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How ‘Mr. Robot’ Achieved Its Splintered Psychology (Emmy Watch)

Editor Philip Harrison reveals the passive/aggressive cutting style of USA's Golden Globe-winning drama about a vigilante hacker.

Mr. Robot

USA

Mr. Robot,” the psychological thriller created by Sam Esmail, captures the social anxiety disorder of vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) in a way that makes him both scary and empathetic.

“It’s channeling something going on in the world… it’s like ‘Catcher in the Rye,'” said Philip Harrison, who edited three episodes including the finale.

Alderson is recruited by mysterious fsociety founder, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to help bring down corporate America, including the company he’s paid to protect as cybersecurity engineer.

“Sam has slowed down the pace so we can trust the story,” continued Harrison (who previously cut the more conventional “Glee”). “And that’s been a real adjustment for me. It definitely puts you in the brain space as Elliot. I have to trust that I have the skills to construct it as an overall episode. Looking at it again through Sam’s eyes, often I’m missing things that he was hitting, but other times I’m intuiting the best that I can and coming up with ideas that work for him.”

For example, in Episode 4, when Elliot goes through drug withdrawal, Harrison devised a strobe effect to enhance the visceral impact. He simply used a series of splintered jump cuts that go back in time eight frames.

Mr. Robot

“But then in the same episode, we went into a 15-minute dream sequence with no narrative dialogue,” Harrison recalled. “The challenge was to let the strange events happen without over-cutting. We let him walk up to a familiar house, but there’s a weird computer error message on a street sign. We brought in some sound effects without being overwhelming.”

It’s the alternating rhythms — surreal and plot-driven action about infiltrating the data center —that drive “Mr. Robot.” But for the editor, the most emotional moments occur in Episode 7.

In the first scene, there’s a bittersweet flashback of the first time Elliot met his love interest, who’s passed away. And then in the last scene, Elliot, in admitting that he’s been hacking his therapist, lets down his defenses for the first time. “I like having a certain piece of the puzzle and just focusing on that,” Harrison said.

Then, on the subway train toward the end of the finale, when Elliot retreats totally into his own mind, the editor reintroduced the splintered effect since it’s the nature of his psychology.

“In those cuts, you see him with a very blank face, with a faint smile, breaking down in tears, just in jump cuts,” Harrison explained. “Overall, it’s Sam’s world and the best thing that I can bring are all the professional skills and awareness that I’ve had over the years so we can [provide] his touches and shift things as close to his vision as possible.”

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