Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mr. Robot (Season 1)

Creator: Sam Esmail
Starring: Rami Malek, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater, Michael Cristofer, Stephanie Corneliussen, Michel Gill, Gloria Reuben, Ben Rappaport, BD Wong, Sakina Jaffrey
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                                                **Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Some Plot Points**

There's this myth that there are only about five or six stories capable of being told and the rest are just variations on them. I rarely thought about that theory until watching USA network's award-winning drama, Mr. Robot, which doesn't necessarily give us a something new as much as it takes what we already know and ties it in knots. But it's in how writer/creator Sam Esmail executes it and the techniques he employs that further push the boundaries of what we thought was possible on cable television.

Mr. Robot  Title card
While it's easy to categorize it as the most ambitious drama to hit the air since Breaking Bad's final episode and a hyperkinetic thrill ride from start to finish, expounding any more on the details is a tricky proposition. On paper, it had to be a tough sell and there are still unquestionably a few kinks that need working out, but it's satisfying just to know that its best season may still be ahead. Ten episodes are built on a foundation and premise that could have completely collapsed had Esmail and his terrific cast not sidestepped nearly all of the potential pitfalls to deliver a TV season so timely and prescient that it's scary.

The series wears its influences on its sleeve, causing detractors to slam it as being derivative of other works, which is somewhat missing the point. The best way to think of it is as a pop culture mixed media project, throwing such jarringly contemporary works as Fight Club, V For Vendetta, Dexter, The Matrix, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, House of Cards, Black Swan, Star Wars and Hackers in a blender and emerging with this kind of bizarre Kubrick/Fincher hybrid that still holds its own in the originality department. And this, somehow, made it to the USA Network. Visually, it breaks new ground for the medium and as off-putting as it seems that I'd reference so many other pop culture staples, Esmail's debt to them is more often felt than conciously seen, as you're too invested in his story to care much about influences.

If 2015 had a time capsule, this series would be a good candidate to go in it, not necessarily because it's the best or will hold up exceptionally well years down the road (reliance on current technology may harm those prospects), but because it reveals the most about where we're at now. Conformity, social media, the economy, corporate malfeseance, wealth distribution, corruption, capitalism, the 1%. At this point, I'm just throwing out words, which is all that can really be done with Mr. Robot without revealing the plot and overall sensory experience accompanying it. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, as the season's arc loses a bit of steam in the last third, an almost necessary consequence to the twists and turns that proceed it.  There's probably one or two of those too many, nearly beating the audience into submission long before its finale. But in retrospect it provides an adrenaline-filled experience that's gone unrivaled in entertainment over the past year.

Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek)
Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is a depressed, anxiety-ridden twenty something security engineer living in New York City and working for the cybersecurity firm, Allsafe, with his childhood friend, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday). Uncomfortable in nearly all social situations and constantly in need of legal and illegal drugs to even make it through the day, his only connection to people is through computer hacking, using his technological instincts to gain access to their sordid pasts, which frequently reveals criminal activity. A cyber vigilante of sorts, he doesn't hesitate in using that information to blackmail them, especially if he feels it's deserved.

The game changes when Elliot's approached by a mysterious hacker named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) who wants his help in taking down Allsafe's most valuable client, the Enron-like E Corp (complete with a crooked E logo), one of the most powerful and corrupt companies in the world, headed up by Machiavellian CEO, Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). Only Mr. Robot isn't just a hacker, but an anarchist recruiting Elliot for an underground group of hacktivists known simply as "fsociety," which includes the grungy, rebellious Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who seems immediately suspicious of the newbie.  Riling up the public with threatening viral underground videos, its public face is a mask that looks like a cross between infamous Gunpowder Plot member and V for Vendetta/Anonymous inspiration Guy Fawkes and Monopoly's Uncle Pennybags.

Bringing a whole new meaning and intimacy to the idea of an unreliable narrator, the pilot ( brings us deep inside the fragile psyche of Elliot, for whom the simplest of human interactions, both at home and at work, are becoming a near-impossible challenge. He's more open with us, the audience, than his therapist, Kristen (Gloria Reuben) or boss, Gideon (Michael Gill), perhaps the only two truly moral characters this show will have. Ranting about society's ills and his failure to fit in with Fight Club-esque interior monologues, he's psychologically weakened and ripe for the picking by the time Slater's repairman-looking Mr. Robot gets to him.

E Corp's creepy Tyrell Wellick
With Robot in need of a brilliant hacker to help execute his grand plan of deleting all debt records to incite a digital revolution, Elliot seems to fit the bill perfectly. But as his commitment to fsociety grows, so too does his anxiety and drug use, blurring the lines between what's real and imagined for both him and the viewer. Resistance comes in the form of E Corp's interim CTO, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), a Patrick Bateman clone and sociopathic corporate climber who takes a sudden interest in Elliot's activities, while leading a secret life of his own with his even more deranged and controlling wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen). There's also a third party involved in all this known as the Dark Army, led by a mysterious transgender named whiterose (BD Wong), whose allegiance isn't completely clear.

If there's an episode where we first discover what Mr. Robot is as a series it would be the hallucinatory fourth (eps1.3_da3m0ns.mp4) during which fsociety's plans escalate just as Elliot is suffering from severe drug withdrawal. Taking place mostly in his mind, it's important in establishing not only the severity of his problems, but the notion that we can never be sure whether to believe what we're seeing or hearing in this show, especially if it's coming from Elliot. Torn between just crawling into a cave to disappear and being actively involved in real social disruption at the highest level, there's this internal battle going on that's best represented by his desire to help strung-out neighbor and sort of girlfriend, Shayla (Frankie Shaw).

Of course, the more Elliot tries to help, the worse things get, as his past and relationship to Angela and Mr. Robot, inform a lot of this, as details are frequently revealed through flashbacks and even passing dialogue. But most of just trickles out, with Esmail's writing and Malek's manic, wide-eyed performance rewarding viewers' attentiveness. Minute-to-minute, we're never quite sure whether the character's crusading actions are doing far more harm then good, such as in episode six (eps1.5_br4ve-trave1er.asf) when his hacking eventually carries tragic consequences for someone close to him. Without Malek's pitch-perfect portrayal of Elliot's crippling loneliness and isolation, it's easy to imagine him being an impossible character to root for considering the morally questionable actions he takes to achieve his goals.

Mr. Robot lectures Elliot
After years of false starts and stops, Christian Slater's finally made the comeback he's been gunning for, this time with quality material supporting him and bringing out the best of his talents. What's so fun about the performance is how it needs to be re-evaluated and viewed through a new lens after the season's conclusion, calling into question everything you thought you understood about his acting choices and the character himself. The same is true for Portia Doubleday's Angela, who begins the season headed firmly in one direction, seemingly as obsessed with ridding society of Evil Corp as Elliot due to their shared personal history. Where she ends up by the final episode is a far different place, and while Doubleday sells this transformation as well as possible, it's abrupt, leaving some needed room for further explanation in Season 2.

Coming out of nowhere, with only two previous credits to his name, Esmail doesn't believe in explanations, at least not yet. Visually staggering, with actors unusually positioned in the frame and hypnotic work from cinematographer Tim Ives that rivals anything on the big screen, the images in Mr. Robot tend to linger even longer in the mind than its twisty narrative machinations. Even the show's 80's arcade-style title card (randomly popping up during its cold open) is a thrill to behold, as you're never quite sure when during the scene it'll appear. And music supervisor Mac Quayle's throwback electronic synth score and the frequently off-kilter song selections serve to only reinforce the show's unsettling, paranoid atmosphere.

There comes a point in this season where a major reveal is made. Some will see it coming from the jump. Others won't. But from that episode on, it's clear Mr. Robot becomes a radically different series than when it began. It's a risky decision to essentially erase so much of the mystery accompanying the first half of the season and completely change the game. While I'm still not yet sure the gamble pays off, it now places viewers in a position where they're constantly doubting whether certain events or characters are even real. That's a dangerous creative move to make unless there's a solid long term plan in place.

Fsociety puts its best face on
Esmail pulls the rug out not just once, but twice, over the course of these ten episodes, expecting audiences to trust him and go along for the ride, even as one of those moves marginalizes one of the best performances on the show. And yet all of it is so skillfully laid out that you really want to take him at his word when he states that this season was only the prologue of the first act of his feature-length screenplay. Having been burned so many times before with claims like these, it's easy to be skeptical.

As Vince Gilligan proved with Breaking Bad, adjusting on the fly isn't necessarily a weakness when it comes to creating great dramatic TV. But for every one of those there's also a Lost or The X-Files, alienating fans who believe the showrunners are literally making things up as they go along. While there are definitely indications of the latter at work, you can just as easily imagine Esmail delivering on his promise since this truly is like nothing currently on TV right now.

While the last few episodes of Mr. Robot don't necessarily come to a pulse-pounding crescendo, it still delivers on a payoff many would have deemed unlikely, if not impossible at, the season's start. And a cliffhanger. The question now becomes: Where can it possibly go from here? Topping this while still satisfyingly forging forward will be the biggest challenge ahead. As the first few episodes of Season 2 have already proven, this series, like its protagonist, has no designs on making any compromises for mainstream acceptance.

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