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One Good Thing: An unsung drama of the 2010s you should stream right now

The hacker drama Mr. Robot was so much more than Rami Malek’s incredible star performance.

Elliot stares straight forward, eyes wide open, as he has a major revelation.
Rami Malek stars as Elliot in 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.

For most of its run, Mr. Robot was written about — both positively and negatively — as a series about tech-enhanced alienation.

The series, which aired for four seasons between 2015 and 2019 on the USA cable network, followed a hacker, after all. Creator Sam Esmail (who directed every episode from season two onward) counted among his stylistic influences the famously chilly director David Fincher. Mr. Robot traced a ragtag band of digital revolutionaries as they attempted to tear down the status quo and return power to the people.

It also followed a singularly talented man named Elliot (Emmy winner Rami Malek), a hacker so disconnected from modern life and from anybody else that he couldn’t seem to function in most social situations. He was a void; vague flickers of emotion only occasionally sparked in the depths of his eyes. When he spoke, it was in a droning monotone that kept pointing outward, at the wrongs of the world; here, for instance, is a sample monologue from Mr. Robot’s first season, which Elliot delivers after his therapist asks him what he doesn’t like about society:

Oh, I don’t know. Is it that we collectively thought that Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels that all of our heroes are counterfeit. The world itself is just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary bullshit, masquerading as insight. Our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this; not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new, we all know why we do this. Not because Hunger Games books make us happy, but because we want to be sedated, because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. Fuck society!

Yeah. You can see why people thought this show was about alienation and/or dealing with online bros who feel like they’ve solved the problems of the world.

Yet the conventional wisdom on Mr. Robot is incorrect. Though it did start out as a show about a character who was alienated, it was not a show about alienation. The show’s meandering second season — which could have used a hard edit and is the series’ weakest — underscores just how much it’s really about the ways in which Elliot has blinded himself to the connections that already exist in his life.

Mr. Robot is a show about the ways in which our modern world and the over-the-top inequalities foisted upon us by modern capitalism drive us further apart from each other, and it is a show about how vital it is that we come together. It can be both.

These thematic underpinnings are best understood by watching the entirety of the series’ run, and fortunately, it’s newly available on Netflix in much of the world for those who might be curious to do just that. (In the US, it remains available on Prime Video.) I fully expect it to join Halt and Catch Fire or The Magicians as great dramas of the 2010s that very few people watched until they made their way to streaming. Mr. Robot’s arrival on streaming may even benefit from the current cultural moment: There’s perhaps never been a better time to watch a show about someone who feels cut off from everyone else in his life, then finds a way to slowly rejoin the world at large.

It’s tricky to talk about some of the deeper emotional territory that Mr. Robot mines because some of its pleasures derive from the twists it unfurls across its four seasons. (You will probably guess at least one of those twists, but I’ve always maintained that the show wants you to guess it because it wants you to stay one step ahead of Elliot in certain regards.) Without spoiling anything, I can say that Mr. Robot is one of the most meaningful series in television history about mental health, healing, and trauma.

I feel a little prickly using that word, trauma. It’s become such a buzzword in recent years, often used to infuse a lightweight story with a vague sense of something Important and Serious. So many superhero tales — like two of Marvel’s Disney+ series, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — lean heavily on the idea that what’s really afflicting their heroes isn’t a supervillain but some deep, dark secret in their past. They battle the villain, and in so doing, they also battle their traumatic past. Then their lives are heavily implied to improve.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of moving on from something awful in your past to fight another day. But if every story we told about trauma suggested that it can be easily overcome by literally facing your demons, it would do a real disservice to trauma survivors. Fortunately, shows like Mr. Robot exist as alternatives to that narrative. Elliot is a kind of superhero. He’s seemingly the greatest hacker ever to have lived, and he’s a bit of a loner. When we first meet him, he’s using his powers to catch a scumbag child porn addict, but he’s doing it all by himself. Whatever pain he’s mired in, he intends to experience solo.

Slowly but surely, though, Mr. Robot brings others into his orbit who might help him realize that he’s not an island, doomed to succeed and to suffer all alone. As the show progresses, its ensemble cast increasingly becomes one of its secret strengths. That cast is blessed with performers like Carly Chaikin as hacker Darlene, whose bond with Elliot proves unshakable; Portia Doubleday as Angela, Elliot’s childhood friend; and Christian Slater as the enigmatic Mr. Robot himself. Eventually, the ensemble expands to include B.D. Wong as the mysterious Whiterose (one of the only times I’ve been okay with a cis man playing a trans woman) and Grace Gummer as the tired-as-hell FBI agent Dom.

Mr. Robot takes place in a world that is just barely our own, where computers can do anything and good guy hackers just might bring down the financial institutions that are strangling us all. Yet it also takes place in a world where nothing is quite as it seems and where secrets hide additional secrets. Its final two episodes, for instance, don’t quite take place in this reality, and it’s shockingly not a spoiler for me to be telling you that. Mr. Robot is that kind of show — a puzzle box that is, nevertheless, not quite as guarded as it likes to suggest.

A show full of secrets that are somewhat easy to guess might prove annoying, I suppose, but the longer Mr. Robot ran, the more I grew to admire the way that it let the audience stay one or two steps ahead of its protagonist. Somewhere in his past, Elliot had been hurt so badly that he dissociated into a version of himself who cared for everybody by ceasing to care about himself. Across its four seasons, Mr. Robot gently nudged him toward understanding that alienation isn’t a byproduct of modern society; it’s inherent to the design. The greatest way to strike back against that society is to connect with other people, in whatever way you possibly can.

Mr. Robot is streaming on Prime Video in the US and on Netflix in most other countries. There are 46 episodes, most around an hour long.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

Correction, August 26, 5 pm: Though Mr. Robot has been added to Netflix in most of the world, it has not been in the US just yet. This article has been updated to reflect that distinction.

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