Mr. Robot a smart and fun new psycho-techno-thriller

Jeff Pfeiffer

It probably is no surprise that the pilot episode of USA Network’s new psycho-techno-thriller series Mr. Robot won an Audience Award at the younger and generally left-leaning SXSW festival earlier this year. Its themes, which will presumably carry over into the rest of the series, deal with much of what society as a whole, and the younger generation in particular, is grappling with. Anyone who takes even a casual look at the world today will recognize topics the series addresses, from its protagonist’s concerns about income inequality, to the show’s portrayal of hacker collectives similar to Anonymous, to the talk of revolution familiar among those in the Occupy movement.

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These themes are effectively used as a springboard into a very stylish and engrossing drama, and another reason Mr. Robot was a fan favorite at SXSW (and has also been selected for the Tribeca Film Festival) is likely the skilled acting and filmmaking.

In particular, the lead performance from Rami Malek as Elliot (pictured above) is gripping. Elliot works by day at a cyber security firm, but by night acts as a vigilante hacker, trying to right through his computer skills what he believes is wrong with society. At his day job, Elliot grapples with the fact that his firm’s largest client, E-Corp (a ubiquitous company not unlike something like Apple in our reality), is just the type of controlling, multinational group that he despises, but is hired to protect. Elliot has even taken to calling it “Evil Corp,” a phrase that we begin seeing and hearing whenever that company is referred to, an interesting technique to get us into Elliot’s mind.

And that mind is another crucial part of Elliot’s life, and our experiencing of it. He is an admitted loner with social anxiety who tends to experience delusions, sees a therapist and has been on meds. The narration we hear from him, he tells us, is him talking to someone he has invented. So, when he sees the phrase “Evil Corp,” which has been imbedded within his own psyche for so long, pop up whenever that company is mentioned or seen, we see it that way, too (it becomes so subtly common and casual that we start believing that’s the company’s name). We are in Elliot’s reality, but that also makes it challenging to know whether what else he is seeing and experiencing is real, or just part of his other delusions.

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Like when Elliot meets a mysterious anarchist (Christian Slater), who leads an underground hacker group (the Mr. Robot of the title) bent on taking down “Evil Corp.” In the first episode, at least, we aren’t entirely sure whether his meeting with this group actually occurred, or whether Elliot’s first steps toward battling the corporation were his own ideas, presented by someone else through a delusion. In this way, there are shades of Fight Club in Mr. Robot, along with its Matrix-like conspiracy elements and questioning of reality. As Elliot begins to be shadowed by “men in black” following his initial salvo at “Evil Corp,” we, again, have to wonder if this is real or in his mind. “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too,” Elliot asks his imaginary friend, and the audience, at the end of the first episode. We do see it, but do we believe?

Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on USA Network beginning June 24.

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Sarah Shatz/USA Network

David Giesbrecht/USA Network