If there is one element that defines the television show Mr. Robot more than any other it’s the overarching sense of paranoia. It starts almost from the get-go, with the ominous, unidentified men in black suits who seem to be trailing protagonist Elliot Alderson no matter where he goes. Each new plot twist reveals deeper levels to the show’s overarching conspiracy, making it difficult to determine which characters are trustworthy. Over time, that paranoia begins to seep out of the screen and into the viewer; Elliott’s Dissociative Identity Disorder makes him the ultimate unreliable narrator and, as the show goes on, it becomes hard to know whether or not the show’s hero—who frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak to us directly—is telling the truth (the whopper of a reveal midway through Season Two is the perfect illustration of the lengths to which he’s willing to go in order to deceive us). One of his most frequently-repeated requests, “Please tell me you’re seeing this, too,” can be read as both a desire for allegiance as well as a test to see if his bait-and-switch with the viewer is working.
And so it’s natural that a show that thrives on anxiety should be accompanied by an appropriately anxious soundtrack. The songs by Mac Quayle on the soundtracks to both the first and second seasons are built on low-level synth pulses, the kinds of songs that swell slowly to gradually create an atmosphere of panic that’s suffocating. It would be convenient shorthand to call it “synthwave,” but the music here has none of that genre’s cutting, laser-sword dynamics. Instead, it feels more like a robotic EKG: on “1.0_2-oneincontrol.aiff” (the song titles mirror the episode titles’ computer-code structure,” the sound is barely present, just a few rising, misty synths over a blinking, dead-eyed bass note. When the tempos do tick upward, as on “1.0_6-leavem3here.flac,” with its syringe-pokes of guitar, there’s enough space between the notes to let the panic sweat pool. Divorced from the show, Mr. Robot Volume 1 plays best as discomfort music for insomniac conspiracy theorists. How else to explain “1.3_5-da3m0nsneverstop.ca,” a song whose gentle sawing keyboards seem designed to accompany 3am deep-dives in search of a connection between Stanley Kubrick and the moon landing.
The second volume is darker still, notes barely emerging above a sickening bass rumble—perfect for the underrated season’s more muted, cerebral tone. The net effect is as unnerving as suddenly-recovered memories, as eerie as an abandoned Coney Island arcade.
—J. Edward Keyes