I would like to introduce myself: Hello, my name is Joey Armstrong. I live with clinical depression, a severe anxiety disorder, PTSD, and addiction. I’m real. I’m here. I’m trying to believe that I am worthwhile.
Mr. Robot is the best television I have seen since AMC’s Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Creator Sam Esmail does something with the series that feels groundbreaking. As one who has joined the ranks of those attempting to reclaim mental illness as something more than “broken,” I openly applaud the team of Sam Esmail and Rami Malek as they fiercely and unflinchingly portray the beauty and the pain of living with mental illness.When I heard that Niels Arden Oplev, the visionary Swedish filmmaker behind the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, was Mr. Robot, I thought we were looking at a series about the male Lisbeth Salander. After all, it features a young, troubled computer hacker who wears black and struggles with social cues.
Although the series contains plot lines involving vigilante computer hackers, cyber terrorism, and large-scale international crimes against major corporations, Mr. Robot is not about any of these things. It’s about Elliot the genius computer hacker, played by Egyptian-born actor Rami Malek (Esmail is also Egyptian), and his struggle with both the virtual and tangible realities of severe clinical depression and social anxiety disorder. Elliot lives with mental illness. He is as skinny as a whip. He has bags under his bugged-out eyes. He is as pale as a ghost and uses drugs to self-medicate. Those of us who live with mental illness know all too well that Malek’s portrayal of Elliot is neither exaggerated nor too extreme. There is nothing sensational, so to speak, about Malek’s performance.
Elliott ‘s appearance in Mr Robot is rather off-putting. There are entire scenes in which Elliot frantically talks to himself. Some of these scenes are Gollum/Smeagol-esque as he talks about “us” and “you” as if there were two personalities and/or voices in his head. He buries himself in his intellect and delivers entire angry, witty monologues in fantasy sequences that leave him feeling pathetic. He is fiercely loyal to the ones he loves, like Portia Doubleday’s Angela, a coworker and friend that he has a special connection with, but, he will avoid social engagement with anyone who invites him out of his apartment. In one scene, Elliot tells Angela he will try to make it to her party at the local bar, but instead, he skulks around outside, agonizingly attempting to convince himself that he will be safe inside.
The biggest and most familiar juxtapositions occur when Elliot confronts local business owners with the criminal information he discovered while hacking them. He is clearly troubled in these scenes. We can tell that he wants control over these scenarios but it doesn’t bring him any joy when he has it. He sits and speaks with confidence as he destroys the life sitting across the table from him but his bug eyes flit about nervously and with high levels of paranoia. In the next scene, once the police have come and taken the local restauranteur to prison, Elliot crouches in the corner of his lonely apartment and sobs uncontrollably.
Esmail sets Elliot’s story in a world dominated by cyber networking. Elliot’s biggest fight is always to stay on top of his symptoms, symptoms that attempt to convince him that all of his deeply held fears and paranoia could be the very basis of reality. These battles are complicated by his work, as he says in the pilot, as a self described “cyber security programmer by day and vigilante hacker by night,” a line that appears in the pilot.” It would appear that Sam Esmail’s predominant message is that cyberspace distorts human reality and relationships. When we tie our entire understanding of self, success, happiness, relationship, and power to computers, we lose sight of who we are. In Mr. Robot we watch this happen to a number of individuals: Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) is a young ladder-climbing businessman who finds himself confounded at every turn. Ollie Parker (Ben Rappaport), a douchey bro and Angela’s boyfriend, finds that his online sexual escapades have gotten him into deeper trouble than he could ever have realized. Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill of House of Cards) is Elliot, Angela, and Ollie’s boss at Allsafe, and is a firm believer that if everyone does their best work, nothing can go wrong. For Gideon, and subsequently Allsafe, everything quickly goes terribly wrong. Even Elliot’s therapist, Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben), discovers that the man she met online is anything but who she believed him to be (with Elliot’s help of course).
The only character that does not appear ruined or dismayed by cyberspace is the enigmatic title character, Mr. Robot. He has not forgotten himself. He is played by Christian Slater, a so-so actor who, finally, at the age of forty-six has been handed the role that makes him shine. Mr. Robot appears to be a homeless man in an old, beat up ball cap. He follows Elliot around the streets of NYC and when they finally meet, he strangely knows all too much, not only about Elliot but about his deceased father as well.
Esmail borrows heavily from the powerful and secretive online group Anonymous and their connection to the larger Occupy movement. Mr. Robot confidently leads a ragtag band of five hackers as they seek to dismantle and destroy the largest, wealthiest, and most oppressive corporations in the world, thereby erasing all financial debts owed by human society. Mr. Robot knows that Elliot is the key to their biggest hack yet. What separates Mr. Robot from Elliot? Mr. Robot seems to have found himself in the mess of cyber reality while Elliot is consistently compromised and, gradually, losing control. They are two sides of the same coin, so to speak.
Mr. Robot is at its best when it sticks with Elliot’s day-to-day experience and his voice-over narration. There is a wisdom in Elliot that we are forced to acknowledge. While Neo in The Matrix finds a way to gain control and power over and deliver the world from the cyber reality humanity is enslaved in, Elliot in Mr. Robot perpetuates the very enslavement he and his friends are held in, all the while knowing that he is trying to do his best to maintain his integrity in a broken society and failing miserably.
The series occasionally falls flat when it acts like it is only a show about cyber terrorism and espionage. For the most part, however, it is a scathing and disturbingly engaging social commentary and earnest reflection of life lived in the margins. Brilliant social commentary related by creators living with mental illness is not new to our rich global history of arts and media. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the books of Stephen King, the films of Tony Kaye, the music of Tchaikovsky, and Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust are only a few examples of the cultural impact artists living with mental illness have had. What Esmail prefers, however, is that we look at the world through the very eyes and thoughts of emotionally traumatized Elliot Alderson.
The series, given its nature, leaves viewers with one aching problem, and it is the problem that Elliot names at the conclusion of the pilot: “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too.” Is Mr. Robot real? How about the men in black suits who insist that Elliot follow them to Evil Corp.? We don’t know right now, so, in that way, we are placed in the same boat as Elliot. This is, clearly, what Esmail wants and it’s working very well.
Rami Malek shows up in such a way that we feel Elliot saying to us in every frame “Hello, friend. My name is Elliot Alderson. I live with clinical depression, social anxiety, and addiction. I’m real. I’m here. I’m trying to believe that I am worthwhile.” What is Mr. Robot about? Well, in one profound scene with his therapist, Elliot shares one of his angry inner monologues about society, and in so doing sums up the entirety of the series: “Oh, I don’t know. Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit? The world itself’s just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our running commentary of bullshit, masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books makes us happy, but because we wanna be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. Fuck society.” That’s what Mr. Robot is about and it is worth every minute.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.