Mr. Robot is Cyberpunk for the Masses

Elliot Alderson (“Best of Rami Malek: Season 2, Episode 12”)

Critics praise Mr. Robot for going against the grain, but its textbook conformity to cyberpunk tropes reveals it’s doing anything but: this is cyberpunk for the masses.

I almost liked Mr. Robot. The washed-out, blue-green hues of the city that cybersecurity hacker Mr. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) inhabits remind me of another Mr. Thomas Anderson’s city in The Matrix. The show’s production is as darkly sleek as you’d expect from the executive producer of True Detective, and it comes replete with world-weary voice-overs lamenting materialism and oppressive “Invisible Hands of the system” to boot. Not to mention the creepy remixes of If You Go Away and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 to set the mood. No doubt, Mr. Robot looks and feels like cyberpunk. It tries really hard to dot all its cyberpunk i’s and t’s.

Elliot is your prototypical cyberpunk antihero. Even if you haven’t read anything from the genre, you already know this guy: young, down-on-his-luck techie, socially phobic with a hint of autism, invariably male, loner and addict, plus daddy issues. Mr. Robot went sexy on casting with doe-eyed Rami Malek, of course (I mean, this is prime-time, after all) but against other male co-stars, he appears emaciated and effeminate, as if to underscore his fundamental outsider-ness. Elliot also wears a trademark hoodie, and lives in a Shitty Apartment™ lit only by the glow of a monitor with lots of terminal windows to prove he isn’t using his computer for Facebook.

This sort of antihero was cemented in the literary consciousness with Henry Dorsett Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, way back in pre-Internet 1984, but Mr. Robot’s cyberpunk works for “Allsafe,” a boring cybersecurity company at the mercy of a cartoonisly corporate global conglomerate called E(vil) Corp (it’s actually referred to as “Evil” Corp as part of Elliot’s delusions throughout the series), and is eventually recruited by a shadowy hacker group called “fsociety,” Mr. Robot’s not-so-subtle foil for real-world hacker group Anonymous, to erase the world’s debt through a series of planned attacks against the conglomerate. A tale as old as time, you might say. But instead of being led into the world of crime by a pseudo-intellectual thug a la Fight Club, Mr. Robot’s eponymous fsociety leader (Christian Slater) offers vague pronouncements of anarchy that would make Occupy Wall Street proud, while the show dresses itself in paranoid delusions of being followed by hallucinatory men in black.

All this, if only Elliot was likable. I empathized with Case in Neuromancer, who is also a scrappy genius drug addict. Maybe this has something to do with Elliot’s self-righteousness: where in Neuromancer, it takes time for Case to go from worrying about where he will get his next fix to developing a sense of moral duty as he gets caught up in the novel’s larger stakes, Elliot sees himself as a sort of digital vigilante right off the bat, using his powers to expose the dark secrets of lowlifes and multinational CEOs because he believes, paradoxically, it’s his duty to save this society he drones on about despising. And those powers of his? The ability to violate everyone’s privacy, including that of his love interest and “childhood friend” (Portia Doubleday) as well as random private citizens like his unwitting psychologist, all because he’s “lonely.” In Elliot’s world, people are keys to be pressed, and especially so with Mr. Robot’s presentation of women: every one we encounter is some variation of Neuromancer’s Linda Lee, an addict or sex-object, either emotionally frayed or potentially dangerous.

Critics praise Mr. Robot for going against the grain, but its textbook conformity to cyberpunk tropes reveals it’s doing anything but: this is cyberpunk for the masses. In the eighties, cyberpunk reflected the anxieties that came out of an early intersection of human relations and globalization, resulting in revelations about human nature through the subversion of it. But what does Mr. Robot subvert in 2015 with its opening beats? Maybe it’s too early to tell. Cheap twists aside, however, I’m pretty confident I already understand everything that’s going on, and that’s a bad sign for a show about paranoia and conspiracies.

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