We loved Mr. Robot here at DCMG, the way it affected myself and Nate from the outset was astonishing [Our original articles are here and here] but it became quite a personal show to us and so the articles stopped and our thoughts became a private conversation over the years between us both. When we both finally finished the last season, our esteemed Ed asked if we’d write an overview of the show and maybe pick some highlights but after not having shared my thoughts with anybody except Nate I was filled with fear. So instead of painstaking research and a detailed review like our Ed wanted I decided instead to have a text conversation with Nate and publish that instead. I hope you’ll indulge us as our love of the show and thoughts on its impact I genuinely think are valid and important which is not something I ever say about my opinions but such was the impact of Mr. Robot on me and on Nate we think you’ll enjoy our chat. This will include spoilers for season 4 and also the show Lost if you haven’t ever got to the end of that one, so if you’d rather not have the show ruined for you don’t go past the image…
Nate - hello, friend
Let's start with this...
I can't think of another show that has dealt with mental health in the way that Mr. Robot did. Is Mr. Robot the most important show ever? What other shows are in the running?
Steve - I think mental health issues are a great place to start as way back at the start of the show we both picked up on that as something important in the show alongside the sexier topics depicted like hacking. Is Mr. Robot the most important show ever? That’s really tough to answer as what helps one viewer may not help another so from a personal point of view I still hold the West Wing close to my heart as there is three moments of that show that we’re either an awakening for me or that without I may not be here. However, those particular moments are stops on my own personal journey, in the wider world I don’t believe there has been a show that has thrown mental health right in the face of the audience and screamed at them like Mr. Robot, do you know what I mean? From those opening words ‘Hello, friend’ you knew this show was going to challenge the norm in how mental health was depicted. You understood Elliot and his battles, whether it be the personality problems, the issues of finding your place in society, family issues, numbing yourself to the noise of the world with drugs was a particular part I related to, as the show went on it didn’t matter what the bigger story was going on in the episode or season arc you just wanted Elliot to be well as he was you and you were him. Sam Esmail’s writing was certainly important here as too many times mental health issues are written either too specific to be relatable or from a point of almost parody. Esmail was in your face abrasive and didn’t shy away from tough moments but it felt like it was from a position of understanding rather than just done as a plot device.
Nate - I'm not even sure what I mean by "important”, but I think you stated perfectly: the show throws mental health in the face of the audience and screams at them. For all the nuevo-cyberpunk tech ambiance setting the stage, Esmail used that to frame Elliot's personal struggles and propel his mission, without revealing what his mission actually was until the final season, or more specifically, a few episodes in the final season. Saving the world was the goal if viewed from a distance but saving himself was the real mission. Often, we are fighting battles from the outside that seem impossible to win as a way to distract from the battles within that seem far harder to even address, let alone fight. Plenty of shows have used intertwined storylines to confuse the audience, but in this one, it wasn't just a way to keep us guessing, it was the essence of Elliot's character. We didn't know what was going on because he didn't know what was going on. It was a way to reveal us to ourselves as we understand more deeply that which Elliot does not want to come to terms with. That is brilliant storytelling as much as it is a keen illustration of serious mental health issues.
And I think you're right that Esmail has a deeper understanding of these moments than you could have from a place of simple artistic curiosity.
Steve - the comment you just made ‘We didn't know what was going on because he didn't know what was going on’ I think throws up a fascinating question that is - do you think any other show could have got away with four seasons of television where the audience don’t have a clue what’s going on? You had to wait to the end of season 1 for the Christian Slater reveal and then went into season 2 where nothing else really got explained, in fact more questions got raised than answered! The only other show I’ve experienced that had a complete disregard for spoon feeding information to its audience was Twin Peaks. I sort of like that I didn’t know what the endgame was, I liked that the show didn’t give me an easy explanation. Right up the final scene of season 4 I still couldn’t guess what was happening.
Nate - The one show that I kept thinking about during Mr. Robot's run was Lost. There were more than a few times when I thought, "I swear to fuck, if this ends with some LOST-type bullshit cop-out I'm going to hunt Sam Esmail down and fart in his mouth." And Lost was -was- my favourite shows ever before Mr. Robot. I just hated the ending. (If you don't know: the prevailing theory, 3 episodes into Lost, was that they were all dead. Lindelöf and Abrams came out and stated that wasn't the case. Then, the last 30 seconds of the finale and GUESS WHAT they were dead the whole time.) But with Mr. Robot, there was so much connecting tissue that you cared about that you were willing to invest time into something that could ultimately not pay off. But then it did. It paid off HUGE. The entirety of season 4 should be taught in film schools as a full year course. That probably still wouldn't be enough to untangle every thread. Especially episode 407 Proxy Authentication Required - that was an artistic masterpiece.
I was amazed at the way the show dealt with subtle lessons that were actually very big lessons. I think the overall motif that was most glaring to me was the idea that becoming the best version of yourself is much, much harder than allowing yourself to be the person you've always been. Fighting for the good of humanity is swell and all, but if you're sacrificing yourself in a way that is detrimental to those that love you, then you must look in the mirror and find the other avenue for that pursuit. Throwing yourself into a volcano to appease the gods to show mercy on your little tropical island is mostly harmless to your friends and family (sadness and loss aside) but strapping those people to your body and jumping in the volcano isn't altruism, it's selfishness. There may be bigger lessons in Mr. Robot, but that's the one that impacted me with the most force.
Steve - I’m glad you brought up episode 7! There has been specific episodes in each season that have stood out for me in different ways, the social commentary and Anonymous/Manning/Snowden nods in the first, the Christian Slater reveal, the false reality in season 2’s eps2.4_m4ster-, the introduction of Bobby Cannavale in season 3, but when we get to season 4 the stand out episodes just seem to multiply. I was stunned by 405 Method Not Allowed an entire episode with absolutely no dialogue that was tense and gripping throughout. I genuinely thought it couldn’t be beaten but then 407 Proxy Authentication Required just stomped and spat on my idea of what a television episode should look like. I’m not a huge theatre guy but I’ve seen some great actors from the screen transcend into someone spectacular when they are in a play and I always wondered if that obvious live in the moment freedom they have on stage would carry over into a more structured visual orientated medium and that was what 407 was for me, it was three actors who knew there script and then just went out on stage in full control of how that story was going to be performed. We both like Rami a lot but I don’t think either of us thought he had that level of intensity in him and just how bloody good were Elliot Villar as Fernando Vera and Gloria Reuben as Krista? 407 changed how I viewed Mr. Robot but also how I view television also. Some shows have a gimmick episode like a musical episode or something and whilst this is most definitely a filmed theatre play it didn’t in anyway feel gimmicky. In this golden age of tv we are in shows have to be pretty bloody special to make any kind of impact and we are blessed to be the generation getting the best value for our buck but in my eyes something is going to have to be pretty exceptional to ever top Mr. Robot.
Nate - I just had to go back and watch some of episode 405 because I couldn't recall that there was no dialogue. Holy shit. The conversations taking place over text were done so perfectly that I heard everything that was being communicated as voices. (maybe I was a little high) This further solidifies my belief that Mr. Robot is the greatest show ever. Pure genius.
What you are saying about 407 is dead on. Rami never really gets to show his range as an actor, so I sort of thought that he might be limited. He's been great in this show but that could easily have been a product of the actor being a perfect fit for the part. Seeing what he did in the last season gets me excited to see him as a bond villain. The ep also gave me a new appreciation for stage productions. I enjoy plays to some degree, but now I feel like I should see more dramatic plays in person. It really gives you a sense of how trusting the stage director has to be with his actors, how talented the crews are with lighting, sound, set pieces, all of it has to work so perfectly together. As a television episode, I am with you, it revolutionized my idea of what television can be. There was nothing formulaic about the entire series. It was artistic representation of real life, not a facsimile with perfectly stipulated dialogue and action, but a broken mirror reflecting Elliot's life back to us. And it's a life that many of us can relate to, which makes it all the more powerful.
To your point (something is going to have to be pretty exceptional to ever top Mr. Robot) - I feel like I could stop watching television for the rest of my life and never miss out because, for me, Mr. Robot is the pinnacle of that art form. As 'content' becomes more ever more important than 'quality', I wouldn't be surprised if nothing else comes close.
Steve - Rami is exciting me as an actor and a great choice for a Bond villain I think but I get your point on him not necessarily being stretched as an actor up to the point of season 4, and that’s what makes 4 so I good I think because Rami took his Elliot portrayal to a whole new level. He wasn’t the only member of the cast that left an impression on me though and I think from top to bottom the casting has been perfect and I hope that general viewers of television start to have a deeper appreciation for casting directors off the back of shows like Mr. Robot. The biggest take away I had from Mr. Robot though was how Sam Esmail left me caring about characters I didn’t think I liked or thought anything of. You’re supposed to hate those with power and side with Elliot but I found myself half way season 4 hoping nothing bad would happen to Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), whilst I didn’t want Dominique (Grace Gummer) to capture Elliot and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) or worse once the Dark Army got her involved, I still wanted her to find the happiness she was desperate for. I cried when Angela (Portia Doubleday) dies, I found myself liking Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and he was Evil Corp incarnate! I missed Gideon and Shayla, I marvelled at Bobby Cannavale’s Irving, I really felt for Krista. Every single member of the cast had some kind of impact on me and the balance between performance and writing was exceptional. I’m not sure of my answer to the next question yet so I’ll ask you first... favourite actor or performance in the show?
Nate - Your mention of Wellick brings up a question I have: Was he real? Or was he somehow a figment of Elliot's imagination? I'm 99% sure he was real, but this show confused the fuck out of me.
You bring up another great point - you come to sympathize with almost every character, even Whiterose (to a degree) and Phillip. I think the reason that works as a transition of perspective is because the real battle (we come to realize) is between Elliot's personalities. Esmail essentially allows all the other conflict to fall to the wayside so we can focus on what matters most: introspection and self-care. Again, it's fucking genius.
Obviously, Elliot/Malek is the best part of the show. And I'm absolutely in love with Darlene on every level. B.D. Wong as Whiterose/Minister Zhang has to be the most intriguing character for me. He conveyed everything without revealing anything, like the placid surface of a lake of sulfuric acid. And the delicate touch with which Esmail displayed Whiterose's transition to the person Minister Zhang felt she truly was inside... that writing is special. It's more than entertainment, or even art for entertainment's sake, it's meaningful art. But, Bobby Cannavale's Irving is as wildly off-kilter and entertaining as a character can be without becoming a caricature. He's definitely up at the top of the list.
I did however miss Trenton and Mobley and Romero and that group of people. I would have loved to see them come into the fold to really go all out against The Evils That Be, but in the end, there simply wasn't enough room in the show, and I'd never want to change how the show progressed and then ended.
Steve - the Wellick point is a valid one mainly because his was the only death that A) you didn’t really see and B) didn’t seem to have any consequences for anyone. Every death in Mr. Robot has had consequences, Shayla’s for Elliot, Angela’s for both Darlene and Phillip, Whiterose’s for the entire Dark Army, Joanna’s for Wellick himself but then Wellick is just gone and it doesn’t seem to matter. I presume he was real but in those final episodes Elliot was dropping personalities like flies so Wellick could have quite easily been Elliot. Ok, that’s just hurt my brain...
Nate - The thing about Wellick's death is that it was the only unselfish thing he did in the entire series. We assumed he died in the woods, and if that's the case, it gave Elliot more time to escape. He was such a confusing character (is he bad, is he good, is he real, is he a robot?) that leaving his death unseen and unconfirmed made him even more enigmatic. Which seems appropriate.
Steve - Well, my “little article on Mr. Robot” I promised our esteemed editor about three months ago is now massively overdue and whilst I’m loving this I guess we better attempt to wrap it up so... overall thoughts on four seasons of television and favourite episode or two of each season and why? You go first as you know I have to have the last word.
S4E7: Proxy Authentication Required
In thinking about what my favourite episodes of each season might be, I realized something interesting - I don't really remember individual episodes. The series runs so seamlessly together that I can only envision the story as a whole, with a few exceptions. Esmail created a world that is hard to understand but impossible to escape when you're a part of it. So, I would say my two favourite episodes have to be S2E6 (eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes) and S4E7 (Proxy Authentication Required). The two episodes are so incredibly different that it shows the breadth and diversity of the writing. The 80s sitcom style of 'master slave' is such a unique way to show how Elliot deals with being beat up by Ray's thugs; escaping into a fabricated reality that fits the family life tropes that we grew up with in entertainment, but mired in the unsavoury of everyday existence. Also, a cameo by ALF never hurts. Going back and watching that episode after seeing the finale, it should have been so obvious to us. As for 'Proxy', if there is another end of a spectrum that extends directly into the multiverse and then takes a sharp left turn, that's the distance between the two episodes. The stage setting, the ambiance of each scene, the unbelievable showcase of talent from Elliot Villar, Gloria Rueben, and Malek... not only is that episode a distant cousin of the rest of the series, and also a distant relative of everything else that I've ever seen from a television show, it's also the pinnacle of what needed to be accomplished with the story. Building up to it, you could feel that something significant was coming, but the cyclone surrounding Elliot kept the reveal from us as well as it was kept from Elliot. When it hit, it hit hard and punctured deep. Just a brilliant, brutal, episode.
Side Bar: I forgot to mention how much I love Joey Badass as Leon. He's the perfect encapsulation of a street poet melded with an urban warrior. Vicious, but not without purpose and a moral compass.
I've never seen another show deal with mental health in such a profound way, with a delicate but firm grasp on how to frame each issue. Taking on an evil organization like Evil Corp is a large task set in a large world; fixing the cracks and wounds within your own mind is a much larger task that takes place in an infinitely smaller space. Both branches of the story were gripping. Everyone can't fathom saving the world, but we can all empathize with the feeling that we are losing control of our mind. That's what stands out to me about Mr. Robot, and Sam Esmail's writing, because for all the perfection in the production, they absolutely nailed a lot of how it feels to face inner demons and the moments which lead to admitting that there is something deeper and far more fucked up in ourselves than we want others to know. That's why I think this show isn't simply a pinnacle of art as entertainment but also a show of importance that I think everyone should invest themselves in.
Steve - episode wise this was tough, you’re right about it being seamless but I was hard on myself and managed to pick a few. I started watching Mr. Robot because of my real life interest in Anonymous, Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, as well as documentaries on real life financial crises and Enron in particular so I really have to pick eps1.0_hellofriend.mov because it gave me all that all at once in a smart well thought out delivery. It took all that I’m fascinated by and smashed it right into my brain in an episode of television that is still astonishing to watch. It introduced our guide to this world in Elliot and there was finally a television character that felt that it had been written just for me, and then the marketing started! Remember all those emails we got after episode 1 with riddles and brain teasers on? I’d never experienced anything like it in all my television viewing life. I loved season 2, I know a lot of people dropped the show during the second run because it became longer, more dependent on you remembering things, it had a longer runtime and I guess for a casual audience member too much changed but I just became more gripped, however we picked the same episode as a favourite so I’ll move on. Season 3’s eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk was one of the saddest, most moving episodes of the shows entire run. Yes, the cinematography will get lots of plaudits here, but my overwhelming memory was of Angela so distraught at the explosions that she found herself rewinding the news hoping that would bring all the people back. I had a lot of time for Angela throughout Mr. Robot and this episode genuinely made me breakdown in tears. Sam Esmail’s writing has always been top notch but it was this episode where I first noticed he’d left this realm of good writing and had edged towards genius. The rest of season 3 seemed to go well but come the end this one scene of Angela was still haunting me. Season 4 we’ve spoken a lot about, and you picked episode 7 which we’ve both agreed was stunning, but I’ve picked 405 Method Not Allowed and Hello, Elliot. 405 was a game changer for me in how television can be made and the whole zero dialogue thing was so clever that you didn’t even know it hadn’t had any! But that final 30 seconds of the whole show when our Elliot joins his family and let’s Darlene have her brother back for the first time in years was heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure and I think those two words are important when discussing the show as a whole.
The mental health aspect, the tech, the society parts, the complex storylines, it was all vital and was all deftly done. It was writing and casting and performance of the highest order, but it was heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure and stopped at the perfect time.
Note – Whilst in this conversation we only mention Sam Esmail as a writer we are fully aware that other talented folk took part in the creation of lots of the episodes we loved. We only used Esmail’s name for brevity during our chat and because it was his vision we were watching. Please follow this link and take a look at all the other talent that had a hand in creating the best television show ever. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4158110/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm
Images - IMDb/GFYCAT.com