Like many fellow college undergrads off to college, the amount of television I watch these days pales in comparison to from a few years ago. My busy schedule and internet access keep me more than sufficiently occupied with my time. Television is all about Netflix and streaming services now, anyway. There’s few shows on network television today I would name as personal favorites of mine. However, just last year I came across USA original Mr. Robot while staying at home over summer vacation. I’d only heard great things about it and the premise definitely piqued my interest. Never did I expect I would officially fall in love with the show by the end of the premiere episode of the second season, the first episode I watched.
Granted, it’s pretty unconventional to start a series after a full season had passed. How would I avoid spoilers and be able to comprehend what was going on? Luckily, the show seemed to follow a different path than it had for season 1. I quickly became familiar with the characters and their roles with respect to the storyline. As I continued to be enthralled, I started to notice prevalent themes and motifs creator Sam Esmail wanted to get across. The following essay won’t delve into major plotpoints or spoilers, but will rather discuss the themes present in Mr. Robot. After this, I’ll offer my personal thoughts in terms of objectivity/subjectivity with hopes of getting across with Mr. Robot is the best show on television right now. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Elliot Alderson is our protagonist, a late 20s cyber security expert stricken with anxiety, depression, and apparent delusions. He finds himself incredibly dissatisfied with his current life, one that takes a turn when he is approached by Cyber-Anarchist group FSOCIETY, who recruit him into participating in cyberterrorism using his exceptional skill-set. His new mentor is the mysterious Mr. Robot, leader of FSOCIETY who might have closer ties with Elliot than he would have imagined. Also involved in FSOCIETY is Elliot’s sister Darlene, a tough, hipster-ish young woman whose role in FSOCIETY and Elliot’s life gradually becomes more significant over time. The bulk of the series revolves around Elliot’s increasing involvement in cyber-activity as he attempts to maintain his fragile grip on sanity.
Without spoiling anything, Elliot Alderson is a very unreliable narrator, a fact he himself acknowledges. His narration is often confused and reluctant. He address the audience as his best source of clarity, we are his truest friends. Even then, we don’t know if we can reciprocate this trust he places in us. Why does he speak out to people he can’t even see or be sure that exist in the first place? Elliot’s perception is a very deluded one.
To him, characters are completely different from who he thought they were initially. Their relationships subsequently change completely, and quite frankly, he doesn’t know how to deal with it. Elliot’s delusions are those he conjures subconsciously as a means of portraying his ideal existence. The relationships he thinks he has with people are ideal in a perfect world. But they’re false. How often do we see ourselves in other people’s eyes and imagine good things? In Elliot’s case, this isn’t done because he’s some kind of narcissist. He does so because he’s lost and lonely. Characters will disappear and reappear depending on Elliot’s current mindset. For lack of a better term, Elliot never fully possesses control.
What happens when our control over our own thoughts/actions becomes muddled? This is Elliot’s main predicament throughout the entire show. His control over the environment is essentially nonexistent: his delusions deny him access to the control box of his brain. What he sees and what he believes are under the control of his many neuroses. Elliot is his own primary antagonists of the series. Sure, there are other nefarious people impeding his and FSOCIETY’S progress. What Sam Esmail wants you to believe, however, is that we are truly our own worst enemies.
Have you ever been surrounded by friends and family and still felt alone? For Elliot Alderson, this is a constant feeling. He has his sister, his best friend Angela, his fellow FSOCIETY hackers, his co-workers. So why does he feel so detached from all of them? It’s important to look into Elliot’s upbringing to understand this.
Growing up, life was tough for Elliot. We learn early in the series that Elliot’s father Edward contracts Leukemia and dies when Elliot and Darlene are still pre-pubescent. Their mother is cold, unloving, and detached from her two children herself. Even when he was alive, there was clear tension revealed between Edward and Mrs. Alderson as revealed in flashbacks. In my view, Elliot has inherited most of his negative personality traits from his mother (both in nature and in nurture). We even notice that Elliot looks a lot more like his mother than his father. Though Mrs. Alderson is portrayed as constantly cold, we realize Elliot is trying to break this curse. He reaches out to people, sometimes out of desperation. He talks to us as the audience through narration in hopes of reestablishing his grip with reality. However, from what we’ve seen so far, reality manages to remain just out of reach. At times, he’s back on Earth (as displayed in a notable scene involving an infamous psychiatric drug I won’t reveal). Other time, he’s so far gone he doesn’t even recognize his closest friends.
Mr. Robot is a technologically heavy show. It’s become a sort of cult show for hacker culture around the United States. Comparisons between FSOCIETY and Anonymous are made frequently. The hacking portrayed in the show has been described as revolutionary for its real world accuracy and attention to detail, and is one of my favorite aspects of the show as well. What is Sam Esmail saying about the abundance of technology, though? Elliot is frequently on his laptop, whether at work or elsewhere. It’s how he relates to people a lot of times, by looking people up and hacking them. At one point, he even hacks his own therapists, eventually using the information he finds to help her out. Are we as attached to our technology as Elliot is?
Personally, I think the argument is a tired one. “Millenials are hooked on their phones 24/7, blah blah blah”. Obviously as a millennial myself, I’ve heard this one a lot. That’s why I don’t think Sam Esmail is necessarily making the same argument. The show Black Mirror is an excellent anthology series warning us about the increased presence of technology and how it may be harmful in the long run. To me, I believe Esmail is making the same argument. It’s easy to get sucked into the ever so advancing technology and become attached. It’s easy to use it as a crutch. A big part of the show is identity (which I’ll get to soon). Perhaps what Esmail is saying is that we cannot let our technology become a part of technology, whether it be our love or our supposed large usage. There is a large sense of maturity and nuance in this argument. Esmail isn’t treating you like dumb millennials. He may or may not love technology, but doesn’t think it should define us. We are not machines. At risk of treading into an analysis of the Terminator franchise, I’ll conclude this section here.
What’s the point of even being here if we’re so deluded and detached from everything around us? How can we establish an identity if all we know is technology? Who really is Elliot Alderson?
My interpretation is that Mr. Robot concerns itself with themes like depression, anxiety, disassociate identity disorder, and so on as much as technology/hacking. Esmail wants to reach out to the depressed yuppie culture he has seen in the booming tech field. As an undergrad in computer science myself, I’m certainly in Esmail’s target audience, which brings me to perhaps my absolute favorite part of the show. I relate to Elliot Alderson so much, it’s not even funny.
Here’s a man who’s talented at what he does yet emotionally broken. A man who just wants to be able to connect to people. “I’m not good at talking to people”, he declares in the first 5 minutes of the first episode of the show. Thus, he retreats into his laptop and technology and distances himself from the world. How many of us find ourselves able to talk to people online, only to clam up and shut down when dealing with people in person. I know I certainly have. Like Elliot, I possess a tinge of social anxiety that makes it much more desirable to be alone. Talking to others and general interaction can be so exhausting. Never before have I seen a show that’s spoken to me on this level and portrayed social anxiety and general anxiousness to such a relatable degree. I, and many like me, am Elliot Alderson. I’m not bragging that my computer science skills are amazing, but they do mean a lot to me just like Elliot.
It’s hard to definitively establish my identity or what my destiny is. Same for Elliot, I’d say. What matters, however, is that he’s working towards it. Getting involved in FSOCIETY, reestablishing old relationships, stepping out of his large comfort zone. It’s all in the pursuit of identity. I personally believe we give life meaning. Without our efforts, life is inherently meaningless. Who we are means something only to us and maybe our closest cohorts. We choose our destiny through our every day actions. One day at a time.
Mr. Robot is a technical marvel in nearly every aspect. The acting, especially Rami Malek as Elliot & Christian Slater as Mr. Robot, is absolutely fantastic. The writing is sharp and insightful. We learn something new about each character through their dialogue and actions every single episode. The cinematography is incredibly impressive and unique. Characters are constantly painted in corners or filmed at a long distance. Their bodies are often cut off from overhead angles. Shots are meticulously symmetric and clear. Close ups are also utilized to emphasize overwhelming emotions characters must be experiencing. Parallel wide shots are often used in scenes with multiple characters to establish their dominance or lack thereof over the other characters in the shot. This type of unorthodox symmetry is definitely on purpose. We feel cornered, out of frame, detached just like the characters are supposed to feel. Shots are still and calm. There is little to no music during most scenes. Dialogue is crystal clear so we hear its importance. Esmail also enjoys throwing in various teasers and easter eggs to keep us wanting more. We think we know what’s going on with characters, but we end up being completely wrong in some cases. Our understanding of the universe portrayed is just as muddled and confusing as the characters’ within it. We’re helpless to do anything within the universe or affect the fates of the characters, characters we’ve come to empathize with and understand. All major players in the show are well fleshed out and developed, but we just keep wanting more. We root for Elliot, Darlene, Angela, Gideon (CEO where Elliot works), and so on. There’s a sense of mystery that enshrouds the show and never really goes away. You’re hooked in without warning, and you’re rarely given any time to breathe. A common complaint among fans and critics is the large amount of questions that have yet to be answered within the show, but to me, that just keeps things gripping and exciting.
Mr. Robot is a show that has revived my interest in discovering fresh, original television that I had lost when I moved away to college. The next season won’t air until October 2017, and I’m already feeling the lack of new material in my schedule. These 6 months will hopefully pass by quickly because I’m not sure how much longer I can stay away. To reiterate, Mr. Robot is, in my opinion, the best tv show on the air and my current favorite television program of all time. As good as it already is, they have nowhere to go but up in my view. In a way, I feel part of Elliot’s existence and have become fully invested in his well-being. I can’t wait to see what Esmail has up his sleeve for us in the future. For now, however, I’m incredibly grateful I was able to stumble upon this show and alter my television viewing stance for good.