Mr. Robot: Is Elliot hallucinating or reliving a forgotten memory?
Mr. Robot fans continue to wonder if some or all of Elliot’s season two storyline is a delusional mirage. But should we? Mainline hallucination theory argues Elliot is projecting fiction upon his circumstances. His mother’s home isn’t his mother’s home, it’s a psychiatric hospital or a prison. “Mom” isn’t his mom; she’s actually a guard or orderly. Leon, Elliot’s new Seinfeld-obsessed friend, Adderall hook-up and diner buddy, isn’t a neighborhood gadfly; he’s a fellow patient. Those conjectures remain plausible after five hours and four episodes.
But what about Ray, Elliot’s seemingly good-hearted, ministerial benefactor and would-be employer? Hallucination theory says he could be an occupational counselor or psychologist. (Maxine? A therapy dog.) Last week, Elliot learned Ray is the owner of a black market website trading in illicit product and services, including sexual slavery. Yikes. If we want Hazy Ray to be rooted in some reality, then Real Ray could be a corrupt hospital or prison official who’s using the inmates as labor in his deep web business. But maybe we should look past the untrustworthy surface and read the essence. Ray is a metaphor for the moral dualism. His computer profile icon: a yin-yang symbol. He’s empathetic and exploitative, savior and slaver. Ray, who is black, has a white associate, Lone Star, the brutal bad cop to his sweet good cop. You wonder if they might be the same person and Elliot has split them in two in his hallucination in order to make sense of Real Ray’s paradoxes. Elliot isn’t like Agent Dom DiPierro; he doesn’t hold his contradictions well. This is guy a who went schizoid and manufactured an alter-ego to hold his angry, rebellious aspects as a means to manage to his own internal chaos. Paradoxes are — to use the show’s language — “logic bombs” that literally blow his mind. Elliot tends to be cynical-absolutist. “Evil Corp.” “F— Society.” “We live in a kingdom of bulls—!” “F— God!” Everything is black and white — like Ray and Lone Star.
The unfolding Ray narrative could represent an act of psychological disassembly and reassembly. You can imagine a Whoa! moment when the hallucinatory matrix finally crashes and Ray, Maxine, and Lone Star fade away and re-cohere into a single character. Call him: Dogstar. And he will be played by the Whoa! master Matrix man himself, Keanu Reeves.
Seriously: I do wonder if this storyline is some kind of psycho-mythic allegory for the maturing of Elliot’s moral consciousness, a chapter in a larger Hegelian narrative about the development – healing — of Elliot’s consciousness in general via complex master-slave dialectic. The next episode might go a long way to clarifying this: the title is “m4ster-s1ave.aes.” Let me unpack this a little bit before returning to hallucination.
In computer networking lingo, “master-slave” is a term for communication between two devices in which one device (the master) controls the other (the slave); “aes” stands for “Advanced Encryption Standard.” The title, then, refers specifically to Elliot’s gambit to hack the FBI and E Corp. by taking control of the Android phones of every FBI agent inside E Corp. HQ. (Dig it: Mr. Robot takes command of a veritable dark army of androids.)
But Mr. Robot is adorned and coded with master-slave metaphors, relationships, and concepts. Joanna Wellick’s BDSM role-play. The neo-Marxist master-slave ideology of fsociety. The evil of human trafficking. In the season premiere, we saw Darlene force one of E. Corp’s “chiefs,” Scott Knowles, to put on an fsociety mask and burn $5.9 million in cash. It was a stunt meant to symbolize and advance fsociety’s slave revolt against the world’s corporate overlords. It also winked at a key literary reference in the episode: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (it was the book Hot Carla burned in the park). Beckett’s darkly comic existentialist play features a famous master-slave pairing, Pozzo and Lucky. In one act, Pozzo is the master and Lucky the slave; in another, their roles are reversed, but they are closer together and worse for wear. Pozzo is blind; Lucky is mute. (Their condition speaks to Elliot and Mr. Robot, too: Elliot is blind to his true reality; Lucky, who knows certain truths Elliot is desperate to know, like what happened to Tyrell, stays mum.)
With Pozzo and Lucky, Beckett was drawing upon Hegel’s theory of master-slave dialectic, a challenging but influential theory of phenomenology, the study of consciousness. Hegel suggests that people relate to themselves (and each other) in a master-slave sort of way. Our consciousness is aware of itself the way it is aware of another person; it is an Other. Hegel suggests this moment of recognition and acknowledgment is profoundly jarring – it’s the “Hello, Friend” big bang of our meta-consciousness narrative – and it sets in motion the complex internal conversation or “dialectic” that we have with ourselves over the course of our lives. Our self-aware existence fascinates us and terrifies us in equal measure.
This constant tumult – a “death struggle” – is assuaged, to some degree, in the context of a “lord-bondsman” relationship that derives from a need to survive without being destabilized or destroyed by existential panic. The master, distinguished by his lack of fear or willful obliviousness of mortality, is the “Hello, friend” meta-consciousness, bossing around the fear-driven slave consciousness that does the work of living. This is not an ideal state, and Hegel optimistically argues it’s possible to elevate to higher, almost transcendent levels of being. Hegel suggests the best we can do to reside in a place of “Unhappy Consciousness,” where we reconcile two warring slave dispositions, “the stoic” (the obedient “No Problemo!” worker bee who retreats from conflict and tries to want for nothing) and “the skeptic” (the cynical realist full of desire, troubled by life’s fragility, and “F— society/God/you/me fury/idealism).
Unless I am completely misrepresenting Hegel (which is very possible), I can imagine a professor using Mr. Robot as examples for his ideas. Elliot and Mr. Robot are illustrations of self-aware consciousness relating to itself with shock and awe, fear and loathing. They are in a constant death struggle. Acknowledging their interdependence, they settle for a dysfunctional lord-bondsman relationship. Elliot’s arc this season has seen him move from “The Stoic” to “The Skeptic” to “Unhappy Consciousness.” This will be an unending, circular struggle. Will this looping reality degrade him? Can he break the cycle and move out of it? Or is his story about learning to manage his chaotic internal life with grace and wisdom?
Anyway. We were talking about hallucination theory, weren’t we?
Here’s the thing: I don’t know if I believe in it. At least, not in the way mainline hallucination theorists conceive of it. The storytelling has thrown three spanners into the works in the form of three scenes that have taken place outside of Elliot’s experience of Ray: Ray carrying on an imaginary breakfast date with his late wife; Ray interrogating Rat Tail; and Ray plotting with his associate, Lone Star. These beats could be explained as products of Elliot’s imagination. But based on the available information, we should trust our eyes. Ray, Lone Star, Rat Tail, Leon, and Nameless Mom are not fictions. They are as they present themselves to be. Similarly, I think we can trust that every other character and every other storyline in Mr. Robot is legit and happening, and not some extension of Elliot’s consciousness, or some agent in an elaborate artificial intelligence experiment derived from Marvin Minsky’s “Society of Mind” theory.
But, our eyes do tell us something else.
Specifically, there’s just something really wonky about Elliot’s current life-world, his primary theater of mind, reality and psychic warfare — Nameless Mother’s Halfway House for Recovering Schizoids and Fugitive Cyberterrorists. It’s as vaguely sinister as the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. It’s a blurry dream-realm, dimly lit and sparsely furnished, yet adorned with odd, conspicuous details. A red phone. An abundance of light fixtures. Elliot only ever entertains visitors in the dim dining room. There’s zero interaction with Mom. She stays in the living room and rarely says anything. She completely ignores her daughter, Darlene, and vise versa. She just watches TV or works crossword puzzles and occasionally serves as Elliot’s wake-up call. Mom’s house is a paradox, just like Mom herself. It’s a home, but it’s not “homey.” Mom is “homely” in appearance, but not in spirit. She’s offering hospitality to Elliot, but she’s rather inhospitable in demeanor.
NEXT: Paging Dr. Freud
All of this eeriness, all of these insidious ironies are summed up in a single word, one that points us to additional explanations for how Elliot is experiencing life. The word is uncanny.
Uncanny means “strange or unusual in a way that is surprising or difficult to understand,” according to Merriam-Webster. In the uncanny, that which is familiar is subverted by mystery, creating an ambiguity that is unnerving and doubting reality. The title “Mr. Robot” suggests a very common expression of the uncanny. Increasingly human-looking robots that trigger creepy cognitive dissonance? That’s the “uncanny valley” effect. The character of Mr. Robot is uncanny. He looks like Elliot’s father, but he’s not; he’s Elliot.
Freud was very interested in the uncanny. In 1919, the tell-me-about-your-mother psychologist wrote an essay about the uncanny entitled Das Unheimliche. In German, “unheimliche” riffs off the word “heimliche” (hidden or secret), though in his book, Freud brings in a related word, “heimisch,” to make his points. It means “familiar” or “home.” In fact, Freud uses concepts of home, “homeliness” (the familiar) and “unhomeliness” (the uncanny) as metaphors for an experience of anxiety or dread that affects your perception of reality. Freud says the uncanny is symptom of another, more profound psychological disturbance: either the recovery of repressed memory (most likely, a forgotten trauma or shame from childhood) or the re-aggravation of an old psychic wound. (Don Draper might call this “nostalgia.”)
Elliot is suffering from at least one of those maladies. He’s trying to recall – and he’s trying to resist recalling – a memory that’s he’s suppressed, the memory of what happened to Tyrell the moment after they launched the Five/Nine hack. Did Elliot shoot him? Does he think he killed him? But the storytelling also seems to suggest Elliot is caught in a looping pattern of behavior that has its origins from traumas suffered during childhood. Mr. Robot is a manifestation of that loop. He comes and goes, forgotten and remembered, summoned when old wounds are touched.
Given that Elliot’s retreated to his Mom’s house and reverted, to some degree, back to a kind of child-like dependency on a parent for survival (she is his distant meta master; he’s the chore-executing slave), all in a messy, flawed bid to fix his busted head, it makes a lot of sense that he’d be experiencing this familiar-yet-not-familiar space and mode of being as one seriously uncanny place. There’s no need to overthink this or over-theorize this more than I have.
But let’s do that, anyway.
In another piece of writing, Freud says an experience of uncanny effects often occurs with those suffering from another kind of psychological disturbance: what he called “repetition compulsion disorder.” It’s a more elaborate, profound form of repressed memory emergence. It’s a looping pattern of behavior in which a person relives a traumatic event from the past by either projecting the situation upon reminders of that trauma, or experiences it anew, as if for the first time, in the form of a hallucination. Freud likened it to demon possession, and damn if we didn’t get an object lesson in that a couple weeks ago when Elliot became an uncanny thing, dressing in his father’s Mr. Robot jacket and putting on the Monopoly Man mask and started brainstorming his diabolical plot against E Corp. It was as if he’d been temporarily possessed by another consciousness, and when he removed the mask, it was gone, and Elliot had no memory of it. The music in this scene mirrored this act of hostile psychic takeover. During Elliot’s reverie, we hear a piece of music from Holst’s The Planets. It’s the seventh and final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” But for one brief moment, the music is disrupted – possessed – by a different, more hostile piece of music, the first movement in the suite, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Note the implication of endless looping there, the seventh movement switching to the first.
Oh, and 7 +1 = 8, which is the number of eternity. Oh, and by the way, this nutty bit of conspiracy thinking and numerology that I’m doing? A symptom of the uncanny-fogged mind, according to Freud. Other symptom: scapegoating (see: “Evil Corp.”) and perceiving external projections of the shadow selves, Otto Rank’s idea of “The Double” (see: Mr. Robot).
Okay, that got a little crazy.
So here are my theories.
I propose that Ray isn’t a fictional hallucination. Ray’s narrative represents a story from Elliot’s past. Elliot is reliving it, in a form adapted to present circumstances, as if experiencing it for the first time. At some point, most likely during a vulnerable moment in his adolescence (after the death of his father?), a fragile Elliot was befriended and even employed by a seemingly benevolent, father figure kind of guy. Let’s call him Ray. In truth, Ray was grooming him for some kind of exploit. Sexual abuse? That’s what Freud would think. But here, I’m to argue that the events shown are the events that happened. Elliot discovered Ray was involved in deep web human trafficking and took him down, albeit not without some personal failure and tragic cost along the way. Remember that Elliot didn’t act right away last week to move against Ray. In fact, he went home and went to sleep! That poor choice will surely have consequences. I propose Elliot suppressed/repressed this memory because of the shame of those consequences. Perhaps someone close to him died. Mom? Leon? Or…
Something just hit me as I wrote that preceding paragraph.
Remember at the beginning of the season, when we got the flashback to when Elliot fell out the window, and Dad and Nameless Mom argued about money in the hospital? Nameless Mom said they wouldn’t be able to afford their medical bills because Edward had just lost his job. Edward told her not to fret, that they didn’t need to worry about money anymore…
Revise the theory! Ray hired Edward to fix his website. Edward is Rat Tail in Elliot’s hallucinated memory. Dad couldn’t do the job. Maybe he didn’t know how. Maybe he had moral objections to Ray’s work. Regardless, he couldn’t do it. Enter Elliot. The genius boy hacker could do what his dad didn’t know how to do and he did it for him. In doing so, Elliot was able to provide for his family. (Another possibility, kinda dark: Edward pimped his son out to do this work for Ray.) But then Elliot did something he shouldn’t have done. He trespassed. He peeked. He beheld the truth of Ray’s criminal enterprise. Ray discovered this violation and punished Elliot by having his goons beat him up (as seen last week), which, in turn, established enmity between father and son. (No wonder Elliot now wishes to refuse the will of his “dad.”) Or! Ray had his goons beat up Edward – maybe they even killed him? – and made Elliot watch.
The storytelling may have been trying to clue us to the latter possibility by ending on the shot of R.T.’s scalped rat tail. If R.T. = Edward, then by cutting from Elliot’s beating to the scalped rat tail, we were being told what’s happening to Elliot actually happened in the past to Dad. The severed rat tail, then, would be another expression of the season’s fixation with emasculation/castration, all linked to money problems, i.e., the work of providing, from Nameless Mom busting Henry’s balls, to fsociety chopping the sack off the Wall Street Bull, widower (?) Joanna Wellick’s financial plight to her humiliations of men, Darlene’s dressing down of her fsociety men and ex-boyfriend, to Dom’s Ugly American colleague using the word “castration” right before getting blown away. Of course, Freud would see all these motifs and think “Oedipus complex.” And, of course, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here in this theory:
Elliot got his Dad killed. Or at least so badly injured, Edward couldn’t provide for his family anymore.
If that’s true, Elliot’s memory of Dad throwing him out the window may be a guilt-induced fabrication. What if Ray had his goons throw Edward out the window? Elliot remembers it differently, as his father throwing him out the window, because it’s how Elliot punishes himself for dooming his Dad. This could also explain Elliot’s demonization of money and scapegoating of “Evil Corp.” for all the world’s problems – his entire “F— society!” ideology could be explained by the attitudes and horror of this formative episode, Elliot’s forgotten, tragic, mythic origin story.
Why is Elliot is remembering this story now? My guess is shooting Tyrell – or failing to? – was the catalyst. Pulling the trigger – or just the thought of it – on the night of Five/Nine triggered the memory of destroying his dad with his hacking. Mr. Robot’s efforts to prevent Elliot from recalling that memory become more poignant within this framework: it’s as if “Dad” is trying to protect Elliot from the shame of the mistakes that cost Dad his agency or life.
But perhaps something more heroic is happening here. I like to think Elliot initiated the process of memory recovery and letting it happen, even at the risk of the process overwhelming him, at least for a little while. He needs to do this if he has any hope of gaining control of his mind and becoming a functioning, moral person. He fully understood at the end of last season that he was a total mystery to himself – a coded bunch of secrets, an “Advanced Encryption Cipher” to crack and hack. I think he put himself in a safe place so he could let the memories come, a safe place where a messy, violent process could unfold, one certain to turn his experience of reality into a virtual reality, an uncanny hallucination. Perhaps that’s a psychiatric facility; perhaps that’s his Nameless Mother’s house. Could it be his own apartment? We remember that season 1 ended with a knock on his door. I propose it was his mother, whom he summoned, or perhaps came on her own, knowing her boy was in crisis. In taking care of him, Elliot must abide by her rules, which could be why he experiences his reality as his mother’s home if it’s not.
When we revisit this moment, may I recommend Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door” for the music cue? Or: a reprise of a song that now sounds to me like a clue to the answers of so many questions. Take, take me home/ ‘Cause I don’t remember/ Take, take me home/ ‘Cause I don’t remember…
I like this theory, because then Mr. Robot would be telling us two stories at once. It would be filling in the blanks of Elliot’s past and dramatizing Elliot’s present internal drama. It would also meet some criteria for acceptable hallucination theory, that some of it – particularly the Ray stuff – be rooted in reality.
NEXT: Be mindful of Seinfeld and A Clockwork Orange
I would also like to argue that this theory explains the season’s Seinfeld fixation, and more, it explains Leon, as well as Elliot’s bizarro self-improvement project. We’ve watched Leon not only chronicle his Seinfeld-watching, but wrestle with the meaning of the show. He’s perplexed by the show. He’s troubled by the show. He’s infuriated by the show. He’s worn down by the show. Finally, he accepts the show. The last time Leon spoke about Seinfeld, he recalled the controversial finale. He focuses on one single beat: the moment when Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer watch a guy get mugged and do nothing about it. In fact, they laugh at the guy’s plight. Leon admits it’s kinda funny, and you wonder, for a brief moment, if Leon has been corrupted by Seinfeld’s nihilism, if he internalized the wrong message.
But then Leon pivots to a question about Elliot’s chessboard and notes that during the Enlightenment, chess was used as a means of self-improvement. And then he pitches a very Hegelian idea. He tells Elliot he needs to respond to the problem of existential misery by having a dream – a better dream of himself; a better dream of the world – and commit to realizing it, whether or not he fulfills it. Otherwise, Leon says, you might as well die.
What I found interesting about this, from a Leon POV, is that his exhortation plays like a philosophical or critical response to Seinfeld. It was as if he watched it, reflected on it, and came to his own conclusions about its meaning and life application. It was a surprisingly idealistic and hopeful application at that. It was as if Seinfeld had inspired Leon to give Elliot a spiritual hug. Which is super ironic, because Seinfeld was famous for being a show with the mantra “no hugging, no learning.”
But this is the best part. In the famous last moments of Seinfeld, a jury finds Jerry and company guilty of “criminal indifference” and the judge puts them in a cell for a year to “contemplate” their lives and their “utter disregard for everything good and decent.” The concept of “criminal indifference” resonates. It was essential to last week’s episode of Mr. Robot. Dom explained she was motivated to join the FBI because she “was — is — disgusted by the selfish brutality in the world“ as well as “utterly fascinated by it.” (So, I might say, was Seinfeld.) Elliot told Mr. Robot that now that he knew about Ray’s evil, he had an obligation to do something about it. (But then he goes and falls asleep on the job, committing Jerry and co.’s crime of criminal indifference!)
But where Leon and Elliot most echo the Seinfeld finale is how they fulfill the judge’s command to contemplation. Leon does this by going down the Seinfeld wormhole and coming out of it with an idealistic philosophy. Elliot’s entire storyline is the very end of Seinfeld: he’s locked in a cell (literally or figuratively), processing his life (or resisting it; we’re left to doubt Jerry and friends can follow through); and recognizing that his life is a looping reality (the very last lines of Seinfeld are a call-back to a Jerry-George conversation in the first episode).
Finally, and more for fun than anything, I’d like to offer one more piece of evidence that Mr. Robot is pointing us toward the uncanny, Seinfeld, and a million other themes touched upon in this essay. You’re going to like this. Trust me.
I’m slightly obsessed with a curious object inside Elliot’s cell-cum-bedroom in Nameless Mother’s Uncanny Safe House of Repetitive Compulsion Disorder. It’s a statuette on the windowsill. Here it is from a scene two weeks ago, when Mr. Robot challenged Elliot to a high stakes chess match – a Hegelian death struggle for control of Elliot’s mind:
It’s a little bust – a bust for a busted brain.
Now, I could be projecting my own pop culture memories onto the show, but that looks to me like a bust of Beethoven. This is an interesting touchstone for Elliot. Modern thinkers believe the sickly genius – who was famously manic and went deaf later in life – suffered from bipolar disorder most of his life. Like Elliot, Beethoven wasn’t a master of his domain, but he was capable of great works amid his insanity. Another correlation: Beethoven dropped out of school at age 11 to go to work and help support his family. Elliot was 11 when he was dropped out a window, when Edward Alderson lost his job, and, per my theory, when father and son met Ray.
I also wonder if this is an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick is an aesthetic influence on Mr. Robot, and A Clockwork Orange was one of the titles we saw among the movie offerings on Elliot’s computer a few weeks ago. The anti-hero protagonist of the filmmaker’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel is a Beethoven super-fan, although he has something of a perverse, idolatrous relationship to the composer. Listening to Ludwig doesn’t elevate his mind or spirit, it excites him for sex, thieving and “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” In one sequence, Alex masturbates while listening to Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.” As he pleasures himself, nightmarish images, self-generated or recalled from “viddies,” light up his mind. The idea here, I think, is to interrogate the classical and Romantic assumptions that high art, or art of any kind, inspire to moral or spiritual improvement or refinement. But the more pointed question in A Clockwork Orange asks us to consider how much any of us is truly the “master of our domain,” to borrow from Seinfeld’s infamous masturbation episode. To what degree are we shaped – warped – by society? Do we have authentic agency or are we executing programs of cultural conditioning? Are we clockwork oranges? Are we Mr. Robots?
Alex is betrayed by his fellow “droogs” after committing a harrowing home invasion that leads to murder. He’s sent to prison. Making a Seinfeld-esque mockery of rehabilitation, Alex survives and thrives in jail by throwing himself into the performance of a model inmate. Malcolm McDowell’s acting plays to the phoniness; Alex here is a willfully ironic representation of “the good.” Still, his success qualifies him for an experiment that would win him early release — an aversion therapy designed to meddle with his consciousness and redirect the triggers for anti-social behavior, including his beloved Beethoven. Now when he hears “Ode To Joy,” he’s weakened, not stirred – instantaneous emasculation – and compelled to vomit, not violence. Here, in his disorientation and unintended inauthenticity, Alex is an uncanny representation of the good.
There’s more to the movie, but I’ll let you watch it. Let’s go back to prison. Alex is allowed several objects in his cell. One of them is… a little bust of Beethoven. And damn if it doesn’t look exactly like the little bust of Beethoven on Elliot’s windowsill. You can see it here, resting on top of a comic book.
The title of that comic book? Uncanny Tales. The most ironic thing about it? It’s a reprint of an older comic book, entitled Adventures into the Unknown. The comic book, then, is a looping reality, a familiar thing, repackaged as a new thing. It’s… uncanny.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA. Below, listen to the latest Entertainment Geekly podcast where, among other summer TV shows, EW’s Darren Franich and I explore the alternate realities in Mr. Robot.