Can you honor your influences and still be original?

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Elliott Eglash on Mr. Robot

If critics agree on anything when it comes to Mr. Robot, it’s that star Rami Malek’s eyes are so dreamy as to be almost hallucinatory. But if they agree on a second thing, it’s that the show is a tad too into its own genealogy. Its second season recently premiered on USA, rekindling an argument about whether Mr. Robot is compelling, highly relevant, and utterly original television, or merely a retread of a fairly familiar anti-corporate shtick, whose only claim to newness is its brazen appropriation of a few old favorites—A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho, Taxi Driver, and, inevitably, Fight Club. Though for a viewer like Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, these films are less favorites than canon, or gospel. A self-professed “anti-conformist,” Esmail was put on academic probation while at NYU for a computer stunt involving an inflammatory email, and has attempted to retain his edgy side ever since—even while his show has become the cornerstone in a major and highly commercial network’s lineup. This may explain why Mr. Robot often includes blatant references to its cinematic predecessors, eschewing subtle nods in favor of vigorous seizures of the head and neck. One imagines Esmail excitedly asking, in a fairly standard freshman formulation: “What’s more original than acknowledging your own inherent unoriginality?” According to the critics: pretty much anything. David Haglund, summing up the consensus critique in an otherwise positive review for The New Yorker, writes that if you dumped Fight Club, The Matrix, and a few other dorm room favorites “into a boxy old television, shook it up, and turned it on, the result, if TVs worked like cocktail mixers, would be ‘Mr. Robot.’”

The show, set in a vaguely futuristic present, follows Elliot Alderson (Malek), a computer genius who starts out in corporate security before ditching it for the much more fun field of corporate espionage. Together with a few fellow angry young hackers (and one middle-aged one, played by Christian Slater) collectively known as fsociety, he sets out to take down the conglomerate E Corp, an unfeeling behemoth of a company headed almost exclusively, apparently, by sadists and sociopaths. When the show begins, Elliot is convinced that E Corp’s goons are following him. But then, given that he’s not taking the pills his psychiatrist prescribed for his schizophrenia (instead taking morphine he definitely didn’t get with a prescription), how much should we trust Elliot in the first place?

One could be forgiven for viewing this all as recycled matter. Deadpan voiceover delivered by an unreliable narrator? Must be Taxi Driver Redux. Black suits tailing you everywhere? Nice try, Esmail, but we all saw The Matrix. Imaginary friend encouraging you to end the world as we know it? Sam Adams, writing for Slate, chalks it up to the show’s propensity for “regurgitating half-digested chunks of Fight Club.” I could list several other, far more overt references, but to keep this a spoiler-safe space, I will refrain.

People feel strongly and variously about Mr. Robot’s extensive borrowing. The show, for the most part, seems to attract critical ire, or else vague frustration that a series with so much potential for originality runs through the same old motions. It’s the same feeling you get when, after you’ve settled into the theater for the latest Star Wars movie, you find out our heroes are slated to blow up yet another Death Star (seriously, is someone franchising these things?).

But for another type of fan, a not-so-subtle nod to cinematic touchstones functions less as an upturned middle finger pointed squarely at the camera than as encouragement to keep digging: “If I caught this reference to The Parallax View during a binge-induced state of semi-consciousness, what did I miss??” Indeed, the long list of references often sends fans and reviewers on a quest for more subtle allusions, bringing to light networks of extra-textual significance otherwise hidden in plain sight, rivaled in their complexity only by the show’s own networks of corruption and greed. Given that events come to us filtered through Elliot’s unreliable narration, which is at best subjective and at worst schizophrenic, the viewer is already forced to ask, almost continuously, if things are really as they seem. In this light, Esmail’s on-the-nose references are less narcissistic than artistic, adding another layer to the suspicion that, if we look closely enough, we might find what “they” (i.e. the show’s creators) would rather keep hidden. Mr. Robot can sometimes breed the same paranoia that it depicts.

And yet, as with real paranoia, after a certain point one starts to wonder if it amounts to anything substantive, or just a few poorly assembled theories, a few poorly assembled tinfoil hats. Answers about the realities of Elliot’s situation will, presumably, come in time. Viewers are less likely to come across answers as to what significance, if any, can be drawn from the allusions operating in the background (though they’ll keep constructing elaborate theories all the same). In the meantime, perhaps the wiser course of action is to stop looking where Mr. Robot directs our gaze—always elsewhere, toward other movies—and to start looking closer at the show itself. After all, Esmail already included a fairly overt reference to his show’s most divisive tendency halfway through last season. As Elliot says, “I remember when I was a kid I got into web design by ripping off sites I liked. All you had to do was view source on your browser and there it was, the code. You could copy paste it, modify it a little, put your name on it, and like that it was your site.”

Elliot may be talking about websites, but that same logic drives the entire show—not that plagiarism equates to originality, but that all cultural objects, and especially those that claim to be original, are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with all the books, films, songs, and so on that came before. What matters is less the set of films that Mr. Robot bears behind it like ballast (or dead weight) than the unguessed destination toward which the show is taking them. Though some of Mr. Robot’s moves may feel familiar, the pervasive aura of paranoia, alienation, and good old anti-capitalist anger it creates does not. This is more true than ever this season, with the show taking pains to make its populist appeals relevant to the real world; the first two episodes featured an actress who portrays Janet Yellen and footage in which President Obama appears to mention fsociety in a press conference, which unfortunately, though fittingly, was achieved merely through computer wizardry). And in that sense, perhaps there’s one more, previously hidden reason why Esmail includes so many references, covert or otherwise, to older films. The same mindset that allows us to uncover hidden allusions may help attune us to hidden conspiracies. And when the line between fact and fiction, hallucination and reality, seems to grow more muddled daily—allow me to make a reference of my own—constant vigilance may not be a bad policy.

Elliott Eglash is a senior at Princeton University, where he writes for the Nassau Weekly and the Nassau Literary Review. He co-edited the LA Review of Books 2015 Intern Edition, and recently worked for McSweeney’s.