What would you do if you had to quit the internet? It's a prospect that's simultaneously intoxicating and terrifying, holding out the phantasm of an idyllic "real" existence in one hand while focusing your attention on just how much time you spend online — not all of it wasted. The internet is so deeply embedded as part of life that it's a little scary to imagine how to cope without it. That's what USA’s Mr. Robot wants you to think about this year, because its protagonist, Elliot Alderson, has an internet problem.
Played with hollow-eyed detachment by Rami Malek, Elliot is practically addicted — to the way his hacking abilities allow him access anywhere, at any time, to the way they give him a peephole into everyone’s most intimate secrets. He’s not the only one on the show who feels this way: A gnawing need to move inward, to use information technology to discover things that maybe no one should have learned, drives most of the action on this grim, propulsive, surprisingly funny thriller about computers, the evils of capitalism, and the workings of the human mind, which premieres its second season on TV July 13. (The premiere was chaotically, briefly "leaked" online earlier this week.)
At the beginning of the show's first season, Elliot is content to dig up personal information about his therapist and blackmail child pornographers. By the end of it, he has helped fsociety, an organization run by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), hack E Corp, one of the world’s largest conglomerates — one of those mammoth banking institutions that has its hand in a little bit of everything. Mr. Robot doesn’t shy away from the consequences of those actions — the hack causes a massive financial crisis that has ongoing repercussions during the show’s second season, including a bank run and a seemingly never-ending press conference delivered by the show’s somewhat poorly dubbed version of President Obama.
But at least initially, the show is more interested in the personal fallout for Elliot. When we pick up with him again in the second season premiere, his life is organized around trying to go cold turkey. He lives in a house without WiFi, takes his meals in public places at strictly designated times, and documents his activity in a notebook instead of at a terminal. Aggressively uninterested in sports, he takes to watching pick-up basketball as a way of keeping him outside — even when Elliot isn't actually online in Mr. Robot, the internet still structures his activities. Mr. Robot can be overwhelming, and a little oppressive — the show’s dark color palette and claustrophobic shots make sense when Elliot is sitting at a keyboard, but they fit even better when he’s trying to stay away from one — but it’s still a pleasant break from the way most TV shows treat the internet.
Prestige dramas rarely attempt to engage with the realities of online life. The internet is, admittedly, hard to dramatize (it is very difficult to make typing look interesting), which helps explain why so many successful dramas are period pieces, or take place in Westeros, where no one has access to Twitter. Instead, the internet’s primary televised home is on cop shows, where it functions as either a magical tool for creating evidence, or a mystery box of evil that exists solely to connect pedophiles to children on a given episode of Law & Order: SVU.
The internet, of course, is not solely an arena for jokes, or for creeps. It's an expansion of ordinary human interaction with several mitigating layers, a complex system (or series of systems) of information technology that enable new modes of interaction, from long email exchanges to dueling filtered selfies on Snapchat. When online harassment can ruin someone’s life, and a presidential candidate’s Twitter can drive several news cycles, it's worth asking our entertainment to take that space seriously.
Mr. Robot does this expertly. The show’s second season has begun to dig into the consequences of the E Corp hack, to understand: How many people’s lives depend on this one system, and what does it say about our civilization that that system could be so easily, well, disrupted? (Not good things, it turns out.) As fsociety pursues its goals further, pushed on by Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaiken), its plans rest on the assumption that public spectacle will immediately be recorded and uploaded to social media — not an unreasonable thing to think, but a consideration characters on few other shows actively and intelligently take into account.
More importantly, receiving emails has rarely looked this good on a screen. Where in another series disembodied letters would be dramatically inert, Mr. Robot makes the uncanniness of email, text, and other forms of modern communications into an essential part of the visual package. Showrunner and creator Sam Esmail (who is directing every episode of this season) leans into the dimness, playing up the characters' flatness as they attempt to navigate a landscape too vast for any one person to understand.
That sense of scale comes into play even on the show’s smallest playing field: Elliot’s mind, which Mr. Robot treats as, essentially, another computer. Part of the fun of the show’s first season was deciphering the way Elliot literally reprograms his brain to display different responses to sensory input — for example, each time he encounters E Corp, Elliot sees or hears "Evil Corp." He spends much of his time talking to the audience, who he perceives as an imaginary friend. As Elliot continues to struggle with his mind (and with Mr. Robot himself) in the second season, the show becomes similarly unstable, fostering an environment of intense distrust and genuine excitement.
Mr. Robot is gripping, then, because it treats the world as information, and information as malleable. This obsession and attention to minuscule detail and lines of code might not be the way anyone would choose to live their life, but it's a path chosen by more than a few people — and the rest of us are stuck, at least in part, with the outcomes. Esmail and co. have managed to create a show that elides the usual problems of the way the internet is treated on TV, not by using it as a tool for solving the characters' problems, but by recognizing the way it can become the entire code.