Mr. Robot Goes Full Hitchcock
Sam Esmail’s homage to the Master of Suspense goes deeper than you think.
Mr. Robot’s showrunner, Sam Esmail, isn’t shy about quoting from the film school syllabus. In Mr. Robot, you’ll find riffs on David Fincher (mainly Fight Club), Stanley Kubrick (mainly everything), and many more. But his choices aren’t arbitrary. It’s as if Esmail, who wrote and directed every episode of season two, is living out a fantasy of bringing in cinema’s most well-known auteurs to guest-direct his show.
Gratifyingly (for me), Mr. Robot features several Hitchcockian touches. In fact, the second season’s episode, “Unmask,” is a full-on homage. Here are a few highlights from the show:
Mommy Issues, Creepy Houses, and Vertigo
First, Evil Corp’s general counsel, Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt), arrives home to find her house, which she’s pimped out with Internet-of-Things technocrap, gone bonkers. Lights, alarms, and AV systems randomly activate à la George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), and when she steps into her shower, she’s assaulted by scalding hot water. Shot-for-shot, it’s a Psycho reenactment:
Second, after the end of season one, Elliot (Rami Malek), a cybersecurity engineer and hacker, moves back in with “the strictest person [he] knows”: his domineering mother and source of his childhood trauma. This dynamic, as well as the (creepy) characterization of his mother, reeks of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
While Elliot’s mother isn’t an invalid like Psycho’s Mrs. Bates, she tends to spend an awful lot of time in her rocking chair, content to dwell in the dark. And with her hair like that, she bears a certain resemblance to you-know-who.
Third, in Psycho, the Bates mansion is a Victorian model, what Hitchcock referred to as “California gingerbread.”
While Elliot’s mother lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, the down-at-heel neighborhood — with its period charm, desolate streets, and mute windows — recalls the Bates estate in spirit.
The grave interiors of his mother’s home bear witness to the barren architecture of Elliot’s soul. Take a look at these shots from the opening credits.
The floor plan even resembles that of the Bates mansion. Here’s Hitch himself to give you a tour.
The Bates Motel lost its stream of clientele when “they moved the highway” — a reference to the Eisenhower-era superhighway system that destroyed rural communities.
As I’ve written previously, the mansion was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad, which, like Elliot’s neighborhood hangout, the Extreme Junction Diner, one day found itself on the wrong side of the tracks.
Fourth, if there’s one theme that dominates Mr. Robot, it’s that one’s past controls one’s present. This, too, is one of Hitchcock’s most repeated motifs. You see it in Rebecca, Under Capricorn, Psycho, and many others.
This theme’s most poetic expression surfaces in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Trapped in his own neurotic cycle, Scottie (James Stewart) drives in circles around San Francisco’s hills seeking a truth that turns out to be a lie. Only at the end, and at great cost, does he become “free of the past.”
Likewise, in Mr. Robot, Elliot’s father repeats the refrain, “Round and round we go, you not knowing what you did or didn’t do. Our infinite loop of insanity.” Then, he drops the twist of an apple peel on the floor, the camera lingering on it a beat too long so that it resembles the double spiral in Vertigo’s iconic poster.
Come to think of it, Hitchcock’s most famous psychopath committed his crimes at the perpetually vacant Bates Motel. Similarly, Mr. Robot’s F*Society operates out of an abandoned Coney Island attraction. Not only that, but Elliot’s counterpart in China is a drag queen. The connections are endless!
Fifth, the bad guys in Mr. Robot also get the Hitchcock treatment. Alert viewer Christy LaGuardia pointed out that the shooting angles and modern architecture of the C-suite high atop the Evil Corp tower resemble those of the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mountain aerie in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Finally, as Norman Bates’ long-dead mother would occasionally take over his psyche, spelling an early demise for his female guests, Mr. Robot (Elliot’s father, played by Christian Slater), takes over and terrible things happen.
Even the two men’s backstories line up: Norman kills his mother and, to assuage his guilt, assumes her identity. Elliot betrays his father’s confidence, watches him die and, crippled with guilt, internalizes his identity. Watching him struggle with his split personality and dark urges offers insight into what’s only hinted at in Psycho.
Does our knowledge of Psycho suggest how Mr. Robot ends?
Watching Psycho also offers clues as to how things could turn out for Elliot. Sure, he has an adorable mug, and we want him to succeed. But he is, after all, a cyberterrorist, wreaking more devastation on more people than possibly Evil Corp itself. Will he, like Norman, be remembered as a lovable villain?
The show may be already pointing that direction—from the other side of the conflict. E Corp CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) seems to be grooming Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), who is suing his company, to reconsider her notions of what makes a person “good” or “evil.”
It’s easy to conclude Phillip is turning her to the dark side, but maybe he’s just trying to talk sense into her. Like all Hitchcockian villains, his pragmatic view of human nature, crime and punishment, is the most rational. As Angela thrives in her role at E Corp, is she selling out or is she beginning to adopt a more expansive view of humanity?
It could be that the biggest theme guiding this show is an inquiry into the notion of individual Will and whether it even exists. Elliot tries like hell to exorcise Mr. Robot from his mind and the resistance is fierce. Says the latter, “This control you think you have? It’s an illusion.”
Unsurprisingly, this resembles Norman’s dialogue when he invites Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to dine in his parlor: “You know what I think? I think we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever climb out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Mr. Robot’s Elliot would have sympathized. After all, if his doppelganger is named for an automaton, what does that make him?
Originally published at www.alfredhitchcockgeek.com on August 22, 2016.