“Hello, friend. Hello, friend? That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name. But that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head. We have to remember that.” So begins the first episode of “Mr. Robot,” the acclaimed TV show that has developed a sizeable cult following just two seasons into its four-to-five season run. The line above was spoken by Elliot Alderson, the narrator and “protagonist” (to use the term loosely) of the series. For those who are not fans of the show, Elliot works as an engineer at Allsafe, a ho-hum security company. He spends his days avoiding conversations with his co-workers and completing projects that are far too easy for him. At home, however, Elliot transforms into his other role: The vigilante hacker who tries to use technology to make the world a better place.
One day, Elliot spots a mysterious man on the subway. The individual is eventually revealed to be Mr. Robot, a slightly overeager character who insists that Elliot join an equally mysterious group called fsociety. After some initial vacillating, Elliot agrees. He soon discovers that fsociety is a hacker collective with one mission: Take down the massive conglomeration E Corp (referred to by Elliot as “Evil Corp”) that controls basically all aspects of human life.
What makes “Mr. Robot” so appealing? For starters, the show’s portrayal of hacking has been termed “unusually accurate” and “all too real.” Real-life hackers have largely praised the show, calling “Mr. Robot” “fantastic” and “pretty realistic.” Such praise may come as a bit of surprise to many. After all, fictional portrayals of hacking in media are often ridiculous and over the top, as this scene from “Castle” cleverly satirizes. Luckily, “Mr. Robot” does not fall into the trap of exaggerated typing, “Matrix”-like code, and incomprehensible jargon that characterizes typical “Hollywood hacker bullshit,” to quote fsociety member Romero. The show’s creative minds aim to only portray hacks that could be carried out in real life, thereby helping to infuse the series with a sense of authenticity.
“Mr. Robot” is also not afraid to admit that the hackers of fsociety, though talented, are not superhuman. To help carry out its E Corp plot, for example, fsociety must rely on the help of the Dark Army, a secretive hacker group based in China. And the show does not shy away from depicting the characters’ occasional failures. In one scene, for example, Elliot panics while attempting to hack the sinister Tyrell Welick and destroys much of his computer equipment with the help of a microwave.
When it comes to depicting mental illness, “Mr. Robot” is also worthy of being commended. Elliot is constantly struggling from what appear to be depression and social anxiety disorder. (Those who can handle spoilers should check out this “Inverse” piece on another of Elliot’s conditions). He also frequently experiences hallucinations, making him the quintessential unreliable narrator. Though “Mr. Robot” could have easily glamorized Elliot’s mental health struggles, it wisely chooses not to. Elliot’s struggles are not shied away from, as he is shown to be in a constant state of fear and paranoia. In addition, to escape the constant burden that he carries, Elliot uses (and abuses) drugs such as morphine. An entire episode of the show is devoted to the images conjured up by his mind while he is going through a serious withdrawal.
Another plus of “Mr. Robot” is the fact that the show pushes the boundaries of gender identity and sexuality. In an interview, mastermind Sam Esmail talked a little about the character of Gideon Goddard, Elliot’s boss at Allsafe. “What’s interesting about Gideon having to come out and about sexuality in general is that it’s now something that there’s a pressure to divulge. The show’s about technology, and privacy is such a big theme in that world,” he noted. Another important “Mr. Robot” character is Whiterose, the enigmatic leader of the Dark Army who is obsessed with controlling time. Esmail has said that Whiterose’s identity as a transgender woman helps to challenge the audience’s expectations: “One of the things, especially in technology, that we play with is that it tends to be a man’s world, and we want to destroy that concept.”
“Mr. Robot” also includes timely critiques of corporate power and greed. When Angela, Elliot’s friend, goes to work at E Corp, she finds herself drawn into a world of egos and power struggles. Angela ends up spending much of her time schmoozing with CEO Phillip Price, whom she believes can help her climb up the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, she works to help E Corp cover up past misdeeds through the use of slick PR. Interestingly enough, the corporate world depicted in the show is not unlike one you would find in real life, a fact that “Mr. Robot” seems to be fully aware of.
Of course, the show is not without its flaws. Esmail is obviously concerned with the representation of sexual and gender minorities, as previously stated, so the dearth of racial minorities in the main cast of the show seems a little strange. Also interesting is Esmail’s take on the subject as a whole. In an interview with “Uproxx,” for example, he had this to say about lead actor Rami Malek: “The idea that he’s mixed-race to me is just as in my head, just the same as if he were white, or African American or Asian. It had no bearing on the story.” Indeed, there is a point to made about the show downplaying race. Mr. Robot casts a number of minority characters, some of whose backgrounds do play a role in the story. Unfortunately, Esmail mostly relegates said characters to the “paint-by-numbers ensemble cast,” which feels like a missed opportunity with respect to representation.
After a groundbreaking first season, “Mr. Robot” set the bar high for the show’s second season, which came as a disappointment for many. Given full control of writing duties, Esmail seemed to get a little cutesy at times, relying a little too much on twists and trying a bit too hard to be edgy. His ability to contradict himself (he once said about Whiterose, “She is transgender, but her transness has nothing to do with anything”) also reached new heights.
Nevertheless, “Mr. Robot” retained much of what made its first season so good, juxtaposing enough surprises and social commentary to maintain the series’ reputation. With season three set to premiere in October, there is plenty of time for those who are interested to jump on the hacker bandwagon. Certainly beats watching re-runs of “Scorpion.”