Mr. Robot: When a big twist isn't really a twist at all
When is a twist not a twist at all? When it happens on Mr. Robot, the surreal psychological thriller about an alienated young man navigating a broken world with a headful of delusions.
For most of season 1, creator Sam Esmail provoked us to entertain the notion that there was something suspiciously unreal about Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the elusive leader of an anarchist hacker collective known as fsociety. So it wasn’t so surprising when, in the eighth episode, the show’s misfit and certifiably mental hero Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) realized that he’d been hallucinating this wish-fulfillment revolutionary rogue and ragged father figure, and in the form of his dead dad, no less. The revelation — more like clarification — was actually the secondary detonation of another shocker, a true stunner for most: It turned out that Elliot had completely forgotten that his fsociety compatriot Darlene (Carly Chaikin) was also his sister. Elliot, agent of cynical realism and speaker of brutal truths, was a profound hypocrite, as most badly broken mad men of American pop culture tend to be these days. His capacity for self-deception was as deep and dangerous as his pain. Would Elliot sprint toward greater authenticity and honesty or sink deeper into his kingdom of bulls—?
Season 2 has attempted to find meaning and mystery by turning that question into Elliot’s defining struggle and another expression of risky unreliable narrator storytelling. On the surface, it seemed Elliot had exiled himself from society for the purpose of rehabbing his head and getting the Mr. Robot monkey off his back.
Yet from the jump, Esmail’s images and scripting prodded us to consider that Elliot was once again living a lie, and a very specific one at that. Was the world’s most-wanted cyber terrorist really hiding out in his mom’s house in Brooklyn? Or was he actually in a prison (or a psychiatric hospital), doing hard time for some crime (or to heal from some illness), and merely hallucinating his life of freedom?
Season 2 had done nothing but flood us with evidence to suspect the latter scenario, beginning with a conspicuous choice to completely ignore the season 1 cliffhanger. Who was outside Elliot’s apartment and pounding on his door? It could’ve been any number of people, but the storytelling wanted us to sweat the likelihood that the unseen knocker wore a badge and possessed a warrant for Elliot’s arrest. The premiere didn’t even acknowledge the cliffhanger’s existence, a willful denial by Elliot and the storytelling that was downright suspicious.
But the proofs weren’t just implied. In his narration to us, the viewer, his imaginary friend, Elliot made it clear he didn’t trust us anymore and wasn’t prepared to tell us all his secrets, which meant, obviously, that he had secrets to tell. There was also the subjective presentation of his surroundings, most notably Elliot’s uncanny experience of his mom’s shadowy, nonsensical home — Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel as halfway house. Bravura filmmaking sequences functioned as metaphors for Elliot’s condition. In the premiere, when Esmail’s camera pushed into the MRI of Elliot’s brain during a flashback, then smash-cut — a psychotic break — to a day-in-the-life montage set to a looping remix of “Daydream in Blue” by I Monster. When watching Mr. Robot, you can believe your eyes, most especially when your eyes tell you that you shouldn’t believe what you’re seeing.
Explicit references to other cultural texts also encouraged us to consider that Elliot had been sent to The Big House and was trying to escape it, at least in his own mind. In his cell-like room, Elliot kept a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, a story in which the narrator with a guilty conscience seeks redemption — new life — by helping the inmates at a prison, including a fair number of wrongly or unfairly convicted people. His new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$) spent most of the season recapping his experience of watching all of Seinfeld, including the series finale, although he weirdly didn’t mention the show’s infamous, polarizing punchline ending, in which a judge sent Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer to jail for a year. (You’d think Leon would have had an opinion about that.) There was the horror flick parody of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a classic of surrealist dream narrative. This, in a pivotal sequence in which Elliot dressed up as his dad and donned a Monopoly mask and slipped into an altered state. We see now that this flashback sequence was an elaborate allegory for the very thing we suspected Elliot of doing in the present. Ditto Mr. Robot’s most celebrated metafictional stunt of the season, an unhinged “Mr. Robot” sitcom spoof with special guest star ALF; it is subsequently explained as an expression of Elliot’s coping mechanisms for traumatic experience, detachment, and fantasy. It was “going meta” run amuck — and one more incredibly ironic sign post pointing at the truth staring us in the face, that most if not all of Elliot’s experienced reality was “going meta run amuck.” (In another time, another place, we need to explore Elliot as embodiment and critique of “That’s So Meta!” pop culture.)
We needn’t be so fancy in our analysis. The basics of Eliot’s story line came off as a clue, too. A guilt-wracked individual exiled from society, wrestling with his conscience and patterns of out-of-control and destructive behavior? Sounds to me like a penitent jailbird doing time. Even the clear-as-day logic flaws of Elliot’s story played like winks. If Elliot was on the run from the police for masterminding the most damaging terrorist attack in history since 9/11, what the hell was he doing hiding out at his Mom’s house? Why was he eating at diners, watching basketball games at a local park, entertaining guests that put his freedom at risk, seeing his shrink, walking the streets, or going to church? If Elliot wasn’t hallucinating his reality, and if Esmail didn’t want his audience to actively suspect this, then Mr. Robot was doing something worse than toying with its audience: It was being really stupid.
But it wasn’t. Last week, Elliot removed the wool over his eyes and ours and presented cleanly what we saw fuzzily. He was indeed in jail and he indeed had been living out a fantasy of freedom to cope with his experience. The scene of revelation confirmed many speculations about specific elements of Elliot’s hallucination — like strict, nameless mom = strict, nameless security guard — and seemed to validate some risky readings and guesswork. In my recap of the premiere, I insisted that Esmail was alluding to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with certain lines, background detail, and other motifs. Since then, I’ve convinced myself I need to do less of this kind of analysis, or at least present such speculations differently within the context of a recap; I worry I’m flooding readers with ideas that may or may not be helpful as they struggle with a show that is, frankly, daunting and confusing. I’m resolved to be more disciplined, even though I’d like to think last week’s episode confirmed my reading: The sequence in which Elliot dropped his blinders and allowed us to see his prison reality was scored with “Play the Game” by the late Jack Nitzsche, a piece of the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Last week’s revelation was confirmation that — for now — fantasy is part of the storytelling franchise of the show. Another critic might use “big twists” in place of “fantasy” in that last sentence. Here’s why I’m not. “Big twist” stories try to disguise their nature as “big twist” stories. With the exception of the Darlene business last season, Mr. Robot is transparent about its trickery. For the second season in a row, it has all but spoiled its own secrets with clues, winks, and coaching. (Here, Mr. Robot improves upon season 1 by not sandbagging us with multiple reveals at once, and by starting to dole them out earlier in the year.) Last week’s revelation identified Elliot’s use (and abuse) of fantasy as a critical part of the character problem that is his series: resolving — or not — his inability to engage reality as it is with an authentic, integrated self. Unreliable narrator storytelling might not always be a permanent fixture of the show, because it’s a metaphor for the Elliot’s condition. As he waxes and wanes with improvement, so will go the “unreliable narrator” high jinks, I think. Maybe. Who knows? It’s a nutty show.
That said, I do have problems with the dramatic presentation of Elliot’s practice of fantasy. The premise of Elliot enduring his incarceration by residing within an altered state hasn’t produced story as engrossing and artfully realized as season 1’s defining hallucination, Elliot’s evolving relationship with Mr. Robot. The haziness of his existential experience, combined with the mysteries and complex struggles of the show’s other characters, have made for thematically opaque episodes. I enjoy a challenging encounter with art and wrangling elusive meanings to the ground. But Esmail should take to heart the criticism of Alan Sepinwall and others who’ve argued that it’s hard to emotionally invest in a story when you’re constantly questioning the reality of, or when you’re wondering how much of Elliot’s experience is fabricated, or you’re confused about the exact nature of Elliot’s fabrications. I agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he argues that season 2 could have achieved better effects by acknowledging Elliot’s imprisonment from the get-go, then playing out his fraught strategies for coping with it.
Of course, the season isn’t over. There’s more story to tell, and possibly more revelation that could affect our understanding of what has come before. We still don’t know why Elliot was sent to prison. My guess is it has nothing to do with the Five/Nine attack. Most likely? He was busted for hacking and messing with Krista’s (Gloria Reuben) sleazy, treacherous, adulterous ex-boyfriend. (If so, Krista would surely have complex feelings about Elliot’s conviction and incarceration, and that could explain why she continues to treat him, even though he’s in prison, a mix of guilt and personal responsibility. She could represent the most direct fulfillment of the Leo Tolstoy/Resurrection reference/clue.)
And while this might give everyone a bit of a headache to think about, we could be dealing with lies within lies within lies. There’s surely more to the story with Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom). Last week, Mr. Robot told Elliot that he did shoot him on the night of the Five/Nine hack. It was rather poignant watching Elliot accept responsibility for that violence. But I suspect Mr. Robot is still hiding something from Elliot, and more, hiding something about why he’s hiding something.
For me, the biggest unsolved mystery is Ray (Craig Robinson), a character that I quickly grew to love, even if some of my speculations about him have proven to be incorrect. Was Ray an inmate or prison official? Was Elliot projecting fiction upon him? Was he distorting a few details of an otherwise true story? How to explain the Ray scenes that seemed to take place outside of Elliot’s experience, like Ray’s breakfast with his absent, deceased wife, or Ray’s conversation with Lone Star (Michael Maize) about how to deal with Rat Tail (Luke Robertson)? Or could it be that Ray belongs to Elliot’s past, and Elliot has been reliving his memory of Ray? It’s interesting to note the affect that Ray had on Elliot. Their shared story has reactivated Elliot’s heroic drive and left him newly committed to finishing the fsociety mission. This, you might recall, is exactly what Mr. Robot has wanted since the beginning of the season. It’s trippy to consider that Elliot’s Ray fantasy was actually a long con manipulation by Mr. Robot to coax Elliot back into the game of revolting against society and saving it — trippy, because of course, Elliot is Mr. Robot. I assume Ray clarification is forthcoming — although it might be more interesting if Esmail leaves all things Ray open to interpretation.
Of course, the most radical choice Esmail could make is to go dream-within-a-dream and reveal that Elliot’s prison reality is itself a hallucination. Now that’s a crazy theory — and maybe not a terribly helpful one at that. It would also probably send me to the cuckoo’s nest myself.
See you at the recap tomorrow.