Mr Robot Season One: A Summary

Why we’re in love with Sam Esmail and his edgy, subversive high concept television debut.


“Hello Friend” –

Elliot Alderson, Mr Robot.

MrRobotFollowing the huge success of it’s debut series, Mr Robot 2.0 is just around the corner now, and from what we know so far it promises a serious progression on the already climactic events of last year. For anyone that’s missed the show so far, here’s a recap of why we’re excited:
From creator Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot centres around New York based security engineer and hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). A walking dual diagnosis wracked with depression, paranoid delusions, addiction and extreme social anxiety, Elliot connects with the world by hacking the people around him, and he’s good. Disenfranchised with the world both socially and politically, and not shy to flex his greyhat skills as a vigilante, the show follows his conscription by anarchist hacktivist collective ‘Fsociety’ in order to help bring about global economic revolution. The aims of Fsociety? To tackle the worlds largest banking conglomerate, Ecorp, erasing all records of all debt owed in “the single biggest event of wealth redistribution in history”. Ecorp (or EvilCorp, as Elliot and by proxy we refer to them) control 70% of the global consumer credit industry as well as manufacturing computers, phones and tablets; the future of Apple, essentially. With the help of Elliot, Fsociety and their volatile oddball leader Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) set out to make history. So far so Fight Club, right? Well, kinda, but not exactly.

Season one was particularly standout among it’s contemporaries for a number of reasons, not least because of how far under the radar it seemed to slip on British TV, being picked up months after the fact by Amazon Prime for distribution, a fitting format considering the hyper-modern media content of the show. Yet whilst innocuously aired, the show has garnered for itself a cult following in addition to picking up Golden Globe, Film Audience, American Film Institute, Critics Choice and Peoples choice awards among others and further nominations. It gained the critical approval of Edward Snowden, received a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (and is the only series on the site so far to gain a 100% rating for each episode), and has been referred to by Matt Weiner (creator of Mad Men) as televisions “first truly contemporary anti-corporate message”. Strong accolades to be sure, but Mr Robot season one is worth all of them, and here’s why:

Tech and Pop Culture References:

In terms of accuracy, forget what you know about the frankly shoddy depictions of ‘hacking’ from the likes of NCIS, Swordfish, The Dark Knight, The Net, The Core, CSI, Die Hard, Skyfall… the list is endless, this isn’t that kind of beast. In fact, Rami Malek actually had a whole team of people brought in to make sure he was typing in actual code when he was supposed to be, rather than dipping into ridiculous 3D matrix-esque ‘mainframes’ like something out of a bad psilocybin experience in Laser Quest. In fact, the show actually makes little pointed jokes at just this kind of lazy Hollywood blunder. At one point in the series, during Elliot’s withdrawal from an earlier morphine addiction, two of his Fsociety colleagues have a great time making fun of 1995 classic ‘Hackers’ (still a great film), and during an early DDoS (Distributed denial-of-service) attack the head of security company Allsafe asks one of his team “Well where’s the attack coming from?” to the response “Everywhere, obviously.”

hackers

This kind of attention to detail is present throughout, and the show rarely panders or talks down to it’s audience, probably one of it’s greatest strengths. Esmail had originally imagined Mr Robot as a film, having grown up interested in computing and associating with people who were part of that community so grossly misrepresented in film and television. In an interview with Denofgeek.com he states;

‘it’s weird, none of them [hacker films]… they could not trust that filming a guy on a keyboard was good enough, so they kept adding all these weird cheesy effects to try to force some drama out of it, and for me, I didn’t get it.’

What Mr. Robot offers in this respect is something totally new, and furthermore something that’s current. With so many little nods to current events within the hacker world, it’s hard to know where to begin; The Masks and videos Fsociety leak are an obvious homage to the infamous Anonymous collective, who’ve had a hand in (among oh so many other things) the Arab Spring, part of the inspiration for the show according to Esmail, himself of Egyptian descent. It’s easy to see why the show incorporated such a powerful aesthetic for it’s own purposes too, as it’s something that even someone not involved in the community will recognise (even though the show doesn’t quite plagiarise the Guy Fawkes masks popularised by the collective from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta). Other references (although there are almost too many to name) include “those Ashley Madison dumps”, the server storage building ‘Steel Mountain’ (based on Pennsylvania’s Iron Mountain facility) and even the title credits font, a modified Sega logo. In keeping up with current hactivist events globally, Mr. Robot is almost unique in modern television, the only other notable example being House of Cards which reasonably well describes the use of TOR and impressively mentions the ‘Free Barrett Brown’ campaign.

Chock full of other tasty easter eggs from films spanning the last two decades, Mr. Robot uses it’s constant referential nature as a thematic hook, acting almost in the same way the internet itself does as a massive compendium, a mish-mash of pop culture snippets made to appeal to its disenfranchised Gen X/Y audience. The show borrows heavily plot wise from fight club, moving almost to groan worthy parody during the final scene in episode 9 ‘m1rr0r1ng.qt’ (Every title references both a theme of the episode and computing command), where Elliot is finally forced post-hack to show rival / partner Tyrell Wellick his base of operations while a piano cover of The Pixies track ‘Where Is My Mind’ plays in the background. The show shamelessly copy / pastes tidbits from all of it’s influencing sources all throughout the show, either thematically or hidden away in the set or costume design, and discerning buffs will have great fun drawing comparisons with Taxi Driver, Trainspotting, American Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix and even Lolita (note: the sunglasses Darlene wears in episode one).

darlene-sunglasses

Shooting and Direction

The whole show is shot in one of the most surreal and off-putting ways you’ll find on anything network television has ever attempted. You’ll notice when watching that during every scene the characters are very rarely middle focus, being often marginalised to one of the corners or bottom screen inside wide angle landscape shots (the ferris wheel, time square, EvilCorp headquarters scenes to name just a few, but it’s recurrent all throughout the series). The effect this has is one of total disconnection with the events around them, trapping them as part of a much larger societal framework that you get the impression supersedes what’s going on in the here and now, to quote Tyrell “We’ve been so focused on what is in front of us, we’ve ignored what’s above us”. From an audience perspective, it’s unsettling, channeling that constant ‘looking over your shoulder’ dystopian feeling ever-present in the context of the show itself.

Mr RobotIn achieving this, what Sam Esmail does so well with the various directors of photography on Mr. Robot is really mess with the rule of thirds, very often shortsighting his characters and totally skewing the head and lead room focus that typically act as rules of thumb cinematographically. This happens a lot during dialogue heavy scenes, or at any point when the characters have some kind of moral or intellectual breakthrough. The fact that usually this kind of interaction would be centered or highlighted in some way, and that in Mr. Robot the use of quadrant framing is totally turned on it’s head is, while controversial, totally in keeping with the off-kilter atmosphere throughout. Two good comparisons in terms of depth of disjointed cinematography would perhaps be Nicholas Refn’s Drive (2011) or even Terrence Malik’s Knight Of Cups (2015), some of the most innovative screen endeavours of recent years.Either way, the tone this gives the whole show is nothing short of hauntingly experimental in nature, something that pushes the medium it works within, but that doesn’t over-power the rest of what’s going on, instead complimenting it.

 

 

anon

 

Narrative and the 4th Wall

From the opening line of dialogue in Mr. Robot “Hello, friend… maybe I should give you a name, but that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head, we have to remember that.”, our (the audiences) role in the show is instantly concreted, we are a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a fantasy conjured up to aid his malignant anxiety issues. We’re given an overview of the plot and focus of the show directly afterwards too;

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 that play god without permission”.

Typically this form of telling as opposed to showing could be considered a shortcoming and Mr Robot would be no exception to the rule if not for the fact that, as well as some great quotable dialogue, it uses form and structure to turn our expectations as viewers on their head. This introduction being literally telling without any form of on-screen distraction at all isolates us and Elliot from the outset, an effect that lingers throughout the whole season and gets built upon episode upon episode. As the story progresses we experience whole almost episode long scenes of story that may or may not happen with characters that may or may not really exist, and if they do exist then very rarely in the way we first imagine. Again, as with the use of pop-culture references as a copy/paste technique, the show skirts cliché. Everything we think we know will come back to bite us somewhere along the line until even the obvious twists later on we become unsure of.mr-robot-fsociety
On top of this we’re treated to multiple subversions of emblematic TV techniques; flashbacks interjected with dialogue from supporting roles “Stop thinking about something else when I’m talking to you, I hate when you do that” to one particular total character breakdown where the camera is not only addressed but thrown to the ground in a fit of paranoid terror “were you in on this the whole time, were you?!”. Falling somewhere in between Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Mr Robot loves to really use the language of cinema to tell it’s story as much, if not more so than the script, making sure that while never quite inaccessible, this is definitely TV with a brain that appeals to not only style hungry film buffs, but everyone else as well. Ironically, it’s alienation through a twisted inclusivity of almost every thematic trope doing the rounds.

Soundtrack

Talking lastly of the score that sets the mood for this space oddity of a program, you could easily stop with just the mention of the name Mac Quayle. The composer behind some of the most out-there, atmospheric releases in recent memory; Drive, Only God Forgives, Spring Breakers and Far Cry 4 to name just a few, Quayle finds just the right tone to set throughout Esmail’s passion project. Heavily electronic and tense, the atmosphere it creates smacks of loading screen music from a suspense thriller video game, which for all intents and purposes Mr. Robot embodies during the coding-heavy scenes (Watch_Dogs-esque, but darker). Inter-spliced with synth piano and off key notation, it’s a soundtrack to hack the planet to. All of the emotive elements at play during Refn’s later works are present here, noticeably, and the fact that the Pixies (as re-imagined by Maxence Cyrin), Brian Eno, Neil Diamond, The Cure and the retro-throwback synth of Ctznship all make appearances help ground everything in this fittingly bizarre re-imagined 80s idea of the future.

The vibe of the whole show is that of a heavily realised parallel of a divergent present day, viewed through the lens of the phreaking generation. The show has it’s tech roots in the 80s, Elliot himself being born of that era has his own childhood rooted at around the same time, and the score underpinning the show similarly never misses a figurative beat.

mr-robot

Although objectively not a faultless show; the supporting members of Fsociety need a lot of fleshing out in truth, there’s been some in-depth forum debate about the feasibility of the difficulty (as opposed to the legitimacy) of some of the tech-heavy stuff (a little over my head), and its referential nature and subtextual name-dropping could easily be received coldly by some, in our opinion Mr. Robot is a show to take note of, now and when it airs again in July. One of the most ambitious and innovative arrivals of 2015, it’s a cheeky little underground television gem that while being very intelligent manages never to condescend, and almost never to leave you baffled (in the wrong, disconnected sort of way). You’ll take whatever you want to from it, either at face value or by picking it apart in the most minute detail, and frankly we think that’s nothing short of a great thing.

Mr Robot returns on the 13th of July for S0_2.0_Ep1. Get hype.

Mr Robto


– Max Colbert

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