he’s taking his medication; that he’s being social. In reality, he is broken.
At the end of the day Elliot goes home and feeds his fish, Qwerty. He sits in the corner and cries. He asks us, ‘What do normal people do when they get this sad?’ Elliot takes morphine.
Later that night, Elliot meets a man on a train. On his jacket is a patch that says ‘Mr Robot’. He tells Elliot to follow him; he does. Inside an abandoned amusement arcade in Coney Island hides fsociety, a group of hackers with the goal to take down the banks and wipe everyone’s debt. One of the hackers, Darlene (Carly Chaikin – Suburgatory), talks to Elliot as if she has known him for a long time, but he tells us he doesn’t know her. Is he telling us the truth?
Elliot meets Mr Robot.
Elliot is intrigued by the group and their Robin Hood ideology but he doesn’t know if they even exist. He asks us, ‘That didn’t just happen, right? This is a delusion. Is this a delusion? Shit, I’m schizo.’ He has another discussion about the way of the world with Mr Robot. ‘Are you a one or a zero?’ Mr Robot asks. ‘Are you a yes or a no?’ Elliot is a one, he agrees to help fsociety.
The first thing they need to do in order to get the ball rolling is frame E Corp CTO Terry Colby for hacking Allsafe. Elliot’s position at the cyber security company will give them all the access they need.
Like the real-world hacking organisation Anonymous, fsociety uploads videos to Youtube about things we all know but don’t do anything about. We’re all crumbling under debt. We’re all captives. Like Anonymous, the people we see in these videos wear masks.
As the season progresses we also spend more time with Tyrell Wellick. Born in Sweden, Tyrell could easily be mistaken for Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman. Impeccably dressed with razor-sharp focus Tyrell, like Bateman, also has a vicious streak—every so often he beats up a homeless man and gives him money in return. Tyrell’s pregnant wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen – Legends of Tomorrow), is as ambitious as Lady Macbeth. Tyrell wants the position of Chief Technology Officer that has been vacant since Colby was arrested by the FBI. The couple are used to getting what they want and go to great lengths to achieve their goals. But, as those great English philosophers, The Rolling Stones say, you can’t always get what you want.
Tyrell and Joanna Wellick.
The series attends to other characters quite generously as well. We get to know them, their dreams, their flaws.
Darlene is trying to organise a group of Chinese hackers known as the Dark Army to support them. The group is headed up by the mysterious White Rose (B.D. Wong – Gotham). The Dark Army are hesitant and require a lot of persuading.
Angela loses her job at Allsafe. Later she breaks up with her boyfriend and co-worker Ollie (Ben Rappaport – The Good Wife) after finding out he was cheating on her. Laden with student debt, she has to move back in with her father in New Jersey.
Darlene (left) and Angela.
Shayla (Frankie Shaw – Mixology) is Elliot’s neighbour and drug dealer. She has an abusive boyfriend, Fernando (Elliot Villar – Gotham). Elliot hacks his computer and gives another anonymous tip to the police. When Fernando is sent to jail for drug dealing, Elliot and Shayla grow close. Elliot even calls her his girlfriend. Unfortunately, Fernando is released and wants revenge.
Mr Robot truly is an outstanding production and as I write this, I’m watching it for the fifth time. Or is it the sixth? It’s not often I say this, but everything about it is perfect: the casting, the plot, characters, direction. Everything. Hands down, Mr Robot was my favourite new show of 2015.
Rami Malek’s Elliot is alien-like. He looks at the world as if he’s constantly trying to make sense of it. He thinks of people as if they are computer systems. His delusions become contagious—how can we be sure that what we’re seeing is real? So too does his paranoia, but we should all be a little paranoid in the age of the Internet of Things. Shouldn’t we?
Elliot is as unreliable as unreliable narrators get. Near the end of the season a bombshells are dropped which force us to question what we’ve been watching all this time. No spoilers, I wouldn’t do that to a friend, but they will make you watch the whole series again to look for clues.
When Elliot speaks to us he refers to the company E Corp as ‘Evil Corp’. As soon as we hear him say that, everyone else in the story world calls it Evil Corp as if to solidify the fact that we are experiencing this as part of Elliot’s psyche.
E-Corp through Elliot’s eyes.
The prescient narrative seems to have been ripped out of the headlines. If this were set IRL (in real life), Mr Robot and his team of hackers would have been protesting during Occupy Wall Street. They would be committing DOS (Denial of Service) attacks alongside Anonymous. They would be cheering at Bernie Sanders’ rallies. Aren’t we all desperately waiting for something like this to happen? The problem is that we’re all waiting for someone else to do it. Well, friend, are you a one or a zero?
To convey a level of authenticity to the hacks, showrunner Sam Esmail hired a former FBI cyber security officer as a consultant to write the lines of computer code that gets displayed on computer screens. Gone are the days of CPUs filled with scrolling green, random digits; Mr Robot’s hacks are legit. The actors even type real code instead of banging away at the keyboard.
One aspect of the show I must draw your attention to, friend, is the cinematography by Tod Campbell (Sleepy Hollow) and Tim Ives (Girls). At first glance, Mr Robot could easily be one of David Fincher’s films. Fincher’s trademark colour-grading manipulates the images; he uses green for Fight Club, yellows for Zodiac, blues for The Social Network, beiges for Gone Girl. The same technique is used here; we see a distorted view of Elliot in mostly yellow tones, the coldness of the office at Allsafe is enhanced with blues and greys.
Elliot in amber.
Esmail told Brian Lowry from Variety, ‘The thing about the show is that it’s very specific visually. There’s a certain aesthetic and a certain style that I want the show to have.’
Composition and framing techniques go against traditional conventions, much like the character of Elliot himself. Elliot, the hero of the story, wants to save the world but does not see himself as a hero. Instead of being in the centre of our screen and the main focus of our attention, he hides in the corners of the frame where he thinks we won’t notice him. Small. Inconspicuous. Off-kilter.
Elliot in the corner of the frame.
At times, the arrogance of Tyrell demands our attention. His face fills the screen as he prepares himself for an interview, slapping his own face when he messes up a well-rehearsed line. Other times, when he is more vulnerable, he also shrinks in size.
Things don’t go well for Tyrell.
Esmail discusses these symbolic, stylistic choices in a conversation with Alan Sepinwall, ‘In episode 6, which had some of the most beautiful framing, especially this one scene with Tyrell and Scott, and he’s framed so low in the frame, and I thought, “That’s genius, because it’s almost like he’s neck-deep and drowning. The conference room is all above him.”’
Tyrell is confronted by Scott (Brian Stokes Mitchell – Glee).
Anthony Casanova has edited a spectacular video highlighting how shots are framed here: https://vimeo.com/141218298
This first season of Mr Robot ran for ten episodes and won multiple awards including a Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Drama and a Peabody Award at the 75th Peabody Awards. For his role as Elliot, Malek won the 2016 Critic’s Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series, and co-star Christian Slater won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-series or TV Film. USA Network was so confident with Mr Robot they approved a second season before the first episode had aired.
Sam Esmail (3rd right) with cast at the 2016 Golden Globes.
Bonus features on the season one DVD box set include a deleted scene from episode 8 that is really, really short, so short you have to wonder why they bothered popping it in! A gag reel, which is always a welcomed edition on any DVD; and the obligatory ‘Making Of’. The short documentary has interviews with cast members and Sam Esmail.
In an interview Esmail says, “My background is I’m just a nerd at heart. I had actually started an internet company during the whole internet boom and my friends were programmers. Some of them were hackers. And I just never felt it was represented well in television or film.” Looking back now at films like Hackers (1995) and Antitrust (2001) it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. The use of technology has never been portrayed well; it’s always been visually dumbed down and explained in basic terms for ease of consumption.
He also explains his inspiration for writing Mr Robot which came from the frustration caused by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and by the Arab Spring which was propelled by the use of Twitter and Facebook.
Season one of Mr Robot is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Season two commences on the USA Network in July this year. I really hope you watch it, friend. We can all learn something from it.
(pics from Mr Robot USA)