Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mr. Robot Season 1 review

    Mr. Robot is probably the best show on television right now.

    For me, at least.

    Part of this is the politics. Mr. Robot is a series which taps into the cultural zeitgeist of anger against the rich, Anonymous, hacker culture, the Enron scandals, computer surveillance, the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and a bunch of other things which had a powerful effect on my beliefs. It's the same reason I have such a huge fondness for the V for Vendetta movie. I'm aware, of course, this is a television show criticizing the 1% presented to the 99% by the 1%. A work created by the networks for mass consumption about the dangers of mass consumption of network-generated material.

    But I don't care. It's awesome.
Elliot is like Neo but there's no exit from the Matrix.

    The premise is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is a socially maladjusted young man with severe social anxiety (and possibly deeper mental issues) who works at a corporate computer security firm by day and serves as a cyber-vigilante by night.

    He is floating through life, pining for his coworker Angela (Portia Doubleday), and achieving nothing of consequence (though the victims of the child-pornography ring he shuts down in the opener may disagree).

    That's when he's contacted by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) who brings him to meet an Anonymous-inspired group of hackers called Fsociety (f***society). Fsociety wants to orchestrate the world's greatest act of computer sabotage against E Corp (renamed "Evil Corp" by Elliot's neuroses-ridden mind). They want to wipe the entirety of their electronic records and thus erase all of the billions of dollars of debt they've assembled.

    Elliot is both intrigued and frightened by the prospect of this cyberterrorism against the world's most corrupt institution. Season One deals with this plot, Elliot's own personal issues, as well as the troubles of an E Corp executive named Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) who is perhaps the one man smart enough at E Corp to stop Elliot.

Angela is simply stunned at the banality of evil on display.
    I'm particularly fond of Tyrell as a character. At first glance he appears to be a caricature of a corrupt executive: doing things like beating up homeless men to let off steam and seducing anyone who will give him the slightest advantage in the boardroom.

    Instead, though, Tyrell is a much more nuanced character who is desperate to please his wife as well as a bundle of neuroses trying to live up to the sociopathic environment which he is an ill-fit for. He wants to succeed at all costs but the costs are a lot heavier than he expected.

    A lesser series would frame Fsociety as a plucky group of heroes doing episodic sabotage against Evil Corp while Tyrell works to root them out. You know what, I probably would have watched that series too but this is so much better. Mr. Robot is, fundamentally, a story about human relationships and ethics in the modern world.

    Elliot wants to do something good with his life and make the world a better place but he deals with the complicated reality nothing is ever so black and white. Even E Corp, which is a representation of everything wrong with American capitalism, is still something which provides millions of jobs as well as the livelihoods of countless citizens. Fsociety's plan is not too dissimilar to Project: Mayhem in Fight Club, a movie the show references in ways both small and profound, but who is really at fault for America's debt problem? The people who provide credit card debt's many traps or the people spending like crazy? Both, obviously.

Elliot and Darlene's relationship is awesomely screwed up.
    The same way a drug dealer is a predator on the drug addict. One may have more cuplability than the other but they couldn't exist without the other. This example is even referenced in the show with Elliot trying to help his pretty neighbor and occasional sex partner, Shayla Nico (Frankie Law), extirpate herself from an abusive relationship with her gangster boyfriend. Shayla is addicted to drugs and it is easy to see how her suffering is used to get her owner what he wants. How that story ends gives hints, I believe, to what is in the works for E Corp and Fsociety.

No, no allusions to Enron here at all.
    The show's acting is tremendous and every one of the major characters is given a way to shine in ways both profound and human. While Elliot struggles with both madness as well as his conflicting feelings about Fsociety as well as E Corp, we have stories like Angela discovering the corporation is responsible for her mother's death.

    Angela must make a choice whether to try to pursue a lawsuit against them, potentially ruining her coworkers' business as well as getting them all fired, or decide their financial security is worth more than justice.

    I love and loathe all the characters because everyone is human. Mr. Robot is a visionary who sees much of what is wrong with America but a fanatical zealot who isn't what he seems. Darlene (Carly Chaikin), a co-conspirator at Fsociety, is far too familiar with Elliot and sees none of the ambiguities he does about the cyberactivists/terrorists. Angela desperately wants justice for her family but, more than anything, wants to matter the same way E Corp executives do just by existing. There's not a single character on this show who isn't multifaceted, save perhaps E Corp's CEO, and we haven't seen enough of him to know if he really is the soulless avatar of capitalism he appears to be.

    I even love the symbolism of the E Corp logo being the Enron symbol inverted. Hell, E Corp may BE Enron. Just an Enron which managed to figure out a way to survive their house of cards tumbling down. That's hardly the only use of symbolism in the series, though, with seemingly every episode of the series rife with hidden meanings and allusions. Given some of the revelations which occur during the first season, you will want to run back and re-watch it from the beginning as everything takes on new meaning and contexts with the various discoveries. They even use the Monopoly Man's face as a substitute for Anonymous' use of Guy Fawkes masks.

Portia is a master of these 'deer in the headlights' looks.
    The show wouldn't work, though, without the amazing performance of Rami Malek and his ability to give the haunted yet emotionally stunted Elliot so many depths. Elliot isn't just introverted, he's arguably a full-on psychopath but his ability to empathize with other human beings keeps him from being easily given that label.

    Elliot is a troubled young man and you can never be certain whether he's doing things because he wants to do the right thing or he's simply being swept away in the moment by his immature emotional development. Certain revelations answer some of these questions but also raise more the season finale only promising further exploration of his psyche. Viewers will feel like they've gone down the proverbial rabbit hole by the time they're done with just the first episode, let alone after ten with our quite-possibly-insane protagonist.

    Watch this show. Watch it online, buy the DVDs when they come out, or catch it in re-runs, you will not regret it. This is the best cyberpunk work not set in the future I've ever seen and one of the crowning examples of the genre's values.


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