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How ‘Mr. Robot’ Hacks TV’s Empathy Machine

How 'Mr. Robot' Hacks TV's Empathy Machine

This post contains spoilers for “Mr. Robot

Roger Ebert famously dubbed cinema “a machine that generates empathy,” but that description might more securely fit the small screen than the big. While it’s possible to keep our distance from an unlikeable protagonist over the course of a two-hour movie, the exponentially greater investment required by a TV series makes it virtually impossible for viewers to avoid siding with the show’s central figure. At its extreme, this produces what the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum dubbed “bad fans,” who stay loyal to the likes of Walter White and Tony Soprano even as the series sends increasingly more emphatic signals that the time to empathize with their struggles has come to an end. But even more critical viewers enter into a kind of ongoing back-and-forth with the almost exclusively male antiheroes of TV’s “Golden Age”: We may recognize that Don Draper is a bad father, a disloyal husband, an abusive drunk, and a semi-unreconstructed sexist, but we’re still pulling for him to improve. Otherwise, why would we keep watching?

One of the things that makes “Mr. Robot,” whose first season ends tonight, so fascinating is the way it challenges this elemental building block of series TV. (Update: Due to apparently similarities between the finale and the shootings in Virginia this morning, USA has rescheduled the finale for next week.) Elliott Alderson (Rami Malek), the show’s hacker protagonist, isn’t just a by-now-conventional TV antihero: As Slate’s Willa Paskin suggests, he’s “representative of a new, necessarily male TV archetype…. the alienated hero, the stranger to society and himself.” He’s not a gruff visionary, too immersed in his work to spare time on social niceties; he’s a sociopath, or something close to it, preferring to ransack the privacy of everyone he meets rather than engage them in simple conversation. In a sense, he’s our collective addiction to digital snooping hyperbolized, poring over Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds before breaking into bank accounts and dating profiles. But although the show, which was created by Sam Esmail, situates us within Elliott’s point of view, it never lets us settle into his skin.

“Mr. Robot’s” most flamboyant twist was revealing that Christian Slater’s title character, the head of a loosely affiliate group of white hat hackers called fsociety, is a figment of Elliott’s imagination — a vision, in fact, of his late father, who died when Elliott was a boy. But the show has suggested all along that we should regard everything on screen with a skeptical eye. In the first episode, Elliott’s voiceover explains that he’s privately nicknamed the massive global conglomerate whose negligence gave his father cancer “Evil Corp,” but over the course of nine episodes, we’ve never heard anyone refer to it as anything else, even in scenes when Elliott’s not physically present. While it’s unlikely, it wouldn’t be entirely out of bounds for the finale to tell us that everything we’ve seen in the season so far has been a lie, a product of Elliott’s schizophrenic delusions.

“Mr. Robot’s” cinematographer, Tim Ives, frequently crops bodies at the edge of the screen, or situates them low in the frame, as if the camera itself is avoiding eye contact. (Although the show has tipped its hat to “Fight Club,” its most proximate influence might be Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which used a spreading pandemic as a metaphor for social alienation.) At times, the show’s distinctive style can verge on gimmickry, but it serves the point of constantly reminding us that what we’re watching is bring famed by unseen forces. We’re inside Elliott’s head — and not just figuratively. The show’s voiceover narration, which Malek delivers in an unnerving monotone, is explicitly addressed to us, but he’s as distrustful of the show’s audience as if he is any of its characters. “Were you in on it?” he asks, and in a sense we were; none of this would be happening if we weren’t watching. Trouble is that, just like Mr. Robot, we’re not real; Elliott just made us up to have someone to talk to, and now he’s wondering if that was a mistake. “I should never have created you,” he laments. Elliott even reproaches us for having guessed the “Fight Club”-inspired twist before he did: “You knew all along, didn’t you?”

One criticism of “Mr. Robot” is that Elliott is the show’s only fully developed character, but while that may be true, I’ve come to see it as a feature, not a bug. Although Elliott fantasizes about being able to strip humans down to their source code, people remain unhackable: Treating people like computer programs allows him to manipulate them, but not to understand them. Like Elliott, we’re on the outside looking in, sometimes with envy, towards the cozy domestic life of his boss as a digital security firm, sometimes with contempt, in the show’s vision of a ruthless, and eventually murderous, Evil Corp executive. Elliott’s mind is a deeply discomfiting place to be, but it’s the only way into “Mr. Robot’s” world.

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