“Have you ever cried during sex?”—Personality quiz conducted by a pre-teen girl in front of an Commodore 64 while a fish slowly dies in the background, from Season 2 of Mr. Robot
So I just finished the latest season of Mr. Robot. It’s quite a show. It’s compelling, complicated, and wildly ambitious. It feels like creator Sam Esmail was like “Let’s take on all the major news stories of the last decade… oh, and do a remake of Fight Club and Memento while we’re at it.”
Mr. Robot takes a cast of characters who could be cliches — the psychotically ambitious rising corporate exec, his Lady-Macbeth-esque wife, the lonely-but-competent female cop, the damaged, dangerous female hacker, the girl next door who grew up and sold out, the too-softhearted-for-his-own-good gay boss, the amiably ruthless father figure, the fat nerdy hacker, the muslim girl hacker, the Lloyd-Blankfein-ish CEO, the sinister transgender Chinese mastermind — and breathes life into each of them, so that they become vivid and unpredictable, alive on the screen, in spite of their overused character tropes.
And that’s not even mentioning the protagonist, Elliot, who is also a couple of tropes mixed together — the socially-incompetent genius, the damaged, dissociative revolutionary — but comes alive as a truly original psychological portrait. Mr. Robot starts where Memento and Fight Club stop: it blows past the “protagonist is unreliable, the ‘self’ is a lie we tell ourselves” insights of those movies, and grapples with what it means to accept all that and then still have to wake up in the morning and keep living your life.
There’s an amazing scene where we get a flashback to Elliot starting down the path to being a revolutionary. He puts on a mask — Mr. Robot’s fictionalized version of the Guy Fawkes masks that the hacker group Anonymous wears — and starts speaking with unexpected authority about his plans to take down the system. His sudden personality change freaks out his sister, even though she was the one who urged him to put the mask on to begin with.
Later in the episode, present day, Elliot reflects on the masks that everyone wears to interact with the world. What are people, under their masks? Or is the mask the reality, and the internal monologue the illusion? What if you don’t like your mask? He asks, “How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask? When it’s as much a part of me as me?”
Mr. Robot is a dance of masks. It’s deliberate, I feel, that each character can be summarized in a couple of adjectives. They’re meant to be the chorus of contemporary urban life, whirling around the social and economic conflicts that animate the show.
In the book Impro, the reflections of one of the creators of improvisational theater, there’s a chapter on the discipline of mask acting. That chapter is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever read, because the author seems dead serious as he describes how acting students, putting on masks, get “possessed” by the spirits of the masks, become the masks, and come to life as rich, vivid, archetypal personalities that are totally alien to those of the students serving as their hosts. Mr. Robot takes that alien weirdness out of the theater and onto the streets and boardrooms of New York.
The result is cinematic and eerie. Mr. Robot doesn’t flinch from risky directorial choices. There’s half an episode set in the style of a 80’s sitcom, complete with laugh track and cameo from Alf. There’s another episode where we learn afterwards that what we saw on screen was almost completely a fabrication. The style drifts from gritty crime movie to techy hacker thriller to dada-ist art film. A character literally pisses on someone’s grave. There’s a lot of monologuing.
At the same time, Mr. Robot keeps itself grounded by a constant stream of real-life details and references. It’s mostly set in New York City, and as far as I can tell every outdoor scene was shot on location. Two characters go on a date at a wine bar that I’ve been on a date at. In a flashback, we see two members of Elliot’s hacker group meeting for the first time at the same coffee shop (temporarily re-branded) that I met my startup co-founder at. “There’s another one 14th street” one mentions, accurately. When characters travel to Coney Island, we see them getting on the Q train. On TV sets, President Obama condemns the actions of the fictional hacker group (they used real press footage and an impersonator for the voice), and Edward Snowden defends them. Near the end of season 2 there’s a brief reference to Trump’s presidential candidacy. One sub-plot involves an online black market modeled after the Silk Road, and the glimpses of the site layout look identical to the real thing, including the Tor .onion url. During the hacking scenes, I recognized snippets of what look like real code — at one point I saw Elliot configure an nginx server, which is (more or less) appropriate to the scene.
That said, while Mr. Robot nails the details, the larger plot threads do feel fictional. Characters consistently do things that are stupid in an out-of-character way, because the drama demands it. A particularly egregious example is an attempt to train the character Angela to participate in a hacking operation. “You can’t train someone to hack in one day”, the hackers declare worriedly during a preparation montage. But, they aren’t training her to hack: they want her to type in a couple of memorized commands into the terminal, which is certainly something that can be learned in a day, especially by a character like Angela who’s portrayed to be bright and professionally competent. Even sillier, the commands are to run a script that’s on her computer already: so if she really wasn’t up to memorizing them, the hackers could have made a desktop shortcut for her to double-click! Or another example: the FBI are invited to China to investigate a cyber-crime; the Chinese don’t actually want the FBI poking around. So, the Chinese leader says “yes” to the FBI’s face, then arranges a team of gunmen to shoot at them… an incredibly risky strategy that in the real world would have blown up in his face, when if he had just said “sorry, you can’t visit that facility, national security, you know how it goes”, that would be totally normal in real-life international relations, if not nearly as adrenaline-pumping for the characters.
In other words, Mr. Robot is very much a staged drama. The character masks reflect actual personas and archetypes, the paranoias and injustices that animate the plot are very contemporary, but the action is pre-scripted: there’s no sense that the world itself is alive and organic. We see what Sam Esmail wants to show us, and the characters are his puppets. We don’t feel as though the story is telling itself. To put in gamer terms, the world doesn’t have a physics engine.
There’s a moral significance to this aspect of Mr. Robot, because it limits the show’s ability to engage with the themes that it wants to address. As a psychological portrait of humans confronting modernity, it’s excellent, but as an attempt to address modernity itself, to talk about the injustices of the system, to wrestle with politics, capitalism and corporatism, hacking and anarchy, anonymity and the digital labyrinth, it’s crippled.
The guiding worldview of the rebel hackers — which the show tacitly affirms as correct by collapsing all of American’s corporations into a single “ECorp” (nicknamed Evil Corp) run by an amoral, monologuing, old white man — is that the source of injustice is a conspiracy of the powerful. It’s the Occupy Wall Street theory of politics: people suffer because a small, connected group of elites oppress them. If only we could appeal to their consciences, or alternately, stick ‘em against the wall and shoot them, a better, more just society would naturally arise.
This is a comforting narrative. It implies that there’s someone in charge. We may not like them, we may want to overthrow them, but human civilization has someone at the steering wheel. In Mr. Robot, we get to see various sinister forces battling for control of the world’s economy: there’s a tug-of-war between Wall Street and China, with the US federal government caught in the middle, and a ragtag team of hackers trying to take them all down and start the revolution.
In a sense, this is very well-ordered universe, for all the darkness and sinister people in the shadows. It may be morally ambiguous, but things happen for reasons. If a corporation pollutes a river, it’s because there’s a top-secret project they’re trying to cover up, not because some mid-level bureaucrats were trying to impress their boss. If your personal data ends up getting leaked, it’s because a genius like Elliot made it happen, not because some underpaid sysadmin fucked up. If the economy takes a dive, it’s because a hacking group was fighting the man or China was up to something sinister, not because a web of financial instruments that no one fully understood exhibited some emergent behavior.
What Mr. Robot lacks is entropy. It has deliberate strangeness and alienation, but it lacks true weirdness: unexpected, inexplicable events that happen for no reason other than that the world is a big place with a lot of moving pieces. And that would be fine, except that weirdness is at the core of everything that it wants to talk about. The economic and technological systems its characters are caught in weren’t planned: they evolved. Big systematic things happen because of millions of tiny decisions made against a landscape of perverse incentives. Every once in a while, a political or economic actor gathers enough coordination behind it to make a major change — say, the creation of Obamacare, or the signing of a trade deal, or the invention of the iPhone —but the precision with which those changes direct the future is akin to the precision of detonating a nuke in the middle of a hurricane.
Mr. Robot is a story about the human experience of being caught in that storm. It’s unsettling, because it exposes the games we play to create normality for ourselves. But it’s not unsettling enough.
Here’s an exception — one little detail I really liked… near the end of the second season, brownouts start rolling across New York City. It’s a background detail, not a plot point. Every so often, a character will pause briefly as the lights flicker off, then back on, and then continue where they left off. Occasionally we see the whole city going dark for a moment. It’s a respite, in a way, from all the bullshit and posturing, the drama and bravado… a little reminder that somewhere, backstage, things are in motion.