Mr. Robot episode 3: Thoughts, theories, and Lost connections
Elliot keeps a notebook while recapping his mad life. I keep a notebook for my Mr. Robot recaps. What a coincidence! Unfortunately, I can’t write a full recap of this week’s episode due to work at Comic-Con. (Kyle Fowle has you covered this week with EW’s recap here.) But here are some of the thoughts I had while watching and reflecting on “Kernel Panic.”
Losing My Religion. But which one? “Kernel Panic” opens with a flashback, and a shot of Christian charity in a wintry world: Mobley putting money into a red bucket managed by a Santa ringing a bell. There is no “Salvation Army” markings, but we can infer them, per Mr. Robot’s m.o. of implied cultural reference. This act of giving stands in contrast to acts of rationing seen in the present-set scenes. Ray — and maybe everyone — is on an allowance in the austerity economy of Five/Nine hardship society, $50 a week. Such a pittance doesn’t allow for acts of generosity, like buying flowers. It doesn’t even allow for the trust that underlies service transactions. E. Corp. CEO Phillip Price might be a “master of the universe” in his words, but he has to pay upfront at his favorite restaurant, in cash, or he can’t eat at all. To borrow from Seinfeld’s soup nazi: No semifreddo for you!
In a Five/Nine culture where grace is in short supply, Ray stands out as a curiosity. He could be a criminal of some sort, though how he’s presented now may not be as he actually is, depending on how much of what we’re seeing is being expressed through Elliot’s reality distortion. (Our current wariness of representation and storytelling = the characters’ wariness of money, also a representational symbol, and traditional systems of meaning.) He’s the “good cop” in a good cop/bad cop partnership. We see him trying to kindly coax a tech type to repair the e-commerce capabilities of his website; this, after, a scene not seen, Ray’s brutal half gave the man a beat down for failing to deliver said service. Ray speaks of wanting to restore “balance” to the man’s life, and there’s something spiritual in his ministering: He’s preaching koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance” and the title of a 1982 film (which is how I know it) with music by Phillip Glass, whose work on another movie, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is heard in another scene of koyaanisqatsi, Elliot’s psychic disorientation during his Adderall overdose.
After Ray’s efforts to motivate the man to work fail, his thuggish partner proposes another beating. Ray nixes the idea, saying it’ll do no good — the man simply can’t do what they need him to go, and hurting him more would be unreasonable and unfair. In an episode that has God on the brain, Ray is the benevolent godfather you sometimes hear Christians talk about, the kind who doesn’t give you more hardship than you can handle. What’s most striking about Ray is his practice of love. It’s literally a practice. He spends his mornings pretending to have breakfast with his late wife, who passed five years earlier. He buys her flowers. He converses. He loves. Unlike Elliot, he’s keenly aware that she’s not there. His ritual keeps her spirit alive, but also keeps his own spirit alive, his gracious, grace-giving humanity. This soulful functionality allows him to make a connection with Elliot at episode’s end. He bonds with him over like existential misery, he gives him a new framework for his falling, flailing existence. His success secures a response from Elliot — an agreement to play a game of chess. All of this may be seduction — a confidence scam. He could be one more dope pusher, selling us a false gospel of hope, per Elliot’s “F— God!” rant. But for now, Ray is a symbol of our better nature. He fulfills the chorus of the Dusty Springfield song, heard during a soaring, angel flight over Manhattan, offering a God’s-eye view of his distant creation. You don’t have to say you love me/Just be close at hand. Ray is our hardship Jesus, the one who knows suffering, who feels human suffering, and cares enough to sit in the ashes.
Christians have their own conception of koyaanisqatsi: The Fall. In “Kernel Panic,” Five/Nine America becomes a broad allegory for a spiritually misaligned, disoriented world, a place where man is alienated from nature, technology, God, other people, and himself. It’s a place where man, no longer in harmonious relationship with any of the aforementioned, can only know struggle and strife in the labor of managing creation and surviving, where relationships between intimates are fraught with enmity and betrayal.
The episode began with an “In the beginning…” creation story of the Fun Society arcade and its larger grounds. The funhouse, a spot Eden in a larger world, the chronicle of generational horror leading to the property’s disrepair and abandonment, a fall myth. In the present, the murder of fsociety member Jerome catalyzes a major story line. Note the locale: his secret backyard (pot?) garden – another Eden-esque idyll. Was he slain by the enemy or an fsociety brother, i.e. a Cain-Able sitch? Mobley suspects the latter. In another major development, the fsociety true believer began showing more signs of faltering faith, indulging a conspiracy theory framing Elliot – whom he regards as psycho – and Darlene working with the Dark Army to save themselves by killing the junior members of fsociety. In Mobley’s gloomy mind, the “salvation army” that was fsociety is going dark. The collapse of trust, the practice of scapegoating = Adam and Eve turning on each other after flunking God’s apple test. (If you’re looking for theory, I suspect Mobley is himself for the murder. He’s doing unto others before they do unto him, which is to say, screw him.)
Mobley’s fear that the fsociety gods have gone crazy and are no longer worthy of his trust are mirrored, ironically, in Elliot’s “F— God!” denunciation to his Bible study brethren (a sequel to season 1’s “F— Society!” speeches), in which he rips to any and all deities who hold themselves distant from their creation (like, say, how Elliot stays distant from fsociety?), that refuse to use their powers to deliver us from evil. It was provoked by a thuggish white guy’s ugly American, overly Romantic conversion story, seeing God in the sunshine breaking through clouds, his enlightenment brokered by a guilty conscience after beating up an Indian guy for daring to step up to his racism. Another white guy’s salvation, facilitated by his own evil, purchased by the hurt he inflicts on people of color. Ain’t that America.
Elliot rolled his huge eyes at the man’s sincerely felt narrative of what Flannery O’Connor might call brutal grace. His “F— God!” rant began by attacking God’s non-interventionist policy regarding the problems of evil and suffering (an implied retort to the sentiments of a tract seen in last week’s episode, “God’s Hand In Our Suffering”). He then moved into a baby Marxist “opiate of the masses” critique, framing religion as a drug for the a weak and a mechanism of social control. Next came a more high concept metaphor, calling all organized religions “metastasizing mind worms, meant to divide us so it’s easier to rule us by the charlatans that want to run us.” Feeling his power, a smile curling on his moon face, Elliot ripped into a line that he was clearly quite proud of, like a cranky, elitist pop culture blogger convinced he’s got a killer Tweet on his hands: “All we are to them are paying fanboys of their poorly written sci-fi franchise.” (Is Elliot referring to something in particular?) Season 1 laid the blame for our “kingdom of bullshit” culture on a conspiracy of men and corporations. Season 2 points the finger at God, with the qualification that “God,” in Elliot’s view, is an unworthy scapegoat, because the idea of “God” is insane. Pot, meet Kettle.
The title of this episode could have been “Losing My Religion.” But maybe that would have been “a bit on the nose,” to borrow from Romero. It can apply to Mobley’s waning trust in fsociety, in Angela’s suspicion of her boss, in Elliot’s rejection of god(s). And when you consider the lyrics to the R.E.M.’s song, you wonder if the episode is indirectly alluding it. That’s me in a corner/that’s me in a spotlight/losing my religion. Think: sleepless Elliot – terrified of losing control to Mr. Robot if he conceded to sleep, glorious R.E.M.-sleep — curled in the corner of his cell-like bedroom, engaged in psychic warfare with the hallucination he has labeled his “god.” Think: the recurring motifs of ornate lamps hanging over the heads of characters, symbols of divinity in religious painting, but doubling here as motifs of poor enlightenment. The dramatic lighting in the “F— God!” scene suggests a Caravaggio painting. The staging — Elliot in the center of his Bible study friends — evokes an ironic Last Supper, but also the visual tableaus in Tarsem’s video for “Losing My Religion.” (As noted last week, Tarsem also helmed The Cell, a thriller that tours the surreal mental landscape of a comatose serial killer.)
Yet it should be noted that in this episode, Elliot’s self-proclaimed “God,” Mr. Robot, doesn’t play the role of unreliable all-father in “Kernel Panic.” The symbolism he aggressively adopts is that of existential panic incarnate — the “scream” that “nests” in his head. In an episode that also made reference to World War I, and the ramp-up to it, I wonder if we were to think of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” a work of this time, an image that suggests a person in terror and losing his mind. Munch was inspired by a walk in which he beheld a vivid subset, the clouds the color of blood. This interesting: note the emphasis on the color red throughout this episode. Santa. The Salvation Army bucket. Elliot’s red phone. FBI agent Dominique’s red coffee cup. The physical manifestation of the red wheel barrow, the name of Elliot’s journal of existential despair. The presence in Elliot’s room of Hot Carla’s Beckett-burning red wagon, which Mr. Robot hung his hat on. My point: For all of Elliot’s thundering complaint with the gods of religion, the storytelling tells me that he has made a god of his own philosophical despair. His pissed-off atheism has become an idol. Perhaps Elliot would be better off losing this religion, too. But if conventional gods are unworthy and atheism is insufficient, where then does Elliot turn?
Dreamland. To the best of my quick Google research abilities, Romero’s history lesson about the Fun Society arcade and the land around it is fiction. But a key idea, “The Bedford Lilliputia,” could be lifted from Coney island lore. There was a real “dwarf sanctuary” attraction in the turn-of-the-century era of the boardwalk hotspot. It was called “Lilliputia,” or “The Midget City,” a so-called “experimental city” that exploited its subjects and the public’s fascination with them. It was a major feature of an amusement park known as — wait for it — Dreamland. In 1991, Dreamland burned down after a fire broke out in another attraction, Hellgate, a boat ride into the underworld. Was that lingering shot of the gate with the devilish face atop of it meant to evoke Hellgate? Regardless, a veiled “Dreamland” nurtures the theory of the moment, that much of season 2 — or all of it — is Elliot’s delusion.
Speaking of Going to Hell: Romero claims that the Fun Society arcade is haunted and has become “a nexus of evil” because several of its previous owners were killed or murdered. And we wonder anew: Did Elliot/Mr. Robot — the current owner of the arcade — kill Tyrell Wellick on its premises during the missing time of the Five/Nine hack?
Romero’s chronicle reminded me of those scenes in American Horror Story in which a character downloads backstory about the season’s feature freaky setting. In fact, the idea of a locale as a “nexus of evil” struck me as swiped from AHS season 1, which presented its “Murder House” as a supernatural hotspot due to its accumulation of historical suffering. Of course, this idea also links us to The Shining and the mythology and menace of The Overlook Hotel, another haunt that drives its caretakers to murder, another hell on earth, another hallucinatory hot spot, another metaphor the unexamined mind and guilty conscience. (The Shining would be more directly suggested when Elliot has the hallucination of the three Monopoly Man-masked girls — shades of The Shining’s ghostly Grady girls — in his mother’s house, his current “Overlook Hotel” of sorts.)
“Funhouse.” An episode of wintry scenes, boardwalk funhouses, surreal hallucinations, sickness, and rants against Indian people can only lead me to conclude that “Kernel Panic” was drawing from the celebrated “Funhouse” episode of The Sopranos. This is the one where Tony eats at the Indian food restaurant, gets sick, and dreams trippy dreams. In one, Tony visits Asbury Park, learns he’s terminally ill, and decides to put himself and everyone around him out of their misery by killing himself by setting himself on fire. In another feverish vision, Tony pieces together that Sal (a.k.a. Big Pussy) has betrayed him to the feds. Later, fully awake, Tony, Paulie, and Silvio shoot and kill Sal on a boat. They do him a kindness, though, sparing bullets to the face.
I don’t have total recall of this episode; I can’t say The Sopranos was my jam. But I’ll argue anyway that “Kernel Panic” burps up a lot of “Funhouse.” Elliot’s de facto suicide attempt via an overdose of Adderall poisons him like Tony’s allegedly bad Indian food and really messes him up. Note some aspects of his hallucination. Elliot is abducted by men in black, established in the previous episodes as possible federal agents (in “Funhouse,” Tony suffers major FBI grief). They subject him to a modified version of water torture, mixing wet cement in a red wheel barrow and pouring it down Elliot’s throat with a funnel. Now, “Red Wheel Barrow” is the title of Elliot’s journal, the key weapon in his effort to keep control of his mind and snuff out Mr. Robot. You can read the scene as symbolic of this effort – an attempt to get concrete, to fortify his psychic foundation. The use of cement here evokes mob whack narrative — drowning enemies with cement shoes, hiding corpses in the cement pour of construction sites.
Not long after “Funhouse,” Tony and the gang would wrestle with their Sal-killing guilt — or try to avoid it — in a sister episode, “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” (a title that speaks meaningfully into “Kernel Panic’s fixation with Fall themes). This is the episode in which Bobby dresses up as Santa, and a foul-mouthed kid deems a bad one. “F— you, Santa!” Games, games, pop allusion games. What do they all mean? Mere authorial homage? More proof of dreamland theory? Or this: I still contend that Elliot murdered Tyrell in the arcade, fulfilling once again the myth of Fun Society as haunted, a nexus of evil that drives its owners to murder, a seat of satanic power.
Here it is: “Kernel Panic” = Gun in the popcorn machine = Elliot totally snapped when he launched the Five/Nine hack and shot and killed Tyrell and his mental breakdown is all because of the guilt he can’t confront.
Falling and Lost. Romero’s narrative includes an episode in which a desperate young man shoots his father in an effort to take possession of the arcade. He succeeded in murdering his dad, and killing himself, too; the kickback from the gun flung him backward and out a window. He fell 20 stories and his head went splat on the sidewalk. This bit of business so strongly alludes to Elliot falling out the window after his altercation with Edward at age 8 that we are again forced to wonder if all of reality in Mr. Robot, even this non-Elliot scene, is part of his delusions. I also thought of Lost, and how John Locke was thrown out a window during a confrontation with a bad dad gone awry. He would have died if not for the divine intervention of Jacob, who gave him a magic touch that allowed him to survive, but did not fully heal him, and set in motion a destiny that would lead him to The Island. Jacob would later prove himself to be something of a bad deity, and John’s reckless faith in The Island as some kind of island would leader to his destruction. The connection is worth noting, given the “F— God!” themes, and because Sam Esmail has professed to be a Lost fan (and to spending much time on the Web reading Lost theories). Fun Fact! What do the “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” episode of The Sopranos and the aforementioned episode of Lost, when Jacob touches Locke, have in common? The same director, Jack Bender.
Random Observations and Dubious Connections: One week after being made to feel like a prostitute, Angela got asked to dinner by the E. Corp. As she dressed, she repeated affirmations: “You are likeable; you are attractive; you are beautiful.” In other words, you are… a Pretty Woman, that queasy Cinderella-ish fairy tale about a high class prostitute… the Extreme Junction Diner took on the vibe of a cafeteria this week, with patrons using trays for their dishes. Also interesting: the worried/anxious glances that other patrons cast in the direction of Elliot and Ray. More clues that Elliot and Ray might be inmates at a prison or psychiatric facility? … FBI agent Dominique was scene engaged in some sex-messaging with someone using the handle “HappyHardOnHenry.” “Happy Harry Hard-On” is one of the names used by Christian Slater’s character in Pump Up the Volume. “Henry” is the name of one of the two personas Slater played in his short-lived schizoid spy thriller My Own Worst Enemy.
This Week in Sam Esmail’s Jukebox of Meaningful Musical Echoes: The scene where Elliot vomits the Adderall — and then defies Mr. Robot by re-eating all the pills in the puke — is set to a segment of Glass’ score for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I have never seen this movie, but I read that it involves themes like reality blur, revolution, and suicide. The bandage Elliot wears around his head — seen discarded in the opening scene of the episode — is reminiscent of the headband the lead character wears in the movie. And my favorite scene in the episode — Elliot’s manic delusion of being happy and liberated from Mr. Robot (and synched anew with us, his imaginary friend; but also a metaphor for a benevolent God) — was set to the song “Lovely Allen” by the band Holy F—. It comes from the same album that includes the song “Echo Sam.” F— Society. F— God. Holy F—! It pays to give a flying f— about all the f—s in this show. Speaking of which: I loved that flight over Manhattan, set to Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.” Again, you can interpret this as a kind of prayer, from the suffering soul to a distant God. You don’t have to say you love me, just be close at hand. But it could also be interpreted as a response from God to a creation that exercised their free will to turn away from Him: It wasn’t me who changed but you and now you’ve gone away/Don’t you see that now you’ve gone/And I’m left here on my own/That I have to follow you and beg you to come home.
RELATED: In the latest episode of EW’s Entertainment Geekly podcast, Darren Franich and Jeff Jensen discuss the “What’s real?/What’s not?” tension of Mr. Robot.