“What a liberalization to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. ‘Who am I, then?’ The one who sees that.” – Eckhart Tolle
Mr. Robot was easily the best show on television this summer. It was quite the pleasant surprise from USA, a network that’s known for their “blue skies” programming. This was the network that gave us shows like Burn Notice, Suits, Royal Pains and built worlds where the sun was always shining, so everyone gets to wear sunglasses and no problem is ever that serious because the good guys always win. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot is far from that, being a psychological thriller/drama and shot in a dark, gritty tone that achieves the dystopian effect that the show is trying to achieve. However, the most intriguing thing about this show is its ambitious use of a narrator on a television program.
Mr. Robot isn’t the first show to use a voice-over narration. Arrested Development, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother and even the recently released Netflix drama, Narcos are all shows among several that made use of a phantom voice to push the plot while explaining it along the way. The key to classifying these different narrators is whether they are reliable or not. Are they voices that can be trusted to tell this story? Do they know the whole story? Are they capable of making mistakes? In the aforementioned shows, the unreliable narrator leads us into a false sense of comfort either and can’t be trusted as their credibility has been compromised. Either from ignorance, bias or by just plain lying. Sam Esmail (show-creator) takes this to another level with Mr. Robot.
In Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) plays the lead protagonist, a cybersecurity engineer by day and a hacker by night who also has a morphine addiction. He uses his hacker skills mostly for good as a vigilante hero saving us from those evildoers that hide in plain sight. He is also the narrator of his own story. The difference, however, is that it mainly feels like he’s carrying out a conversation with the show watchers. Referring to the viewers as being “only in his head” or as “imaginary people”. He uses “us” and “we” as a collective involving us in his plot. We see everything mostly from his perspective as evidenced by the names used to identify certain things on the show. Like the cybersecurity company he works for being called “Allsafe” or the evil corporation his employer works for known as “E-Corp” which stands for… Yup. Evil Corp. Clearly we are seeing things through his eyes and being forced to embrace his point of view because that’s what the show wants us to do. But can you really trust a guy who, at a very basic level, is just a lonely, depressed junkie who may or may not have psychological issues? I mean he talks to us and technically we don’t exist.
He also talks to Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of the hacker group known as “FSociety” whose raison d’etre is to take down Evil Corp. Mr. Robot enlists Elliot in his revolutionary crusade to take down this entity and destroy this capitalist system that holds us all hostage. To fight back against “the guys that play God without permission” and that manipulate society through corporate advertising and debt. It’s an idea that’s bigger than life, but Slater and Malek’s performances show that it’s a weight they can carry on their shoulders.
On the surface it’s a tech savvy show that dives into hacker culture exploring the reality of what it actually is for one to be a hacker. It speaks out against the corrupt system we live in through the voice of Elliot. The show is very aware of itself. It knows how cynical it sounds. It also has an uncanny timing with its episodes actually mirroring current affairs from stock markets crashing to the Sony hack to the Ashley Madison hack. On another level, we find a show that’s really about a guy who has deep-rooted issues and is ultimately alone. His hacking skills connect him to people in a way that he is unable to do in his real life. He only feels connected to people when he’s in front of a keyboard and a monitor, even though it’s only a one-way street.
Sam Esmail originally intended this script to be a movie before USA picked it up as a TV show. Season 1’s finale marked the end of Act 1. I feel like I haven’t watched anything as original as this since the 90s and I’m sure Esmail feels the same way, with homages being paid to classic movies like Fight Club and American Psycho. Complemented by mesmerizing performances from Rami Malek and Christian Slater, this might be the best thing I’ve watched since Breaking Bad (or my other favorite show on television now, The Americans which airs on FX). We have no idea where the second season is going to take us and Elliot, but if Sam Esmail can keep this up then I know we won’t be disappointed. Clock’s ticking. Can’t wait.