I wanted to like Mr. Robot, I really did. It was the surprise must see show of the summer from creator Sam Esmail. On the surface it seemed to have everything I love, hacking, anti-capitalist action, Christian Slater but there were some issues that were so egregious I nearly stopped watching. I’m glad I stuck with it through the end of the season and I will be watching season 2 but that doesn’t mean I’m letting this show off easy.
For those of you that haven’t seen the show major spoilers are coming up and as this show has a hell of a twist in the last two episodes so you might want to save this review for later.
With that out of the way let’s dive in. The show follows the possibly aspie, possibly just traumatized by an abusive upbringing, Elliot played by the talented Rami Malek. Elliot treats us to a good deal of Fight Club styled monologues about the problems in our capitalist society which made the 90’s kid in me happy but it became quickly apparent that the show was lacking in depth. Esmail admitted in his Reddit AMA that the show was largely inspired by Fight Club and it shows, fsociety the tv shows hacktivists have an almost identical plot to Project Mayhems. Which is free everyone by deleting their debt. Granted fsociety was able to actually destabilize some governments along with deleting everyone’s debt record that’s about the only thing the show did better. For the most part this is a pretty lazy retelling. Many of my issues with the show boil down to laziness.
The first bit of laziness is that the critique of capitalism never gets any deeper than Fight Clubs did. Remember in the 90’s before the economy crashed and burned the critique centered around the dangers of upper middle class consumerism culture and the soul crushing depression of a well off but utterly boring corporate job. While Mr. Robot does give lip service to the lack of a middle class and that fact that we are all debt slaves the reasons for this aside from corporate greed, aren’t explored. Race and gender issues are never brought up. While Rami Malek is Egyptian American his character Elliot is read as white which means we have yet another tv show giving us a straight white male savior. Cause we’ve never seen that before!
I’m really big on intersectionality, which means understanding how everything is connected, and if you want to discuss the American Debt system you need to understand how things like race and gender affect every aspect of that system. Trenton, the Muslim hacktivist who is to me the most interesting character on the show has very different motivations than Darlene does even though those motivations sometimes overlap. Trenton’s family left Iran to pursue the American Dream, and you know not die in war, and while her parents have bought in to the consumer lies we’ve all been force fed all Trenton see’s is their debt. Darlene never had to flee a country but her father was also literally killed by corporate greed. They both know first hand how corporations and governments put dollars before people. But is this explored on the show? Do we ever learn more than what I just told you about Trenton? No, the most memorable part of Trenton’s character is the most blatantly racist line on the show.
In an attempt to be racially conscious Mr. Robot really just plays in to tired old stereotypes. The muslim girl is timid, the black guy can tell Elliot is a junkie (haa I’ll get to my problem with the drugs in a second) and all the women choose terrible men to date. Yawn. Our militarized police force is actually committing human rights violations against our black communities but sure let’s make Romero into a real hepcat. If Esmil had spent as much time breathing life into his secondary characters as he did sucking Fight Clubs creative cock we’d have a much better show. It’s not enough to merely have a diverse cast if we’re going to ignore every aspect of how their life experience is different than their diversity falls as flat as their characterisation. With the fsociety cast Esmil had a real opportunity to dig in to social issues and to act as much needed commentary about the state of our world but instead we get our viewing time eaten up with a ridiculous drugged out subplot.
Let’s talk about drugs, or to be precise let’s talk about the portrayal of drugs on this show because it was utter nonsense. I’m a harm reduction activist, which means I do things like sell drug testing kits and I volunteer with the NY chapter of Dancesafe an organization that offers information about all the chemicals Elliot likes putting in his body. I also grew up around a lot of heroin addicts, I know what opiate addiction does to people first hand and this show was bullshit. The only thing this show gets right about drugs is the list of detox symptoms of opiates and the home cure come down remedy, which means at some point someone read a wiki article. That’s cute. I wish they’d read far enough to figure out that the baby aspirin amount of morphine Elliot was using would not cause the extreme hallucination inducing detox he endures. Or that suboxone which is used to treat detox is also addictive and far more destructive than just using morphine. Honestly Elliot would have been better off just getting literally any other opiate. I in no way believe that Shayla could produce suboxone, which is not generally a street drug, and morphine but couldn’t pony up a little oxy when Elliot ran low. The reality is that with the limited amount he was taking he would have at most felt like he had a minor stomach flu. The fact that no one in his crew was willing to hand over an opiate to keep him from getting the DT’s even though their ENTIER PLAN hinged on him being able to function is unbelievably ridiculous.
Now moving on to all the club kids favorite Molly, which primary source of income dealer Shayla gives away like tic tacs. In the first episode it’s implied that he does the drug with her and then mere hours later he’s able to outwit the fsociety hackers. Now lets assume that Elliot and Shayla tested their “molly” to ensure that it actually was MDMA and not the hundred other chemicals that could cause a host of bad times and lets assume it was pretty pure. He would be “down” in about four hours assuming they were responsible and didn’t re-up but coming down off MDMA isn’t a matter of oh you’re sober now. He’d be mentally fried for a while. I don’t believe he could have pulled off the computer wizardry required of him while his brain was wheezing. Later we see Shayla giving Angela some so that she can work out her issues, which as MDMA is used for PTSD therapy isn’t actually the worst idea, rolling in public when you’re already depressed is however the worst idea. MDMA is known as the love drug but really what it does is enhance whatever emotion you’re already feeling. If you walk into a roll happy, good times will probably follow, walking with the knowledge that you’re whole world is crumbling…get ready to do some heavy mental lifting. It feels like the hacking/fsociety plot wasn’t enough to sustain the show for a full hour so they tacked this Elliots an addict thing on there to eat up space when they could have been oh I don’t know dissecting the issues in our current destructive capitalist system. The sad thing is if it was done well the drug subplot really could have stood as metaphor for everything fucked in society but in the end lazy writing prevailed.
Mr. Robot seems like a show that wants to change the social narrative but instead tragically reaffirms the old narrative it was created to criticize. I hate to say it but this is part of the problem when the only voices we hear are cis white males. I’m not saying that demographic can’t learn about the issues facing women, people of color or the LGBT community but it takes way more research that Esmail seemed up to doing. It takes more empathy than I’m used to receiving from men. Esmail needed to understand the unique issues each of his characters face and how those issues will change how each one approaches conflicts. There was so much potential here and like most people with the privilege of having their voices consistently heard Mr. Robot wastes our time skimming the surface of an ocean’s worth of social problems.