“The darkest timeline” is a phrase that became famous during an episode of Dan Harmon’s classic television series, Community. In “Remedial Chaos Theory” (season 3, episode 4), a number of alternate realities are introduced as the show’s main characters roll dice to decide who gets to pick up the pizza for Troy and Abed’s housewarming party. A new timeline is presented for every possible outcome of their dice rolls, and most of these rolls result in bizarre (and amusing) gags.
However, one timeline (“the darkest timeline”) revolves around Troy retrieving the pizza. While he is gone, it is revealed that this timeline involves some pretty bizarre and gruesome fates for the remaining six characters: one is an alcoholic, one is dead, one is missing an arm, and so on. The members of this timeline realize that they must break free of their dark “reality” and take control of the “prime” timeline, where their ailments and disfigurements never took place. For the rest of Community’s run, there are frequent callbacks to this moment as members of “the darkest timeline” show up in later episodes attempting to gain control.
If a routine pizza run gone wrong is “dark” in a show like Community, then Mr. Robot is one nonstop series of dark timelines that are constantly weaving in and out of whichever “reality” the viewer decides to latch onto.
I’ve heard it best described as a modern-day combination of Fight Club and V for Vendetta. In fact, the creator of the show, Sam Esmail, admits that Chuck Palahniuk’s bestselling novel has played a large role in influencing the storylines in Mr. Robot. “I rip off of every movie and TV show I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Esmail. “’Fight Club’ was one of my big inspirations for the show.”
The idea of “ripping off” other people’s property, work, etc. is a recurring theme in the show. Elliot Alderson, a young hacker who struggles with depression and social anxiety disorder, is a security engineer at a cyber security company called Allsafe. He doesn’t particularly enjoy his job (to put it mildly), and he is eventually recruited by a group of hacktivists that operate under the moniker “fsociety.” They are attempting to destroy the server data at E Corp, one of the largest corporations in the world, in an attempt to get rid of all consumer debt (hence the term “hacktivist”). The members of fsociety are led by a man named Mr. Robot, a mysterious figure who is always seen wearing the same baseball cap and jacket in every scene. Elliot is a crucial element in fsociety’s plan, since E Corp is Allsafe’s biggest client and Elliot has unparalleled access into their networks.
There are a number of different plots that are in play, and the series frequently messes with timelines and sequences of events. An episode may open with a scene that takes place twenty years in the past, and the following episode could revolve around an imaginary dream sequence that lasts just long enough for you to doubt everything you thought was “real.” The scenes that take place before the opening credits roll are often used to provide context for events that took place earlier in the season, but they can also introduce plot developments that don’t become relevant until the final episodes.
As I type this, the show is three episodes away from the conclusion of its second season. I’ve experienced every plot twist, I’ve heard the excellent songs that Mr. Robot has used in its soundtrack (including an awesome karaoke version of one of my favorite songs from the 1980s), I’ve seen the clever title sequences that are unique for every episode, and I’ve even taken part in some of the viral marketing that the show has done between episodes. It is very hard to write a review without spoiling some aspect of the show that’s best experienced in the moment, not in a Digital America article. There are so many scenes I’d love to share, so much trivia I want to regurgitate, so many theories I’ve developed regarding where the showrunners plan on taking this story…but I’ll try to keep all of that to myself, for your benefit. Just know that this show kicks some SERIOUS ass, and it fills a void that few shows since Breaking Bad have been able to fill in terms of depth, writing, and cinematography.
For example, Elliot breaks the 4th wall on a regular basis, treating the viewer as his very own inner conscience as he talks about daily struggles, the morons that surround him, the ease with which he can hack into virtually any device in his vicinity, and so on. From the opening seconds of the very first episode of season one, you know that you’ll have a front row seat in the mind of Elliot Alderson whether you like it or not.
With that being said, Elliot Alderson is a VERY unreliable narrator, and he is often just as confused as you are. Because of his mental instability, he has an alarming number of gaps in his memory that he struggles to fill. You’ll often feel that major events, conversations, and actions that Elliot took part in are only remembered by Elliot’s peers, and he refuses to believe that he had a hand in what took place until the memories start to return to his mind (if they ever do). There’s nothing you can do except sit back and try to make sense of everything while Elliot does the same.
He’s also a substance abuser who suffers from severe withdrawals whenever he is without his meds for an extended period of time, and Elliot’s behavior while under the influence is often erratic and unpredictable. This leads to some very memorable scenes, including an accurate depiction of the effects of Adderall on one’s psyche. If you were to pick a random episode from season one and skip to the 25-minute mark, I’ll bet Monopoly money that Elliot is suffering in some way during that particular scene. His suffering brings new developments into the fold as he recalls old memories and key facts, especially considering that Mr. Robot has a very… “special” connection to Elliot that I won’t spoil here. Mr. Robot is the source of much of Elliot’s suffering, and he’s also the solution to many of his problems. Does that make sense? No? Good.
I’m quickly realizing that as hard as I try to describe this show for those who know nothing about it, it becomes increasingly difficult to try to pigeonhole it into a certain category for comparison’s sake. There simply isn’t anything like it on TV right now, and that’s awesome. In fact, it feels like the show has been experimenting more and more with our expectations and how to shatter them, particularly with season two, which still feels like a fever dream even though there are only three episodes remaining. There have been some standout performances, and the show’s already been nominated for a number of big-time awards (it won a Golden Globe for Best Television Series—Drama in 2016), so don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said with regards to quality.
If you recall, I started this article by mentioning “the darkest timeline.” I’ve come to realize that the phrase can easily apply to the overall message that the show is trying to push with regards to our social media addiction, our careless use of basic usernames and passwords, our dismissive attitude towards cybersecurity, and so on. It doesn’t hit you over the head with angst-filled rants about millennials and Mark Zuckerberg and materialism, but it does use a rather “disappointed” tone when depicting everyday life in 2015-16.
For example, E Corp—or “evil corp,” as it’s known in the show—is essentially Facebook, JP Morgan Chase & Co, Apple, Visa, and countless other companies rolled into one. Even the logo is based on that of a real-life company (Enron, the famous energy company that went bankrupt in 2001 and left thousands of employed broke and unemployed). E Corp owns over 70% of the global consumer credit industry, and almost everyone on Earth is either using an E Corp product or is affected by the company’s influence. This show reveals what can happen when a company with that much power and “control” is attacked from the inside, with fsociety exploiting clever weaknesses in their cybersecurity defenses (similar to how modern-day companies, including the US Government, have had entire databases hacked and exposed for the world to see). It’s a “worst-case scenario” type of story for the year 2016.
On a smaller scale, though, the show deal with issues like love and the desire to be “part of something.” While we stare at our screens, it’s easy to forget the world that exists around the bezel and LCD screen. Because of his mental instability, Elliot struggles to find any kind of happiness. As he rambles about our desperate need to feel “loved” online, he is also pointing out his own loneliness and inability to connect with others in the real world. While you and I send each other Facebook friend requests and Instagram photos of flowers in a garden, Elliot hacks into cell phones and laptops and uncovers every deep, dark secret you thought you’d hidden away. And the information he gathers does nothing but make him more and more miserable. It’s a vicious cycle that he struggles to mitigate, and he frequents a therapist to try and sort out his psychological issues. His anger at society as a whole—including popular figures like Steve Jobs, Bill Cosby, Lance Armstrong, and Mel Gibson—stems in part from society’s inability to produce leaders and success stories that aren’t tainted by lies, deceit, and controversy. Elliot seeks authenticity more than almost anything else: he wants to know the truth behind his his friends’ personal lives, what goes on behind closed doors at major corporations, and especially with regards to his own fragmented memories. This is particularly ironic, since he openly admits to lying to the viewer during his conversations with his “conscience.”
This is just one example of how complex this show can get, and as I said before, I don’t blame you for struggling to make sense of what I’m typing. I can’t tell you how many paragraphs I’ve written that I promptly deleted after a few minutes of reflection. The best advice I can give you is to find your favorite streaming service, look for Season One of Mr. Robot, and fire up the first episode. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s one of the best things on TV at the moment, and it seems to be flying under the radar despite its critical acclaim. It would be a shame for the series to get cut short before it meets its natural conclusion due to a lack of consistent viewership, and I truly hope that it gets every bit of attention that it deserves.
I didn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to explaining everything, but I highly, highly, highly recommend Mr. Robot. Do yourself a favor and experience this show, and feel free to come back and thank me when you’ve officially added it to your Wednesday night TV lineup.
You’re welcome in advance.