There’s something at turns frustrating and fascinating about an unreliable narrator. Elliot Alderson is much more the latter than the former, though; he doesn’t want to purposefully mislead us. Rather, his brain misleads him and we’re carried along for the disconcerting ride. I’ve seen Mr. Robot praised for its topicality, its technological accuracy, but I am more drawn to it as a vivid character study. “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia,” Elliot says in episode 8. As viewers we’re definitely forced to live in Elliot’s paranoia. Poor Elliot. Poor us.
Living in Elliot’s paranoia makes it difficult to be objective and analytical, to pick apart the show for tropes and tricks, to guess what’s going to happen next. I can only really do this in hindsight. During episode 2 I was thinking “this is gonna be some Fight Club nonsense, isn’t it.” Then I simply stopped caring. By episode 4 I didn’t care if the Big Reveal was a predictable reworking of Fight Club; I was so in love with Rami Malek’s performance, so anxious for (and with) Elliot, that nothing else mattered. I was in deep. Episode 4 features an extended dream sequence that is only matched in excellence by the season 4 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious. Both Mr. Robot and Buffy nail dream logic, particularly the defamiliarizing of familiar places. Both shows inject nightmares with the jarring humour of an absurdist play (in Buffy it is The Cheese Man, in Mr. Robot we have Elliot’s betta fish yelling at him). I was enjoying Mr. Robot before episode 4, but it was episode 4 that made me obsessed.
So, though I wasn’t enthralled by the premise (awkward genius hacker instigates revolution, probably has a Tyler Durden thing going on), I was thrilled by the presentation of that narrative, which seemed exciting and unusual. But I was after all blindsided by the Big Reveal in episode 8, which is thankfully more than just “some Fight Club nonsense.” “Were you in on this the whole time?” Eliot yells at us. “Were you?” No, Elliot, I wasn’t. But I will be when I rewatch the season (and I will), noticing all those odd little moments that make sense now that I have a piece of the puzzle I lacked before. At that thought I feel weirdly guilty, as if I am betraying or abandoning Elliot. Silly, right? But it’s hard to be merely a spectator when watching Mr. Robot; Elliot speaks to us and calls us “friend” and though at first I wanted to find this cloying or ridiculous, the truth is that it is so well done that I became participatory in Elliot’s experiences. In a sense, I will lose that when I rewatch the show; I will become an analytic observer, rather than an immersed participant.
Of course, if I’m not immersed I won’t be emotionally fatigued by Elliot’s mental illness, his confusion and fear. And boy, let me tell you, it is an uncomfortably good portrayal of mental illness. Mr. Robot shows neuroses as I know them. “#me,” said I, the chronically depressed and anxious, when I watched Elliot ugly-crying in a corner. In public, Elliot is very quiet, but you can see him practically vibrating with anxiety, feel him screaming internally while trying to carry on normal conversations. Everything in the show from the soundtrack to the cinematography produces a steady uneasiness. Whether it was intended or not, the cinematography at the end of episode 1 is particularly evocative of anxiety-induced derealization. The crowd of besuited 1-percenters are an indistinct menace, painfully dragged into focus as if we are seeing through Elliot’s eyes as he struggles to connect to what’s going on around him. “Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” he begs, unable to trust his own perception. Of course, we can’t trust our own perception either.
Despite being generally impressed with the portrayal of Elliot’s anxiety and depression, I found the split personality stuff in the season finale somewhat awkward and hackneyed (the show doesn’t completely escape that “Fight Club nonsense”). Though I would without hesitation recommend Mr. Robot to literally everyone, I know that it’s not without its flaws. Most prominent among these is the unfortunate fridging of a female character mid-season (dear writers, was that really necessary?). But, I mean, how could I stay mad for long with Rami Malek on screen? My criticisms die on my lips when I am confronted with those soulful eyes.