USA’s new series Mr. Robot debuted this week to great acclaim that is mostly due to its star, Rami Malek. It was Malek’s portrayal of the security tech and vigilante hacker Elliot that really sold Mr. Robot as something special from the very start. In my review of the series earlier this week, I mentioned Malek’s wild-eyed, slinking movements on screen, physically expressing both Elliot’s super intelligence and his almost feral qualities. Malek carries the burden of the series on his back — he’s not Mr. Robot (that would be Christian Slater), but he is the reason we are watching.
As Elliot, Malek needs to be many things, and it’s incredible how much be betrays about his character over the course of just the first hour. Elliot has a voiceover that explains his thought process, but Malek is masterful in the way he looks at his co-workers like he’s an alien observing, learning, and often confused. “Don’t be confused!” his friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) admonishes him after explaining why she didn’t need him to stick up for her at a corporate meeting. He says ok, but it’s a glitch in his formula of social normalcy.
Elliot can be a little arrogant in his dismissal of those he doesn’t like, but he’s never unlikable. His judgements (gleaned from information hacked from personal emails, social media accounts, and more) come from a place of insecurity. Holding himself together while at work, he cries alone in his apartment in a dark corner, and is worried about how he can’t seem to break the sadness. The only thing that gets him out of his fog is doing right by those who care about him, like Angela, as well as this therapist. He watches out for them digitally, instead of interacting with them honestly and personally (he just tells them what they want to hear). Despite his halting cadence and the bird-like cocks of his head, Elliot is not a robot — he has visceral interactions and experiences, and (as I mentioned in my review) is in danger of feeling too much. He lives a life in the shadows, and has a rich interior existence, but he isn’t totally isolated (nor does he want to be).
Those conflicts are what set the stage for Mr. Robot’s overarching narrative, where Elliot is recruited by Christian Slater’s character to (potentially) bring down the corporation Elliot is paid to protect, E Corp. He’s enticed by the idea of revolution, but also skeptical and even paranoid about it happening (or what happen to him if he does go through with it). Some of this is conveyed in voiceover, but Malek is also able to silently betray so much about Elliot’s state of mind and his desires.
There are many scenes worth isolating to highlight Malek’s deft handling of Elliot, but one of the most mesmerizing comes very early in the episode, when he confronts a child pornographer in the coffee shop. He’s never more zealous yet controlled in this scene, never breaking eye contact with his mark, and yet, he also levels with him. “I’m very different, too,” he says, finding common ground before turning him over to the police, pulling up his hood and slinking back off into the night.
The bottom line is that Malek makes Mr. Robot a fantastically engrossing watch. It’s an intriguing premise for a show, and Elliot is (so far ) a very layered character. But what truly makes it all a standout is Malek’s incredible, off-kilter, nuanced performance.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on USA. You can check out all the past picks for TV Performer of the Week here.