Since its start as a cable television locale, USA has become known well for its fluffy yet viable franchises. With its first show Weird Science long gone, they turned to Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Anthony Michael Hall (The Dead Zone) to champion original programming. While it’s great to note that USA was one of the first channels to have such shows, it was always looked down on for its quality. For a long time it seemed like the USA formula was to have a semi-well-known actor team with a newcomer and slap a career on them – add drama and comedy, sometimes inoffensive action. See: Covert Affairs (Piper Perabo, CIA), Burn Notice (Jeffrey Donovan, PI), Royal Pains (Mark Feuerstein, MD), In Plain Sight (Mary McCormack, US Marshal). This all followed that Monk formula to great ratings, and some critical acclaim, but those of us looking for something else in the golden age of television alongside shows like Breaking Bad or Dexter found USA’s programming quite lacking.
Then creator Sam Esmail did the impossible – he turned the premise of hacking into a viable show. A noted fan of the idea of hacking, and inspired by the recent events surrounding the Arab Spring, Esmail went about developing a movie that saw a man forming a group that longed to take down the system from the inside. He took elements from uber-group Anonymous, from their blank masks to their penchant for posting eerie videos establishing new status quos they choose to enact. After that he has main character Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, The Pacific) develop a hatred for EvilCorp (Elliot’s imagined name for ECorp), an amalgam of monopolies such as Microsoft, Apple and all the banks of the world, as well as broken companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In addition to this basic premise (fsociety vs EvilCorp), Alderson is socially awkward, seemingly stunted from birth by his distaste of everything modern society has to offer, from the false media to inundation of advertising to the hypocrisy of those utilizing social media too frequently.
For those of you that don’t want to continue, extensive SPOILERS will ensue. Of course, you won’t find out why I think Mr. Robot is a better Gotham than Gotham. Maybe it’s that Elliot starts wearing a cape? Or sidekick Christian Slater falls in a vat of acid and becomes a clown? Let’s be honest, you’re probably here to find out more about the show anyway, so just keep scrolling.
In discussing the parallels between the two shows I have to briefly run over the plots of both shows. With Mr. Robot, beyond that aforementioned basic premise, Esmail has immersed us in Elliot’s world, introducing a childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday, Mr. Sunshine) who works with him at AllSafe, the company charged with protecting all of EvilCorp’s computer security. A natural place for a man to be recruited to take down the conglomerate from the inside, no? Well, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, Heathers) comes to him with an offer he almost literally can’t refuse. Alongside a gang of hackers Alderson must inflitrate the fortress-like Steel Mountain where a majority of EvilCorp’s servers reside. After corrupting those servers for their own gain, Mr. Robot’s fsociety will release the world’s debt by erasing it. Without going into too much detail, here or in the show, the group is successful in the penultimate episode and the world will soon spin into chaos.
In Gotham, fans of Batman were excited to see what could possibly done in a serial tale rotating around their favorite characters, even if they were often just Batman’s rogue gallery and supporting friends such as main focus James Gordon, always altruistic and on the side of lawful good. What we got seemed to be a series spinning its wheels in favor of mass introduction of that rogues gallery into Gordon’s life, with nothing either he or the writers could do with any of them. Gordon couldn’t constantly be so successful a hero that his city had no need for the birth of a vigilante superhero, and they also couldn’t have any risk or reward in the stakes surrounding literally anyone. Imagine if after fan favorite Robin Taylor (Penguin) rose the ranks of his criminal empire, he was taken out by a vengeful underling he’d wronged along the way? It’s a natural element that has appeared in comics before, usually in a cyclical fashion (all dead characters usually come back at some point in comics).
When Gotham first began, all the anticipation surrounded what they would do about the fact that Bruce Wayne was still a child. With junior versions of Poison Ivy and Catwoman around as well, it seemed like the excitement around the show would die down when the writers lost interest in showing Batman’s story alongside those of the blossoming villains. Among my own friends, we lamented that the writers didn’t just develop their own version of Batman, raising the stakes significantly by killing off a major character, or having James Gordon fight back in a vigilante way. Perhaps they could have even had teenaged Batman accelerate his training, shucking lore and taking on the villains a bit early. We could also have seen a Veronica Mars type drama, in that Batman develops his detective skill on classmates like Harleen Quinzel or Waylon Jones. While that all would have been more interesting than what we got, the writers played it safe by merely teasing the potential for all these avenues.
If we’re directly comparing the characters in Mr. Robot, then Elliot is our Bruce Wayne. He’s our Neo into the world Sam Esmail has created, and while he discovers all its nuances, he develops into the hero the world deserves. When we first meet Elliot, he is hacking for good – taking down a pedophile at a local eatery he frequents. Elliot dives into the internet rabbit hole for most of his free time, and in doing so, checks in on everyone he associates with, including his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben, ER). At one point Elliot rides the familiar grey line we’ve seen with so many recent antiheroes when he forces Krista’s philandering boyfriend to abscond from the relationship, but not before coming clean about his infidelities to Krista. Elliot believes this is for the greater good, and he is actually helping. Beyond this simple vigilantism, Elliot’s demons often haunt him, in the form of drug addiction, but he shirks them by season’s end, establishing what he believes is his own morality at the same time. He never compromises to Mr. Robot’s desires, which are more than anarchic, often discovering different and safer angles to take – ones that will result in no loss of human life. Despite this, of course, there are still casualties, none that drive the drama home than our version of Robin, Shayla Nico (Frankie Shaw, Blue Mountain State).
Shayla is Elliot’s drug dealer/neighbor/girlfriend, but those good intentions that worked well with the pedophile in episode 1 and Krista’s boyfriend do not work well at all with Shayla’s drug supplier, Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar). Elliot truly believes he is getting himself and Shayla on the right track by anonymously tipping off the police to Vera’s dealings – he thinks the chaotic fsociety is the wrong group to associate with, that he and his partner in crime will ride off into the Brooklyn sunset and boring complacency. Unfortunately Vera is this show’s Victor Zsasz (or maybe a combo with Black Mask) since he is both a consummate gangster, but also psychotically inclined for revenge and random murder. By the end of episode 5, Vera has commissioned his goons to kidnap and murder Shayla, holding her body hostage (and claiming her retained consciousness) until Elliot will hack his release from prison. While Batman would likely not allow a criminal to go free on his watch, in the case of “A Death in the Family” he had to watch as his confidante and reliable partner was brutally murdered by a psychopath.
Batman is often surrounded by influential and inspiring women, whether it be the intuitive Barbara Gordon or the shifty Selina Kyle. In Mr. Robot, these are both represented respectively by his childhood friend Angela and hacker associate Darlene (Carly Chaikin, Suburgatory). Both often flirt with Elliot without anything going too far, as he is often predisposed to focus on his work, much like various iterations of Batman. Angela’s story arc through the first season parallels Elliot, as they keep each other in the dark about their perspectives. While Elliot begins to lead fsociety towards the upheaval of governmental financial stranglehold, Angela begins to investigate EvilCorp’s handiwork in the death of her mother and Elliot’s father. Turns out, EvilCorp was involved in illegal dumping of chemicals that poisoned the water around Washington Township, where Elliot and Angela grew up. As becomes clearer every episode, the ultimate goal is likely revenge for their deaths (and many others).
Angela’s path leads her directly in conflict with Terry Colby (Bruce Altman, Show Me a Hero) who is at series start the CTO of EvilCorp. The first act fsociety takes in the show is to frame Colby for an attempted hack on AllSafe’s databases, thus making it easier to infiltrate Steel Mountain later. Out of the picture, Colby ends up stuck in his lavish Manhattan brownstone with an ankle monitor, prime for Angela to investigate his direct involvement with the toxic tragedy. Like Oracle, she begins to manipulate the system in a way to get her way, riding the same grey line Elliot has been. After showing massive stamina dealing with Colby and his pompous way of life, she’s offered a devil’s deal to work for EvilCorp. While there’s no direct story in the Batman franchise, Colby is much like a pimp gangster who only works to his own ends, much like Oswald Cobblepot. If Robin Taylor’s performance highlights an up-and-comer, Bruce Altman’s shows the world weary and decisive planner the Penguin would become. Colby certainly acts like the diabolical delinquent.
Darlene assists Mr. Robot in his endeavors, constantly checking in on Elliot, ensuring his compliance with fsociety’s plans. As Elliot wavers between joining fsociety and running off with Shayla, Darlene pops in and out of his apartment as if she has her own key (it’s because she does, but we’ll get to that later). Reminds me, at least, of Catwoman and her habit of commise seerating with Bruce on days off from crime fighting. Mr. Robot, meanwhile, when he visits with Elliot, imploring him to take out Steel Mountain, comes off as a more deranged Alfred. Constantly giving him advice, Mr. Robot converses often with Elliot over morality and the everyday choices we’re forced to make, especially in light of what society expects and what the government controls. Weirdly enough, given the results of the season, Mr. Robot is the most straightforward of all the characters – perfect for no-nonsense Alfred.
While James Gordon is the focus of Gotham, for obvious reasons, he’s not the highlight of my example for Mr. Robot. Michel Gill plays our version to aplomb, as Gideon Goddard, the head of small security company AllSafe. His lawful good nature leads us to see him attempt to unravel everything fsociety is working towards, despite not knowing Elliot and Mr. Robot’s intentions are to save the population from something worse than EvilCorp’s security breaches. This easily will remind one of Gordon’s constant back and forth over whether to trust Batman or turn him in for vigilantism. Gordon (and Gideon) are stuck on the right side at the wrong time, always forced into blame for what goes wrong in a normal criminal underworld. Ben McKenzie’s exhausted character is right there alongside Gideon, powerless to stop the onslaught of fsociety or Gotham’s “Rise of the Villains”.
The most important character for Batman is none of the above, of course, but his first enemy – Joker. Naturally, you’d wonder who might play a foil to the main character, and in Mr. Robot it’s characterized by Patrick Bateman knock off Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom, Pure). Esmail’s obvious inspiration for Wellick is that American Psycho antihero, as Wellick’s rise through the ranks of EvilCorp during season 1 are supported by scenes of strange devious sexual acts and self-flagellating morning routines. His wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen, Legends of Tomorrow) is more Talia al Ghul than Harley Quinn, but the immediate reminder of the pair is Macbeth and his Lady, or the Underwoods of House of Cards. Joanna ends up more devious than Tyrell, proving she’ll go to any lengths (endangering her baby by forcing a premature birth to distract from Tyrell’s murder investigation) to get what she wants.
As for Tyrell himself, our first glance into his world is when he passes by Elliot’s desk in AllSafe’s headquarters. He likens himself to Elliot, saying he started as a programmer/engineer himself, and rose all the way up to the heights of luxury. He butchers a French phrase to jokingly relate to underlings, before realizing after Colby’s framing that Elliot could be the only mastermind behind that set-up and thus perhaps be a worthy adversary to manipulate for later glory. While Tyrell’s immediate endeavors are truncated by a rival’s glory – his mishaps are reminiscent of the Joker’s early days as a failed comic. If only he were in the right place at the right time, he’d make it. If only he tried a little harder than the pretentious go-getter he can’t seem to be. In The Killing Joke, the Joker also comes home to an unforgiving wife, much like Tyrell’s ambitious Joanna.
By the time we reach episode 8, the show has hooked us with the phenomenal interweaving storylines, Tod Campbell’s superb cinematography (the best? Elliott’s drug trip on the way to Albany in episode 5) and the near perfect performances of its four main actors – Malek, Slater, Wallstrom and Chaikin. The details are what makes this show palatable in a way Gotham simply settles for its preconceived elements. Mr. Robot makes an effort to show you integral elements throughout, such as Elliot’s fish Qwerty being a gift from Shayla, or parallel dialogue that’s shared by mysterious entity White Rose (played by Gotham’s own Hugo Strange, BD Wong) and Joanna – furthering the example of Talia, since White Rose reminds us of Ra’s himself.
At this point, fsociety’s debt hack is nigh, and a strange revelation occurs – Darlene and Angela know each other. How can two polarized figures in Elliot’s life know each other so familiarly? Catwoman and Batgirl have been working together this whole time? What’s true? What’s real? Turns out that Elliot has no idea, and upon his attempt to celebrate the hack by kissing Darlene, realizes that they are brother and sister. In that moment, it all comes flooding back that he’s been setting up fsociety this whole time and the pills had numbed him from reality. Off the pills prescribed by psychiatrist Krista (our Leslie Tompkins here), Elliot is free to discover his true self and moralize what fsociety is really doing. While twists are often hackneyed, here Esmail winds the truth in such a way that all the veins leading to the heart of the twist are laid out in Memento level deception. My personal favorite while re-watching the season is seeing Carly Chaikin’s subtle performance as the unpredictable Darlene – the first time through, she’s a wildly inconsistent presence who wants nothing more than to watch the world burn. The second time? She’s Elliot’s sister and Angela’s friend, just as determined to exact revenge for her father’s death.
As for their father? It’s none other than Mr. Robot himself, who not only is a constant presence as well in Elliot’s life, but only in Elliot’s mind. Much like The Sixth Sense, upon a second viewing, it’s fascinating to watch how it’s really always Elliot speaking for Mr. Robot. In this sense as well, Mr. Robot is at once Alfred but also Thomas Wayne, the spectre that haunts Batman’s desire and drives his will to save those less fortunate. Once Elliot comes to this realization himself, it’s easy for him to pull the trigger on the hack and bring down EvilCorp, fully becoming the hero he believes himself to be. Tyrell, having failed at his own corporate enterprising, confronts Elliot after this and asks to include himself – a last ditch desperate grab at glory. In their final moments in Mr. Robot’s “Batcave” on Coney Island, Tyrell asks Elliot why he desired to initiate the hack.
This was the moment I realized myself that I was watching the birth of both Batman and the Joker, that we’d come this far to see their true beginnings in such a way that Gotham had failed yet far (at least in the summer of 2015, I know season 2 picked up in quality). While it’s a fool’s errand to hope to see Bruce Wayne (a still interesting David Mazouz) in action any time soon, Mr. Robot had its heroes and villains immediately deep in their element, full of danger. I’m not saying that Gotham hasn’t improved, but Mr. Robot was exactly what I’d desired from the Batman show. Besides, the air of mystery surrounding Elliot’s discovery of his own world, much like The Matrix’s Neo or Memento’s Leonard is so entrancing that it’s levels beyond the mysteries of the week presented on Gotham.
It would be unforgivable to ignore the musical choices for Mr. Robot. While Gotham is happy to rest on typical FOX action symphonics, Esmail has assembled an eclectic but always appropriate soundtrack for his debut series. From Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” to ODB’s “Got Your Money” every song lifts the scene it represents. Neil Diamond’s “If You Go Away” plays as Elliot wanders the subway system, contemplating his escape from fsociety’s chaos in the early days. FKA Twigs warbles over Tyrell’s rooftop murder of his rival’s wife, forcing us to examine the danger it puts all the players in. Sam Esmail has also noted that his use of an instrumental version of “Where Is My Mind” is in reference to the predicted reaction to Elliot’s dissociative disorder that would likely remind viewers of Tyler Durden and Fight Club. It’s all just one more reason to elevate this program against the other.
Season two will likely explore that chaos left over by the fsociety hack and debt erasure. CEO Phillip Price (this world’s Sal Maroni) will have an expanded role, as will Joanna Wellick, likely becoming the two main villains Elliot has to face. In addition, a new character, played by Grace Gummer (The Homesman) will lead the FBI’s investigation into fsociety and the downfall of EvilCorp. The big mystery will be what happened to Tyrell, and to a smaller degree if Elliot will regress or lapse into forgetting his own family again. On top of this, will Elliot realize the errors of fsociety and fix the financial crisis he’s invented? We’ll see, tonight at 10pm.