Though it has a rather daft title, Mr Robot is one of the best new shows on TV. Its first season was thrillingly tense, fast-paced and confidently stylish. Its second was slower, less eventful and divided opinion, but I still loved it. But before we get to that, here’s a spoiler-free introduction to this gripping conspiracy-thriller.
The series follows Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek), a lonely cyber-security engineer with a drug habit who prefers getting to know people by hacking into their emails and social media profiles than by talking to them face-to-face. We join him just before he meets Mr Robot (Christian Slater), a charismatic anarchist who persuades Elliot to join his hacking group fsociety, which plans to hack into E Corp, the biggest corporation in America, and erase everyone’s debt.
Mr Robot is a show that wears its influences on its sleeve. Elliot and Mr Robot’s fuck-society, boo-consumerism dialogue often sounds sounds like it’s come from Fight Club but tweaked and updated for the 21st century, its portrayal of sociopathic wealthy businessmen is reminiscent of American Psycho and its precise, carefully-composed shots are like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.
It also has an interesting gimmick: Elliot speaks to us and looks at us (via the camera) because he sees us as an imaginary friend that he created. When we’re with him, we see things from his point of view. He calls E Corp ‘Evil Corp’, so whenever the company is mentioned in his presence, he hears everyone calling it Evil Corp. His paranoia, anxiety and drug-induced hallucinations affect the show’s look and blur the line between what’s real and what’s in his head.
We also follow his oldest friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), E Corp employee Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his cold, calculating wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), all of whom have their own issues to deal with that Elliot doesn’t know about.
Season one was a tough time for poor Elliot. While preparing for his big hack, his personal life fell apart and he became increasingly paranoid and unsure of his own mental stability. He also felt betrayed after we failed to warn him about a twist that became very obvious to us but was a devastating shock for him. He doesn’t seem to realise that it would be literally impossible for us to tell him anything, but I guess we shouldn’t hold that against him.
The second season began with Elliot struggling to recover from his mental breakdown, working on his complex relationship with Mr Robot and dealing with some severe memory loss. The rest of fsociety were struggling to move forward without their leader, Angela was struggling with her frightening new bosses, the Wellicks were struggling to stay together, and FBI agent Dominique DiPierro was introduced to hunt down the hackers but struggled to cope with the overwhelming mess that she’d stumbled into.
Every character was lost, confused and losing hope, while viewers were left in the unique position of having the main character of a show they’re watching intentionally hiding important plot information from them because he no longer trusted them.
All this made for a very different second season, much slower than the first, more conspiracy than thriller. It risked alienating viewers as it put more focus on characters who know far more than they’re letting on, whose scenes were often cryptic, vague and surreal. It was even frustrating at times as it very successfully tried to make us as disoriented and unsure of what was real as its protagonist.
According to Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, season one was originally the first act of a film screenplay that expanded into a TV show, so this season is act two – but only the first part of act two, the part where there’s a lot of setup and plenty of back-story but not a lot of plot progression. By the time we finally have a fairly clear understanding of everyone’s goals and motivations and what exactly is going on, the season’s over.
However, there was plenty to love about this year’s episodes.The lengthy scenes showing Elliot struggling with his sanity allowed the show to really go nuts (ahem) with its visuals, which were already bold and inventive, and gave us a deeper understanding of its complicated protagonist.
The show maintained and intensified its melancholy, stifling atmosphere with its trademark mixture of Mac Quayle’s distorted electronic droning and bleeping on the soundtrack and the way it frequently films characters in the bottom corners of the frame, overwhelmed by their surroundings.
Occasionally, this dour mood would be interrupted by the abrupt bursts of shocking violence and stomach-churning tension that made season one so propulsive. Few shows can create such a strong feeling of unease and dread as Mr Robot can when it wants to.
The season one episodes ‘Brave Traveller’ (or “eps1.5br4ve-trave1er.asf” to give it its proper title. Yes, the show’s episode titles are fake filenames, which must have really confused anyone who torrented it), ‘White Rose’ (“eps1.7wh1ter0se.m4v”) and ‘Mirroring’ (“eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.qt”) would have easily made my 2015’s Top TV list if I’d seen them when they premiered. They feature moments of unrelenting tension, out-of-nowhere shocks and a feeling of imminent doom that borders on apocalyptic, all rooted in the small-scale personal drama of a mentally-troubled hacker. There are similar scenes in season two…but saying where exactly would spoil the surprise.
Luckily, the show didn’t lose its wry sense of humour amongst all the gloom; one surprisingly sweet scene this season showed Elliot dreaming of his ideal, but impossible, future where everyone he knows finds peace and happiness and joins together to support him – its soundtrack is a lullaby version of Basket Case.
It’s worth mentioning again how good Mr Robot‘s lead actor is. Rami Malek is given some very difficult material (‘OK in this scene, Rami, we’re going to pour fake concrete down your throat so just pretend to choke and panic and stuff – shhh, no, don’t worry, it’ll be fine…’) and does it incredibly well. For all its wonderfully cinematic direction and creativity, the show would not work at all if we didn’t care about Elliot. Malek makes us feel a lot of sympathy for this character and when he starts another monologue-heavy one-way conversation with us and glances at the camera, it never feels gimmicky or stupid. It feels oddly genuine.
After earning our trust in season one by pulling off a stunning gut-punch of a first season, Sam Esmail tested our patience with this one, but sometimes a show can make me forget about my problems with it by sweeping me along with its sheer confidence and audacity. I didn’t always know where it was going, or why, but I was happy to stick with season two as it gave off an air of ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, now check THIS out’.
Still, I’m not going to lie, I did breath a small sigh of relief when the finale arrived and confirmed that there was actually a point to the rest of the season’s introspective meandering. Now the stage is set for a new season which will hopefully perfect the balance of slow, surreal character drama and unnerving set-pieces that make Mr Robot such a great watch.