Pilots are faulty by design. They exist to establish conflict, character, and tone, and because of television's inherent production constraints, they rarely accomplish their goals with much style. With that in mind, the first episode of Sam Esmail's cyber-pulp show Mr. Robot deserves a great deal of credit, if only for its swaggeringly confident introduction. By grounding the action entirely within the psyche of a bug-eyed, Robin Hood-esque hacker named Elliot Alderson (played by the phenomenal Rami Malek), Esmail successfully constructs a compelling thriller that examines modern-day urban alienation via the socio-political zeitgeist, with an engaging visual aesthetic to boot. Like Hackers meets Howard Zinn, Mr. Robot shines a light on those who live in the shadows and gives voice to their resentment and fear. It's an achievement worth celebrating, even when the pilot occasionally misses the mark.
Before Esmail dives into global conspiracies and Marxist hacktivist collectives, "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov" starts with Elliot, a socially anxious, clinically depressed cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night. Angry at society for its various ills — in an imagined monologue to his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben), he rants about late capitalism, social media, and retail sedation — he hacks strangers' lives to right perceived public wrongs. (In the series' first scene, he busts a coffee shop owner who runs a child pornography ring.) However, Elliot also hacks his friends to discover who they really are, partially because he's curious, but also because he has difficulty talking to others. He knows about the debt problems facing his childhood friend and coworker Angela (Portia Doubleday), the terrible taste (he likes George W. Bush's Decision Points on Facebook) and rampant infidelity of Angela's boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rapaport), and he even mines Krista's unfortunate dating history. It's an easy way to avoid actually asking people about their lives, and a sneaky way to have the upper hand during any prolonged conversation.
An inveterate privacy invader on the side of the righteous, Elliot's actions are ethically dubious to say the least, but Esmail and Malek go to great lengths to humanize our hero by plunging into his complex, damaged psychology. Alienated by his peers and disconnected from modern life, Elliot medicates his pain and loneliness with high-strength morphine. He suffers from sharp hallucinations, like the men in black who constantly follow him. His father, by his own admission the only person with whom he could connect, died of leukemia from exposure to workplace radiation; his mother was abusive and cruel. He talks with a strained, distant delivery and carries himself like a loner, using his snug black hoodie as a security blanket. Malek's performance in the episode cannot be understated; he's a tremendous presence and single-handedly elevates Esmail's writing by channeling the character's passive rage instead of reducing him to a series of quirky tics. Esmail takes his time making Elliot feel true to life before shading in the rest of the world.
Of course, like any modern superhero story, Elliot needs a calling. It comes in the form of a shady vagrant who keeps appearing in his peripheral vision. Identifying himself as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, in his best performance in years), he initially gains Elliot's attention when Elliot stops a DDOS attack against his employer's biggest client, Evil Corp — actually E Corp, but Elliot has reprogrammed his brain to only hear and see the name "Evil Corp," reminding us that we're seeing things through his unreliable eyes — and a text file encourages him to leave malware hidden on Evil Corp's server. Mr. Robot introduces him to FSociety, a hacktivist collective that's determined to start a revolution by forcing a financial meltdown that would cancel all debt and redistribute wealth across the nation. He targets Elliot because he has access to Evil Corp, which owns 70 percent of the global consumer credit industry, and tells him to pin the DDOS attack on Terry Colby (Bruce Altman), the company's arrogant CTO. Though initially reluctant, he pulls the trigger when he sees Colby treat Angela with disrespect in a meeting with the FBI about the hack. The first steps of FSociety's revolution occur before his very eyes.
If there's any major flaw in the early framework, it's Esmail's expression of the series' insurrectionary Marxist politics. At best, it comes across as rudimentary and reductive — you don't need to be an economist to know that mass deletion of global debt wouldn't just automatically redistribute wealth — and at worst, it's shrill and juvenile, like hearing a stoned college freshman righteously ramble in a dark dorm room. Some of this can be forgiven simply because it's a TV thriller and not an academic lecture, but Esmail's comfort in coasting on genuine national resentment by using phrases like "invisible hand" and "too big to fail" occasionally feels cheap. It's certainly cool to see a series address capitalism's legitimate problems head on, but so far, Esmail's blinkered depiction of those problems is borderline cringeworthy.
Nevertheless, that one flaw can't take away from Mr. Robot's many formal strengths: episode director Niels Arden Oplev's off-kilter framing; cinematographer Tim Ives' gray-toned photography, rendering New York a bland environment filled with sheep going to slaughter; and especially Mac Quayle's mood-setting score that permeates the episode with clinical dread. Oplev and Esmail crib from film greats — Kubrick and Fincher are clearly big influences — but their homage-laden aesthetic is much, much better than the visual indifference that passes for normal on most other shows. Hell, the look is one of Mr. Robot's biggest draws.
Moreover, Mr. Robot features an unmistakable energy that most shows don't develop so quickly, if ever. Even in this era of Peak TV, it's rare to see a show that knows exactly what it wants to be and why straight from the jump. It has a clearly defined tone and approach, and "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov" executes both with aplomb; all the pieces are set for Mr. Robot to go from very good to great. Esmail has made all the right moves, but only time will tell if he can keep pushing the series forward. "This is happening. This is happening," Elliot incredulously says to himself as he sees the image of Colby in handcuffs plastered across Times Square. By the end of the episode, it's possible that viewers might also be saying the same thing.
Ones and Zeroes:
- Another character that makes a major appearance near the episode's end: Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), an ambitious, creepy Evil Corp employee who briefly connects with Elliot over tech.
- The use of Neil Diamond's "If You Go Away" during a crucial montage is too good, and serves as yet another example of the series' confidence right out the gate.
- The scene with Elliot crying in the fetal position in the corner of his apartment is quietly affecting, especially as his voice-over narration comments on how it's happening too often these days.
- It's important to note that Mr. Robot injects some snarky wit into the series' otherwise gray and dour aesthetic, like the cheerful Evil Corp advertisement or the shot of a subway movie ad for the fictional film Villains. The tagline? "Evil always wins."