Is this a real life? Is this just fantasy? Did Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) get caught in a landslide of collapsing reality? Open your eyes, look to the vanilla skies, and sing… Daydream!/He fell asleep for a couple of Bible study hours!/Listening about God’s resurrection power!/On such a terrible news day! Let me take you down, because we’re going to… Eastern Junction Diner, a restaurant with strawberry-colored walls. (Seriously) We kneed to know if Leon (Joey Badass) is really real, and if Seinfeld is something he’s really so hung up about. Extreme Junction Diner forever! Look, Elliot: Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. But it’s getting hard to be someone, isn’t it? So take, take me home! To the life you don’t remember! Take, take me home! To the life you don’t remember! Take, take me —
Sorry. I got stuck in a moment, and I couldn’t quite get out of it. You, too, I think, but it sure seems Mr. Robot is — to borrow from Leon — “really f—ing” with all of us. The hot theory: The new season’s representational reality is as phony as a Monopoly Man mask, as symbolic as all those bank notes Darlene (Carly Chaikin) made E. Corp. burn in the premiere. It’s Elliot’s delusion, constructed from memories, environmental ephemera, and a pop culture-steeped imagination. Abraham Riesman of Vulture argues that Elliot isn’t really hiding out in a cell-like room in his mother’s house — he’s locked away in a psychiatric hospital. In my recap, I proposed that the feds have him in a psychiatric prison. Elliot’s awareness of events happening to other people is informing this fantasy. I’ve heard another conjecture that Elliot is somewhere dying — in his apartment or the fsociety arcade, slain by Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) or his own hand — and he’s having a Jacob’s Ladder-like psychedelic fantastique; or that he suffered total paralysis (and perhaps a psychotic break) at age 8 when his father threw him out the window, and everything we’ve seen is the life he lives in his head.
Elliot’s experiences of reality could be an act of creative appropriation and recasting. But they could also represent sly commentary on other aspects of the show. For example, I argue Hot Carla, park-loitering Beckett-scorching pyro and Elliot’s so-called “personal totem,” is really a reconceptualization of Darlene, his sister. (The word “totem” means “his kinnish group” — his family.) Waiting For Godot — the book Hot Carla flambéed in the red pull wagon — is a play about two comical characters waiting on someone named Godot to show up and tell them what to do. In the interim, they stew in existential frustration, itchy to do something, often doing nothing. Another pair of characters, a master and slave, play out a perverse relationship in a pair of scenes. In the second, the push-pull power dynamic has been reversed; the slave is now the master, and the master is now the slave, suggesting a despairing loop.
Waiting For Godot is a metaphor for the current state of fsociety — characters waiting on an MIA leader, filling/killing time with comical antics (the vandalism of castrating the Wall Street bull’s balls), and anxious, action-oriented Darlene’s bid* to humiliate E. Corp.’s “chiefs,” their perceived oppressors, a show-of-power gambit designed to demonstrated the reversal in their dynamic, but may have also proved, sadly, proved that fsociety only cares about humiliation and power. Elliot’s Hot Carla delusion tells us that he is aware of his sister’s activities and angst. It may also tells us that he knows fsociety is a movement in crisis, an ideology hurting for meaning, a pack of furious brats playing with fire.
*Darlene’s subplot was suffused with veiled, indirect allusions to the Occupy Wall Street movement, like the castration of the Wall Street Bull or the occupation of Susan’s house. During the cash burn — a Joker gag, cribbed from The Dark Knight — in Battery Park, Sam Esmail’s framing always kept One World Trade Center in the background, a correlation that, now that I’m overthinking it, evokes Zuccotti Park, site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp, located in the shadow of One World Trade Center and its sister building, 4 World Trade Center. My art historian friend Jonathan Anderson and fellow Mr. Robot nut recently made a compelling case that the show’s best symbols for fragile, mutable representational reality are those bank notes Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell) was made to burn. Money: the meaningful yet volatile fiction that rules our lives.
Another example, more simple: When Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot’s revolutionary alter-ego, representing the part of him that masterminded and executed the Five/Nine attack, slashed Gideon’s (Michel Gill) throat. That tells us Elliot knows that Gideon was shot by that “truther” conspiracy theorist and that he feels really, really guilty about it.
My contention is that Elliot is lost in his inner space, that like Leo in Inception, he’s forgotten he’s in a dream. Maybe he’s spiraled deep into this matrix to elude Mr. Robot or evade the interrogators trying to extract secrets from him. Maybe his wannabe new friend Ray (Craig Robinson) is like Jennifer Lopez from The Cell, an empathetic agent inserted into his dreamscape to scavenge intel. Could Ray be Elliot’s fantastical rendering of FBI agent Dominique DiPerro (Grace Gummer)? (Ray’s nosy, overly-familiar probe of Elliot = Dom’s nosy, overly-familiar probe of the bodega dude.) Ray has a dog – and “Perro” means dog.
Welcome to the madhouse.
As I tried to illustrate with my opening graph, Elliot’s fantasy could be assimilating movies, music, and other pop culture and media. This is not a new idea. See: Zack Snyder’s SuckerPunch and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, movies that present realities experienced through pop junkie consciousness. Identifying Elliot’s unreality reference points is a fun game for geeks like me, but how far do we take this? How gonzo do we get? I intended to write a column today that argued that the season premiere was a communion with all nine tracks on the Styx album Kilroy Was Here, which included the hit “Mr. Roboto.” (To wit: Elliot, deciding it’s “High Time” to do something about “Mr. Roboto,” is making a Kilroy Was Here identity statement. He’s waging “Cold War” with his “Double Life” nemesis by living a “Don’t Let It End” life on a loop. He wins if he can “Just Get Through The Night” and resist Mr. Robot’s “Heavy Metal Poisoning” and their repeating “Haven’t We Been Here Before” showdowns.)
But this project was hijacked by another, one inspired an epiphany that occurred while Darren Franich and I recorded the new Entertainment Geekly podcast. (You can hear my “Eureka!” below.) Is it possible that Elliot’s father, Edward, is played by Christian Slater because Elliot, a Christian Slater fan, has cast the actor in that role? Given the show’s metafictional devices that acknowledge Mr. Robot‘s nature as a TV show — narration that addresses the viewer; fsociety-hacked E. Corp. ads during their commercial breaks — this Adaptation-esque, Stranger Than Fiction-ish twist doesn’t seem all that weird. You can easily imagine that Elliot is familiar with Slater’s work in Heathers as an unhinged anti-social terrorist, or his turn in Pump Up The Volume as a counter-culture pirate radio ranter. Also consider Slater’s previous attempts of TV series, beginning with My Own Worst Enemy, the story of a spy with a malfunctioning split personality. This was followed by The Forgotten, Slater played an investigator who pieced together the lives of John Doe victims; the show told stories with an unusual narration device. In Breaking In, Slater played the eccentric leader of a high-tech security firm. In Mind Games… well, c’mon, it’s called Mind Games. There, Slater played a con man named Ross Edwards who runs a “problem solving company” with his brother that specializes in psychological manipulation. (The show was co-created by Kyle Killen, who also gave us the gone-too-soon Awake, whose protagonist toggled between two parallel realities. Or maybe he was just crazy.)
It’s almost like Mr. Robot is about Christian Slater’s ongoing attempts to hack into television.
As Matt Zoller Seitz noted in an essay about Mr. Robot’s cinematic influences, the theory that Elliot’s “reality” is pastiche — a puzzle game built from open source code — is supported by storytelling that’s a deliberate stir of echoes. Sam Esmail’s writing and directing samples and adapts an array of thematically complimentary works; like another psych-op twist-narrative specialist, Brian De Palma, he’s an homage auteur. Hunting and tagging Esmail’s references has become the summertime “Pokemon Go!” monster hunting of savvy cineastes. Seitz detected a soundtrack swipe from the 1974 film The Parallax View and a visual nod to Network. Lili Loofbourow saw Psycho all over the place.
In Mr. Robot, allusions can be nested within other allusions. My recap argued that the premiere alluded in various ways to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and used the Phil Collins’ “Take Me A Home” — the pining of a damaged misfit — was proof. Collins wrote the song after reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a story told by an unreliable narrator, a Native American named “Chief,” who believes that a techno-fascist conspiracy called “The Combine” controls all of society and was responsible for the humiliation and destruction of his father. Elliot — who believes the all-controlling “invisible hand” that is “Evil Corp.” destroyed his father — was called “Chief” in this episode. (Watch Mr. Robot end up being the coded allegory for Native American genocide that mad Kubrickians want The Shining to be.)
Perhaps the most illuminating correspondence might be one that doesn’t exist (yet), that technically only resides in Esmail’s head: his unproduced screenplay, Norm The Movie. As EW’s Kevin P. Sullivan reported a few weeks ago, the plot concerns a man who blacks out and wakes up inside a movie. Did something like that happen to Elliot between seasons? Is his head stuck in his iTunes library? Is his consciousness bricked in a wall of pet pop sounds?
Think of Mr. Robot as a totem pole, a kinnish grouping of symbols, an artfully crafted and interconnected piling of cultural markers expressing lineage and meaning. Unlike other storytellers, Esmail doesn’t sweat the “anxiety of influence.” He makes art with it: a story about everyone’s anxiety of influence in an always logged-in techno-media age and classic outsider angst about assimilation. (For a great take on Mr. Robot and social media, check out this Maureen Ryan essay in Variety.) I’m fascinated and often moved by depiction of a young man overwhelmed by civilization and its discontents, struggle to navigate reality and its unrealities with integrity, clarity and grace, without losing his f—ing mind.
The question I’m asking right now about Mr. Robot: How long can I can be entertained by “What’s real?/What’s not?” tension? In our new Entertainment Geekly podcast, Darren and I discuss the question. I state that I’d like to see the show establish some solid baselines for what’s real. Are the non-Elliot scenes in season 2 legit? Can we trust that season 1 really happened? (I hope so.) You might hear worry in my voice. I’m concerned that Esmail might feel that Mr. Robot‘s “brand” and franchise obligation is to produce twist narrative each and every season. There danger in that ambition is that the work of fooling an audience now expecting and looking for tomfoolery might subvert the storytelling. I think of season 6 of Lost, which played out the “Sideways” mystery with too few clues and too much obfuscation of its true nature, out of fear that the audience would too quickly guess what they were doing. Some were intrigued and hooked. (My teenage son, who just got into Lost, loves season 6. It’s his favorite.) Others were alienated and driven away by too much WTF?
My all-time fave trick stories — The Sixth Sense is the first that leaps to mind — have the element of surprise, something that may no longer be available to Mr. Robot, but also make the twist beside the point, which is an achievable goal for this show. The great reality blur mysteries tease our puzzle-solving brains and stir the intellect, but succeed because they’re grounded in characters we care about. In Dennis Potter’s classic 1986 mini-series The Singing Detective, a dazzling head-scratcher and authorial performance, tells the story of a pained, disturbed writer with a fractured mind, toxic beliefs and active imagination struggling for coherence and healing. The root-cause “why?” of the protagonist’s reality blurring practices is more compelling than “what’s real?” What is he running away from? What’s he trying to work out?
After I recorded the podcast, I was reminded by another Mr. Robot fan-friend that we’re only 12 episodes into this show. So I’m far from feeling panic. I can be patient and enjoy the current focus on psych-out fuzz and metafictional funny games. And I hope Esmail can write his own rules for creative success, or at least, borrow smartly from those who’ve done it best.