From Monday through Wednesday this week, we’re presenting our third annual Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. We’re taking a purer approach this time, with in-depth, critical essays on three major categories: Show, Actor, and Actress. Each piece makes a thorough case for our winners, and why they beat the competition. The shows that were considered had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and shows that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have wrapped up their season by June 26.
It’s tricky enough to be the lead actor on a TV drama, more so when you’re in almost every scene, and trickier still when your character narrates the show. USA Network’s cyber-thriller Mr. Robot tasks its star, Rami Malek, with all these responsibilities, then adds more: It’s one of the most relentlessly interior shows, inviting you into the headspace of its lead character — computer expert and secret vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson — and showing you the world as he sees it. Every image, situation, and exchange is subtly (and not so subtly) shaped by his subjective perceptions. He seems to be speaking directly to us, though he’s simultaneously addressing himself. He editorializes, often to humorous effect, when describing the situations he finds himself in, to the point of affixing cynical nicknames without telling us the real ones (the cyber-security firm Elliot works for is employed by a sinister company that everyone on the show calls Evil Corporation, because that’s how Elliot hears it).
On top of all that, the character is prismatic, presenting a different face, a different emotional temperature, a different vibe depending on whom he’s talking to, what’s at stake, and whether he is sober or stoned (he’s a morphine addict and casual pot smoker). Elliot says he has a social anxiety disorder, and we can see that manifested in Malek’s body language — the hemmed-in posture during company meetings, the alternately nervous and blasé way he talks to women, his avoidance of eye contact at the start of conversations with men whose weak spots he hasn’t yet identified. But Malek projects a steely confidence, too, and it comes through when Elliot is asserting himself, using the only source of power he has: his technical expertise.
This is the sort of assignment that might earn kudos for an A-for-effort actor, who can juggle all of the hero’s aspects without making obvious slip-ups. It’s easy to imagine someone playing Elliot a bit too cute and likable, or else underplaying to the point of near-catatonia. But Malek goes much further, working with series creator Sam Esmail, the show’s directors and cinematographers, and his co-stars with keen intelligence and economy of gesture, acting with the filmmaking instead of adjacent to it, as only a true screen actor can. His castmates’ efforts seem more intense and believable because Malek is there as our guide, taking every preposterous scenario seriously, wryly noting absurdity with his eyes and body as well as his dialogue and voice-over, creating the subtlest, deepest lead male performance on TV — an electrical field that seems to be powering every other element, as if the actor were the socket that Mr. Robot had chosen to plug itself into.
THE CASE FOR RAMI MALEK
1. Meet Elliot Alderson (1.1, “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov”)
Watch how Malek comports himself in the opening scene of Mr. Robot, when the character confronts a coffee shop owner who is secretly a child pornographer. He seems to be nearly imploding in his chair — physical evidence of Elliot’s anxiety. He doesn’t make eye contact with his quarry at first; this is a pattern with Elliot. But when he begins to reveal the case he’s built against the pornographer, he turns to face the man, making eye contact, and letting a hint of a smile creep into his voice.
By the end, when he stands up from the table, he’s the consummate disreputable hero creating his own form of justice, beneath the grid and beyond the purview of the establishment, and there’s a triumphant quality to the way Malek delivers his final kiss-off. But on his way out the door, his body language shifts back into something more anonymous: He might as well be just another young man of color with a hoodie and a backpack, leaving a coffee shop before the cops barge in because he doesn’t feel like dealing with it.
2. Elliot Gets High (1.2, “eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg”)
This long sequence gives you a sense of the range of emotions and psychological states Malek gets to play, and how precisely he enacts them from moment to moment and shot to shot. His demeanor as he faces down the pimp boyfriend of his drug dealer, and sometime lover, is perfectly calibrated; it says, at once, “I am not afraid of you” and “I’m not going to make any trouble today because I’m not ready.” As Elliot gives himself over to morphine, his limbs seem to go rubbery and his body language becomes looser, sloppier, spastically jolted by frustration. We shift into paranoia as he realizes he might’ve been tricked into hacking Tyrell’s email, followed by a rare explosion of physicalized panic and rage (Elliot destroying his computer and burning memory chips in his microwave). There are hints of black comedy, too — this is a very funny show, almost a comedy of manners at times — when Elliot kicks a defective radiator and deadpan-stares at his adopted dog, who just peed on a pillow. On the surface, this scene isn’t particularly memorable; Malek isn’t acting with a capital A. But what’s captivating in his performance is the way he slips between each temperament imperceptibly.
3. Elliot (Momentarily) Turns Respectable (1.3, “eps1.2_d3bug.mkv”)
This is the moment when a lot of people (this writer included) fell in love with Mr. Robot: After being visited in his workplace by the title character, who is pressuring him to formally join fsociety, Elliot agrees to go to a bar and talk about it. He ends up stating he wants no part of it, and is released (in theory) from any responsibility. This sets off a delightfully silly montage in which Elliot pledges to “be more normal now.” He starts doing all the stuff “normal” people do in America: going to Marvel films, hearting photos on Instagram, drinking vanilla lattes, getting himself a proper girlfriend.
The sequence evokes the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” montage in Spider-Man 2, when Peter Parker decides to quit being Spider-Man. Malek throws himself into it, surrenders, really, sipping an iced coffee mid-slow-motion strut as if it contains nectar of the gods. Listen to how Malek’s voice shifts up half an octave. “I’m gonna live a bug-free life from now on,” Elliot says in voice-over, registering what could be described as anesthetized eagerness — “anything to protect my perfect maze.” Malek’s narration is a thing of beauty, delivered mostly in the cadence of a stoned student checking homework for mistakes. From scene to scene, he uses his melodious lilt to varying effect to calibrate the show’s tone. Later, when Elliot accepts his boss Gordon’s dinner invitation and inquires whether he can bring his girlfriend, it has a touch of The Graduate, or the original The Heartbreak Kid: the comedy of clueless youthful optimism, unaffected by hard facts of life. Malek’s delivery of the line, “Well, I haven’t asked her yet — hopefully she’ll say yes” distills 40 years’ worth of romantic comedy “breakthrough” moments into a single instant of cheerfully self-willed delusion. He believes in love now, because hey, why not?
WHY WE PICKED HIM
Making a call like this would’ve been difficult in any year, but the caliber of performance is so high right now that even on the very best shows, the acting tends to be more consistently intelligent and exciting than the writing. And even then you have to take into account what kind of performance a show requires; some work is going to be broader or simpler than others, by necessity. How, then, to elevate Empire’s Terrence Howard over Liev Schreiber’s Ray Donovan or Andre Holland on The Knick? Or Michael Sheen on Masters of Sex over John Benjamin Hickey on Manhattan? How about Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage over Sam Heughan on Outlander? Or Aziz Ansari on Master of None over Jerrod Carmichael on The Carmichael Show, or for that matter Chris Geere on You’re the Worst above Zach Galifianakis on Baskets or Anthony Anderson on Black-ish?
A few performances dominated my thoughts, however, and — unfair as this might be to shows that aim for something a bit simpler and more direct — they tended to be ones with a high degree of technical complexity, where the writing asked the actors switch between different, seemingly contrary modes within the course of each episode. Of these, I’m partial to Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, Matthew Rhys on The Americans, Jeffrey Tambor on Transparent, Adam Driver on Girls, and Bob Odenkirk on Better Call Saul. All have a degree of self-awareness and a meta-performance aspect, where we are sometimes purposefully made aware of the fact that the characters are trying to find an authentic self within a construction (or hiding it).
Tambor’s performance on Transparent as Maura, a suburban patriarch transitioning to matriarch, is one of the great TV performances of recent years, a fascinating portrait of incremental, personal evolution. There’s a very different but equally fascinating sort of soul-searching happening on Mr. Robot, though, and while it lacks a physical transformation, the fragmented richness of Elliot’s consciousness is just as formidable a challenge, and it’s nestled within a series not set in “reality” per se, but a genre universe, one that starts out as a corporate thriller and social satire before taking a sharp right turn into science fiction (after Elliot’s world is revealed to be in the grip of evil, conspiratorial forces). Malek edges Tambor out here given the levels of existence he must navigate while communicating his character’s progression.
I love Matthew Rhys’s tortured steadiness on The Americans as Philip Jennings, a Russian spy struggling to be good to his family and loyal to his country despite deep and largely unarticulated moral qualms. The performance bears more direct comparison to Malek’s because both Philip and Elliot are mysteries to themselves (despite their fitful attempts to delve into their own personalities), and because both characters present masks to the wider world. Rhys’s performance is so necessarily depressive and glum, though — when Philip smiles or laughs, you’re a bit taken aback — that it’s just not as lively and surprising as that of Malek, who seems often to be confiding in us with his eyes as well as with the show’s narration.
Adam Driver’s performance as Adam on Girls merges Marlon Brando’s volatile meathead romanticism and the masochistic, hyper-self-awareness of characters that Dustin Hoffman, Charles Grodin, and Richard Benjamin played in their youth. Driver’s work here is a supremely confident portrait of a young man cursed to watch his own synapses firing. Even at his most attractive, he seems uncomfortable in his skin and resentful of others who aren’t aware of their flaws as Adam is of his. No matter what body of water you throw Driver’s character into, he wants to swim out of it, even if it means certain death, and that’s fascinating to watch. But Malek gives you everything Driver gives you (except the physical volatility, though there’s a touch of that as well), and he does it more economically. There’s more going on in the way Malek draws out particular syllables than in most of Driver’s breakdowns and rages, arresting as they are.
House of Cards’ Frank Underwood gives us something analogous to Elliot’s fourth-wall-breaking narration; the Washington potboiler lets a lethally wily politician acknowledge the viewer with direct glances into the camera and sometimes spoken asides as well, and in more traditional dialogue scenes, we’re constantly made aware of what the character is hiding from allies or opponents, how he’s lying and twisting the truth and setting traps. There’s more texture in Malek’s approach to such devices, though; Spacey is a delight, but he often seems to be playing a couple of octaves on a piano that has 88 keys, all of which Malek strikes during any given hour of Mr. Robot.
Bob Odenkirk on Better Call Saul came closest to wresting this category from Malek. The character is nearly as multifaceted and pulls your sympathies in as many different directions; sometimes you hate yourself for loving him, other times you can’t help admitting that the character’s detractors are right about what a chaotic force he is. There’s also a, “Hey, who’s that guy, and how come we’re only now seeing that side of his talent?” factor. Odenkirk’s character — named Jimmy McGill here, Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad — was originally comic relief, held in reserve until the writers needed a jolt of audacity or smarm. The prequel version of the character puts Odenkirk at the center of an ensemble, where he holds his own in a quieter, slower, subtler tale, equally comic and dramatic. In this respect, the challenges faced by him and Malek are comparable, and they each meet them in an understated yet still-nervy way. You could say of both roles that this is the part this actor was put on Earth to play. Malek wins because, no matter what he’s called upon to do, you never sense that he’s rising to a challenge and meeting it, as you sometimes feel with Odenkirk, excellent as he is. And in close-up, Malek is just a deeper actor.
There’s something else going on here, too — a wild card element that amplifies every other superb choice Malek makes. And it’s here we acknowledge how important casting is to acting. Match a strong actor to a good role supervised by smart writers and filmmakers and an alchemical reaction occurs, and the actor not only takes the role and runs with it, but enhances every other aesthetic decision on the show. All great lead actors do their own version of this.
Like Esmail, the show creator, Malek is of Arabic (specifically Egyptian) heritage. The show acknowledges glancingly that Elliot is, too, by hinting that his mother is Middle Eastern through a flashback and some photographs, or having Elliot torment the child pornographer by noting he changed his Indian name to something more white-bread “American.” The casting of an actor of color in a role more commonly played by a white man needn’t always be noteworthy: It can be a demographic or box-office choice, an attempt to shake up cultural norms, or just a case of a director deciding to roll the dice on an actor of color instead of a usual suspect because he happens to like his energy (Noah Hawley did something similar when he cast Bokeem Woodbine as the Irish-monikered Mike Milligan in season two of Fargo). But it’s noteworthy here because Malek’s casting deepens and personalizes themes of outsider-dom that might otherwise have felt a touch abstract — as in White Guy Rebel films like Fight Club, a way-too-huge influence on Mr. Robot, or the suburban rebellion melodrama Pump Up the Volume, which starred the incarnation of Mr. Robot’s title character, Christian Slater. Malek’s performance is more striking because we’re watching someone with nonwhite features navigate this world as an outsider.
That’s not to say Malek’s ethnicity is purely what makes his performance powerful — his work is technically superb on every level — but that in a year where we’re talking a lot about multiculturalism on television, it’s a clear example of what a difference nontraditional casting can make when it comes to creating a memorable character. All you have to do is cast a talented actor who can evoke the deeper elements of a filmmaker’s vision with his face, body, and voice so subtly that there’s no reason to spell everything out. Thanks to the way Malek embodies the character as a wary, reactive, brainy loner, and the empathetic way Esmail writes him, the performance itself becomes a political statement without trumpeting itself as such.
But at the same time, Malek’s and Elliot’s cultural heritage is never far from the writers’ minds (Esmail has spoken about how the use of technology during the Arab Spring in part inspired Elliot’s character), or ours. It’s always simmering on the show’s back brain pan. The physical and emotional reality of being an Other — of wanting to fit in, but also burn it all down; something people of color understand more deeply and instinctively than white Americans — is mostly subtext on Mr. Robot, but it’s always present, and (the crowning touch) Malek and Esmail are just circumspect enough that you’re never sure to what degree it’s a factor in the aesthetic. Is the hero’s heritage, and Malek’s, and Esmail’s, just one important thread in the tapestry, or is it binding the whole thing together? It’s impossible to say, but it’s definitely there. And it fortifies our reaction to scenes of Elliot dealing with white bosses, Evil Corp executives, including Martin Wallstrom’s Tyrell Wellick, a Patrick Bateman–type so brazenly WASP-y, he should have a sweater tied around his neck.
Elliot’s uniform of choice is a hoodie — a common clothing item that became a sartorial pledge of allegiance after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Malek’s wary glances and tactical reticence combine with the show’s wardrobe choices and character writing to define the hero as a true cultural outsider. Unlike so many rebel characters, Elliot doesn’t feel as if he can’t fit in; he just can’t fit in. His alienation, his skepticism, his cynicism, his reluctance to engage with a life — a “life” he considers largely theoretical and therefore unrelated to his flesh and his needs — is no mere graduate writers’ workshop pose. It feels real, urgent, tactile. And it’s Malek who ultimately makes that palpable. His acting connects ideas to flesh and makes Esmail’s bizarre fiction feel real.
Simply put, this character and Malek’s performance of this character are more original and important than any other on American TV right now. It is both a work of art and a statement. For a certain swath of alienated viewers, particularly younger ones, Malek could eventually prove as important an identification figure as Mr. Spock, Bruce Lee, or Tony Montana. He’s not merely an actor playing a role. He’s a poster on the bedroom wall; a face that speaks to a specific human condition and says, “You are understood.”