The unreliable narrator is commonplace in fiction, but not in television. On TV, narration is often used to pull viewers into a familiar blandness, a genre and tone they’ve experienced before. (See Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge, Burn Notice, among many others.) When the narration is more distinct and stylized, with a perspective all its own (see Arrested Development, Jane the Virgin, Pushing Daisies, How I Met Your Mother, among many others), it is still inviting, friendly, and cutely apologetic when it—oops!—misleads an audience.
But Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the brilliant, socially maladjusted, mentally unstable, vigilante hacker at the center of the technologically complex and psychologically searing Mr. Robot, which airs, of all places, on the perpetually milquetoast USA Network, is an unreliable narrator in extremis. “Hello friend,” he said, by way of introduction—intimate, lonely, disturbed. “Hello friend? That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name. But that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head. We have to remember that. Shit, it’s actually happened, I’m talking to an imaginary person.” Crazy people talk to themselves. Elliot announced his craziness from the very start.
Using about as close to a first-person point of view as a TV show can muster, Mr. Robot, which ends its impressive first season Wednesday night, straps audiences to Elliot’s perspective and hurtles through the booby-trapped terrain of his mind. It has sped us through lurches, jumps, and drops so exhilarating, surprising, and stomach-churning, it is easy to miss the thickets of loneliness and swamps of despair between all the hairpin turns. Rarely has a show so sad been so thrilling.
At the start of the series, we saw Elliot drawn into the cheekily named hacker collective F-Society, a group run by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), with the ambition to destroy the records of the nefarious, megalithic company E-Corp and with them, large portions of the world’s debt. (Elliot thinks of E Corp, which shares a logo with Enron, as Evil Corp. E Corp is thus referred to exclusively, by everyone on the show, as Evil Corp, a constant reminder that we are always seeing the world filtered through Elliot’s powerful, particular consciousness.) But in a series of twists, later episodes showed that Mr. Robot is only a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a figment that looks and sounds like his beloved, dead father. Elliot himself assembled F-Society, a group that includes Darlene (Carly Chaikin), a woman he forgot was his sister. The scheme to destroy Evil Corp has been Elliot’s all along, even though he doesn't remember concocting it.
These surprising reveals have been much celebrated, and with good reason. Mr. Robot hotwired the twist and made it vroom for TV. As Margaret Lyons explained on Vulture, twists are difficult on television shows, which go on for so much longer than movies—where twists flourish—and thus stymie the meticulous plotting required for a good twist. But Mr. Robot slyly borrowed from David Fincher’s Fight Club to plan a twist that held up to high, online scrutiny. Fight Club, which Mr. Robot’s showrunner Sam Esmail name-checked as an influence, is also about an alienated loner who assembles a group of followers to violently destroy corporations using the charms of Tyler Durden, who—in a big twist—is revealed to be the alternate personality of the narrator.
I am not knocking Mr. Robot for riffing on Fight Club so satisfyingly: TV has rarely been this warped, this subjective, this angry, this carefully plotted. But as cool as the twists are, it’s the heartbreaking, twitchy Elliot who is the series’ truly original feature. Elliot is a compulsive hacker, obsessively investigating the private lives of everyone he meets: his therapist, his boss, his neighbor, the man who owns a coffee shop he sometimes visits. Elliot’s habit distances him from everyone he knows or might come to know because he is always keeping a secret from them—the secret that he knows all of their secrets. His hacking, invasive and dangerous as it has proven to be, on its face and in its depths, is a twisted way to be close to people. Elliot, brought to fragile life by Malek, is wrenchingly lonely, desperate for intimacy, but too awkward and painfully self-aware to seek it out without the shield of a screen.
Elliot is a representative of a new, necessarily male TV archetype, not the antihero—though he is that too—but the alienated hero, the stranger to society and himself. Think not just of Elliot, but of True Detective’s Rust Cohle, BoJack Horseman, or even late-season Don Draper: idiosyncratic and brilliant men who are desperate to belong and also want no part of belonging.
TV’s forward momentum has brought this type forth. The great golden-age dramas featured (almost always white) male antiheroes, but the cutting edge of TV has moved on and now resides in series—like Orange Is the New Black, Homeland, The Americans, Scandal, The Good Wife, Halt and Catch Fire, UnReal, Girls, How to Get Away with Murder, Veep, Top of the Lake, and Transparent—that recast the antihero as a woman, and to a lesser extent, a person of color. The most inventive shows that are still primarily about men—all the aforementioned shows, plus series like Masters of Sex and even to a certain extent David Simon’s Show Me a Hero—seem intrinsically aware that their protagonists are no longer, de facto, at the center of things, either in terms of television or the culture more largely.
Mr. Robot is alert to gender, racial, and sexual politics. It is as inclusive and diverse as a show starring a character who could plausibly be a folk hero to gamer-gaters could possible be. Elliot has a much easier time connecting with women than men, and the women in his life—Elliot’s childhood best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), his sister Darlene, his doomed girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his well-meaning shrink (Gloria Reuben)—are a majority of the show’s major characters. The one non-odious major male character, besides the imaginary Mr. Robot, is Elliot’s boss Gideon (Michael Gill), who is gay and in the series’ only loving and functional relationship. The other men with sizeable roles include sleazy dope Ollie (Ben Rappaport), Angela’s cheating, smarmy boyfriend, Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), a drug dealer, rapist, and murderer, and the Scandinavian Psycho Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), a murderous Evil Corp executive. (He is also, when it is helpful to his career, selectively bisexual; his wife is pure BDSM Lady Macbeth). Furthermore, Elliot is coded as a white man: he is the son of Christian Slater, his sister is white, and his name is the very un-ethnic Elliot Alderson. But he is played by Malek, who, like Sam Esmail, is of Egyptian descent, which amounts to a kind of shrug: Even the white guy at the center of the show isn’t that white.
Mr. Robot is structurally impressive, but the show is more than just a cool machine, built smart enough to be dissected and studied by thousands of Redditors. It is, to be fair, a very cool machine, but it needs to be: all its moving parts are in the service of a character full of pain and loneliness. Elliot lives in a completely wired world, and even so, he can barely make a connection.