The pilot of Mr. Robot is the most interesting TV show I've seen all year. (Watch it free at USA's site here)
It has the potential to become as enlightening (and predictive) about how our current computer-connected corporate power elite function as Person of Interest did when dealing with the ramification of widespread surveillance and the morality (or lack of) in our detection and execution of possible terrorists.
My recap has spoilers, some you could tell from watching the extended trailer. Here's the marketing blurb.
In MR. ROBOT, Elliot, a cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night, is recruited by a mysterious underground group to destroy the firm he's paid to protect. Elliot must decide how far he'll go to expose the forces he believes are running (and ruining) the world.
The opening scene takes place in a urban coffee shop. Elliot, the lead character, is describing to the shop's owner why he ending up finding the 100 terabytes of child pornography the owner had that was serving 400,000 users. We don't see a single computer screen or keyboard during this, just Elliot and the owner.
It all started because he liked the fast wi-fi in the shop.
"It was so good it scratched that part of my mind that doesn't allow good to exist without conditions." -Elliot, Mr. Robot, S01E01
Elliot has a curious mind. "What's the catch?" he wonders. So he digs. First figuring out what is hinky, then how was it done technically. This is about solving an interesting puzzle, which is a critical thing to understand about many hackers.
Then comes the human puzzle solving side which is more important that people realize. (BTW, in the industry they call lying to people to get the information you want "social engineering" because that sounds like something you go to college to learn. Calling it plain old lying sounds like any shlub could do it.)
His actions, upon finding the porn, reveal part of his moral code. He isn't going to blackmail the owner. Money doesn't drive him. He's going to the police.
The opening scene's hero/villain morality play was designed to be fairly cut and dried. Serving up child porn is widely condemned as immoral and is illegal. The villain is unrepentant and has few obvious allies. He was caught off guard, was unprepared and didn't instantly retaliate. A clear cut win for our hero.
Evil Corp Is Made of People! PEOPLE!
Still, on the subway home Elliot knows he destroyed a man's life in 3 minutes. That is where he first encounters the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) who looks and sounds a bit like a drunk homeless person.
Next we see Elliot at his job in the cyber security firm. (Cyber? Really? 1990's much?) He has an internal monologue about the company whose computers he defends from external attacks. He calls them Evil Corp. They sound like BofAGoldmanMonsantoJPMorganChase and use the Enron crooked E as their logo--nice touch.
At work we meet his childhood friend, Angela, who is the new Account manager on Evil Corp, Gideon, the boss and Angela's boyfriend who also works there.
Angela wants to know why Elliott didn't come to her party the night before, he says he was working, but the scene cuts to him standing outside the bar afraid to come in. His social anxiety around other people overwhelms him, even though he clearly has feelings for Angela.
While Angela and the boss meet to discuss the ongoing computer attacks on Evil Corp, Elliott slips out to see his therapist. It sounds like it is court ordered, which gives us an idea of a back story involving hallucinations. He describes how he uses his ability to read people to figure out their passwords. No fancy hacking tools, just close observation and understanding human habits.
If Your Password is Lame, Do You Deserve Protection?
During the session we learn more about his view of people, "I look for the worst in them." But we also learn of his desire to help and protect the people who have helped or befriended him.
He proceeds to use his knowledge of his therapist's password to read her email and Facebook posts. She went through a devastating divorce and is now dating "losers" she meets on e-Harmony. He uses this information to find out that the guy she is currently dating is cheating on his wife. He does this by stalking the therapist, then lying to the guy in person and on the phone.
Once again, we are given a craven individual Elliott defeats. It's a fairly clear moral code case, but still it's creepy. He can tell himself he's doing this because he wants to help her. That, "people put all sorts of stuff on Facebook" and "she shouldn't have such an easily guessable password." But these are all rationalizations. Doing something "for the greater good" as he sees it, justifies his lying, stalking and threatening
Elliott is called into work by Amanda during a massive late night attack on Evil Corp that is big enough to warrant Gideon and Elliott hopping on the corporate jet and going to the data center.
Elliott saves the day, but there is a mysterious message left for whomever fixed this problem. When he returns he again meets Mr. Robot in the subway who promises answers about the message. Elliott, curious, decides to go with him to an old building in Coney Island.
Slater explains that Elliott has been selected and introduces him to the gang (A black man! A woman! Yaa casting director!) He lays out some of his philosophy and mentions a big project they are all working on.
I'm not sure I buy the story given by Mr. Robot, it has a generic, "Get back at the rich bastards who hurt my family" feeling that appeals to Elliott's sense of justice. (Elliott's own father was harmed by a corporation, but he couldn't prove it.)
Maybe Mr. Robot, like Elliott, knows how to read people and offers them what they want. Elliott is painfully lonely and this is a group of like minds he can talk to in real life. (There is a wonderful scene of Elliott huddled in a small space between his bed and the dresser crying about his loneliness.)
Elliott is still not certain he wants to join this crew, so he prepares to turn them in after revisiting the Coney Island site. There he hears more of Mr. Robot's reasons for doing what he is doing, and his plan. He wants to take down Evil Corp because they own 70% of consumer debt. If done right the group could erase all people's debt and mortgages and create "the single biggest incident of wealth redistribution in history."
Elliott reminds Mr. Robot of how bad the last financial crisis was and how framing the jerky CTO at Evil Corp won't accomplish much. Mr. Robot explains:
"You don't take down a conglomerate by shooting it in the heart, they don't have hearts. You take them down limb by limb."
The next day Elliott is at work where Angela is explaining what happened to Evil Corp's CTO, the FBI and US Cyber Command. Elliott is getting ready to expose the Mr. Robot gang when Evil Corp's CTO has Angela kicked off the account. Elliott, upset at how she was treated, changes his mind and provides the FBI and Cyber command with the info that frames Evil Corp's CTO.
A few weeks go by and still no news of any arrest, meanwhile Angela is distant from Elliott. She explains that she was embarrassed by what happened and doesn't want to talk about it. In the future he should let her fail, "Even if I'm losing, let me lose, okay?"
This exchange is very important. The character that he wants to protect, doesn't want the protection. She wants to deal with the situation herself and move on. She doesn't want the experience taken out of her hands by someone who thinks he knows what is best for her. I'm glad they are showing an important female character doing this.
Mr. Robot sees a massive problem with how wealth is distributed in our country, but it is Elliott's personal relationship with Angela, who is in debt, that helps him justify a larger action.
Dealing with the big issues reminded me of some of the people who I met and worked with during Occupy Wall Street. So much of that was about first pointing out income inequality. The 99% vs. the 1%. This now accepted concept represents a major mental metaphor shift for the country.
However, the mainstream media, used to finding, elevating and then destroying leaders that challenge the status quo was frustrated. They needed individual humans with backstories and motivations to focus on, otherwise it's too abstract.
Tough Job? Get Mr. Robot to do it!
With no humans, but an interesting idea, the media asked, "So what are you going to do about it?" This is where the show Mr. Robot picks up. It provides humans and a plan to do something about it.
So, really, what is to be done? Worried about massive student loan debt, and want to stick it to the corporate jerks who hurt your friends? You could blow up the entire system, but are there other alternatives?
One of the post Occupy Wall Street groups that I like is "Rolling Jubilee" They buy debt for pennies on the dollar and then forgive it. That is the kind of lateral thinking and problem solving that should be explored and encouraged.
As the show ends Elliott is brought into the inner sanctum of the men who "really run the world."
These people have a powerful world view and the ability to enforce it on entire governments. They can make it seem "right" and even the best choice to starve Greek children and crush a generation of students with debt. The only alternate they present if things aren't done their way is the world burning.
For dramatic purposes crashing Evil Corp from the inside makes for exciting TV. But the reasons why they would want to do it, as well as alternatives to the status quo, makes it thoughtful.
Following the end of Season 2 of House of Cards my friend Joel and I discussed the importance of how our nation's storytellers write about the economy. What models and metaphors do they have in their heads? Ones articulated by Elisabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Jamie Dimon?
I don't know where the rest of the series is going. They just got renewed for a second season. My hope is that the writer/ creator Sam Esmail* keeps intelligently digging into the characters and ramification of the story line he lays out in the first episode.
*Hey Sam. If you want to talk about the economy for the second season with Bernie Sanders or Elisabeth Warren I can totally set you up, I know people who know people. You don't even need to hack my email to contact me! I'm spockosbrain at gmail.