Waves of Fear: Mr. Robot Returns

Mr. Robot

Airs Wednesdays at 10/9C on USA Network

Mr. Robot returns for its second season this Wednesday night. It’s a show that channels and transmutes the cynicism and paranoia that have infected our politics and public discourse. It castigates Bernie Bros, right-wing conspiracy nuts, and the towering elites alike. It’s one of the most stylish and well-crafted shows ever made, and a vital look at our culture.

Rami Malek plays Elliot Alderson, a security engineer at Allsafe, a firm that primarily does cyber security for a major corporation called E Corp that seems to combine the worst aspects of Enron, Google, and Goldman Sachs. Elliot refers to it as Evil Corp in his narration, and it becomes clear how much his perspective influences everything that is filtered through to the audience: whenever anyone references the corporation, they also call it Evil Corp. It’s even written as Evil Corp in the company’s own advertisements. Elliot narrates his story to an imaginary person, and everything we see will be a product of his own mind.

Elliot’s day job isn’t his primary focus: he’s also a hacker. He’s not able to make regular connections with friends and acquaintances, so he hides behind a digital wall. Elliot steals the digital information of everyone he meets and stores it away in case he ever needs to influence them. It’s how he’s able to keep his therapist from digging too deep and learning about his addiction to morphine, and also how he’s able to learn that his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) is being cheated on by her perfectly boring boyfriend. Angela also works at Allsafe and has known Elliot since they were children, when her mother and his father both died from cancer as the result of pollution that Evil Corp knowingly allowed them to be exposed to.

Elliot hopes for the destruction of Evil Corp, if only as a simple act of revenge for the death of his father, but it isn’t until a man calling himself Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) introduces him to a hacking group called fsociety. Their singular goal is to destroy Evil Corp’s wealth and the debt that it holds against millions of Americans.

Mr. Robot 2

I don’t know anything about hacking, other than that most films and shows get it completely wrong. However, Mr. Robot seems to paint a more realistic portrait of the process. Elliot has to do a certain amount of detective work to find access to the information of others, whether it’s the name of their favorite team or their birthdate. There are no virtual reality cyber chases, just people typing away at laptops. Nonetheless, it’s still fascinating and exciting.

Despite all the focus on Elliot’s hacking, the show is most interested in his own paranoia. He’s followed by men in dark suits, who may or may not be real. It’s certainly possible that the government or a giant multinational corporation could be monitoring him, but it’s impossible to rule out his watchers as symptoms of his drug use or mental health issues. Malek’s work on the show is admirably subtle. It’s difficult to play someone who has difficult relating to others, but he never falls into the kind of Asperger’s shtick that a lesser actor would rely on. The show’s tone in the first season is often dark and cynical, but it also veers toward moments of truly shocking violence that threaten to upend his already fragile mind.

The look of Mr. Robot perfectly matches its tone, with a color palette composed primarily of cool grays. It’s one of the best-looking shows ever and gets closer to the look of film than most shows. Even shows that have been lauded for the quality of their cinematography (see Breaking Bad) were still been bound by the visual language of television. If someone tuned into a random moment of Mr. Robot, it might not be clear if they were watching a television show or a movie. That TV look distances viewers, so by trying to eschew it, Mr. Robot is even more compelling.

We’re hurtling towards an election that will be decided in large part by the impact of cynicism and paranoia on our politics. Mr. Robot reflects that direction, but also transcends it. It’s a challenging vision, because even though the show is cognizant of the impact of out of control elites on society, it still seems to suggest that this toxic cynicism may be the only way to combat them. I hope it’s wrong, but I worry it’s right.

Season one of Mr. Robot is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Season two returns Wednesday, July 13.

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