In 'Mr. Robot,' an Attempt to Digitally Hack Into an Analog Psyche

Apart from intriguing characters and a riveting plot, this show has a message.

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This photo provided by USA Networks shows, Rami Malek, left, as Elliot, and Christian Slater as Mr. Robot in a scene from the pilot episode of the television series, 'Mr. Robot.'
This photo provided by USA Networks shows, Rami Malek, left, as Elliot, and Christian Slater as Mr. Robot in a scene from the pilot episode of the television series, 'Mr. Robot.' Credit: AP

The “bookies” (meaning aficionados of the somewhat obsolete, low-tech gadget called “a book,” made of paper without an on-off switch; not the guys who take your bets) may not like the idea, but the screen-viewing world is starting to be very much like the realm of publishing. There is the frontlist, with new programs or series sprung upon the viewers, each one presenting itself as an original work, with most of them adhering to some kind of formula that has proved itself in the past as effective in gripping viewers’ attention and postponing the inevitable act of zapping away as long as possible.

And there is the backlist: series that were – like books – on the frontlist once, but lost their novelty appeal. They are still around, to be viewed at our leisure in reruns or on VOD, like books on one’s bookshelf or in a shop. In other words, TV programs or series never go out of circulation anymore, and if you miss the first screening you can always catch up, mid-season or between seasons. What’s even more important is the fact that on VOD you can always rewind the tape to check your impressions, very much like turning back the pages of a book to see if your short-term memory is in working order.

That is how I spent last Saturday. “Mr. Robot,” an American drama-cyber-thriller TV series premiered online and on many VOD services in May 2015, and was renewed for a second season even before it was picked up by USA Network. It was not initially picked up for broadcast in Israel by any of the existing providers, but it got its share of 2016 Golden Globe awards, which means that most probably the second season will be picked up for regular viewing in Israel, with the first season being offered then on VOD. Meanwhile the whole first season can be viewed in Israel on the relatively new Cellcom TV subscriber service.

“Mr. Robot” is a series well worth viewing. Apart from the usual assets of intriguing characters and riveting plot, it has a message. It presents the viewer with a view of the world we live in, and carries further a notion that once became a movie title, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” turning it into “It’s a weird, weird, weird, weird world.” The weirdness is the existence of a parallel reality to the one we all live in, made of digital data, collected, processed and stored by companies and conglomerates.

Why is it weird? Because all the troves of data, which contain information about ourselves that we willingly provided so we could run our lives in a digital world – all this can be hacked and manipulated by people whose digits – i.e., fingers – on a keyboard can scale all firewalls with ease. Which means that the whole concept of privacy becomes an illusion the moment we go online. What’s worse is the fact that the world has painted itself into such a corner that one can barely keep functioning without going online for the most basic things.

The main character in the series, created by Sam Esmail (even his surname sounds digital), is a young, emotionally disturbed computer wizard named Elliot Alderson who works as a security engineer in a cyber security company called Allsafe Cybersecurity. As Elliot suffers from bouts of clinical depression and paranoia, he has got into the habit of connecting with his fellowmen and women by hacking into their lives. That, of course, provides him with an illusion of control over his own life, when he is not sniffing morphine. He brings himself down with an antidote, and has the delusion of controlling the lives of others, including his own psychotherapist. He is played by Rami Malek, who has an emaciated, haunted look, a jutting chin and deeply sunk, slightly protruding eyes.

Existential paradox

Elliot walks through life fully convinced that there is a conspiracy out there, comprised of individuals who rule the world from a boardroom somewhere. His practice of hacking is his protective measure against the evil world that is out to get him. He lives in an existential paradox, as he works for a company that provides cyber security for E Corp, while he suspects (actually knows) that the E stands for evil. The corporation that makes money by hoarding data is responsible for many evils, not the least of them being the early death of his father and the mother of his childhood girlfriend. He has the constant sensation of being watched and followed; the fact that he suffers from paranoid delusions does not mean that he is not actually being watched and followed.

Elliot is recruited by an anarchist known as Mr. Robot to join a group of hacktivists with a mission. As E Corp plays God in the digital world using data to rule the “real” world, there is another factor that makes the world go round: money. Actually, not the money itself, since nowadays it is mainly data in motion between accounts, but the concept of debt. It is not the money that makes the world go round, but – as it were – the lack of it.

Someone, somewhere, is in need of money, so he borrows it. The person or company or corporation he borrows it from had borrowed it from someone else, who in turn had borrowed it from someone else, and so on, ad infinitum. And all of it runs in a virtual world, in lines of code composed of 1 and 0. 1 means that somewhere, an electronic switch is on, which means that a current gets through. 0 means the switch is off, and the current is blocked. As long as the switch gets flipped on and off, the world keeps going around.

Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater (who got a Golden Globe award for best actor in a drama series) comes up with a plan intended to bring E Corp down. This will involve erasing all its data, effectively canceling all the debts in the world, and setting millions of citizens – each with a loan or a mortgage – free, and at the same time creating havoc with the existing system. Mr. Robot prods Elliot to be a 1 – someone who is active – rather than a 0 – a passive cog in a machine that ultimately crunches all the numbers. There is more than one clue to tell the viewer that Mr. Robot is a figment of a virtual reality, or to be precise – as the series is about both cyber and the psyche – “virtual emotional reality.”

Waiting for the second season of “Mr. Robot,” due sometime this year, one is left with the notion of Elliot, the human individual who connects to others by hacking, attempting and ultimately succeeding in digitally hacking into his own analog psyche. Forcing his way through the firewall of his own consciousness, he comes to terms with the memories of and relations with his father, mother, sister and himself, erasing in the process the heavy, emotional debts that hold him back, and – of course – incurring many other emotional debts in the process.