It’s one thing to question your mind. It’s another to question your eyes and ears. But, then again, isn’t it all the same? Are senses just mediocre inputs for our brain? Sure, we rely on them, trust that they accurately portray the real world around us, but what if the haunting truth is, they can’t? That, what we perceive isn’t the real world at all, but just our mind’s best guess.
~ Elliot Alderson
This essay focuses on Mr. Robot, a television series equivalent of an indie film, whose first season is said to have pushed boundaries and captured the cultural zeitgeist, almost overnight. Its first season ratings established it as the #3 most watched scripted cable drama in the US, garnering multiple awards and nominations — leading to the series being licensed in almost 200 countries (Birnbaum). This essay analyzes the strategies employed, deconstructs the elements contributing to its success, and explores why the series may be a model for future television properties moving forward.
The series is about a hacker genius whose mind has been hacked. It follows Elliot Alderson, a socially anxious, drug addicted, cybersecurity engineer and vigilante hacker. Elliot is recruited by Mr. Robot, the leader of an underground hacktivist group (fsociety), to take down the biggest multinational conglomerate in the world (E-Corp). Elliot is persuaded to help disempower the entities he feels are running and ruining the world, but he is often conflicted about his actions. As the story unfolds, Mr. Robot is revealed to be Elliot’s split personality; an embodiment of his late father… and Elliot has, in fact, created fsociety (Lindsay). The first season culminates in a fsociety hack on a corporate data centre, erasing all domestic financial debt records, resulting in a crippling of the US banking industry; the fallout of which becomes the focus of the second season. In prison, while Elliot and Mr. Robot engage in psychological warfare over control of Elliot’s mind, fsociety initiates a range of tactics in a well-orchestrated race in the survival of the fittest, across a widening range of players — the FBI, The Dark Army (an illicit global hacker-for-hire group), and E-Corp as it involves the Chinese and US governments in a series of geopolitical power plays. E-Corp’s ambition has become world domination through its own cryptocurrency — to rival all central bank currencies.
THEMES, PARALLELS, TRENDS & AESTHETICS
Growing discontentment with the rising wealth disparity around the world, underpin the themes explored in the Mr. Robot TV series — cyber threats, mental health, drug addiction and power imbalances. Writer, director and showrunner, Sam Esmail, says he drew inspiration for the series from three developments — the rise of hacker culture; the 2008 global financial crisis; and political movements like the Arab Spring. At the heart of the show are disillusioned young people hungering for change, channelling their newly acquired technological fluency to shift the societal imbalances of power around them (dec0d3d.doc; Eyerly; Lindsay).
There are several obvious parallels between the film, Fight Club (1999), and the Mr. Robot television series — notably a story unfolding through the eyes of someone with dissociative identity disorder, and a mirrored story arch. Not only does Elliot suffer from dissociative identity disorder, but he also suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. The show intensifies the original Fight Club experience by further immersing the audience in various spaces (virtual, physical, hacker and psychological spaces) while exploring the impact of Elliot’s mental illness, drug addiction and hacker exploits on those around him (Lindsay; Mudede). Elliot’s character vibrates at a different frequency to the rest of society. The show is slow boiling and steeped in high stakes, distilling Elliot’s perception of reality. Consistently combined creative elements include Elliot’s quiet intensity, a late 90s rock-trip hop soundtrack, and a visual aesthetic intended to disturb. Interior shots with an uncomfortable depth of focus immerse the characters in a sci-fi tech environment the audience recognizes as their own, making Elliot’s distorted realities a loose metaphor for the socio-technological blur we all find ourselves in today (Lindsay; Mudede).
Worth noting, is how Mr. Robot melds cyberpunk sci-fi elements with characterizations of Japan’s otaku subculture. Cyberpunk characters are usually marginalized, alienated loners existing on societal peripheries of a hi-tech dystopian future — aptly mirroring Elliot’s character and the urban environment that surrounds him.
“Otaku are [seen as] socially inept loners, fanatically knowledgeable in one abstruse field; they are chronically shy and sickly pale, but often brilliant technological shut-ins” (Tsutsui 12).
More broadly, the term ‘otaku’ characterizes those who identify as obsessive non-conformists, focusing energies in directions which deviate from societal conformity, whether by choice or not. Otaku, in many ways, have come to symbolize the fragmentation, drift, disaffection and withdrawal characteristics of Japanese society during a time of rising technological adoption and shifting economics, perhaps mirroring the current rising discontent in the West. Parallels can be easily drawn between otaku and hacker subcultures, as isolationist tendencies are cited as a key emotional driver for why people get into hacking in the first place (dec0d3d.doc; Tsutsui 17-18).
Not only does Elliot (Rami Malek) embody the hacker vibe, but in a show where viewers go through an episode frame-by-frame, looking for code accuracy and in-jokes, attention to detail becomes key to representing hacker culture authentically. Tech research has been built into the writing process of the show. Once story arcs have been sketched out, tech consultants work in parallel to the writing room, to research how to construct the hacks. While the writers work on the what, where and why, the tech team focuses on the how. This attention to detail is similarly woven into in the narrative construction, illuminating the psychological motivations behind hacker and hacktivist subculture (dec0d3d.doc; Doctorow; Lindsay; Plouffe; Valentini).
In terms of definitions, in the most basic sense, hacking is the use of technology for purposes it was not intended. Hacktivism is the act of compromising a computer system or network with political intent. Mr. Robot explores the many dimensions of how power can be used in hacking — to hold people accountable, to threaten, to inspire fear, to harass, to silence, etc (dec0d3d.doc). While the series showcases a range of hacking techniques (ie. DDoS attacks, passive attacks, phishing, viruses, trojans, malware, etc), the storylines rely on real life events or, at the very least, plausible parallels. In the first season, for example, Elliot chooses a hospital with an outdated tech infrastructure as his primary care facility, so he can easily hack in and modify his medical records, to conceal his drug use (Smith). Even if a viewer cannot follow the steps in any particular hack shown, they can still easily follow how it fits into the story. According to Cory Doctorow’s article in the MIT Technology Review entitled, “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker,” Mr. Robot ‘nails’ the anthropology of hacking; specifically how the characters talk about hacking (Doctorow). Many of the storylines are built on social engineering tactics currently used by hackers. Social engineering refers to a range of psychological techniques used to influence an individual’s behaviour in the direction a hacker sees as advantageous. The practice relies on the assumption there will always be a human with access to important data who can be manipulated. By prioritizing the human element in infiltrating cybersecurity, the show makes hacker tactics easy to understand, and keeps the story relatable. Audiences have appreciated how the details, schemes and methods shown are insightful, authentic and accurate (dec0d3d.doc; Doctorow; Valentini 103).
In terms of real-life parallels, the Sony Entertainment hack was a pivotal source of inspiration, both in getting the series sold, and also within the plot of the first season. Executive producers, Anonymous Content, have cited being unsuccessful in garnering interest for Mr. Robot until real cybersecurity threats permeated the consciousness of Hollywood. It was only after the Sony Entertainment hack that USA Network ordered a pilot. A similar hack (on E-Corp) appears in the first season of Mr. Robot, where hackers threaten to release data dumps on a set schedule, until their demands were met (dec0d3d.doc; Littleton/ Anonymous).
Similar events to the series’ storylines continuously surfaced in the news throughout the first season. The Ashley Madison hack made public the identities of 32 million people globally, who were potentially having extra-marital affairs; and the FBI-Apple encryption legal dispute over unlocking the iPhone of the individual behind the San Bernardino terrorist attack, further inflamed public debate on the issue of privacy vs. US domestic security. At the same time, Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden continued to permeate the news internationally throughout the first two seasons of the series (dec0d3d.doc; Zetter/ Ashley Madison).
There is much debate about whether or not Mr. Robot storylines have become precursors to real world events, inciting debate from cybersecurity companies, hackers and hacktivists, as well as pop culture theorists. The consensus is, these seemingly coincidental parallels point to symptoms of larger things happening in an increasingly global society, which audiences everywhere are grappling with. The show’s impact has centred on catalyzing audience thinking about these societal shifts. This is evidenced by how the series inspired debates which went beyond the narrative of the show, their millennial demographic and entertainment industry commentary (dec0d3d.doc).
PROMOTION & PERFORMANCE
The marketing objective for the series’ launch was to start a social movement with the pilot episode, by mirroring themes of anti-conformity and anti-establishment in its promotion and distribution. The goal was to attract a diverse and influential cross-section of millennials, to view the pilot in advance of the broadcast premiere, and convert them to evangelists for the series. This required a bottom up (instead of top down) approach to marketing and distribution — relying on a seamlessly consistent voice, authentically delivered across all promotional platforms, and (most importantly) in a manner which enabled advocacy (Mr. Robot, Younger).
To seed curiosity around the pilot, a :10 teaser drove people to a website masquerading as an interactive fsociety recruitment tool. The site accrued 25K email addresses within the first 24 hours and hundreds of thousands of email addresses throughout the first season. A CRM campaign engaged followers on an ongoing basis, always using Elliot’s voice to advance fsociety’s cause (Miller; Mr. Robot, Younger). Advance screenings of the pilot were then held across college campuses, tech meetups, and screened with thousands of employees across Google, Twitter and Facebook offices, prior to the broadcast launch. In a push to democratize access to the show, the pilot was made available on digital and VOD platforms ahead of its television debut, marking one of the broadest-reaching pre-linear distribution plans at the time. From there, Mr. Robot’s momentum was propelled by word-of-mouth. The show began to garner increasing numbers of awards and nominations (Golden Globes, Critics Choice, Peabody, SXSW), captivating influencers and audiences alike. Mr. Robot is widely cited to have attracted millennial audiences long before industry critics showed up. 3 million US viewers watched the pilot prior to its broadcast debut and the show has since been licensed internationally across almost 200 territories (dec0d3d.doc; Littleton/ Innovative; USA Network/ Nominated; Mr. Robot, Younger).
Following the first season, NBC Universal cites high demand from ad clients as reason to renew the show into its third season, and to explore expanding the franchise beyond a 12-episode season (Lynch). As such, the marketing strategy for the second season emphasized deepening the Mr. Robot experience with current viewers, rather than prioritizing audience expansion. Building on the momentum, marketing efforts catered to fan fervor by tactically combining VR, gaming, social media and analog elements as storyline extensions, to further build a groundswell around the series internationally.
A Facebook Live event, coordinated across 13 countries (US, UK, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Canada, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and India), was used to promote season 2. The international campaign emulated an 18-hour fsociety hack of the Mr. Robot facebook page issuing propaganda messages. Messages were customized by country, delivered in a native tongue within the region, and followed by a clip of the season 2 premiere (USA Network/ Facebook).
Several of the series’ storyline extensions were designed to further heighten experiential engagement:
- 12-minute VR film – focused on Elliot’s drug hallucinations about Shayla (his murdered girlfriend); was made available in VR goggles, mobile and desktop platforms.
- Eps1.91_redwheelbarr0w.txt – a notebook of Elliot’s handwritten rants chronicling Elliot’s time in prison; provided insight into the mind games he plays in search of sanity.
- MR.ROBOT:1.51exfiltratiOn – a gaming app was created based on the successful ‘Lifeline’ app; embroiled the user in a 5-day fsociety conspiracy.
Each of the storyline extensions took viewers into an experiential realm, deepened characterizations and involvement in either Elliot’s mind or the world of fsociety. The transmedia mix of analog and emerging platforms seem constructed to address the wide range of tech-savvy-ness/ connectivity in both emerging and developed markets, while reinforcing themes and spaces (virtual, physical, hacker and psychological spaces) explored in the series.
“Mr. Robot is emerging as the poster-child for TV’s new metrics” (Littleton/ Launch Strategy).
It is worth noting, as a small indie television series, the Mr. Robot property was co-opted for strategic use as a pivot point in repositioning the USA Network brand. In the process, it was given an unusual amount leeway for risk-taking in the marketing and distribution of this show (Littleton/ Launch Strategy; Mr. Robot, Younger). Had the series not had such a halo effect on the USA Network’s brand and repositioning goals, it is unlikely the series would have been given such affordances.
The flipside is, there are clear benefits to strategically using the main voice of the television series (Elliot), as a key driving factor in determining the marketing and distribution strategy — even on a small indie show, focused on a little known, (arguably) politically ignored subculture.
Having said all that, as the rise of a global hacktivist subculture points to a growing frustration with the status quo, the ideas surrounding technological empowerment explored in the series, are likely to grow in relevance with increasingly tech-savvy audiences everywhere (dec0d3d.doc; Lindsay). Revisiting the otaku subculture as a parallel to the growing hacker subculture, thirty years on, younger generations in Japan overwhelmingly identify as otaku, now making them a lucrative consumer segment corporations want to understand and appeal to — a potential foreshadowing of our global future. Not only is the Mr. Robot property viable to replicate (in part due to borrowing the successful Fight Club story arc), but it also covers terrain that will likely continue to be resonant with younger audiences, in some incarnation, for decades to come.
Birnbaum, Debra. “the </real> mr. robot.” Variety. 29 Mar 2016. Web. 17 Feb 2017.
“dec0d3d.doc (Mr. Robot Decoded Special).” NBCUniversal. Youtube. 39:39. 21 Jun 2016. Web. 21 Mar 2017.
Doctorow, Cory. “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker.” MIT Technology Review. 7 Dec 2016. Web. 31 Mar 2017.
Eyerly, Alan. “Wealth, disparity, hackers and cyber threats in ‘Mr. Robot.’” LA Times. 29 May 2015. Web. 18 Feb 2017.
Lindsay, Benjamin. Meet the Maker: Sam Esmail, “Mr. Robot.” Backstage Magazine. 7 Jul 2016. Web. 17 Feb 2017.
Littleton, Cynthia. “Anonymous content thrives on TV Boom, ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Revenant’ Awards Heat.” Variety. 16 Dec 2015. Web. 18 Feb 2017.
Littleton, Cynthia. “What Would ‘Mr. Robot’ Do? Innovative Launch Strategy Pays off for USA.” Variety. 9 Oct 2015. Web. 4 Apr 2017.
Lynch, Jason. “Inside the Delicate Mechanics of Marketing Mr. Robot’s Second Season.” Adweek. 11 Jul 2016. Web. 4 Apr 2017.
Miller, Liz Shannon. “‘Mr. Robot’ Book Review: ‘Red Wheelbarrow’ is even crazier than the show (and filled with Easter Eggs).” IndieWire. 2 Nov 2016. Web. 22 Feb 2017.
“Mr. Robot, Younger, Unreal – Best 360 Marketing Campaigns of 2016.” PromaxBDA. Youtube. 1 Sep 2016. Web. 5 Apr 2017.
Mudede, Charles. “Mr. Robot is Chilling, Dystopian Science Fiction. Just Like Real Life.” The Stranger. 6 Jul 2016. Web. 18 Feb 2017.
Plouffe, James. “Mr. Robot may be fiction, but it’s hacking plots are all too real.” Recode. 20 Sep 2016. Web. 31 Mar 2017.
Smith, Stephanie. “Avast takes a look at the hacks from Season 1 of Mr. Robot and explains what businesses can learn from them.” Avast blog. 12 Jul 2016. Web. 18 Mar 2017.
Tsutsui, William M. “Nerd Nation: Otaku and Youth Subcultures in Contemporary Japan.” Education About Asia. 12-18. Winter 2008. Web. 7 Mar 2017.
Valentini, Valentina. “Cybergeek on Set Makes ‘Mr. Robot’ Authentic.” Variety. 103. 7 Jun 2016. Web. 18 Feb 2017.
“USA Network’s Emmy Nominated Drama ‘Mr. Robot’” renewed for Third Season.” Press Release. NBC.com. 16 Aug 2016. Web. 19 Feb 2017.
“USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot’ Takes Its Message Global Via Facebook Live.” Press Release. NBC.com. 8 Jul 2016. Web. 18 Feb 2017.
Zetter, Kim. “Hackers Finally Post Stolen Ashley Madison Data.” Wired. 18 Aug 2015. Web. 31 Mar 2017.
Zetter, Kim. “How the Real Hackers Behind Mr. Robot Get it So Right.” Wired. 15 Jul 2016. 31 Mar 2017.