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'Mr. Robot' Argues That Real Life Is a Dystopia

For a show that revels in the contradictions created by a data-rich society, it's the information that Mr. Robot doesn't give us that's the most compelling.

'Mr. Robot' protagonist Elliot Alderson, played by Rami Malek, hacks. Image via Mr. Robot trailer

Warning: spoilers ahead.

On Monday night, the latest batch of Hillary Clinton's emails during her tenure as Secretary of State were made available for public viewing by the State Department. The emails are mostly boring—Clinton and her advisors and aides setting up phone calls, discussing news articles, going over itineraries—but as you read through them, you get the sense that Clinton has little to no sense of technological know-how. On one level, the disparity between Clinton's tech illiteracy and that of her team isn't a big deal—one of the reasons powerful officials have such large staffs in the first place is because they can't possibly be an expert in every field, and just because Hillary Clinton didn't know how to plug in an iPad doesn't disqualify her from potentially being the leader of the free world. But the cynical, paranoid hackers of USA network's Mr. Robot might look at the situation like this: If Hillary Clinton can barely use technology that we use in our daily lives, her tech advisors could have been telling her anything and she would have taken it at face value. They could have told her to sign off measures that would have imposed an electronic police state, and she might not have even understood what that meant.


Now, clearly, we're a few levels away from full-on e-Panopticon. But Mr. Robot, a startlingly good, insanely complicated show, illustrates that we're closer than we might realize. The show, whose first season concludes tonight, takes place in a world extremely similar to our own, in which a massive conglomerate called E Corp is a leader in both the tech and banking fields, and as a result is owed over 70 percent of the country's debt. They are as close to a totalitarian government as a corporation can get.

The scariest part of Mr. Robot's dystopia is how close to real life it is.

At its heart, Mr. Robot is a show about being monitored. Its protagonist, Elliot—played by the intense, nervy Rami Malek—hacks everyone he meets, peering into their emails, social-networking accounts, and finances to discover their weaknesses and exploit them. Once he's, say, exposed his therapist's new boyfriend as a philandering piece of shit and confiscated the guy's dog, he exports his findings to a disc, deletes the files, and then often throws his hardware in the microwave. He's the guy who knows everyone else's secrets and who's obsessed with keeping his own secrets to himself.

And make no bones about it, Elliot's got a shit-ton of secrets. He's an on-and-off morphine addict who's so invested in orchestrating the biggest hack in history that he's hidden his plans from everyone, even himself. Elliot is the show's narrator, and we see every scene in which he appears from his perspective. From the jump, it's fairly clear that Elliot has some mental issues, as he's trained himself to hear every mention of "E Corp" as "Evil Corp." Christian Slater plays the show's title character, the leader of fsociety, the Anonymous-esque hacking group that's trying to take down E(vil) Corp. Mr. Robot turns out to be Elliot's dad, who turns out to have been dead all along. Meaning, in a decidedly Tyler Durden-ish plot twist, Mr. Robot is Elliot and vice versa, and that Mr. Robot is a projection of Elliot's unidentified mental illness. This throws the entire narrative of the show for a loop—we're meant to retroactively reframe all of the scenes featuring Mr. Robot as scenes featuring Elliot, or at least a version of him. The show's penultimate episode left off where the show's finale will pick up: in fsociety's Coney Island headquarters, Elliot and his nemesis—a sociopathic former hacker/disgraced Evil Corp executive named Tyrell Wellick—preparing to team up to take Evil Corp down.


As a piece of entertainment, Mr. Robot is pretty damn airtight. Whenever the show presents the viewer with a twist, it feels logical and justified, like signals suddenly making themselves clear through the noise. However, it rarely feels like the show's telegraphing, and it never seems like showrunner Sam Esmail is plotting the show by the seat of his pants. It's a delicate balance, and the show hits it more often than not.

Part of Esmail's painstaking attention to detail also involves his adherence to the real-life conventions of computing and hacking—the show employed experts to make the techniques of Elliot and fsociety as accurate as possible. As a result, the show—which Esmail admits was inspired in part by the Arab Spring—has ended up mirroring the real world in uncanny ways. fsociety orchestrates a data dump of Evil Corp's emails, allowing Elliot's childhood best friend Angela to discover evidence of negligence on Evil Corp's part that led to the death of her mother (and Elliot's dad). This recalls the ongoing fallout from Clinton's email dump, as well as the data breach of the cheaters' dating website Ashley Madison. Most recently, USA elected to postpone the finale of the first season from last Wednesday to tonight, due to the inclusion of a scene that features a gruesome, on-camera murder, offering an eerie parallel to last week's shooting in Virginia, in which a local news reporter and cameraman were murdered on live TV.


The scariest part of Mr. Robot's dystopia is how close to real life it is. As the show wraps up its first season and extends into its second, I have no doubt it will continue to express uncomfortable truths about modern society's relationship with technology: namely, that we have passively agreed to participate in a system in which our data can be compromised at any moment. Data is, after all, neutral: It can be unfairly used against individuals to manipulate them, or it can be used against institutions to take them down. One of the inherent contradictions of speaking truth to power is that, if you want a large platform to reach people with your message, you inevitably have to do so within the constraints of power itself.

Mr. Robot is, in part, a show about the perils of late capitalism and dangers of corporate control. Yet USA president Chris McCumber told Vulture, "(The show) is a hot property right now. We have more demand than we can handle for Mr. Robot, and it's bringing in new advertisers."

To his credit, Esmail understands the inherent contradictions of making a show for a major network. In an interview with Slate, he said, "We are part of the machine, because we get paid by them to basically sell their products, but I've been pretty firm that we're not toning things down. If advertisers still are brave enough to put their commercials on this show that maybe is offering a different point of view on our economy, I think that's kind of cool of them, but the minute I start censoring myself, when I start watering things down, that's where I would draw the line."

The question of whose side anyone is on weighs heavily upon the Mr. Robot finale. As the show's ninth episode concluded with Elliot and Tyrell still negotiating the terms of their uneasy truce, we're meant to wonder if the pair are nothing more than two sides of the same coin. Elliot never seems to fully understand why he's decided to take down Evil Corp, viewing his mission as self-evident. But by teaming up with the ruthless and power-hungry Tyrell, he's created the possibility that something even more evil could be created in its ashes. Has Elliot even considered that taking down Evil Corp might disrupt the entire world economy? Is fsociety secretly working for an even shadier entity? The only bit of agency Elliot has left is in the form of a loaded gun sitting in a popcorn machine near him. What will he do with it?

For a show that revels in the contradictions created by a data-rich society, it's the information that Mr. Robot doesn't give us that's the most compelling.

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