Why do we theorize? Drawing from my Lost experience, I can think of several reasons. Exuberant fan enthusiasm is the first that comes to mind. When a story captures your imagination, it also activates it. Speculating about mythology and predicting future developments? It’s creative geeking out that is often animated by a secondary motivation, the desire for conversation, connection, or community. The implicit “What do you think?” in every theory is your inner child knocking on the neighbor kid’s door and asking: “Do you want to come out and play?” It’s our “Hello, friend.”
Not all theorizing is so innocent. It can be competitive, proud, or hollow business. “Look at the big brain on me!” “I’m biggest fan of them all!” “Click on this bit of crazy, sucker!” I knew a Lost fan who was driven to calculating the correct answers to the mysteries of Lost by the hope of a very specific reward: He envisioned an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that would toast the end of Lost with cast, producers, and a few select super-fans, including the theorist who got it right. I swear to you this wasn’t me, or the alter-ego that I blame for all my flights of insanity and inanity, Mr. Dodobot.
But I am guilty of another poor motivation for theorizing, mystery anxiety. A crypto-serial that traffics in max nebulousness is a risk for viewers (or at least those who don’t find meaning or artful beauty in the ambiguity); it asks us to trust that it’ll all add up and make sense. Theorizing is a way to actively manage the worry that it won’t. I love a good mystery — it’s my favorite thing after a good comedy (I love joyous laughter above all else) — but I think maybe I hate it, too. Uncertainty is a kind of horror, a kind of suffering, and it must be addressed like an ache or wound. For such ridiculous people like me, a mystery story isn’t a thing to be enjoyed by a puzzle that must be solved. Theorizing is palliative cryptography. We enjoy twist narrative mystery, like The Sixth Sense or the first season of Mr. Robot, but I think we might resent their disorienting effects, too. It subverts my illusion of mastery over my experience. I enjoy an artful magic trick, but there’s part of me disturbed by the con. In my delighted, awestruck reaction — “How did they do that?” — there’s also something gravely serious. “No, seriously, how did they do that, because – cue The Who! – I won’t be fooled again!” Theorizing is a way to control a story that’s actively trying to mess with you and possess you; it’s our Red Wheel Barrow journaling.
And then there’s a kind of theorizing that’s a response to a story that you enjoy, or want to enjoy, but is bugging you because you know it’s screwing up but you don’t want it to be true. Like the people we fall in love with or the gods we worship, we want to believe the objects of our fandom are infallible and won’t ever let us down. And because we want to be good fans, we don’t criticize, because we mistake criticism for bad faith or hating. Theorizing becomes a way to fix glitches that we don’t want to see as glitches, vent frustrations we’re afraid to air. It’s also a form of creative denial in the face of storytelling choices that aren’t wrong, but we just don’t like. I knew a Lost a blogger who desperately wanted the show to pair Sawyer and Kate, not Jack and Kate. This blogger crafted elaborate theories to argue that the storytelling was loaded with coded signals to SawKat ‘shippers, as if to say, Don’t worry. They’re destined to be together. When Lost didn’t fulfill this wishful thinking, this blogger felt horribly betrayed. (A more recent example: Game of Thrones fans who argued that the Waif was a Mr. Robot-ish figment of Arya’s imagination. It was/is a nifty theory, but it might have also been a way to make Arya’s story line more interesting to those who perceived her season 6 as a protracted stall.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “creative denial” theory of theorizing this past week as I continue to ponder the perplexities of Mr. Robot and the popular conjecture of the moment: that Elliot is practicing a form of creative denial himself by hallucinating his reality. (Is Mr. Robot season 2 a critique of fan theorizing? Debate!) There are different strains of this possibly strained bit of thinking. Some think Tyrell Wellick has Elliot locked up. I’ve been arguing that Elliot is in jail, perhaps being interrogated by the feds, perhaps awaiting trial for the Five/Nine hack or for murdering Tyrell. I’ve heard other theories that postulate that this season — or perhaps all of Mr. Robot — is the fantasy of a dying Elliot, and his alt-reality is his way of trying to escape his fate (making the show akin to Memento or David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr., dream narratives of avoidance) or make peace with it (making the show akin to The Sixth Sense or Jacob’s Ladder, dream narratives of acceptance).
As much Mr. Robot engages me to overthinking degrees (I’ll prove it again at the end of this piece with some thoughts about Mr. Robot’s connection to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), I wonder if I’ve been practicing some “creative denial” by entertaining and feeding it’s-all-a-dream theorizing. Last week, I wrote that I wanted creator/director Sam Esmail to establish baselines of reality within its unreality. Critic Alan Sepinwall has influenced my thinking on this: As he’s said about Mr. Robot (and other shows that practice trickeration), constantly questioning everything you see becomes exhausting, and it discourages emotional investment, too. This past week, I asked myself a simple question: Do I actually like hallucination theory? Do I really want it to be true?
The reflection didn’t lead to a clear “yes” or “no” conclusion. I didn’t necessarily want it to: I want to remain open to nothing’s-what-it-seems theory, inasmuch as I want to be open to whatever story Esmail is telling, and I don’t want to pre-judge that story, either, although I recognize I’m already doing so to some degree by sweating hallucination theory as I’ve done. (Some critics seem ready to declare Mr. Robot’s second season a sophomore slump; I usually wait until mid-season to make “slump” calls.) But in interrogating my regard for hallucination theory, I realized it appealed to me, in part, because it makes me more comfortable with a few things that are bugging me about the season so far. It also made realize that there’s at least one thing about Elliot’s current experience that I want to be “real.”
What’s Bugging Me
The depiction of Elliot’s mother. (Who apparently has no name, by the way. Weird. Talk about some Anonymous Content.) Mama Alderson’s appearances this season have not flattered her. In flashbacks, she’s rightly responded with out-of-her-mind panic Elliot fell from the window, but then got conspicuously religious when bad dad (who does have a name: Edward) claimed it was an accident. (“God says there are no accidents!”) I love the theological themes, but it struck me as a forced way to plant those flags. She then continued to rip into her husband at the hospital, complaining about the cost of mounting medical bills and unemployed, leukemia-stricken Edward’s inability to pay for them, all within earshot of Elliot. Her concerns were understandable, but she came off as an empathy-challenged, emasculating ball-buster. She’s upheld this characterization in the present, the story depicting her as cold, strict, and mostly silent. When she’s not waking Elliot up or barking at him for disturbing the household peace, she’s sunk in a chair, watching the woeful news of the day with indifferent eyes. Mom resembles Elliot’s dim view of God — silent, distant, a cool, removed observer of His/Her suffering creation and children.
Hallucination theorists argue that “Mom” is actually an orderly at a psychiatric facility or a prison guard. Elliot sees this person as his mother, because — as Elliot told his psychiatrist — “she’s the strictest person I know.” It would explain why she’s nameless, too. It’s possible he doesn’t know his/her name. It’s possible she represents one of many such people who look after Elliot. The only thing that’s true about “Mom” is that she’s probably the personification of Elliot’s feelings about his mother. His real Mom is surely more complex and deserves more empathy from Elliot — and more depth and exploration from the story. Hence, I like the idea that “Mom” is a hallucination. She’s kind of a terrible character, otherwise, Nameless Nana is more archetype than human being.
The depiction of Elliot’s fugitive life. We’ve been told that the Five/Nine hack is considered “the crime of the century” and “a cyber Pearl Harbor.” Elliot believes he’s the mastermind behind the attack, even if it wasn’t “his” mind in control and he can’t remember actually remember it. He’s the most wanted man in America, and he knows it… and he’s hiding out at his Mom’s place in Brooklyn? Hanging out at parks, watching neighborhood basketball games? Chowing down at the local diner, making new friends like Leon without sweating their trust? This makes zero sense — unless “Mom’s house” is his mental construct of his current mental hospital surroundings. Here, hallucination theory has strong appeal. It fixes a problem I don’t want the story to have.
What I Want To Be True
All Things Ray. Elliot’s wannabe mentor-sponsor — and potential employer-exploiter — remains a murky mystery after two (very long) episodes. Ray is a deep thinking widower whose suffering has left him with deep empathy for other people… which he may or may not be abusing in his capacity as some kind of criminal entrepreneur. Hallucination theory argues that Ray is a fellow patient or inmate in Elliot’s asylum or prison, or perhaps his doctor or warden.
But I really don’t want any of those possibilities to be accurate. I want Ray to be “real.” Craig Robinson brings a witty, humane, grounding presence to a show that needs it. His character’s rapport with Elliot has been so winning, I gotta wonder if Mr. Robot is feeling a little jealous. (The Elliot-Ray-Mr. Robot is the summer’s best ‘ship triangle.) I love the way he keeps the spirit of his wife alive — and keeps his own humanity alive — by continuing the ritual of dining with her, like an athlete exercising or practicing to stay in shape. He seems genuinely interested in connecting with Elliot in his despair. He cares about him and wants to care for him. He embodies a remedy for Elliot’s existential plight, and specifically, some ideas from Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving:
“The mature response to the problem of existence is love.”
“The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears.”
To be clear, Ray could be a really despicable dude. He could be, like, the Mastermind to Elliot’s Jean Grey, seducing a lonely, vulnerable soul into serving as a monstrous tool that serves him. As the head honcho to a minor league E Corp. (we know his operation involves e-commerce and requires IT help), Ray mirrors “Evil Corp.” CEO Phillip Price, and his relationship with Elliot mirrors Price’s relationship with Angela. Consider some similarities. At present, Angela defines her self-worth by what she does, her job, and her ability to do it well; she loves being someone’s asset. The danger in this way of thinking is a main concern in The Art of Loving; it risks or even assures alienation from nature, man, and one’s self and remaining enslaved to a fundamental sense of worthlessness. Angela is already suffering from this — she’s self-medicating with a regiment of self-affirmations that keep her ensnared in narcissism and hopelessness — but it also makes her vulnerable to the game-playing and machinations of Price, her “asset” owner.
Similarly, Elliot is at risk for possession and manipulation, too. He’s naturally wired for it, as the delusion of the Mr. Robot father figure proves. If Ray succeeds in coaching Elliot toward the catharsis he needs and the self-mastery he should cultivate, Ray becomes, paradoxically, uniquely positioned to exploit and run Elliot to serve his ends. Regardless, Ray himself has proven to be such an asset to the show that I want him and the impact he has on Elliot to be real, whichever way he twists and his story turns. (For hallucination theorists who contend that the Price-Angela story line is also part of Elliot’s hallucination, perhaps he’s using this fiction to work our his own fears and hopes about Ray.)
Reflecting more on hallucination theory in general, I wonder if we’re simply taking things too far, if our want for big twists has us speculating to extremes. I find myself leaning toward a new idea: Elliot really is hiding at his Mom’s house, Mom, Ray, and everyone in exile in Elliot’s neighborhood are real, but Elliot’s cracked mind is simply distorting his experience of them (and by extension, the way they’re presented to us), that he’s projecting his own feelings, biases, and meanings onto them. It would be interesting, for example, if we get an episode seen through the eyes of another character, and we see Mom and Ray and more as they really are (or at least, we see them differently), and we realize that Elliot has been misrepresenting people and places to us. The contrast could be profound, or it could be slight but noticeable.
Actually, we do have a character this season whose function is to investigate and interrogate Elliot’s world: FBI agent Dominique DiPerro. Last week, she found the Fun Society arcade. I wonder what she’ll see when she finds her way to Nameless Nana’s house?
Playing Chess With Death
Some premature conjecture about a possibly irrelevant movie reference
Some intel about tonight’s episode.
(Which means… Spoiler Alert!)
Last week at the Mr. Robot panel at Comic-Con, the cast treated attendees to a sneak peek at tonight’s episode. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that it’s a continuation of the previous episode’s final moments, in which Ray invited Elliot to play chess. The scene got me thinking about the most famous chess game played in cinema, Max von Sydow’s crusader knight battling black robed Death in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic The Seventh Seal. In the movie, the knight plays the game as a stall or even avoid his end, at least for long enough to accomplish one meaningful act. The Seventh Seal would be a perfect touchstone for a season that doted on themes of nihilistic existentialism and raged against God or the idea of it. Elliot’s “F— God!” complaint = Bergman’s idea of “the negative imprint” or “God is silent.” And doesn’t pale, hoodie-sporting Elliot resemble Bengt Ekerot’s Grim Reaper?