Fragmented continuity in Mr. Robot     

The first thing I want to say about Mr. Robot is that I really admire the show, despite its two obvious flaws: first, it's essentially doing everything Fight Club does with its narrative themes, and even borrows the plot twist that the main character has made up an entire person in his mind(!); second, it completely undermines its ideology of “subverting the system” with obvious product placement, and gobs of merchandise for sale on its website (Buy the Mr. Robot shirt! Buy the Mr. Robot book! Buy the Mr. Robot shot glass that says “F*** Society on it!). The show is a fascinating paradox in that it wants to critique/deconstruct American capitalism, yet ends up perpetuating it. That being said, the series is a masterwork of cinematography, and effectively demonstrates the importance of framing as a means to emphasize the larger thematic issues of a given series or film. Take a look at these shots from the pilot episode depicting an exchange between Elliot and a man whose identity he's hacked:

There's nothing particularly striking about these images. The eyelines and screen direction are consistent from shot to shot (Elliot always faces left, the man always faces the right, etc.). Notice that each figure is framed from a low angle, in medium close-up, each character wearing dark clothes, with the soft yellow background as a point of contrast behind them. The two images are graphically similar, which eases the transition between shots, and facilitates a smooth flow of narrative action. The rules of continuity call for conventional exchanges such as this, however, these are largely the exception on the show. Characters in Mr.Robot are typically stuck into the corners of the frame, hunched-over in the lower third of the screen, or lost in the overwhelming space of their surroundings:


Esmail's characters are clearly losing themselves in the clutter of the postmodern world. Now consider these two shots:


This shot/reverse shot exchange between Angela and her father, Donald, is a good example of the way that Esmail often frames conversations between characters in abstract ways. The genius of this framing is that it adheres to the rules of continuity (the characters are looking directly at each other), while at the same time, each shot suggests that the characters are looking in opposite directions as they converse. Here is a superimposition of the two:  

Cutting from one shot to the next creates the impression that each character's head fills the empty space in the other's frame. Avid watchers of the program become used to watching conversations framed in this abstract manner. This conveys the notion that these are two family members sharing an intimate moment together, while at the same time, these are two people who are completely alienated from one another in the space. Here's another example from a conversation between Elliot and his boss, Gideon:


The framing here conveys a discussion between a boss who's trying to relate to one of his employees, while at the same time, these are two people who are never going to relate to one another in the same way. This is the core theme of Mr. Robot; the postmodern subject has become alienated under capitalism. Esmail is able to depict this tension quite eloquently in the show through both its narrative, and especially, its formal style.

posted on 09/06/17 by apw