How strange that the summer’s most-buzzed-about show, creatively speaking, would come from a network generally known for solid but unspectacular original dramas, a novice showrunner and a low-profile star. Yet “Mr. Robot,” the USA network series that completed its 10-episode run Wednesday night, fits all those descriptions, instantly giving producer Sam Esmail and star Rami Malek seats at TV’s cool-kids table. What the show can possibly do for an encore is anybody’s guess, and frankly, therein resides at least half the fun.
Although the series featured a major reveal in its superior penultimate episode (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched them all), the question of whether Mr. Robot existed, or was rather just a “Fight Club”-like figment of the protagonist’s imagination, was just one major wrinkle in a run filled with them. Amid a sea of dramas that lean heavily on narration, this series actually made brilliant use of that device by turning our unlikely hero, Malek’s Elliot, into the most unreliable of storytellers, someone who didn’t even necessarily trust himself.
Perhaps foremost, it’s hard to remember a mainstream U.S. program that felt more bitterly and brutally anti-establishment, skewering an industrial complex that callously puts profits ahead of people. While such storylines often feel like a dime a dozen, Esmail (who wrote and directed the season finale) somehow made this one bracing and timely – not just because of the Sony hack or the Occupy Wall Street movement, but by adding an eerie, exaggerated sense of reality to the day’s headlines and anxieties. (That said, USA clearly erred on the side of caution in postponing the finale due to last week’s live TV shootings in Virginia.)
In cinematic terms, the tone recalls “Taxi Driver” and “A Clockwork Orange” – two of the influences the show’s creator has cited – although without the latter’s buffer of science fiction. Indeed, the last episode – which didn’t end on the most satisfying of notes, but featured several arresting moments – practically possessed a ripped-from-the-headlines quality. Not only was there a reference to the Ashley Madison data hack, but the stock market cratering within the show happened to coincide with this week’s latest roller-coaster ride courtesy of Wall Street, a sobering reminder of an international economy that few people can pretend to understand.
Unafraid to leave the audience feeling as disoriented as its troubled hero, “Mr. Robot” didn’t provide a whole lot of answers. Elliot woke up in the car of the missing Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom, another magnetic performance), spending the rest of the episode looking for him, to no avail. That merely fueled the pervasive sense of jittery paranoia, which begins each week with those oversized title credits that look like they were plucked from a 1970s conspiracy thriller, and continues whenever the camera zooms in on Malek’s eyes.
Even without advancing the ball much, Esmail set up several tantalizing scenarios for a second season (in a surprising sign of premium-TV-style faith, USA renewed the show before it even premiered), which augurs greater involvement by the splendid Michael Cristofer and BD Wong, both so malevolent that smoke should ooze from their nostrils. If Elliot thinks he’s triggered a revolution, Cristofer’s unnerving cool suggests that the Masters of the Universe, to borrow Tom Wolfe’s phrase, won’t be beaten so easily.
Mostly, given how indecisive the episode was, the finale played best as a series of moments and lines. There was one of those quietly riveting scenes between Elliot and Tyrell’s wife (Stephanie Corneliussen), who actually lapsed into a foreign tongue in mid-sentence. Or Elliot’s imagined alter ego (Christian Slater) telling him, “I’m no less real than the f—ing meat patty in your Big Mac.”
Insulting major sponsors? Perhaps that’s why “Mr. Robot” played like a critic’s dream – to the extent that it truly feels fresh and audacious – and an ad-sales department’s nightmare, inasmuch as it’s essentially telling viewers, time and again, not to trust anything big business or other authority figures say. In that respect, Esmail seems less to be breaking the rules of TV drama than operating without any, which, by operating without a safety net, of course creates the prospect of a sudden collapse as well.
There is, admittedly, some irony in a series that features a mentally unstable anarchist at its center being bankrolled by the assorted tendrils of USA parent Comcast — the kind of corporate behemoth that Mr. Robot, in any of his guises, would surely despise.
For now, though, Esmail is getting away with it. And if “Mr. Robot” isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, it’s the unpredictable glitches in its programming that, in part, have made the first season such a mind-bending head rush of a ride.