Hello, friend. If you’ve been watching Mr Robot, that is.
There has been plenty written about Mr Robot this summer, with good reason, because there’s so much to talk about. The show feels current, has deliberately held back information from viewers, shocked viewers with the sudden revelation of said information, dazzled with some off-kilter cinematography, and has spawned buzz reserved for the most anticipated shows of the past few years. Not bad for its first season.
The show aired its finale “eps1.9zer0-daY.avi” this week, wrapping up what creator Sam Esmail describes as the first season of a four-to-five season run. Throughout the season, we watched Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cyber-security engineer, who works to protect large corporations’ cyber-security. Elliot is recruited by a mysterious figure, Mr Robot (Christian Slater), to join a mysterious hacker organisation called fsociety with the aim to bring down E Corp, a massive global corporation.
At a season finale, usually, we take stock of what has happened and assess what was good and was not. The season finale is a great point to do so, simply because most seasons are self-contained. But for Mr Robot, I’m almost hesitant to, because I feel that we’ve only had a small taste of what Esmail has in store.
Indeed, we have. Esmail originally conceived Mr Robot as a feature, and he has said that the first season roughly translates to the ending of Act One in his original feature idea. Which makes this review sound a little silly, because who watches the first half-hour of a movie and passes judgment?
I don’t know what you think, but I’m going to air a few of my thoughts about the first season of Mr Robot.
It’s our world, re-built
Mr Robot is so current, I suspect it’ll look dated in the years to come. Current affairs are referenced all the time, news footage of current world leaders and current events are inserted gratuitously, and most importantly, the themes that the show covers are current. Stories about evil companies controlling our lives are not new, but Mr Robot taps into our paranoia and fears in our current world: Is it futile to try to protect ourselves online? Who are we exactly, between our offline and online personas? Is capitalism, and society, broken?
Esmail’s interview with Vox covers many of the themes that he tried to convey, and it’s a great read. However, the same interview brings up another tidbit about the world in Mr Robot.
If you remember back when The Matrix came out, there’s a whole mystery about what the Matrix was. Well, when you actually watch the movie, that was revealed in the first 30 minutes and then the movie wasn’t about that. Now that we know what it is, what are we going to do with it? What are we going to do in that world?
— Sam Esmail
Even with the real-world references and themes, Mr Robot builds its world expertly. From the pilot, we meet Elliot and slowly go on to see his employer Allsafe Security, Elliot’s target E Corp, foreign hacker organisations and the fsociety members, relying less and less on Elliot as the episodes went on. I won’t spoil the final scene (after the credits) of the finale, but it involves two influential characters which look to become Elliot’s antagonists in the second season. Mr Robot is using our reality as its launchpad, which is great to see.
Writing and direction are increasingly equal
We’ve heard over and over that film is a director’s medium while televison is a writer’s medium. Esmail doesn’t really think so:
I kind of looked at this [season] as a filmmaker’s medium. I just looked at it as they’re both equally important, and one doesn’t give way to the other.
Esmail said in the same interview that he exercises strict control over the aesthetic and style of the visuals, up to the point where he feels that personally directing episodes makes production smoother than if another director was engaged.
Indeed, Esmail has been heavily involved in directing, as compared to a showrunner’s traditional domain of writing: he directed five episodes of the ten-episode season and wrote three of them. His consistent involvement in direction and scripting is obvious, as Mr Robot looks and feels like no other show currently airing.
Is television still a writer’s medium? Or will the writer-director become more and more influential? I can only say that television is as good as whoever is writing or directing an episode. In the case of Mr Robot, Esmail’s singular and extraordinary grasp of the show’s creative vision has helped make it so good.
The show is fearless or foolhardy, however you choose to look at it
If you haven’t already known, Mr Robot is fearless. It is not afraid to bend your mind, or to deceive you through lack of information, or even leave you with a season finale that is more of a cliffhanger for the second season.
The most obvious sign of the audacity of this show comes from the narrative, which is voiced by Elliot. We understand events from his point of view, but as we grow to realise that Elliot is mentally unstable, things that we’ve seen and accepted in earlier episodes are now up for interpretation.
It takes incredibly confident storytelling to pull off a stunt like this, and it works. For now.
Keeping viewers guessing is a tactic never easy to maintain. Mr Robot is built on a foundation that is not so much a flimsy house of cards as quicksand. Keep moving, and it will stay afloat. Make a wrong move, and the show runs the risk of getting bogged down. It’s a plan that may pay off greatly, but it has considerable risks.
Until then, Mr Robot is a show that will bring us along on a thrill ride until it comes to a graceful end, or until we get thrown off by a sudden turn. So far, it’s been an incredible thrill.