This article contains SPOILERS through the Season 2 premiere of “Mr. Robot.”
Mr. Robot conflicts me. Often it feels too much like “Fight Club with hackers.” The dialogue straddles, and sometimes crosses, the line of trying too hard. Tyrell Wellick definitely tries too hard, both the actor and the writing. Following the events of an episode can prove very difficult. Intentionally, yes, but intention doesn’t always excuse a flaw. Unlike some of my other current favorites on TV, I can see why the show may not appeal to everyone.
Overall? I think the whole works. And I think Mr. Robot deserved the 6 Emmy nominations it received. The writing is usually quite good, and the acting as well. Visually, the show is terrific. The concept is highly interesting. Seeing hacking done in a realistic fashion is refreshing. Ultimately, though, that’s not what Mr. Robot is to me. That Fight Club financial revolution based on hacking is not why I watch.
No, what keeps me watching is what I think the show is really about; an exploration of the illnesses or conditions of the human mind.
This is most evident in the many mental issues manifested in the main character, Elliot Alderson. Dissociative and compulsive tendencies, along with social anxiety, are often attributed to Elliot, including by the show’s creator. He abuses morphine. He views the audience as an imaginary friend. Large tracts of his past go forgotten and only near the end of the first season return to him. There is no way to be sure what we see through his eyes is real (more on this later regarding season 2). And did it surprise anyone he was “Mr. Robot” all along?
Characters with Elliot’s general traits are not especially rare on TV. The eccentric genius is one of the common tropes writers love, especially with autistic characters. Let’s list the traits together: they’re quirky! They’re awkward in public! They are actually super smart anyway, way smarter than everyone else! Sometimes total assholes, but it’s okay because they’re so valuable for their quirky genius! The problem becomes that the actual struggles often go nonexistent and unexplored. Even accurate portrayals often fail in this regard.
While it is not confirmed that Elliot is autistic, he fits the traits too well to not fall on the autism spectrum. Resistance to physical contact, lack of eye contact, unwillingness to answer personal questions, conversational issues, a monotone voice, all of these characteristics apply to Elliot. One of the biggest potential signs is his need to hack everyone around him. And I mean everyone; his friends, his therapist, his coworkers, random people on the street. He seeks to understand people and lacks a sense of personal boundaries in doing so. He understands that he is wrong to invade a life in such a way. Yet he has a CD case full of discs containing information on those he has invaded.
Elliot proved refreshing because his struggles with his conditions define every moment of his life. There is no other proper way to handle a character like this. While there is not 100% support and happiness over his portrayal (is there ever?), he is often considered one of the most accurate and appreciated portrayals of autism and social anxiety ever put on television. Much of the credit for this goes to Emmy-nominated actor Rami Malek. He is incredible bringing Elliot to life and shows dedication to the body language and habits of someone who suffers anxiety. His speech patterns also show an appreciated level of awareness.
Ultimately, though none of that matters if the writing fell into the typical tropes. Instead we see how a man like Elliot may struggle with society. And I appreciate it. His problems and habits and disorders are not shrugged off as “the quirky genius.” Elliot’s feelings towards crying matter. His friends distance themselves because of his behavior, and in Angela’s case possibly permanently. The morphine, his dissociative tendencies, his woefully overwhelmed and incapable therapist, and the traumas he has suffered get explored in the detail they deserve. When he retreats into his thoughts in the middle of conversations (quite often) his friends can be quick to call him out. Elliot can be the hard truth about mental disorders without a proper support system.
Not to suggest the show only focuses on the dark side of mental conditions, or portray Elliot’s habits as something that requires “fixing.” Elliot’s discomfort over physical contact is not treated as weird by those who know him, and his boundaries are respected. His friends try to be supportive (though this changes for some as he buries deeper and deeper into fsociety’s world). None of his coworkers at Allsafe seem to blink an eye about his conditions. Elliot is not ostracized for his behavior. No one should be. That is an important lesson for the audience, especially as a counterbalance for all the harm caused as Elliot slips further. It never feels like the show is using mental illness in an irresponsible, harmful manner. It explores every angle: the good and the bad.
He’s not alone, either. When I say Mr. Robot is a show about the human mind, I mean many other characters and the story as a whole, not just Elliot.
His best friend Angela suffers from serious self-worth issues. His sister Darlene experiences crippling loneliness and overcompensates. Tyrell is unquestionably unbalanced and his wife displays troubling tendencies as well. Even the “revolution” fsociety begins functions like a metaphor of Elliot’s declining mental state. It is unfocused panic, with millions dissociating from society and abusing their addictions. Whatever the revolutionary goal, all fsociety created is a world mirroring the uncertainty, fear, and unhealthy state of our main character. That’s what I see when I watch Mr. Robot. I see the illnesses and aspects of the human mind exposed to the audience with a focus I’m not sure I’ve ever seen from a television show. Themes. What a thought.
While not always pretty, it is important. And most of the time, when Mr. Robot focuses less on the Fight Club feel, the political messages, and more on the tortured, fractured minds of the characters, it is absolutely riveting.
Such is the biggest reason the 2-part premiere of season 2 is a rousing success.
After a brief look back at the day when his father pushed him out of a window, season 2 introduces us to the world and Elliot as they have been since the financial meltdown he and Tyrell caused to end season 1. His life is simple and monotonous; he wakes up at the same time every day, eats the same meals while having the same conversations with the same friend (and Leon, the point of Seinfeld is that there was no point), and he completes the same household chores at his mother’s house before sleeping for the night. These events all occur at the same time every day. He goes to a church group and is again seeing his therapist, Krista. It’s a simple, rigid existence he believes is best for him.
(I have to mention this theory about his new strict lifestyle, because it would make quite a bit of sense and fit entirely with Elliot’s increasing unreliability as a narrator.)
Meanwhile his visions of his dead father do not improve. If anything they worsened, considering his journal says the bullet Mr. Robot puts in his head is not the first. Elliot spends the entire premiere trying and failing to ignore the apparition. By the end of it Mr. Robot seemingly finds a way to regain control while Elliot sleeps and makes him meet with Ray (played by the awesome Craig Robinson) without remembering. The last thing we see is him startling into awareness with a phone in hand and Tyrell Wellick on the other end.
With Elliot in (questionably) self-imposed exile, Darlene assumes control of fsociety and tries to focus its power towards a continued fight against Evil Corp. She makes her first appearance after hacking the smart house of Evil Corp’s top legal counsel (the Executioner) to make it go crazy so she can throw a party once the lawyer is driven away. Leadership has made her even colder, more militant. Yet before she gives her mission speech to her assembled party she cries in the bathroom and screams while she stomps a phone to pieces. Her brother is gone, her friends as well, and her loneliness has only grown. Even a pleasure such as a party, an escape for her in season 1, provides no relief.
Fsociety’s first strike against Evil Corp comes through Mobley (who we learn is an IT tech at an Evil Corp). He plants a hack which locks up their network and demands a ransom that CTO Scott Knowles offers to deliver. Upon arrival and under threat he burns the money in the street while Darlene watches from the gathered crowd. I’d feel sorrier for Scott, but he doesn’t strike me as a very good person.
And it’s not as if our look at Evil Corp suggests much suffering because of Elliot’s hack. If anything wiping away the debt records benefits them in some ways, as we see when they deny a woman who wishes to close her bank account because all the records of her debts being paid vanished. I highly appreciate that the negatives of the fsociety’s actionswere made so clear. Too often season 1 seemed to romanticize what they did. Now we see the bleaker reality.
All is not well with Evil Corp, though, as evident by the suicide of one of their executives during a live interview. Angela bears very close witness to this in her new role as a PR manager. Probably the saddest part of the premiere was watching her lose her soul to the corporation that killed her mother. Seeing her try to convince herself of self-worth and confidence that she lacks entirely is hard enough. Watching her eventually feel no more remorse or compassion for a man that shot himself on live TV than Evil Corp’s hideous snake-person CEO is even harder. She’s headed down a corrupted path where she cares more about the blood splatter on her shoes than the person that blood came from.
And with Gideon’s murder towards the end of the episode, few good people remain. Poor guy. He lost Allsafe, lost his husband, and took the fall for the hack in absence of someone responsible to blame. Despite it he still would rather seek Elliot’s help than turn him in.
Great premiere for a show with a promising future. I look forward to reviewing the rest of season 2 in the coming weeks here at Fandomentals. I’ll certainly tune in, and I hope more of you do as well if the premiere’s ratings are any indication. If you don’t have a Nielson box, USA offers the full episodes the day after airing. Give them a hit. I’d hate to see this show canceled before it explores the full depths of these characters’ minds.
All images courtesy of USA Network