Mr. Robot Season 1: The beautiful carnage of the unpredictable
Ivan Radford | On 11, Jul 2016
With Mr. Robot Season 2 arriving this week, get booted up to speed with our look back at the end of Season 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of opening episodes, or stream the whole thing now on Amazon Prime Video.
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Mr. Robot.
“You’re gonna sit at your computer, watch and enjoy the beautiful carnage that we’ve all created together.”
Those are the words of Mr. Robot, after Fsociety carry out their major hack upon Evil Corp and bring the banking system in the USA to its knees… after we discover that Mr. Robot was actually a figment of Elliot’s imagination all along.
Yes, Sam Esmail’s end to Season 1 is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Mr. Robot: bold, bitingly topical and brilliantly unpredictable.
Because, of course, nobody could have predicted that in 2015 (and 2016), people would be talking about a cyberthriller in the same way they do Game of Thrones. After all, cyberthrillers belonged in the 80s and 90s, not the age of Facebook, iPads and Netflix. But Esmail has dragged the retro genre kicking and screaming into the world of Pokemon Go, crafting something that has never felt more urgent. Fsociety, with their masks and video messages, are Anonymous in all but name, while mentions of Ashley Madison security breaches come straight out of the headlines. Rants about our corporate-governed, commercialised culture give it all the scathing edge of Fight Club 2.0.
At the heart of it, Elliot (Rami Malek), a character who is far from your typical, cliched hacker stereotype. A security engineer for a small firm by day, he spends his nights not just hacking computers but “hacking people” – something that he confesses to his therapist, Krista (the excellent Gloria Reuben), after spending episode after episode manipulating her and intruding upon her private data. But she, crucially, refuses to condemn him as a bad guy, even when her ex turns up asking her to turn him in to he cops for hacking him too.
There’s a sense of moral justification to Elliot’s behaviour – one that wouldn’t be possible without Esmail’s carefully honed style, which has depicted the whole of this story firmly from his perspective. Elliot’s intense voiceover and the synth-heavy soundtrack force us to filter everyday sights through his unreliable lens. Even the visuals are painstakingly composed to achieve the same effect; DoP Todd Campbell and Esmail use shortsighted visuals repeatedly to keep us anchored to our narrator, while Elliott is frequently positioned at the edge of the frame, which reinforces his outsider status. That, coupled with the visible distance between him and the rest of the world, means that we’re just as detached and isolated from it as he is. After only an hour of watching, your brain is firmly boggled. Esmail is, without a doubt, an auteur – there isn’t another show like this one on television. (His hyper-control over that idiosyncratic presentation is so rigorous that it’s no surprise he’s decided to direct the whole of Season 2 himself.)
The narrative is just as mind-juggling, with twists, turns and un-signposted lurches peppered throughout the season. The biggest, of course, is saved for a one-two punch at the climax: firstly, that fellow hacker Darlene is actually Elliot’s sister. And secondly, that Mr. Robot and Elliot are one and the same, as Elliot effectively projects a likeness of his father onto the world – that Fight Club comparison is well and truly earned. Why is he doing all this? What’s the deal with this alter-ego? It’s to “save the world”, Elliot says, as Season 1 thunders to its gripping conclusion. That’s one messed-up, modern superhero right there.
Anyone who stabs themselves with a fork to induce labour and get out of police questioning makes Claire Underwood look like Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted.
For all its forward-thinking ideas, cutting-edge story-telling and rousing ideas, though, not all of Mr. Robot is quite as revolutionary as it appears – stepping back after the end of the first run, you can’t help but notice the occasional misstep when it comes to the show’s female characters: while Darlene really has potential to keep growing into an interesting supporting role (her “Did you forget who I am?” reaction, after Elliot tries to kiss her, is one of the best moments of the show to date), Elliot’s girlfriend, Shayla, is bumped off mid-season, mainly so it can develop him as a character – a device that leaves her so undeveloped that she and Darlene almost seem interchangeable during the show’s first half and the whole Shayla subplot often un-involving. Even Krista only becomes fully realised towards the end, as we see her not give up on Elliot, despite not getting through to her patient all season; the Episode 10 scene with her ex-lover finally allows us to see her as a person, rather than as Elliot’s victim.
But there are other superbly drawn characters at play. Stephanie Corneliussen is stupendous as Joanna Wellick, the Lady Macbeth to Evil Corp’s slippery Swedish sociopath, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström). He’s Senior VP of Tech at the firm and disappears come the finale, leaving Elliot trying to piece together a three-day hole in his memory – just after he told Tyrell what Fsociety were about to do. Did Tyrell defect and help Elliot execute the jack? Is he now on the run? While that mystery is intriguing (and Wallström’s fall from future CTO to disgraced reject, after he murdered the wife of Scott Knowles, his rival for the job, is hugely satisfying), what’s really interesting is how Joanna’s going to react.
She bumps into Elliot, as he looks for the missing Tyrell, and Elliot suspects she can hear his inner thoughts – impossible, of course, but entirely believable, given Corneliussen’s intimidating stare. Whatever she does next, it’s guaranteed to be interesting. Let’s fact it: anyone who stabs themselves with a fork to induce labour and get out of police questioning makes Claire Underwood look like Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted. (Important Back-story Alert: Don’t forget we discovered that when Joanna was 15, she had a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. Place your bets now and who that’ll turn out to be.)
We see the human costs of every act in the digital realm…
Best of all is Angela (Portia Doubleday), who has moved from the ditzy damsel/best mate that Elliot kept trying to rescue to someone who can stand up for herself. Come the finale, she takes a PR job with Evil Corp, a move that gives us a surprising insight into the company – and a ringside seat as its CEO shoots himself in the head on live TV news (a shocking moment, even now). Like many desperate young professionals, she’s forced to compromise her morals to get into a secure job and she doesn’t hold back, resiliently pushing on, even after the messy suicide. A scene in a shop afterwards, in which she orders new shoes to replace the ones with blood on them, is a definitive point in her character’s evolution. In four words, she shows just how ruthless she has become: “I’ll try the Pradas next.” (Her cheating boyfriend subplot has never seemed so trivial.)
The cast are all fantastic, with Christian Slater, in particular, revelling in his rants about debt and our declining civilisation – not bad going for a guy who technically doesn’t exist. But the depth they each bring to their roles means that this is never a show in which the enemy is an intangible object; we see the human costs of every act in the digital realm, giving the whole notion of “hacking a human” weight that keeps your heart in your mouth as often as your nails. Gideon, for example, is hugely sympathetic, as his company, Allsafe, becomes collateral damage to Elliot’s and Fsociety’s plans – although, we’re briefly teased, could the final hack have wiped out Allsafe’s debts too, thereby saving the company from its own demise?
That’s where Mr. Robot really lands its punches – in the sheer terrifying power of the unknown. So often in TV, we’re presented with the underdog, from Outlander’s doomed fight against history to Halt and Catch Fire’s also-rans, destined never to reach full success. Even in sitcoms, we’re conditioned to stories where nothing really changes.
But in Mr. Robot, the hack actually happens.
“We hope as a new society rises from the ashes that you will forge a better world. A world that values the free people, a world where greed is not encouraged, a world that belongs to us again.”
After hours of build-up, hope and promises, the world actually is changed forever. The point at which Fight Club stopped, this tale carries on.
Throughout, we’re constantly addressed by Elliot directly, but even our closest ally in this world hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. The best he can offer us is: “Calm down. I’ll figure this out. I know you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t either.”
Malek’s reserved, composed presence has become erratic by the time the final moments arrive. As everyone runs around trying to get cash out of ATMs, with credit cards and financial systems all melting down, our hero is busy beating himself up in a coffee shop. And Fsociety? They’re wiping hard drives and partying like there’s no tomorrow. And there might as well not be. This is Civilisation Collapse 101. And nobody is sure what to expect. Even BD Wong’s White Rose, the hacker with the world’s most badass time-keeping abilities (who enabled the Fsociety attack), can’t be trusted, popping up at an Evil Corp hideout for a meeting with the company’s head, Price.
Whose side is Rose on? Where is Tyrell? Will Elliot get Mr. Robot under control? And what will happen to Angela and Gideon? It’s normal for a TV season to close with some unanswered questions or a cliffhanger, but Mr. Robot leaves us with a story that’s completely, gloriously unravelled. All that’s left is for to sit at our computer, watch and enjoy the beautiful carnage. As Elliot goes to do the same, someone knocks at his door. Who is it? We have no idea. And when was the last time you could say that about a TV show?
Mr. Robot Season 2 begins on Thursday 14th July with a double-bill of Episode 1 and 2, exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. Episodes then arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere. All 10 episodes of Season 1 are also available to stream, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like free next-day delivery on Amazon products, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Photos: Peter Kramer/ Christopher Saunders / USA Network