‘Mr. Robot’ and its groundbreaking job of hacking TV

Joseph Langan

Loosely inspired by the real-life phenomena of Anonymous and the Arab Spring, the fiction of “Fight Club” and “The Matrix” and a healthy dose of David Lynch, USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” is pushing the boundaries of television.

For those unfamiliar, “Mr. Robot” follows Elliot, a cybersecurity engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night. After being recruited by an insurrectionary anarchist played by Christian Slater, Elliot joins the hacktivist collective of society, becoming entangled in a breakneck-paced plot to wipe away the world’s debt. 

Under the Kubrickian direction of Sam Esmail, “Mr. Robot” is one of the most visually arresting shows on TV. Like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” “Mr. Robot” is uncompromising in its depiction of the hard choices that haunt our harrowing realities.

Much of the show is told through Elliot, who suffers from clinical depression, anxiety and dissociative identity disorder. Not only does the show depict mental illness in one of the most compassionate and authentic ways, it utilizes Elliot’s point of view for some high-stress plot sequences. Elliot, whose worldview is inundated with delusion and paranoia, creates the viewers as an imaginary friend to help him make sense of his situation. This dynamic unfolds into a myriad of metafiction where the audience is forced to constantly consider what is real and what is not.

It’s a show that respects its audience as keen observers and critical thinkers. The framing of every shot is stunning enough to be the envy of even the greatest Hollywood cinematographers. Unlike the socially networked society we’re all ensnared in, the script focuses on the human elements, highlighting the disconnection inside our digitally saturated world.

Outside of the breathtaking visuals that — with a fraction of the budget — make Game of Thrones look dated, the show is both intimate and unapologetically global. A female Muslim hacker is a part of the main gang. The many, many women leads are written with depth and sincerity. Rami Malek, who plays Elliot, is of Egyptian descent, just like the director — who was inspired to make the show after Egypt’s revolution in 2011.

Many shows today profess diversity, and there’s no shortage of sitcoms with female leads or gay best friends. Many of the leads are gay or bisexual, but most importantly, their characters aren’t defined by their sexuality. In fact, Mr. Robot boasts what may be TV’s best-written transgender character. Under her male persona, she masquerades as Zhang, the Chinese Minister of State Security. Wh1ter0se is the password to unlock who she truly identifies as: the hacker and oligarch leading the Dark Army, a widespread criminal network of sleeper agents ruthless enough to make the CIA jealous.

“Mr. Robot’s” first season was a winding road of plot twists and nonstop action. The second was a slower, character-driven epic with a meditative pace and film noir influences. The third, which finished airing a few weeks ago, balances the contrasting elements of the previous two. The tendency is for the show to continue to impress, as it has been renewed for a fourth season.

 Joseph Langan is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].