When Elliott, the disaffected protagonist of USA’s new Mr. Robot, first discovers the secret crew of hacking revolutionaries he will spend the season working with, he questions their choice of name: “F Society? Is this a joke?” The group’s secret plan is the same one Tyler Durden had in 1999: they want to blow up the biggest possible bank’s data centers and erase as much debt as possible. The bank’s name, E Corp, is quickly overwritten when Elliott explains that he can’t help but mentally replace it with “Evil Corp.” Evil Corp makes everything, does everything that a company could, and their leaders are introduced as the “the guys no one knows about … the top one percent of the top one percent, the guys that play God without permission.”
But four episodes into its first season, the show seems to know what it’s doing with these archetypes and grand conspiratorial mythologies. In a meeting with those “guys no one knows about,” we learn that eleven of the twelve out-of-focus shrouded faces are E Corp’s lawyers. In another scene, the 1995 movie Hackers plays on a TV set in a hotel room, the members of F Society laugh at its inaccuracies, and one character laments that there’s probably some TV writer out there even now putting the wrong ideas into people’s heads about how digital espionage works.
More than the macro details of the hacking revolution, Mr. Robot is worth watching for the minute details of the lives of the hackers and hackees at its core. It’s about the pieces of our identities we’ve uploaded to Instagram, or encoded into our passwords. The main character Elliott says of his therapist, “Hacking her was simple, her password: Dylan_2791. Her favorite artist and the year she was born backwards.” The show emphasizes this social engineering aspect of hacking—the “human element.” You need to understand how someone thinks in order to guess their password, or you have to figure out what sensitive data to hold hostage so they do what you need them to.
This fuzzy and exploitable private-public divide rules a lot of the show’s interpersonal drama, and our understanding of the protagonist’s motivations. Elliott—who isn’t on social media—struggles with social anxiety, and a deep loneliness like the one that some have associated with our digital distance from others.
In the first episode, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Elliott’s drug dealer says she tried to post something on his Facebook, but couldn’t find him.
“I’m not on Facebook.”
“What, why not?”
“‘Cause I hate Facebook.”
“That’s crazy,” she says.
Where Fight Club’s narrator hates the cookie cutter IKEA living room every twenty-something has, Elliott hates their Twitter accounts, their Instagram habits. He can’t stand his best friend Angela’s boyfriend, and backs it up with the media the brogrammer has chosen to define himself with:
“Am I crazy not to like this guy? Among some of his Facebook likes are George W. Bush’s Decision Points, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and the music of Josh Groban. Must I really justify myself any further? His was the easiest to hack password—was 123456seven.”
Does Elliott avoid Facebook because the company is watching him and selling his data, or because he’s worried about getting hacked by someone like him? Or is he scared of defining himself through media and “likes” because it will lead those around him to understand him better?
One of the reasons he keeps coming back to the F Society crowd seems to be that he feels like they have the same weird quirks that he does. He sees a handful of angry black-suited men at every opportunity, and when a fellow F Society hacker takes a circuitous route to avoid them, he asks himself, “Does she see them too?” Elliott’s voice-over is almost constant, and he makes eye contact with the camera every so often, insisting he’s created you—the audience—as a sounding board to help deal with the bizarre situation he’s found himself in.
Mr. Robot’s large-scale plot doesn’t deal so much in nuance, but the way the story is told, and the details that build up its characters make them more than facile archetypes. If you’re looking for accurate depictions of the breakdown of privacy, the simplification of identity, and how to hack an Android phone, Mr. Robot is a good place to start.
Mr. Robot is on USA Wednesdays at 10PM EST, or, because it understands its audience, right here, right now.
Also, the show has an official page on Facebook that you can go “like.”