If you happened to glance at the Mr. Robot Twitter page when the show started Wednesday night, you might have noticed something off about the banner and logo. The show — a buzzy, dystopian meditation on hacking, paranoia, and how debilitating mental illness mixed with revolutionary fantasies could temporarily hobble American capitalism — suddenly looked like a Full House remake. For the episode's first 19 minutes, Mr. Robot remade itself as a show from the 1990s.
In this alternate reality, the Aldersson mother and father — nightmare figures borrowed from Fight Club and Psycho, respectively — are a typical American family on vacation. They're in a convertible, Christian Slater is in the traditional blue plaid dad shirt, Vaishnavi Sharma's mom dress is on point, and the kids are squabbling over the Gameboy. There are signs that the reality doesn't quite match the laugh track: Carly Chaikin's makeup as Darlene seems a trifle strong, the game she's playing looks a lot like footage of Elliot being beaten to a pulp, and maybe Mrs. Aldersson shouldn't stub her cigarette out on Darlene's arm (or rob a gas station).
But there is a laugh track, and a guest spot from ALF, and Elliot (played by Rami Malek) blinks in familiar agony while wearing a striped shirt and shorts, trapped in a 4:3 aspect ratio with flat lighting and the worst thing he can imagine: his family.
As if to blur Elliot's confusion seamlessly into our own, the commercials USA aired during the episode were all from the '90s, too. (Or in that same style — they made an ad for USA's show Suits that perfectly matched that clunky, sunny aesthetic.)
Why, aside from the pleasure of poking fun at what television and commerce felt like in the '90s, did Mr. Robot spend 20 minutes on this? This show isn't operating according to normal TV logic. Instead, we're being invited to explore both the micro and macro story in ways that have less in common with TV than with an open world video game.
Mr. Robot is in trouble with some viewers because its second season has been exceptionally slow. The Season 1 finale raised huge philosophical questions about the collapse of capitalism, the moral case for and against hacking, and the ways corporations might or might not be colluding with foreign powers to permanently change the world order. These are big issues and they require a big world. In lieu of advancing these plots, the second season has proliferated film and TV references, nostalgic riffs, and Elliot's efforts to fight Mr. Robot. If you're watching for the hacking, or the societal collapse, or the politics, or the philosophy, that sucks. Mr. Robot started on a gigantic canvas and so far the only part of it that's shaded in and detailed (almost to the point of absurdity) is Elliot's tortured inner life.
Speaking of which, where is Elliot? Is he at his mother's house? In a mental institution? And what's happening to the world? The nationwide effect of the May 9th hack are far from clear. The only glimpses we get of how ordinary people were affected are irritatingly brief: A woman complains at an E Corp bank, and Ahmed is going to have to close his store. But what's going on with Angela's dad? What's going on with society generally? What's happening with China? What's happening with capitalism?
Mr. Robot isn't just neglecting these questions; it's deliberately cropping the larger world out so that all we see are Mr. Robot's concerns. When Darlene walked into a hotel in "eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes," she passed a man who's either hiding behind the New York Post or reading it in a comically unnatural way. The headline reads, "Say Cheese, Danish! Wellick's Wife Wanders in the Night," and features a photo of Joanna Wellick. This is useful so far as it goes — it's nice to know what Joanna's up to, and suggests she might have been lured outside by paparazzi instead of Tyrell — but it answers nothing about what America is right now. If anything, it's a headline that's almost creepily tailored to our interests. Is literally nothing else happening? I mean, is there weather? Is Florida still there?
My point is this: Everything — everything — is weirdly and unnaturally connected in Mr. Robot's world in ways that ought to worry us. There is no randomness in this universe, there is nothing that can't be read into or visited, no number that isn't an IP address or a code. There is nothing real; we are living in the mind of a paranoiac.
And it's this interactivity, that pleasant, ticklish, paranoid feeling that everything is connected, makes the show massively fun to consume. I found myself staring at the ads before and after the show, trying to figure out what was and wasn't part of Mr. Robot's universe, which had already transgressed by tweaking the sacred rules of the network time slot, and has now started messing with commercials too. Mr. Robot's fake E Corp ads were stylistically indistinguishable from USA's '90s ads.
That's FUN. More absorbing than the plot or the suspense or even the great cinematography is the show's friendly invitation to detect. People are scouring every frame for codes and secrets and (unlike in True Detective, which inspired a similar frenzy of paranoid readings) they're actually there.
Mr. Robot could be an object lesson in transmedia. Yes, there are Mr. Robot emojis and GIFS and favorite quotes. Sure, there are easter eggs. The show's site is a great resource; you can find "footage" of the aftermath of the hack plus references to Deflategate and Bernie Madoff. You can watch the film referenced in Season 2, The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie. There's a virtual reality scene (not shown in the actual show) with an extended flashback that you can experience in 360 degrees. There's a Mr. Robot puzzle game.
But there's a WHOLE lot more: The show explicitly invites viewers to "hack" along with the characters. You can, for example, reproduce the commands Darlene dictated to Angela in this week's episode (which, among other things, yields a recipe for a gross-sounding drink ominously called a Backfire. If you want to try this, type in "cd bin" and then "./EnableAttack femtopwn WLAN0,WLAN1 2").
If you visit www.whoismrrobot.com right now, it's configured to echo that '90s feel via those familiar dial-up sounds — and Telnet and ALF wallpaper. And you can go deeper: If you click on "My Briefcase" on the "desktop," you'll find articles documenting the arcade's violent past (including an obituary for a Mary Meghan Fisher). You can access Romero's list of FBI agents, which apparently got him killed.
And that's not all! These aren't just cute archives. If, for example, you read the "README.txt" file on the desktop, you'll learn enough basic programming lingo to list the directory contents in telnet and (among other things) play a game of Snake. If you want to explore further, try opening telnet and typing in "ls recycle bin", then "open ch347c0d35" to see a kernel panic log (a reference to the third episode this season).
If you keep your eyes peeled for IP addresses (they pop up in the unlikeliest places, like freeway signs), the might lead you to a BBS called TV TODAY where you can type in commands to see ANSI art of ALF or Bart Simpson and read bulletin boards about Doogie Howser, The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Full House, Step by Step, Head of the Class, Dear John, and The Cosby Show. If you want to see some other things in the BBS, try typing in the following commands: A P B P A P B. One of the images there is on Angela's desk in the episode. And hey: if you want to look up what "MARBLECAKE" means, that's up to you.
(Screenshot/USA Network/Mr. Robot)
If you click here, you'll see some very pretty images — the first set of which possibly correspond to chess pieces, perhaps referencing the mythic chess game between Mr. Robot and Elliot. (The butterfly is Lebadea martha, also knows as the Knight, and the other images correspond to rook, pawn, and possibly king. What the second set of images corresponds to is anyone's guess.)
Then again, if you look at the text, it sounds more like Whit3ros3's obsession with time. It reads: "As each second passes, I push myself to keep moving." In other words, we don't even know whose images we're decoding. Who is "friend"?
(Screenshot/USA Network/Mr. Robot)
I really hope Mr. Robot ends in a way that justifies this rich extra-televisual architecture; I hope it rewards every invitation to sleuthing and that all this — the sitcom, the IP addresses, the blurring of ads and show, the references, the QR codes — adds up to something. Because it's fun, but it's fun because we trust there's a puppet-master rendering this open world meaningful and worth decoding. (Unlike True Detective, which turned out not to have one; it was all broken strings.) So much depends, as William Carlos Williams says, on a red wheelbarrow.