Seinfeld superfan Leon was MIA from last week’s Mr. Robot, but there was a lot of his obsession in “logic-b0mb.hc.” A recurring motif echoed one of Seinfeld’s signature gags: Kramer barging into Jerry’s apartment without invitation or knocking. (Elliot might call this a “life hack.”) Darlene established the theme by infiltrating Angela’s apartment and helping herself to her computer the way Kramer used to help himself to Jerry’s cereal, pillows, and whatnot. Angela whined. So Jerry. Darlene blamed it on Angela. “Penetration test. You failed.” So Kramer. We saw his bad-tact entrances replicated in more extreme ways, too: Dom blundering into Zhang’s clock room. Terrorists blowing into the lobby of Dom’s hotel. Mr. Sutherland barreling into Kareem’s pad to kill him. People. They’re the worst.
You can see a lot of Seinfeld in a lot of Mr. Robot this season. And it makes a certain amount of storytelling sense, at least from an Elliot point of view. The psychologically damaged lad experiences the contents of his mind as external objects. Ergo, the stuff he puts into his head would be messing with him, the same way Leon’s Seinfeld binge is affecting him. Just ask him. “It’s really f—ing with me,” he told Elliot in the premiere. One episode, Leon’s talking about “The Parking Garage.” In the next, Elliot is taken to a parking garage and tortured by men in black who pour cement down his throat. It’s a hallucination, of course, trigged by an overdose of Adderall provided by Leon. Season 2 of Mr. Robot: an allegory about the toxic dangers of binge TV viewing. (Seriously. You shouldn’t swallow TV shows all at once. You should watch them in the prescribed dosage, one at a time, once a week. You know, the way we used to do with Seinfeld. This way, you avoid cancelation. Right, Mr. Robot?)
The Leon-Elliot Seinfeld dialectic can be seen as a metaphor for cultural consumption and cultural influence (or at least, the toxic dangers of binge TV viewing). Leon, Elliot’s eating buddy, is a symbol of both consumption and influence. But from Elliot’s perspective, he’s a symbol of the culture. Leon’s the one chowing down on Seinfeld, but Elliot is internalizing Seinfeld through Leon’s recaps and analysis of the show, his yadda yadda yadda, if you will. (Unless you believe Leon is also a projection of Elliot’s mind, in which case, Elliot’s the Seinfeld binger.) Leon isn’t just a symbol of TV, and our attitudes about TV, but our cultural yakking about about TV and our relationship to that yak. Elliot gleefully eats up Leon’s Seinfeld binge the way eats up the diner’s comfort food as well as Leon’s Adderall. He’s become dependent on it, even enslaved to it; the stuff soothes his cynical, volatile unhappy consciousness. He also swallows up Leon’s processing and regurgitation of that process (yes, I am referring to that icky scene when Elliot barfed up the Adderall and then ate them again).
Elliot’s hallucination literally feeds into all this. Adderall = Seinfeld = the cement binge, representing Elliot’s misguided effort to shore up his shaky mind, his self-medication. Note also where the cement is made and mixed: in a red wheelbarrow. “Red Wheel Barrow” is the name of Elliot’s journal – a symbol of his spaced-out mind and his quest to pacify it. It’s also a symbol of artistic creation and response. He fills it with drawings. He writes about The Bible and likens it to a (poorly run?) sci-fi/pulp fiction franchise. He recaps his day. The hallucination also speaks to his hypocrisy – or as Jung defined hypocrisy, his out of control internal incoherency – and his awareness of his hypocrisy. Elliot was once a counter-culture cynic who raged against Marvel movies and The Hunger Games as normalizing, numbing stabilizers to quell our resentments and angst. Now, he’s binging and blissing out on Leon’s mental products and cultural output, which he knows, intuitively, can be bad for him, poisonous, like chugging cement. But hey, that’s not his fault, right? It’s The Man, trying to keep us down! Hence, Elliot experiences this as conspiracy theory – men in black, abducting him, controlling him, forcing their anti-life agenda down his throat.
To be clear, I don’t think Mr. Robot is using Seinfeld to say that TV or pop culture is completely and totally bad for us. But I think it’s trying to be honest about its varying degrees of quality, and more so, about our relationship to it. I think Mr. Robot believes Seinfeld is a work of art – a darkly comic piece of absurd cynical realism that offers relief from the insanity and awfulness of ourselves, each other, and the world, but should also be taken as inspiration to master and transcend our internal worlds – our desires, our selfishness, our pleasure-seeking – and be better neighbors, lovers, and friends to each other. I go on like this because we’re about to see, the episodes of Seinfeld that Mr. Robot has implicitly internalized in bits and pieces and explicitly quoted in its text hit all that high-minded, feel-good yadda yadda yadda really, really hard. It’s as if Mr. Robot is a red wheel barrow of thick, well-blended, and very heavy cultural response to Seinfeld. As such, Mr. Robot reframes Seinfeld, which was famous for being a show about “no hugging, no lessons learned.” In hugging Seinfeld tightly, Mr. Robot shows us that it learned its lessons very well.
NEXT: Let’s have some fun…
Okay, enough of that. Let’s have some fun with this. The remainder of this essay is going to ridiculously heady, or just plain ridiculous. I hope you find it interesting, but more so, I kinda hope you laugh. Just like how Kramer wrongly projects himself into Jerry’s apartment, I’m probably wrong to project most of the observations to come onto Mr. Robot. But hey: the show brings this on itself with meta games and an abundance of other pop allusions that invite us to rummage through Mr. Robot’s proverbial cereal boxes searching for prizes and decoder rings. In other words: it’s not my fault the show pours this cement down my throat. Penetration test. You failed!
Let’s start with the implicit Seinfeld references, beginning with the classic “The Contest.” This was the one in which Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer compete to see who could go longer without pleasuring themselves. It gave us the memorable phrase “master of your domain.” The language perfectly describes the defining conflict of Mr. Robot’s second season: Elliot’s battle with his alter-ego for control of the organ they share. No, not that one, silly. The other one you think with.
In “logic-b0mb.hc” the parallel “The Contest” was more on point. Elliot had a mission to hack the FBI and destroy any evidence the agency might have on Angela, Darlene, himself, and his fsociety friends. The project turned into a waiting game as Darlene tried to recruit Angela to facilitate their plan. As Elliot sat idle, he was tempted to satisfy a familiar urge: scratching that part of his brain that gets “itchy” around secretive or suspicious people, that provokes him to peek into their private spaces and heroically respond to whatever evil he might find hiding there. Here, it was the private sections of Ray’s black market website. Clicking on those forbidden zones risked serious consequences. If Elliot got caught looking? Game over.
This correlates to “The Contest,” in which acts of looking — Jerry peeping at the nude woman in the apartment across the street; Elaine’s gawking at JFK Jr.’s butt during aerobics class — threatened to trigger the participants and cost them the bet. Kramer peeped through Jerry’s periscope, retreated to his apartment, then returned a few minutes later and surrendered his money. “I’m out!” Elliot succumbed to temptation, too, much to the dismay of father figure Mr. Robot. His transgression discovered, Elliot was rousted from peaceful slumber and beaten by his other father figure Ray. Basically, Elliot’s entire storyline was an allegory for every kid’s worst nightmare, getting caught by his parents jerking off. Which, of course, is what happened to George in “The Contest.”
A couple episodes ago, Mr. Robot gave us a pivotal scene in which Elliot and Mr. Robot took their contest to the next level. The catalyst was a disagreement over a girl, specifically, Elliot’s sister, Darlene. Worried that continued fsociety actions might get her killed by enemies, Elliot entertained the possibility of saving her by putting himself in a position to be captured by the police, which, in turn, would lead to Darlene’s capture. Mr. Robot – driven by the more risky, emotional desire to advance the fsociety mission – opposed this idea. They decided to settle their disagreement with a duel to the death, which took the form of a chess match. The winner would get control over Elliot’s mind, forever, and more immediately, decided what to do about Darlene.
Jerry can surely relate to the concept of a high stakes chess match with a hallucinatory double triggered by his conflicted feelings for a woman. In “The Nose Job,” Jerry reached a crossroads moment with his latest girlfriend, Isabel, an actress. He had grown to really hate her, but he couldn’t quit her because the sex was so damn good. “She is the most despicable woman I have met in my entire life. I’ve never been so repulsed by someone mentally and so attracted to them physically at the same time. It’s like my brain is facing my penis in a chess game!” He tried to put himself in a position to cut himself off from her, but his poor strategies failed him. Eventually, while entertaining Isabel in his apartment, Jerry’s push-pull is dramatized with the aforementioned chess match. It took hallucinatory form. Head Jerry was represented by a spectral Jerry wearing a hat resembling a brain. Penis Jerry was represented by a spectral Jerry wearing a helmet resembling, yes, a penis. Penis Jerry accused Heady Jerry of being “selfish” for denying him – which, as it happens, has been Mr. Robot’s main complaint with Elliot, that his stoic and skeptic postures and his seemingly selfless asceticism and altruism are actually pure selfishness. When Head Jerry tried to argue that Penis Jerry’s actions make him feel dirty and wrong — basically, Elliot’s attitude about Mr. Robot’s revolutionary actions — Penis Jerry dismissed him by saying: “Oh, go read a book.” (Mr. Robot hasn’t prescribed books for Elliot’s angst, but he did throw some porn at him and suggest that he watch it.) All of this took place while Real Jerry and Isabel were on the couch, rehearsing a scene from a play. As the chess match reached a defining moment, Head Jerry was distracted by Isabel’s overwrought reading of this line: “You are a part of me, and I am a part of you!” In the Elliot-Mr. Robot chess match, there was no victor. It ended in a stalemate as a result of Elliot recognizing a paradox: He and Mr. Robot were inextricably connected because Mr. Robot was an extension of himself; they both die if one wins. (In “The Nose Job,” Head Jerry won – for a moment. In the end, though, it was Isabel who broke up with Jerry. She was undone by an act of looking: she secretly attended Jerry’s stand-up act, thought it was awful, and ended the relationship. She said she couldn’t be with a man whose work she couldn’t respect.)
NEXT: On to the explicit connections…
But enough with the implicit. Let’s get to the explicit. Over the course of the season, Leon has referenced three specific Seinfeld episodes: “The Chinese Restaurant,” “The Parking Garage,” and “The Finale.” “logic-b0mb.hc” internalized all of them to an almost uncanny degree. I examined the relevancy of “The Finale” in my other “Mr. Robot Notebook” entry this week, but I’ll briefly recap it here.
While arguing with Mr. Robot about whether to act on the discovery of Ray’s evil, Elliot made a self-righteous stink about how it would be wrong to look away and not do anything. He had seen a picture of an abducted girl for sale. Elliot had to intervene. He had to be a hero – you know, like Jerry’s idol, Superman. Doing nothing would make him guilty of criminal indifference. Once again, Mr. Robot found this course of action threatening to their existence and their other, larger missions and tried to shame Elliot out of playing do-gooder was pure selfishness, that his righteousness was inauthentic and therefore not worthy chasing.
Criminal indifference and moral authenticity are essential to Seinfeld’s comedy, and both concepts are intrinsic to “The Finale.” In fact, the show puts the ideas on trial. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer witnessed a guy get mugged and don’t do anything about it. They laughed, actually. (Leon described the details a couple episodes ago, thus planting a thematic flag for Elliot’s bind in “logic-b0mb.hc.”) In this way, they were being true to their essential natures – pure selfishness – but taken to the extreme for the sake of comedy, as well as a final statement. They were arrested for violating “The Good Samaritan Law” and put on trial. A jury found them guilty of “criminal indifference” and the judge sentences them to a year in prison to “contemplate” their “callous indifference” and “utter disregard for everything good and decent.” “The Finale” left the quartet in a cell. In the final moments, Jerry and George began a conversation they realize they’d had before. With that, Seinfeld gave a Sartre/No Exit ending: hell is other people. It also suggested another kind of hell (and insanity): the idea that we’re slaves to looping cycles of thinking and relating. So much for contemplation and change.
Again, see: Elliot-Mr. Robot. The final fate of Jerry and co. speaks to a season that has seen Elliot stuck in a proverbial cell and contemplating his life while Mr. Robot indicts him for running away from his responsibility to the mess they made with Five/Nine hack. (Another kind of criminal indifference!) Instead of making forward progress with his project of purging Mr. Robot and achieving self-realization, Elliot finds himself stuck. His war with Mr. Robot is a looping, endless stalemate. Of course, the story isn’t over yet. Can Elliot break free? Can he transcend beyond his Hegelian master-slave rapport with Mr. Robot? Time will tell.
Time plays a critical role in “The Chinese Restaurant,” the Seinfeld episode where Jerry, George, and Elaine wait all episode for a table at a restaurant and leave before getting it because they have to get to a movie. A bad one, too: Ed Wood’s notorious clunker Plan 9 From Outer Space. Now, while no one went to a Chinese restaurant in “logic-b0mb.hc,” Agent Dom DiPerro and some colleagues did go to China, and while there was no ticking clock plot, she did stumble into a room of ticking clocks. (Cue my Seinfeld laugh track.) However, Dom and company did eat some Chinese food, or rather, they tried to. One of the agents couldn’t stomach the authentic Chinese offerings. He worried that the food was “unsanitary.” (Bookmark that word. We’ll come back to it.) “Where’s the General Tsao’s chicken?!” he said. “These people are savages.”
His ugly American attitudes echoes George’s entitlements and indignant bellyaching about humanity in “The Chinese Restaurant.” At one point, George railed about a woman who barged ahead of him to grab the restaurant’s phone. “We’re living in a civilized society! We’re supposed to act in a civilized way!” he thunders. “Does she care? No. Does anyone ever display the slightest sensitivity over the problems of a fellow individual? No. No. A resounding no!”
But Dom might reply with a resounding “Yes!” There were parts of “logic-bomb.hc” that were like a more hopeful, if qualified, response to George’s complaint and rhetorical cry. We saw Elliot raise his hand to play Good Samaritan. (Never mind that he fell asleep on the job.) We saw Angela enter into Elliot’s dark place and reach out to him in the spirit of true friendship. She also modeled another idea, too — self-interest intersecting with selflessness: she agreed to help fsociety, a heroism that benefits them as much as her. Dom represented these themes, too. During a peculiar but poignant bonding session with Minister Zhang, she explained why she joined the FBI: “I was – I am – disgusted by the selfish brutality of the world. But at the same time, I am utterly fascinated by it. The FBI is the perfect place for that kind of contradiction.” Her rhetoric smacked a little of George-esque indignation, but it was ameliorated by self-awareness of her own paradox/hypocrisy, and it was earned by the fact that she’s committed to a life of redemptive heroic action.
“The Chinese Restaurant” was one of two episodes that minted Seinfeld’s rep for being “a show about nothing,” an aspect of the series that really perplexed Leon. The other episode was “The Parking Garage,” in which Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer wander around looking for a car. Like “The Chinese Restaurant,” “The Parking Garage” also had a ticking clock plot, but the stakes were slightly larger. Elaine, who bought a goldfish, needed to get it home and out of a plastic bag ASAP because it was dying on her, choking on the waste in its increasingly cloudy water. (Just like Elliot is slowly dying in the bubble world(s) of head and Mom’s house, choking in his murk.)
A related idea added urgency to everything: Jerry needed to pee. He was goaded by Kramer to duck behind a car and take a whiz. He got busted by a security guard, who expressed a number of concerns with Jerry’s transgression, including “the sanitary condition of the parking facility.” Jerry tried to convince the security guard not to report him to the police, feeding him lies and manipulations. Among them: he needed to get to an anniversary dinner for his parents. Gilding the fiction to ridiculous degrees, Jerry claimed it was a particularly special anniversary: his father had just been released from a Chinese prison after 14 years.
Meanwhile, George — who was feeling the pressure of time, too (he’s the one who actually had to get to his parents’ anniversary dinner; Jerry stole his story) — began to get itchy because of Jerry’s dawdling. “Unbelievable! I’m never gonna get out of here! The guy goes to pee, he never comes back. It’s like a science fiction story!” Then, George and Kramer decided to kill the time waiting for Jerry by making like the existential clowns in one of Mr. Robot’s key lit references this season, Waiting For Godot: they discuss being, meaninglessness, and mortality.
GEORGE: Oh, what’s the difference? We’ll all be dead eventually.
KRAMER: Does that bother you?
GEORGE: Yeah, it bothers me. Doesn’t it bother you?
KRAMER: Not at all.
GEORGE: See, now that bothers me even more than dying bothers me, ‘cuz it’s people like you who live to be a 120 because you’re not bothered by it. How could it not bother you?
KRAMER: I once saw this thing on TV with people who are terminally ill, and they all believed the secret of life is just to live every moment.
GEORGE: Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that. Meanwhile, I’m here with you in a parking garage. What am I supposed to do?
Later, George also got busted for peeing in the garage. After George and Jerry are issued tickets for their infraction, Jerry explained the inspiration for his “Chinese prison” lie.
JERRY: Well, what happened was, my father was staying in the home of one of Red China’s great military leaders, General Chang, who, by the way, came up with the recipe for General Chang’s chicken. You know, the one with the red peppers and orange peel at Szechwan Gardens?
GEORGE: Sure, I have it all the time. Very spicy.
JERRY: Well, General Chang was a very flamboyant man. A complete failure as a general, but a very good cook.
Now, If you didn’t see all of this in “logic-bomb,” then maybe I’m as crazy as y’all say. Much of it was located in the Zhang party section. Let’s start with the fact that “Chang” rhymes with “Zhang,” and while Minister Zhang may not be a general, she is the leader of an army, as she’s also Whiterose, head of the Dark Army. Dom’s colleague, the one who can’t stomach Zhang’s food and pines for General Tsao’s Chicken back home, began his complaint by declaring, “This isn’t sanitary, is it?” (echoing the security’s concern for the “sanitary condition” of the parking garage).
The reason why Dom’s bumbled into Zhang’s clock closet? She really needed to pee and was looking for a bathroom. She’s caught by Minister Zhang. Zhang doesn’t give her a ticket, but she did share her attitudes about mortality. When Dom inquired about her fascination with time, Zhang responded with a line from Macbeth: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Dom’s translation: “You’ve surrounded yourself with constant reminders of mortality.” This sounded somewhat reductive, but Zhang agreed, and elaborated with a line that sounded like the secret of life that Kramer learned from TV: “There is much work to be done, great work. As each second passes, I constantly push myself to keep moving.”
Later, Zhang explicated a rather far-out theory: “Have you ever wondered how the world would look if the Five/Nine hack never happened? How the world would look right now? In fact, some believe there are alternate realities playing out that very scenario. That there are other lives we’re leading. Other people that we’ve become. The contemplation moves me very deeply.” Sounds like a science fiction story to me. Right, George?
More seriously, Zhang’s act of contemplating how life might be different had she not made a mess of the world – remember, the Dark Army teamed with fsociety to execute the Fine/Nine hack – again echoes “The Finale” and the judge’s command for Jerry and company (and the audience) to “contemplate” their destructive choices. (Zhang also embodied the idea of being imprisoned, too, as she clearly yearns for a reality where she is her true self, Whiterose.)
Mr. Robot and Seinfeld both work themes of finding and making meaning in an existentialist world and taking responsibility for self, actions, consequences, and each other. They just express them differently. Seinfeld made the points through people who fail hysterically at these practices. Mr. Robot gives us people who grapple tragically with them. No one has embodied it better this season than Leon’s model of critical Seinfeld fandom. He watched all of it, struggled with it, reflected on it, and then, in my opinion, drew meaning from it. As I saw it, Leon’s theory that life must be guided by a self-improving, world-improving dream was a kind of response to Seinfeld’s nihilism. For him, the fiction of Seinfeld was an alternate reality to contemplate and be inspired by.
Which brings us to Elaine’s fish. You didn’t think I forgot about Elaine’s poor doomed fish, did you? We don’t see a fish in “logic-bomb.hc,” but Angela did provide a status update on Qwerty, Elliot’s pet Siamese fighting fish. She’s been taking good care of him during Elliot’s exile. He’s fat and happy, apparently, thanks to Angela’s sensitive care and attention. This bit came at the end of a scene – a sweet punchline – in which Angela visited Elliot and offered to be someone he could talk to, someone who cared about him. (Angela, remember, is Elliot’s old neighbor, best friend, and maybe-love interest. She’s the moral opposite – the “bizarro world” versions –of selfish Kramer, George, and Elaine, all rolled into one.) Angela’s life-giving “Good Samaritan” act (and pet rescue!) was one more talk-back to Seinfeld, one more recognition of its meaning via mirror-twin opposites. The sitcom was a satire of outrageous selfishness, the ultimate anti-role model sitcom. If Angela watched it, she learned the right lessons — at least when it comes the proper care of fish. Kramer is right. The yadda yadda yadda of TV really does teach you the secrets of life. Except, apparently, for the one about knocking before entering.