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USA’s Mr. Robot actually does everything True Detective pretends to do

Rami Malek plays the paranoid hacker hero at the center of Mr. Robot.
Rami Malek plays the paranoid hacker hero at the center of Mr. Robot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A lot of the time, when you talk to fans of this troubled season of True Detective and ask them what, precisely, they still see in the show, you'll eventually get down to something like this: Stories about what it means to be a man in American culture aren't exactly infrequent, but they've always been popular for good reason. (Here's a version of that argument, in internet comment form.) Men are forever defining themselves against some weird, hidden code of masculinity that supposedly their grandfathers had access to but they can't seem to crack.

But True Detective is a lousy example of that, especially this season. The show can't make its mind up as to whether toxic masculinity is imprisoning its characters (like closeted gay veteran Paul Woodrugh) or providing their only escape from a culture with less and less room for them (as when, say, criminal Frank re-embraces his darkest self and pummels underlings into submission or worse). The show's attitude toward this topic, like everything else in season two, is confused.

So let me suggest something else: Literally everything fans say they want from True Detective is being done much better by a ridiculously titled show on the USA Network about a computer hacker: Mr. Robot. The show, which airs new episodes on Wednesdays and is available on Hulu, is one of the best in years about what it means to be a man in modern America.

Why this is the TV version of Fight Club

Mr. Robot USA

Christian Slater plays the titular Mr. Robot. Rami Malek (left) is the main character, though. (USA)

Mr. Robot's closest antecedent is David Fincher's film version of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club. Both stories are about a young man who feels ensnared by a superficial, glib society that refuses to engage with the forces behind the scenes manipulating everything that happens. In both works, that young man is joined by an older compatriot who encourages him to fight back against the system. And in both works, that older man just might be a figment of his imagination. (In Mr. Robot, he's the titular character, played by Christian Slater.)

Fight Club is an often brilliant, deeply flawed, enormously influential film. Its depiction of men who are choked out by IKEA catalogs and a world that holds them back from engaging their most violent impulses has proved to be one of the most enduring in modern filmmaking. Tellingly, many of the film's fans missed its bleak satire, choosing instead to read the film's climax (in which the hero blows up the credit industry) as a kind of wish fulfillment.

What's made Mr. Robot such an interesting riff on this idea is that Elliot, the hacker hero brilliantly played by Rami Malek, is tempted both by the world of anarchy that, presumably, he would rule with his coolly intellectual and rigorous approach to problem solving and the world of creature comforts represented by Starbucks vanilla lattes and beautiful apartments.

He can't have both. To give in to the former (by tearing apart Evil Corp, the corporation his cybersecurity firm, Allsafe, contracts for) would destroy the lives of many he cares about. To give in to the latter would mean always knowing that a massive, invisible web is manipulating him and everyone he knows to desire certain things.

See, the center of Mr. Robot is all about the ways the information age has allowed corporations and government entities to know seemingly everything about us and use that information to constantly feed us a stream of new things to want and shallow needs to fulfill. You can't realize how trapped you are if you're always chasing some new, minor bauble.

We have a tendency to define the masculine ideal (at least in storytelling terms) as standing up and doing whatever it takes to achieve some material goal, whether it's winning more land or saving the girl or collecting a big payday. What Mr. Robot suggests is that a world so ruled by a gigantic, unseen web fundamentally can't allow these sorts of victories to exist. Thus, we sub in Starbucks as a kind of mild palliative on an unhealed wound. Elliot sees finding these barely hidden wounds as finding the "malware" in the people around him, using it to find a way to force them to do his bidding. It's sociopathic, maybe, but he also seems to think it's more honest.

And yet to tear everything down would be to rip apart the few actual connections he has.

Another character offers a performative version of hard-edged masculinity

Mr. Robot

Tyrell (Martin Wallström) offers up a sharp counterpoint to Elliot. (USA)

Elliot's struggles are thrown into even sharper relief by the character of Tyrell (Martin Wallström), an Evil Corp employee. Everything we learn about Tyrell suggests he's offering up a kind of performative masculinity, a version of being a man that he can carefully schedule on a clock (to the degree that he pays homeless people so he can beat them up when he's got a few minutes to kill).

If Elliot seems stuck by his indecision, then Tyrell has fully committed to trying to find a way to serve both masters. He pushes and pushes for what he wants, and he even goes to a club to seduce a male co-worker, either because he's a closeted bisexual or because he's using the man toward some workplace end — or (most likely) both.

But Tyrell knows as surely as Elliot does that everything around them is controlled by the data they leave trailing in their wake, that they are collections of information just waiting to be exploited by some corporate overlord or another. Still, Tyrell is ostensibly better at hiding in plain sight than the obviously spooked Elliot. He has the big apartment. He has the impressive job. He has the beautiful wife. He has all the creature comforts, but he still takes those appointments to beat up the homeless. Those "fights" are in keeping with the show's buzzy, paranoid, melancholy tone — the game is rigged against you, but you still have to play.

We spend very little time with Tyrell, but what little time we do spend suggests he's like Elliot in almost every way, just better at denying both his fears and his desires. The more that he peels back the layers, the more darkness he finds, where Elliot increasingly seems tortured by a pesky conscience he can't quite hear.

Like the men of True Detective, both Elliot and Tyrell are struggling to find room for themselves in the modern landscape. Unlike those men, though, the show they inhabit is so much more clear-eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of their respective approaches.

The show remembers that men aren't the only people out there

Mr. Robot

Angela (Portia Doubleday) is a surprisingly vibrant character on Mr. Robot. (USA)

When it comes down to it, what ultimately sets Mr. Robot apart is the way that it pays attention to the characters in its world who aren't your typical cable drama heroes. Creator Sam Esmail has a keen eye for those on the edges of his show's universe.

Most of Mr. Robot's hacker crew, for instance, is made up of members of racial minorities and other societal subsets who have real reason to want to tear down the system and start anew, while Elliot's boss at Allsafe is a gay man who offers up a lovely example of what uncomplicated domesticity might look like for our hero.

In particular, however, the show's women are all interesting figures in their own right. Elliot might be infatuated with a couple of them, but they're not presented as prizes to be won but, instead, as people trying to navigate a system horribly rigged against them. Fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) wouldn't mind seeing the world burn, while Elliot's eventual girlfriend, Shayla (Frankie Shaw), seems similarly frustrated by there being no real middle road between chaos and order.

But it's Elliot's childhood friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), who offers the series' most intriguing portrait of femininity trapped in this unbearable system. She, like, Elliot is a computer genius, but she's continually underestimated both at work and in her personal relationships. She's had her life torn apart so many times, as early as her childhood, when her mother died from cancer caused by chemical contamination.

Yet she keeps pushing for something better within the system, keeps believing that doing her best and working for something more will ultimately result in a slightly more hospitable world, despite all the evidence to the contrary. She's either a paragon of virtue or a fool, and the show doesn't dare lean one way or the other.

If Angela existed on True Detective, she would be so far off to the side of the show's darkly masculine, woozily cynical worldview that she'd barely be a blip. But on Mr. Robot she's not only allowed to exist. She's allowed to stand for something. What ultimately makes Mr. Robot such a good show about being a man is that it understands that men don't live in a vacuum, no matter how much other shows might like to pretend otherwise.

Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on USA. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.