One of my teens watches the surprise breakaway USA channel hit Mr. Robot and to keep tabs on what is going into my kid’s cranium, I watch it, too. Mr. Robot follows the life of computer programmer Elliot from an intimate, first-person view. The perspective is so close-up, in fact, that Elliot gets angry at the audience in the second season premier, telling them,“I don’t trust you.” The audience is chastised for knowing things and not sharing them with Elliot.
Elliot is angry that the audience knows that Elliot’s father is dead and a figment of Elliot’s imagination, the major plot twist from Season One. Rami Malek, formerly of Night at the Museum and a memorable bit part in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, is compelling as a genius coder schizophrenic with dissociative disorder. High on morphine, chronically anxious, debilitatingly paranoid, with an epic Savior-complex, Malek’s Elliot is at once child-like and menacing. It’s difficult to view him as anything more than a dupe, however.
The real villain is Elliot’s father, Mr. Robot himself, played by Christian Slater. Slater is at his aggressive best in this role and has already been awarded for it with a Golden Globe. Mr. Robot convinces Elliot that the world needs to change and that by destroying “Evil Corp” (subtle) through genius hacking, the world will be a better place. So Elliot and his hacking buddies go about doing just that.
Set in modern New York city, the show is shot in duller tones often looking like drab pictures from the early 1970s. It takes some doing to make New York lifeless, but writer, producer, and director Sam Esmail manages it. There is no color in Elliot’s world. There is no color in the corporate world depicted at E-Corp. The rich workers have beautiful but bland and sterile homes. There is no life or vitality conveyed anywhere in the set pieces. One of the many deranged characters has a baby and the baby has no face and we only pay attention to it because of its incessant crying. The Mr. Robot music theme throbs in the background, jangling the viewer’s nerves.
The actions of the characters, though informed by a noble, revolutionary vision, are resigned and apathetic. The only two idealistic characters warp and change through Season One. By the Season Two premier yesterday, one is dead and the other is now finding her power as a corporate drone. Gray suit. Severe hair. Badgering phone call. Terse efficiency.
So what is the point of these tortured characters and the tormented world they inhabit and why does Mr. Robot resonate so powerfully with the younger generation?
These young hackers decry corporate greed while using cutting edge technology created by powerful corporations. They enjoy using their technology very much. The amazing computing power they hold in their hands they manipulate to take down a corporation, undermine the U.S. economy, potentially cause a 1930s like stock market crash, and harass a corporate lawyer by using her “smart house” against her. Their noble takedown is turning out to be malicious and nasty. They didn’t think of the consequences. Still, they’re portrayed as triumphant when they send a ransom-note to Evil Corp. and then literally burn $5.9 million on a New York Street.
For a Gen X-er like myself, the show feels unbearably hip and annoyingly romantic. It’s like the Millennial hackers have decided on a Romeo-Juliet suicide pact with society while ignoring their capitalistic wealth and friendship blessings. They’re hypocritical and narrow-minded.
Elliot has a dear friend. He ignores her. Elliot forgets his own sister. He forgets himself. He’s isolated, fearful, and yet has a job and potential. None of the good matters.
While the lights and hope blink in Time’s Square, Elliot pumps his fists triumphantly as the code he’s created unleashes on the world. He’s a deranged suicide bomber who is willing to take down the whole system and seems to not care that he’s part of it. He’s not Peter Gibbons. He’s Milton Waddams, but even angrier.
Young people love the show. The dark, hopeless, societal depression it portrays speaks to them.
Do you know that kid growing up who had rich parents but they never paid attention to him? He would act out and be miserable. Spoiled and superior, he’d annoy his peers. The middle class kids with loving parents alternately felt sorry for, and pantsed the rich, horrible kid.
It seems that we have a generation of “rich,” horrible kids. Even poor kids have a phone with Pokemon Go. It seems that no matter the social station, this upcoming generation lack a moral center and cohesion in the midst of historic wealth.
Stuck on computers, detached from parents, God, and friends, they identify with the nihilistic alienation of Elliot. Elliot’s father symbolizes the suffocating helicopter parent bent on using his kid for his own nefarious purposes — living out his world-changing dreams while making hapless Elliot live with the consequences. In Mr. Robot’s case, he doesn’t have to even hover. He’s inside Elliot’s head, pushing the buttons and controlling his life.
So Elliot goes along to get along and what fight he does have he externalizes on Evil Corp. His loathing is an amorphous mental infection eating away at his soul and by extension, tearing down society. Sam Esmail, the show creator, says that this season is going to be even darker. One wonders how that is possible.
Mr. Robot portrays a young America that has given up. The only power they have is to destroy and when they’re not destroying they’re doped up, lonely, and barely existing. Nihilism is the new religion and everything is awful.