Night Flight-endorsed “Mr. Robot”‘s brilliant first season finale airs tonight

By on September 2, 2015

Tonight, Wednesday September 2, USA Network will air the first season finale (“eps1.9_zer0-day.avi”) of one of this summer’s best new shows, “Mr. Robot,” and if you’ve been watching, you already know that this is the kind of TV show that Night Flight would endorse.

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It should probably go without saying that the critically-lauded “Mr. Robot” is one of those shows that should probably be seen from the very first episode, and maybe this post will drive people who’ve missed out so far toward seeking it out on their own.

The pilot episode — directed by Niels Arden Oplev — won an audience award when it was screened at the South By Southwest Festival. Before the first episode even aired on USA, it had been viewed by nearly three million additional viewers, on various digital platforms, after first being released online on May 27. The show has continued to grow each week too — not something a lot of TV shows can boast about — from around 1.75 million to a steady three million weekly viewers, each week, thanks in part to online streaming.

It’s terrific news that USA has already renewed the show for a second season, and honestly, we think that if enough people catch up with the series before the next batch of episodes arrive (probably next year), this is the kind of show that can hit the ground running and really take off in the ratings.

That said, let’s try to describe what’s been happening without giving too much of it away: First, the show is a psychological thriller about a young white-hat computer programmer and seriously-talented vigilante dark-hat hacker named Elliot Alderson, played by 24-year old Rami Malek (he’s been in PT Anderson’s The Master, and was one of the highlights of the ensemble cast appearing on HBO’s “The Pacfiic,” but this is his breakout role, no doubt about it).

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By day, the potentially schizophrenic, possibly morphine-addicted Elliot works (when he’s actually working) as a cyber-security engineer for a company Allsafe Cybersecurity whose biggest client is always referred to as Evil Corp, although the corporate conglomerate’s name is actually E Corp (everyone on the show calls it Evil Corp). Much of his free time (even some of his time while he’s clocked in at work) is devoted to protecting the company that he’s helping to take down at night.

But Elliot’s a moral ethical hacker in that he’s not motivated by money but by a desire to change the world for the better, and do the right thing, even if that does mean breaking the law. One of his motivations, in fact, comes from something we learn early on, that Elliot’s father died of leukemia due to an unchecked chemical leak that Evil Corp were responsible for, and knew about, but decided to ignore due to the hit their profit margin would take.

Elliot is kind of a legend in the hacking world, and stays up-to-date on forums and boards, and maintains his fellow hacking contacts through the internet. He is skilled in information gathering and observation, and demonstrates incredible skills in social engineering, email phishing and other even more realistic ways that criminals get to your personal information, which allow him to learn as much as possible about the people around him, and the people he wants to take down.

He then uses these skills to bring what he sees as justice to people who might otherwise escape the notice of law enforcement, as demonstrated by his confrontation with a prosperous coffeehouse owner who also runs a child-pornography website.

One of the best things about the show is it’s emphasis on accuracy and attention to detail as far as the hacking goes, something that separates “Mr. Robot” from most cyber crime movies and television shows of the past because of Michael Bazzell, the show’s tech advisor, who is an internationally known privacy consultant who worked for fifteen years as cyber crime detective, ten of which he spent with the FBI’s cyber crime task force.

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From the very beginning of the show, we’re acknowledged through his voiceover narration, directed to us, the viewer at home, so that each of us watching exist in the show as a character too. From the jump we’re not entirely sure if he’s and unreliable/delusional/narcotics-addled narrator, or maybe we’re the ones who have it all wrong.

The narration is like a curious character-driven hybrid of some of the best paranoid mindfuck psychodramas from the world of cinema — it’s like an immersive world that has absorbed the very best parts of all the good hacker movies (there’s a few of them), crossed with movies like Taxi Driver, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and American Psycho, and because of this, “Mr. Robot” never quite feels like a TV show.

There’s something more cinematic about the way the show just unravels as it proceeds, in that we’re inside Elliot’s head, and we’re also outside of his head, looking in, all at the same time, psychologist and patient both. There’s an intimacy with Elliot that the audience has with the character that that would be impossible to do with just dialogue and scene.

“What is it about sociery that disappoints you so much,” his therapist asks in the pilot episode, and we hear Elliot’s answer as though he’s answering for everyone:

“Is it that we collectively thought that 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 is just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our commentary bullshit masquerading as insight. Our social media faking us into intimacy, or is 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 want to be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. Fuck Society.”

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In fact, there might even be a reason for all of this: “Mr. Robot” wasn’t initially created for TV, it began as a feature film, but as he was writing it, the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, felt that it was becoming too too long and cumbersome as a feature, and he changed the first ninety pages into the first two episodes and then kept writing, turning it thereafter into a television show. The narrative structure never quite feels episodic, although there have been crucial times that the show has been edited to have TV-friendly cliffhanger endings that keep you on the end of your seat, waiting for the next week’s episode.

If this show would have been developed for TV, there probably would have been a procedural element built into it, where they close one chapter before starting a new one, but because the filmmakers are just telling this one story, it really feels like you’re watching a movie and forced to pause it for a week at a time.

Our only complaint, really, is that we wish HBO, Showtime or some other premium channel had stepped up and purchased the show so that we can see the episodes without the commercial interruptions that we have to endure with USA.

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There are just a handful of other leading characters here, but it’s particularly important to point out one of them is the leader of an underground hacker group, FSociety, existing as a secret society of anarchists, who recruits him to bring down Evil Corp, the very firm the company he works for is paid to protect from being hacked, because they’re basically, and simultaneously, running and ruining the world. Elliot and the FSociety hackers believe that what they’re doing is important; they’re going to destroy the modern economic system by wiping out all debt.

It’s kind of like an Occupy and Anonymous movements or a similar scenario, taken to the nth-degree. There are other familiarities here to what’s going on in our world, right now, like feeling at times like we’re seeing what it must have been like to be the inside of a huge corporate data hack like the one that happened to Sony Corp awhile back, or one even larger, in terms of scope and the potential for financial ruin.

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The leader (Christian Slater, in a remarkable role that frankly we didn’t realize he had in him) is wearing a jacket with a patch on it that says “Mr. Robot.” You’ll have to watch to find out if that’s his name, the company he works for, or something that Elliot’s vivid imagination is concocting. The show also features a strong supporting cast, including Portia Doubleday (Her) as his closest co-worker and his longtime best friend, Angela Moss, Carly Chaikin (“Suburgatory”) as Darlene, a skiller hacker with FSociety and a bit of a handful too, it seems, and Martin Wallström (Easy Money III) as Tyrell Wellick, a young ambitious senior VP at Evil Corp who has an advanced skillset in hacking himself.

The show is set in New York City, although one of the best locations — FSociety’s headquarters, located inside an old abandoned but refurbished arcade — is actually in Coney Island.

Speaking of New York, we suspect that tonight’s finale episode will also focus a bit on the plummeting of Evil Corp’s stock market price, and it’s ironic or at least serendipitous that tonight’s finale is coming just as Wall Street seems to be going through a tough time, syncing up up somewhat with one of the show’s over-arching storylines: China stocks declined sharply again today (Wednesday) despite a new round of stimulus measures from the central government, and the Dow Jones industrial average has been a wild ride like one of those Coney Island rollercoaster.

(That storyline concerns how Evil Corp’s information backup system’s redundant data is stored in China — that way, a physical catastrophe in the U.S., for instance, would not destroy all the data, as the data in China could then be replicated to replace the destroyed data, but we shall say no more to avoid being even more spoilerish).

Since the plot of the entire series can’t really be discussed in-depth without spoiling too much of it for those who might wanna catch up with the show on Hulu or other digital platforms, we’re just going to include this interview we found on Slate (from June 2015, before the pilot aired) with the show’s creator, Sam Esmail:

Slate: Where did the show come from?

Esmail: I’m Egyptian. I have a lot of cousins who are in their 20s. I was there right after the Arab Spring happened, and I was so inspired by that. One of the things that defined Elliot’s character is that revolutionary spirit I saw in my cousins. These are young people who are tech-savvy, who use technology to their advantage to channel the anger against the status quo and try and make a change to better their lives. That is something that’s beautiful and fascinating to me, and that’s what I really, really want the show to be about. It’s set in the world of technology, because I think that is a tool that young people can use to bring about change. I mean, look at the LGBT community: What massive changes have occurred in society just in terms of marriage and trans issues being more public and open.

Slate: It’s really interesting to hear about being inspired by your cousins, because that is a part of the world where we think people are using technology and their comfort with it to bring about change. Whereas elsewhere, we think of hackers as people who are breaking the law, people who are our selling our personal data. Was it an issue for you to have a hero who’s breaking the law?

Esmail: I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I look at that as a great thing. Do I want a character who just has the best motives and the best intentions, zero flaws, and is doing things for the right reasons? No!

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Slate: Did you have any concerns about presenting computers and technology accurately? TV often shows computers that are miraculously quick and have unbelievable graphics, but we know how frustrating real computers can be.

Esmail: I’ve never worked in television before. You get on the set, and you get a crew, and they’re amazing, and they’ve done lots of television, but the one thing about this amazing crew that’s done lots of television is they do the computer and technology part in a certain way, because most shows don’t care about it. They green screen it. They put it in later.

“If we want to geek up a screen, we’ll just add the big red delete button or the big red execute button and a countdown.” It’s this silly shit that no one really decided to pay careful attention to. Then here I come, and I say, “Oh, no, no. We’re not doing that. We’re actually going to get the real stuff, the real details from our tech expert. We’re going to show 20 screens, not just the one screen with the big red button. It’s going to be a lot more work, and we’re not going to green screen any of it.”

So we have to build them all before we shoot, and the actor has to actually interact with the screen and not stare at a green screen and not know what the hell’s going on. They actually have to type in the commands that we see on screen, so of course everyone’s looking at you with evil glares because that just creates a whole amount of work, and thought, and planning.

But I was very stubborn about it, and they wound up getting into it, and they wound up doing a great job, but it’s difficult because not only did they not think that stuff mattered, they didn’t think the audience cared, either, and I just fundamentally disagreed with that. I’m hoping it pays off.

Slate: In the first episode, there’s a lot of voiceover. Typically that’s been seen as lazy, but it seems like there’s been this almost reemergence of voiceover in shows like Jane the Virgin and iZombie that use it very well.

Esmail: I love voiceover. I never understood this idea that it was lazy. Well, yes, there are those movies or TV shows that use it as just a way to get out exposition. But you know what? That’s just bad writing. I use voiceover just like I use dialogue. There’s a way to give out information or give out insight to the character or give out their worldview, and maybe you have to slip in exposition, but it’s all about how you write it. VO can be really powerful, because it’s an intimate relationship you take on with the audience that you can’t really do in dialogue. If you do it well, it can be really, really cool, and it’s a totally different dimension.

(read more at the link)

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.