Whose Side Is Mr. Robot On, Anyway?

The greatest unanswered question of USA’s sensational hacker drama isn’t about reality. It’s about morality.   


Spoilers ahead through the seventh episode of Mr. Robot

Midway through the most recent episode of Mr. Robot, Angela Moss, a young employee at a digital-security firm, confronts Terry Colby, the former CTO of a multinational corporation. She asks: What was it like when he and his co-titans of industry chose to lie about the toxic pollution they’d caused?

“Like, did we all have cigars and laugh hysterically as we signed the evil documents?” replies the gray-haired, well-fed white man as he takes a sip from a glass that’s probably filled with scotch. “Is that what you picture? Well I’m sorry, hun. See, the world doesn’t work like that.”

He then racks his memory for details about the meeting at issue, which had happened years earlier. As he recalls, his secretary brought a platter of shrimp cocktails for the group, which “pissed us off, cuz we’d just had shrimp cocktail at the holiday party.” Some exec named Jim—“a real piece of work, half pansy, half mafia”—brought out some alcohol. And it rained.

If the shrimp-cocktails scenario doesn’t sound all that different from the smoking-cigars-and-laughing one, it probably isn’t meant to. In These Times has called Mr. Robot the “anti-capitalist TV show we’ve been waiting for,” and indeed, even after seven episodes of twisty plotting and creative cinematography and bracing performances, for the most part the show plays like an Occupy Wall Street fever dream. But it also continually seems aware of the clichés this kind of story usually involves—which doesn’t prevent it from indulging in those cliches, but does hint that there may be a deeper subversion yet to come.

The protagonist, Elliot (Rami Malek), is a hacker, misanthrope, and morphine addict who wants to take down the world banking system. That system is mostly run by E Corp, which Elliot calls “Evil Corp” and which has the same logo as Enron. In the most recent episode, every macho stereotype about banker-bro culture is affirmed by E Corp’s employees: Colby makes a disgusting pass at Angela, and some anonymous suits banter about “faggots” in their midst. Seen it all before, right?

Except ... that homophobic banter is immediately punished by a young E Corp bigwig, Tyrell Wellick, who screams “YOU’RE FIRED” on the spot. Wellick, we’ve come to learn, is himself is an amalgam of fiction tropes about corporate villains: conniving, sadistic, menacingly Scandinavian, and a textbook Depraved Bisexual, too. His wife is just as coldhearted and careerist, like Claire Underwood except with an S&M twist. Seen it all before, right?

Except ... in one of the most nauseating moments I’ve seen on TV ever, he strangles the wife of a rival exec—and then becomes overtaken by panic and despair. It seems possible he acted out of passion and made a mistake, and now he doesn’t know how to fix it. Or else he just has some nib of a conscience that makes villainy more soul-wrenching than expected. In any case, it’s a moment that breaks with most Hollywood depictions of flawlessly amoral megalomaniacs. It makes you wonder: What’s this show up to?

Much of the viewer speculation around the program has centered around Elliot and the titular Mr. Robot, the shlumpy hacktivist kingpin played by Christian Slater. It seems possible that the Mr. Robot is entirely a creation of Elliot’s psyche, like Brad Pitt’s character in the show’s aesthetic ancestor, Fight Club. In early episodes, Slater’s character seemed to interact only with Elliot, never attracting attention from anyone else in the frame. Lately, though, Mr. Robot has become more convincingly “real,” and in the latest episode he even has some scenes alone with other characters—no Elliot involved. Which means that for Mr. Robot to be a hallucination, the other characters have to at least in part be fake as well, and the impression that we’re ever not seeing things from Elliot’s perspective is a sham.

Other theories: Maybe this is all Mr. Robot’s dream, or Wellick’s. Maybe E Corp has invented virtual reality and the entire show is taking place in a Matrix-like fantasy. Or maybe Mr. Robot is more conventional than it initially seemed it might be, and showrunner Sam Esmail has created nothing more than a stylish David and Goliath story.

But at this point, the most plausible theory is that the show will turn out to be a little less black and white than it has seemed, and not necessarily by virtue of a big meta reveal. Elliot has been called an antihero by some, but for the most part he’s seemed more like a conventional hero, out to save the world in spite of his personal demons. Yet his vigilantism has now backfired, resulting in the death of his girlfriend Shayla—a death he brushed aside with surprising ease. At the end of this latest episode, he reveals to his therapist that his hacking is motivated more by own craving for human connection rather than any greater altruism. Maybe he’s an antihero after all.

Similarly, last night, Trenton diagnosed the motives of the rest of the hacker group as less than noble: The members want “momentary anarchy,” or to have fun “palling around,” or to catch “a whiff of fame.” Mr. Robot is a true believer, but he’s willing to kill innocents for the cause. Angela’s quest to expose Colby has raised the question of whether her desire for closure for her mother’s death is worth people losing their jobs. And while there’s still not much sign that the big bad corporation isn’t big or bad, Wellick’s deadly climb to the top at least makes it clear that there are shades of darkness involved.

Of course, it’s hard to diagnose a show’s moral sympathies when you’re not sure what’s real and what's not. So it makes sense for viewers to keep looking for clues about whether Esmail is playing Sixth Sense-style tricks. But after all the attention paid to figuring out fact and fiction in Mr. Robot's universe, the greatest twist might be that Elliot's worldview isn’t delusional but rather too simplistic, and that good vs. evil isn’t necessarily the same as good vs. Evil Corp.