Mr. Robot: Composing Paranoia

With Mr. Robot recently returning for its second season, I thought that it may be an apt moment to talk about the show and part of what I believe makes it special in the new "golden era of television" that we find ourselves in. Sam Esmail's creation feels both familiar and unique, playing on our knowledge of pop culture and storyline progressions before either subverting them completely or presenting it in a way that feels entirely fresh. Its visual style and narrative certainly owe a lot to David Fincher, and at one point they go all out in embracing their Fight Club influence to the audience, but one would be foolish to think the filmmakers were simply aping his filmography and visual approach. And with Esmail himself directing every episode of his now expanded second season, I'd like to delve a little further into one of Mr. Robot's uniquely defining traits; shot composition. 

" ... and now I think they're following me." 

" ... and now I think they're following me." 

But before we go into those specifics, I want to talk briefly about season two's change of directorial staff. Namely, that it's been reduced to one person; the creator, Sam Esmail. 

It cannot be overstated how impressive it is when a filmmaker books themselves on to direct an entire season of television. We've seen this recently with Cary Joji Fukunaga and the first season of True Detective, and Steven Soderbergh with The Knick. With Sam Esmail making the jump from three director credits in season one to twelve in his second, we can safely put Mr. Robot into what I'd like to call Auteur Television. Television is more commonly known as a writer's medium and in the majority of cases that is absolutely true (Look at any Aaron Sorkin show ever), but what happens when you have a singular perspective executing every episode rather than a team of directors? We see long-form storytelling, with a heavy emphasis on the long, in its purest and most cohesive form. The choices made across that many hours solidify the narrative and visual intentions of the director and the story they're telling. Even with shows like Game of Thrones, which I love, its directors often leave their own mark on individual episodes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that Miguel Sapochik's work on the last two episodes of season six, The Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter, and his season five turn with Hardhome, had some of the best directing that the show has ever seen. And as consistently tight as the show is overall, one can tell that the production has numerous voices contributing to its execution. 

Season one of Mr. Robot saw a larger list of directors involved, but with Esmail directing three episodes himself while acting as showrunner, we can surmise that the show has always had this primary voice behind many of the creative decisions from episode to episode. Esmail tackling every episode is just a further extension of this idea. And what Esmail is tackling with his show is both incredibly compelling from a creative angle as well as hugely relevant to the age we now live in. 

Mr. Robot is a show dripping with the paranoia of corporate corruption, government surveillance, and hacking. The characters are often lonely and unable to communicate effectively, looking for direction, or, like our lead character, battling with his own mind, so it's fitting that the show uses the frame as much as possible to communicate this. 

By reducing the characters "looking room" during dialogue scenes, the filmmakers "short sight" their characters, a slightly unnerving and unconventional way to compose even a basic dialogue scene. And this isn't a rule applied solely to Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), despite being our primary point of view throughout the show, because it isn't just Elliott who feels isolated and paranoid. It's everyone around him as well. It's the world that we now live in. In a time where it's possible to hack into someone's laptop webcam to spy on them, no one truly feels safe with their private lives and information. It's something that can be broken into and violated if one felt so inclined to do so. These characters are people who often have both feet firmly placed inside of the digital world, and their actions from behind a computer monitor throughout the course of the show can bring about change on a global scale.

Negative space can be used to communicate a number of different ideas, from the aforementioned isolation of characters to the belittlement of a person or the idea of someone watching from any direction. It's a fascinating tool that the Mr. Robot creative team have been employing to full effect, taking it to its limits and beyond to create an unnerving and unique experience. Some people have found the technique at times "distracting", but here the visual style serves two important functions; to communicate a feeling of unease and to give the show its own unique voice on its subject matter. It would be easy to write off that second function as "style over substance", but when the style is the substance, as visual art should aspire to achieve, that argument slowly fades away. The rules of the world, or rather the lack of them, informs many of the composition choices in Mr. Robot. Alternatively, when a character is in a "safe place", the filmmakers may choose to frame more traditionally. However, this is often rare. We're only two seasons into a planned five, so expect to be positioned in many more unsafe places along the way. 

Mr. Robot is a shining example of television's capacity to grow and evolve into a higher level of visual storytelling. With Auteur Television appearing more and more, I believe we're seeing the medium pushed to its ultimate potential in long-form storytelling. So when you're binge-watching your newest series, take a moment to look at how the filmmakers are composing their image and why they make the choices they do.

But mainly, watch this show because if it's cancelled like my beloved Hannibal I'll take it out on all of you who never got around to it. I'll know if you don't.