This week at Loser City we’re going to be discussing some meta mercenary works, commercial projects that tried to thwart their for-hire origins with some self-commentary, for better or for worse. Today’s entry is on Mr. Robot, a strange USA Network show that initially seemed to be about a vigilante hacker caught in a world wide web of hacktivism and corporate intrigue but now seems to be something far weirder.
If there’s a critical consensus on Mr. Robot, I’m not aware of it. Lurking on Twitter with a number of critics in your feed would probably give you the impression the show doesn’t exist, other than occasional exclamations of surprise every now and then. It’s not hard to figure out why the show, regardless of questions of its quality, would be relegated to a kind of phantom zone of critical appreciation. In fact, the reasons for that are also likely to be the reasons for its very existence, as its an ambitious program airing on USA Networks, a basic cable channel mostly ignored by critics.
USA may not get a lot of critical love but it routinely ranks as the most viewed cable network. A lot of that comes down to its sports and rerun programming but historically, it has hosted some of cable’s most viewed and longest running successes, from Monk on down to Psych. Still, all that viewership hasn’t helped USA shake its rep as a “boring” network, a channel for old folks and squares and therefore not as desirable by advertisers seeking out tastemakers because it lacks the buzz and hipness of a Mad Men-era AMC or Sopranos-led HBO. With that in mind, it’s not hard to figure out why USA was so drawn to Sam Esmail’s pitch of a “cyberpunk thriller.” The young director was basically an unknown quantity, having only the underappreciated time hopping romance Comet under his belt when he made Mr. Robot’s pilot last summer, receiving a 10 episode order before the year was over. Anyone paying attention at the time mostly saw it as a potential relaunch vehicle for Christian Slater, or a money grabbing effort for the True Detective-affiliated production company Anonymous Content. Maybe they were intrigued by the inclusion of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Under the Dome director Niels Arden Oplev. But what was clear even then was that it fit the pattern of USA’s desire to land a real drama, something that may not have the cache or quirkiness of other basic cable critical hits but would provide a change of scenery from USA’s more overtly goofy programming.
At SXSW this year, USA seemed vindicated in this, as the show’s pilot garnered an Audience Award for Episodic Television, which had gone to HBO’s Silicon Valley the previous year. In some ways, that came down to timing. This year’s SXSW was heavy on tech-focused thrillers, albeit mostly of the documentary variety, like the Silk Road doc Deep Web, a work that gave an intriguing peek at a misunderstood and feared aspect of the internet that Mr. Robot also deals in to a certain extent. Mr. Robot’s pilot certainly doled out those thrills, framing the show as a kind of superhero story, with the mild mannered Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, in what will hopefully be a career making performance) serving as a hacker Peter Parker. Alderson, like Parker, is even orphaned and outcast, dealing with a number of anxiety issues seemingly brought on by the tragic and unnecessary death of his father. Alderson didn’t let a masked robber take his father figure’s life, instead it was a corporate behemoth, nicknamed Evil Corp and clad in a decidedly Enron-esque logo, a corporation he now indirectly works for with his gig at infosec firm Allsafe.
To extend the metaphor, Alderson’s form of web spinning involves data, sticking evil acts on the people around him who have wronged or disappointed him or even just sneaking into the digital lives of those he’s curious about, like his therapist, whose relationship with a cheating husband is ended by the secret intervention of Elliot. There are viler targets too, like a cafe owner whose shop is really a front for a child porn ring, or his FWB’s supplier, a self-hating bro who moonlights as a murderer. These targets are the kind of figures you might expect to encounter in a USA show, particularly if you’re a frequent consumer of its Law & Order properties. But Mr. Robot more or less immediately sets its targets a little wider and a little weirder, condemning its own network and its own viewership in order to make the point that in a capitalist society, we’re basically all criminals.
Mr. Robot first hints at this aim with the running commentary Eliot provides, a tactic that some viewers originally thought was a nod to Dexter and its internal “dark passenger” monologues. The pilot especially plays this up, down to Oplev’s decision to coat the show in the kind of grimy settings and color palettes that make up Dexter’s night habitat. Like Dexter, Eliot even keeps “trophies” of his targets, burning discs of all their horrible data to keep them in a digital scrapbook. But this hacker-as-serial-killer vibe is a distraction, really, an attempt to get you to focus on the “thriller” aspect of the show’s one-liner while the meta aspects subtly take over the narrative. That’s mirrored by the show’s decision to call itself Mr. Robot, both a reference to Christian Slater’s eponymous mentor hacker/cult leader character and Eliot’s detachment from personal connection, a trait he unknowingly shares with his nemesis, E Corp executive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom). Sam Esmail and company want you to think that Mr. Robot is a thrilling espionage story, led by a glitchy young hacker and his weird sage, set against a Big Bad that semi-literally has evil in its name but it’s not. It’s a story about the dangers of globalization that is being broadcast on a network that symbolizes the pinnacle of media globalization, targeting an audience that believes itself different from network unwashed masses.
Where this becomes clearest is in last week’s episode, the kind of mid-season climax that you’re used to if you followed Breaking Bad or watch Game of Thrones. A couple episodes prior, Eliot had “broken up” with Mr. Robot and his hacktivist clan FSociety. The inciting incident is complicated, but the gist of it is that Mr. Robot wanted Eliot to help them blow up a mine in order to blow up the neighboring server farm menacingly called Steel Mountain, home to E Corp’s data. Eliot had already compromised himself by framing E Corp’s CTO on behalf of FSociety, though really it was in order to save the job of his best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday). But Mr. Robot’s plan to potentially cause real death and destruction was too much and Eliot quit. When he came up with a new plan and attempted to convince Mr. Robot to follow it, he was seemingly pushed off dock to his doom, but like any good superhero, he recovered and bounced back stronger than ever. Except in this case, “stronger than ever” means giving up the hacker life to pursue normativity. That would make for terrible television though, so FSociety leaked the truth behind the incident that gave Eliot’s father leukemia and Eliot came back into FSociety’s fold with a vengeance.
FSociety and Eliot reconfigure their plan, subbing out the mine bombing for something a little more Metal Gear, involving the infiltration of temperature controls and the melting of tape and it seems to be going well until Eliot’s self-medication hits a snag and he goes into withdrawal. You could argue that the show’s meta aspects have been more of a spice than a real ingredient up until this point. There’s a persistent fan theory that Mr. Robot is going to be revealed to be a Tyler Durden-esque character and nearly all of the meta materials we’ve been shown could be used to support that. But “EPS1.3_DA3M0NS.MP4” (all of the show’s episodes are, fittingly, named like data files) takes that a little further, using some withdrawal-induced hallucinations of Elliot’s to argue that the show is aware of its own fiction, making Mr. Robot’s “realness” a distraction of its own, an irrelevant point that pales in comparison to Elliot’s awareness that the identity he speaks to in his head is the audience watching him, the audience that makes him real but only so long as it’s paying attention.
Throughout the hallucination sequence, Elliot stops talking to us. This is the first sign that Mr. Robot’s decision to take Elliot to a junkie pad to score some morphine isn’t actually happening. Dexter may have used its internal monologues to add some bleak, meta-humor to make its serial killer protagonist a little more relatable but Mr. Robot uses them as a kind of wake up call, a frequent reminder that Elliot is unstable. Whenever the monologue disappears, as was the case in the pilot when Elliot daydreamed of giving his therapist an anti-capitalist rant, “reality” has shifted. The “Daemons” episode twists this, though, extending that hallucinogenic freefall over an entire episode’s running time and also dropping hints about the larger architecture of the series. Specifically, after Elliot has seemingly been shot by a junkie in a flop house, he lies bleeding, staring up at a tv broadcasting the latest FSociety prop-art piece before “hallucinating” about entering the programming. Initially it is set up to look like the vision of a possibly dying man, going through a number of anxious thoughts about the hacktivist group he has fallen in with, his departure from anything resembling a normal life and his desire to unlock a greater awareness with keys and totems.
That likely sounds like a standard drug induced hallucination but it builds up to one key moment that reveals a lot about the show’s true intent. After a bizarre dinner sequence where Elliot appears to accidentally propose to Angela with the key that has been following him around, she leads him “off screen” and makes some vague pronouncements about his lack of awareness. Then she lets slip that it’s understandable, since he was born “only a month ago.” Some viewers took that as the greatest evidence yet that Elliot and Mr Robot are one in the same but there is some eerier synchronicity in that statement, since Mr Robot the show itself was born about a month ago. This isn’t the only deep meta element in this episode either. While Elliot is laying in bed, trying to beat withdrawal, drenched in cold sweat and tangled in sheets, his hacktivist peers are watching Hackers on a hotel tv, complaining about how inaccurate it is, wondering aloud at what will be the next pop culture item to fuck up the coming generation’s idea of how hackers operate.
As I read it, these moments in the episode are an indication that Esmail and company are keying into that grand tradition of characters whose epiphanies are centered not around inner peace and zen tranquility but horrible disruptions to their longstanding notions of how reality operates. Even Elliot’s question mental state follows a sort of tradition, putting him in line with other “broken” characters who have figured out they’re fictional, from the use of a mentally unstable Psycho Pirate as an awakening force in Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man to Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s ouevre. Similarly, it’s not an accident that this is a story centered on hackers, figures who are literally disrupting reality every day, albeit digital rather than physical reality, but as those two become more closely connected is there really even much of a difference?
There is still a good chance that fan theories about Mr. Robot’s Tyler Durden-ness will be correct, but what if Mr Robot is going deeper, toying with the sentience of its own characters, pulling a Man Bites Dog and condemning its audience’s involvement in the destruction and tragedies of its characters? That would make Mr Robot a programming of even larger ambition than your usual unreliable narrator fare, pushing the boundaries of viewer complacency and involvement beyond mere trust issues. Even if that prediction is incorrect and Mr Robot ends up being your run of the mill post-Fight Club work, with a technological bent, there’s some impressive narrative flexibility going on, facilitating that kind of thinking. Ultimately that’s kind of the goal of meta works, isn’t it? To bend the rules enough to make you distrust anything that’s laid out before you as fiction? Mr Robot may not end up being the work that gives USA a new critical lease on life, but half a season in it already deserves recognition for being so self-aware of its home and its aims.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover