Why ‘Mr. Robot’ Rewards a Re-Watch and What It Says About Modern Culture

Mr Robot Anatomy of a scene
Courtesy of USA Network

I’ve spent part of the summer re-watching the first season of “Mr. Robot,” an activity I highly recommend. Audacious and inspiring in the first go-round, the second time through, it’s a richer and more affecting experience. The amount of planning that went into the debut season, which is on Amazon Prime, is even more impressive on repeat viewing, but “Mr. Robot” is never a soulless puzzle-box of a show — far from it.

“Mr. Robot” is the first TV drama to seriously and systematically explore the pitfalls of our interconnected age, and yet it’s not just about the omnipotence of the Internet and the rise of of the surveillance state. Many plot turns involve those elements, but creator Sam Esmail uses them to complicate and amplify the dilemmas of the characters, who are frequently mesmerizing in their charismatic or eccentric individuality. 

USA Network did not pay me to say that, I swear. But you’d have trouble convincing some people on the Internet that I’m not in the pocket of Big Drama.

It’s a regular occurrence these days — a writer or critic being accused of taking money from a corporation for his or her positive or negative assessment of a piece of pop culture. This almost never happened a dozen years ago, but the rise of the Internet has amplified the noise inside the echo chambers we all live in now. “Trust no one” used to be a fringe position that “The X-Files” explored fairly well two decades ago, but half the reason that drama’s revival foundered is that the slogan is now everywhere. It’s not a subculture mantra; some days it feels like it is the culture, period. 

Now that the “wake up, sheeple” mindset has migrated from conspiracy websites and into the heart of public dialogue, sources of information are constantly questioned; taking a position requires producing “receipts.” This isn’t necessarily a bad development; the rise of digital culture has allowed those previously shut out by self-interested gatekeepers to organize and have a voice. This often leads to greater accountability, and that’s a very good thing.

But some truthers — it doesn’t matter what the topic is, trust me, there’s set of truthers on the case — don’t actually want their minds changed. It’s not about debate, it’s about correcting those who fail to toe the line. The angry Twitter eggs and Reddit pedants are sure that you — or someone else writing about an entirely different topic — have already been hopelessly co-opted. On one level, I get it; the media should have its motives interrogated, some agendas are not ideal and no one should be able to make assertions with impunity. But these days, having a different opinion from the majority and continuing to hold it, despite being “corrected” by “helpful” people, is proof for some that you must have been paid off — why else won’t you get with the program?

It gets exhausting to be told that one’s “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” opinion is “wrong” and thus invalid — but these are just pop-culture debates, right? It doesn’t really matter, does it? Well, it does, because there is a growing conviction on the part of many citizens that in every situation, there is always a hidden motive, a secret agenda or a nefarious plot.

Taking a leap of faith and accepting that someone actually believes what he or she says? Come on now, don’t be a fool — or a tool of the Man.

And it is that lack of trust that “Mr. Robot” excavates so brilliantly.

The show’s lead character, Elliot Alderson, can’t trust his own mind, due to a series of profound traumas. Not so coincidentally, Elliot (Rami Malek), doesn’t trust the most powerful entities in society to help him or anyone else, or to tell the truth about anything that matters. Did one of those scenarios lead to the other? Yes, without question. On “Mr. Robot,” the personal and the political are as mixed-up and chaotic as a poorly policed message board.

Elliot’s distrust of himself and society is a chicken-and-egg situation that Esmail and Malek, who manages the neat trick of being guarded and open at once, spin into a mesmerizing mirror dance in the show’s engrossing first season. And now I’m going to talk a little about the details of that season, so if you haven’t seen it, sheesh — wake up, sheeple! Go watch it.

It’s not that TV hasn’t acknowledged the Internet in the past, but it’s largely been employed as a plot device — whenever someone needs a piece of information or a location, rather than using screen time to chase down that intel, TV shows typically use computers and wisecracking tech whizzes to magically extract it from the shiny metal box. It’s not hard to see why “character finds a key clue through Internet magic” has become a staple of TV — it’s an easy and time-saving way to get from A to B in a given story. But too many shows use the online world as a lazy device to supply whatever the characters need far too easily. 

“Mr. Robot” takes social media, hacking, and the attitudes and impulses found online, and uses them in perceptive, serious ways to delve into characters who are determined to change the world, or hide their true selves from it (and thus it’s like the more serious sibling of “Silicon Valley,” which takes a smart and troubling look at the pompous assumptions and pedantic egos of the tech-savvy). “Mr. Robot” is entertaining and witty — it even has an extended heist sequence in the middle of the season — but it uses all of its rhetorical flourishes to get us to look more deeply at our own impulses toward greed and dominance, not to mention the all-too-human desire to nitpick and subtweet the mistakes of others. We are complicit in Elliot’s crimes, large and small — by design.

In the opening frames of “Mr. Robot,” the show’s lead character, Elliot, begins talking to the audience, drawing them into his unpredictable orbit. He confides in us, he trusts us, he tells us his darkest secrets — but does he tell us everything? As is the case with the narrator on “Jane the Virgin,” which is similarly ambitious but obviously much lighter in tone, Elliot’s voiceovers on “Mr. Robot” have an agenda. We are supposed to be seduced, amused, entertained and — most importantly — distracted from anything he doesn’t want us to pay attention to.

As the season progresses, it’s impossible not to feel simultaneously flattered and slightly rattled by Elliot’s attention — he’s made the audience his co-conspirators, but why? He wants something from us, but is it intimacy, reassurance or naive credulity? Those live-wire questions gives “Mr. Robot” the strangest but most wonderful thing — a pleasing instability. Very few shows these days crackle with the feeling that anything can happen. But a lot of what powers “Mr. Robot” is the sense that even Elliot is uncertain about what he wants and needs; the narration alternates between disarming confidences and the suspicious trappings of a long con.

The fact is, Elliot reflects a lot of what is scary and dangerous about the Internet; that aspect of the show doesn’t get a ton of attention because Malek depicts the character’s pain and fear with such raw and empathic intelligence. But it can be hard exist on the Internet, especially if you’re a woman or a person of color, because many demonstrate Elliot’s harsher tendencies without also communicating his heartbreaking desires to connect and care. Elliot wants to think of himself as one of the good guys, but he is answerable to no one and more powerful than anyone really understands — and that sounds a lot like a description of his nemesis, the company he calls Evil Corp.

Of course, Elliot is only one person, and not as powerful as a huge corporation. Does that make his lone-wolf tactics OK? As is the case with “UnReal,” another show about devious manipulation that debuted around the same time, “Mr. Robot” is wise not to answer that core question definitively, but the troubling morals at work in almost every situation keep the USA drama percolating with exciting unease.

All of this is not to say that the Elliots of the world don’t have legitimate grievances, whether they’re about the World Bank or what just happened in Westeros. But many people use their anger about topical issues or current events to express their rage about deeper and knottier kinds of emotional pain, and Elliot is one of them. As season one progresses, we find out that his family history is nothing short of tragic, and in order to process or partition that pain, he uses his online skills to destroy people. Elliot tells us that his targets are awful human beings, but we’re supposed to take the word of the guy who tells us not to trust anyone?

Half the stomach-churning, dramatically satisfying thrill of “Mr. Robot” comes from seeing plans based on the allegedly good intentions of Elliot and others go awry. In his narration, Elliot often wrestles with the idea of free will, but the one person in this situation with no choice is the viewer: We have to accept Elliot’s version of reality. But questioning his motives and his ability to spin disinformation is half the fun.

“Mr. Robot” is a show full of voids — the middle of the screen is often empty, indicating the evasiveness of the characters and the emptiness most of them feel. There are also doubles and dark mirrors everywhere: Elliot’s twisted doppelganger is the corporate jackal Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), who plunges into social and business relationships with all the focused, sociopathic glee of a shark who spots a hapless swimmer in deep water. Are Tyrell and his terrifying wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) more or less functional than Elliot and his hacker sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin)? It’s hard to say, but they both offer twisted views of family that feel fresh and unusual, not the usual glossy aspirational takes that TV supplies about siblings and marriages.

But the most fascinating relationship on the show is between Elliot and his rogue subroutine — a representation of his dead father, who is played by Christian Slater. Elliot talks a lot about finding the bugs in various systems, as if it were possible to purge any system — or any life — of mistakes, shame and regret. And the bug in his system is not actually a bug; it’s the key to connecting with reality.

As the first season headed into the home stretch, the fan theory that the character wasn’t really there — and was simply a projection of Elliot’s dysfunctional coping skills — was revealed as the truth (a word it’s very tempting to encase in quotes). Elliot’s mind forced him to fact-check, and as it turned out, the only “receipts” he could produce were grief over a dead father and soul-killing memories of an unpleasant mom. How deliciously ironic that the true cause of Elliot’s mental problems was right there in our faces all along — he wasn’t exactly hiding in the shadows. And as played by the wily Slater, Mr. Robot is the rage-driven Hyde to Elliot’s secretive Dr. Jekyll — the unrepentant revolutionary who is convinced that everything is a lie.

It’s not an unreasonable position, given that Mr. Robot’s very existence is a lie. He is the Big Lie that Elliot tells himself in order to contain pain that would otherwise fry his mental circuitry (weirdly enough, an oddball cousin of “Mr. Robot” is Netflix’s “Lady Dynamite,” which uses surreal situations and an array of strange tones and bittersweet situations to convey the feeling of having an untrustworthy mind and the aftereffects of a mental breakdown).

Elliot is his own gullible “sheeple,” but in that moment, “Mr. Robot’s” humane vision shone though: It wasn’t presented as a gotcha moment, but a tragic confrontation with a profoundly painful reality almost too hard to comprehend. Elliot hides his grief and the resulting wounded, vindictive impulses from himself via the Mr. Robot persona, which gives him some agency in a world that would much rather he be passive and accepting.

It’s hard to blame Elliot for constructing a slippery dual life, but can you trust a man who puts on a mask to make a series of allegedly truth-telling videos? How can any of us rely on the word of Mr. Robot, who is a bug in the system of a hacker in deep denial about the root directory — sorry, root cause — of his pain? Is Elliot’s ad hoc hacker army, fsociety, a more worthy force for good than the smiling automatons in the Evil Corp. commercials?

For once, the answer doesn’t rely on a binary yes or no. And I can’t wait for “Mr. Robot” to supply us with a new data set when it returns July 13.