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Technopanic god complex: Mr. Robot is a show for our thoroughly hacked world

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The engaging new drama shows how much hackers have changed in the popular imagination

"Now I'm being followed. The higher-ups don't like someone with my powers," says Elliot (Rami Malek), a gifted but troubled programmer, narrating the opening minutes of Mr. Robot. "In three short minutes, I destroyed a man's business, life, existence. I deleted him." It's a perfect moment, equal parts technopanic, paranoia, and god complex. He didn't really delete the guy — all he did was get him arrested — and he's probably not being followed, either. But in this world, it's hard to be sure of anything.

This, roughly, is the premise of Mr. Robot, premiering tonight on USA. How much of this is Elliot being crazy, and how much is the real world spinning out of control? The show is vague about the exact nature of Elliot's mental health issues, but it's safe to say he's paranoid, socially anxious, and extremely bad with people. The good news is, he's very good with computers, splitting time between a day job in corporate security and freelance work as a vigilante hacker, fighting back against corporate power and anyone who causes trouble for his friends. The result is a kind of digital samurai story, with malware and social engineering standing in for swordplay.

"The higher-ups don't like someone with my powers."

It’s a long way from the hacker-movie renaissance of the '90s, when running code meant bad CGI, grunge haircuts, and rave interludes. Movies like Hackers and Lawnmower Man were about preparing for a digital revolution that would usher in an unrecognizably transformed world. But now we're on the other side of that revolution, and the new powers look an awful lot like the old powers. Elliot’s digital mastery lets him see through the people around him, breaking into any data that’s kept online, but it actually makes it harder for him to live in this new world. In a later scene, he rails against Facebook and Steve Jobs, instinctively angry at anyone who helped create what was supposed to be a digital utopia.

What sets the show apart from cringefests like CSI: Cyber is that, for the most part, the writers seem to know what they’re talking about. The cold-open features a plausible case of breaking Tor’s anonymity protections — even if the details are somewhat sketchy — and the pilot's high-stakes attack on a corporate network is just a few notches more dramatic than the real thing would be. There's still plenty to nitpick, starting with Elliot's inexplicable ability to hack anyone's email account with a brute-force password attack, but the departures seem like conscious choices, made to heighten the drama or drive home a political point.

It's still a TV show, so in the end, Elliot's digital prowess works like a superpower. But unlike yesterday’s hacker heroes, these are pretty creepy powers. In his capacity as a vigilante, Elliot casually looks through his therapist's dating profile or the balance of his love interest's student loans. They're enormous invasions of privacy and genuinely off-putting, particularly in the wake of real-life invasions like Celebgate. These aren’t just ideas anymore, which makes them both scarier and harder to control. In the end, Elliot always uses his powers for good: he busts up a child pornography ring and scares off a philandering husband who has started dating his psychiatrist. But he doesn’t leave us feeling good. This isn’t straightforward heroism — probably out of the question given Elliot’s abysmal social skills — although it fits well enough into the Soprano / Draper school of morally flexible anti-heroes.

Mr. Robot's scrappy hackers aren't necessarily the underdogs

More interesting is the broader arc, which pits Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and E Corp (universally referred to as "Evil Corp") against the scrappy hacker jubilee run by Christian Slater's eponymous Mr. Robot. Evil Corp are obviously the bad guys — it's right there in the name — but given the show's omnidirectional distrust, Slater and his faction seem likely to end up villains too, with Elliot left to bounce between the two camps. The scrappy hackers aren’t necessarily the underdogs, and the faceless corporation could quickly become the lesser of two evils.

It's a good, twisty setup, making the most of Elliot's polymath paranoia, and presuming a similar paranoia in the audience. There's no clear ideology to this tech, no clear direction where Elliot's powers might lead. The sinister powers are just as wired in as Elliot, and the new digital world is part of what's keeping them in place. Unlike the pioneering hackers of the '90s, Elliot is obviously powerful enough to make a dent in this world. The question is just what kind of dent it will be.