Third-episode verdict: Mr Robot (US: USA Network)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, USA Network. Starts June 24
In the UK: Not yet acquired

10 PRINT “Hello friend”;
20 PRINT “Reviewing Mr_Robot is quite difficult”;
30 IF (Mr_Robot=“DELUSION” OR Mr_Robot=“SOCIAL ENGINEERING") THEN GOTO 60;
40 PRINT “Mr Robot is a terrible show that thinks it’s saying something very clever and very edgy but actually is very stupid, confusing the audience with ambiguity and a sheen of intelligence and background research into suspending their critical facilities.”;
50 STOP
60 PRINT “Mr Robot is a superb, captivating show that examines modern life, our relationships with each other and how they’re influenced by technology, technology’s power over us, corporations power over us and the nature of reality, while cleverly using the standard tropes of hacker stories to distract us.”;
70 END

Tricky, hey? Mr Robot could be many things. When I’m most hopeful, I believe it to be a sort of hacking Fight Club in which a socially impaired hacker (Rami Malek) talks to the viewer, makes observations about normal life and drinking Starbucks, before taking down capitalism with the help of his Tyler Durdenesque hallucinated pal, Mr Robot (Christian Slater) – all while using his powers with computers to take out low-life internet paedophiles like a Batman who trained with code ninjas rather than actual ninjas.

Just as good is the possibility that maybe Malek is being made to think this by people who know exactly how to mess with the mind of someone paranoid with a diagnosed history of hallucinations. They may all be real, but they’re not who they’re pretending to be. How could they be? They’re so implausible.

When I’m at my least hopeful, I suspect Mr Robot is dicking with us. Sure, there’s the superb direction, the greatest attention to technical detail bar none of any TV show (surely the first usage of IPv6 addressing in a browser URL bar on TV?), the adult themes and characters, the 80s soundtrack, and the furniture of quality TV such as foreign languages, drug taking and diverse sexuality.

All the same, this could be a show that actually believes that the world is run by a secret cabal, the 1% of 1%s, and hackers like fsociety really do exist, dress and act exactly like the way it depicts, and are anarchist-socialist-libertarian heroes who are protecting us. Or worse still, come the end of the season, they’ll send us a goatse or a Rickroll link of a finale that’ll all be about the LOLs and how they messed with us so bad.

Certainly, this tightrope walk with reality is what the show would like us to have to do, that much is clear. And making us doubt everything we see and hear is half Mr Robot’s game, I suspect – to somehow make the viewer conscious of the weird blurring of reality and the virtual which we’ve all normalised, where lives can be destroyed at the touch of a button and people across the world can be inside your home with you, watching what you’re up to, simply because you tried to listen to a CD.

Whether it’s actually ‘true’ or not is as unimportant as whether the show’s Evil Corp is actually called Evil Corp – even though we know it’s not called that, everywhere we look, that’s what it seems to be called. It even has an evil logo. Is it Mastercard? Is it Visa? Perhaps it’s both and yet neither.

Similarly, do people avoid looking or even talking with Christian Slater because he’s not real or because he dresses like a twat? Perhaps it’s both and yet neither.

So the Barrometer has had to go all quantum mechanical on us for the first time in its history, although I doubt its shiny, highly polished, barely used brain really understands more than whether it simply likes a TV show or not. It’s got two review waves – blue for “it’s all in his mind or a set up”, red for “we’re showing you the true nature of society”. I suspect that only when the series has finished, if then, will the wave function collapse into one of these waves.

Until then, I’m going to absolutely captivated – and doing my very best to get someone in the UK to pick it up. If I can do it with The Last Ship and Halt and Catch Fire, surely I can do it with Mr Robot?

Barrometer rating: 0 or 3
TMINE prediction: Already renewed for a second season and the ratings are doing well

  • benjitek

    It's an interesting show — wondering if they can keep it 1 season and tell a story, or if they'll drag it on and on. So far, it's great though…

  • Agreed, although it's already got a second season, so they might need a new story…

  • Andy Butcher

    Haven't had the time to watch the third episode yet, but I'm curious about your take on the 'EvilCorp' thing, as this is the second time you've mentioned it.

    My take is that it's just a consequence of the first-person narrative structure of the show. We, the audience, are a figment of Elliot's imagination – an 'imaginary friend' that he has created because he needs someone to talk to. We only exist in his head. As such, we see and hear what Elliot sees and hears, and Elliot informs us in the pilot that “the 'E' might as well stand for 'Evil' – in fact, after a thorough, intensive self-reprogramming, that's all my mind sees, hears or reads when they pop up in my world”.

    So the name of the company is ECorp, but as we are experiencing the story from within Elliot's mind, 'EvilCorp' is what we see, hear and read.

    Or are you suggesting that Elliot's narration is even less reliable than it appears?

    And yes, I am rapidly developing something of an obsession with this show… Elliot may be rubbing off on me to a worrying degree. 🙂

  • Sometimes I repeat myself because I try not to assume everyone who reads an entry has also read WHYBW and/or the comments. That's the main reason I mention the EvilCorp thing again.

    But I was suggesting as you were that we know that it's not EvilCorp – which is presumably either MasterCard or Visa in reality, assuming that Mr Robot is set in the real world – but that's what we see because that's how Elliot thinks of it. But if that's the case, simply because we see something on-screen, that doesn't mean it's what's actually happening. We may see people interacting with each other, etc, but that doesn't mean they actually are doing what we see them doing, wearing what we see them wearing and so on.

    It's something that TNT's Perception actually did surprisingly well, too, in its first season where whole plots of the final two episodes are actually the delusions of the unmedicated, paranoid schizophrenic hero. We, the audience, could spot the fact that black suited individuals hatching plans to take over the world were almost certainly figments of his imagination, because they were so implausible.

    Elliot does ask us at the end of the first episode if we're seeing what he's seeing because he needs a genuine reality check. The trouble is that we share his delusion reality and his delusions aren't so manifestly odd. We also have no other reality checker, whereas Perception gave us the points of view of second characters who couldn't see what the hero saw.

    So are the events between the evil Swedish characters actually happening or not? We're seeing them but they seem very odd, but not so odd that they couldn't be happening. We finally saw someone interact with one of the hackers… or did we? Perhaps we did, but the person we see is different from the 'real' person.

    And so on. Basically, trust nothing and no one!

  • Andy Butcher

    “Basically, trust nothing and no one!”

    Indeed, especially if your suspicions that someone may be deliberately messing with Elliot prove to be correct. 🙂

    Agree that Perception sometimes handled unreliable narration quite well, although I always felt the use of multiple pov characters was a bit of a cop out (albeit hardly unexpected given the overall style and tone of the show).

    I must admit I hadn't considered Visa or MasterCard as candidates for the 'real' EvilCorp, although they make a lot of sense. I don't think it's a coincidence that their logo is essentially identical to Enron's, though… 🙂

  • I thought Visa/Mastercard because the Evil logo is on credit cards and their problems are causing problems for people trying to buy things; also, Mr Robot's plan is to wipe out debt, which would suggest some kind of banking company.

    It's also Tyler Durden's plan to destroy the credit card companies in Fight Club, so I suspect subconsciously I assumed it was the same.

    Indeed, Mr Robot is so close in many ways to Fight Club that it feels like there's no way they could actually have Mr Robot himself be an hallucination because everyone would think it a rip off. It also feels like the producers want us to think it's Fight Club and are setting things to play on that: so they know we're thinking Christian Slater might not be real, so they know we're looking to see if he interacts with other people. And when people don't interact with him, we feel like we might be on to something, rather than because people don't want to interact with him, because he looks like a bum, etc.

    But at the same time, they probably suspect we suspect this, so perhaps it's a double bluff or there's a much larger level of divorce from reality going on. Hmm.

  • Andy Butcher

    Hehehehe. Careful, or you'll end up as obsessed as I'm becoming. 🙂

    The way the show blurs the lines between (as much as I dislike the term) 'meta' considerations of how much the producers are playing with our expectations and the 'in reality of the story' considerations of how far Elliot's reality diverges from the reality of the people around him is one of the things I love the most about it so far.

    But as you touch on, it's also one of the main reasons that I continue to worry that it's all going to fall apart and end up being a bit pants. There's so much potential for the producers to be too clever for their own good – and coming up with a truly satisfying resolution that works on all the levels that the show does strikes me as a rather non-trivial task.

    (Of course, they don't necessarily have to resolve everything – they could just leave us never knowing quite what's real and what's not. But pulling that off in a satisfying manner strikes me as being even harder.)

    Still, even if the quantum Barrometer does end up collapsing into the less desirable red state, it looks like it's going to be a lot of fun before we get to that point.

  • Mark Carroll

    I am reminded of retrospectively reading The Lurker's Guide to episodes of Babylon 5 which has plenty of ideas for “what might be going on” that are sometimes far better than what turned out to actually be the case.

  • Ellen Olford

    It is confirmed that the writer/creator, Sam Esmail, has an ending in mind. He doesn't want to drag this out for a dollar figure; he has a direction and an artistic vision for the show that he won't compromise on.

  • benjitek

    Did he happen to mention his definition of 'drag this out'. For me, not dragging a series out means tell a story in a single season, 13 episodes max — ideally 8-10. He may feel a 3-season story arc is acceptable. By 'it is confirmed' I'm assuming you read an article somewhere, do you have a link? If not, how is it 'confirmed'…?

    Hopefully his vision doesn't clash with the network's. If it does, maybe the network will concede — or — he'll leave the project. Who knows, but the episode this week was great 🙂

  • Mark Carroll

    That encourages me to stick with it.

  • JustStark

    I'm not sure I could watch it, because every time I glance at the title I start thinking, 'Domo arigato.'

  • Andy Butcher

    🙂

    I think it's worth trying. The first episode, if nothing else, is a great pilot.

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()