We begin with a correction. Maybe the most ironic correction I’ve ever had to write. In my recap of the Mr. Robot episode “initi_5.fve” (which aired Aug. 31), I failed to acknowledge a moment that captured the imagination of many viewers: when Joanna Wellick greeted Elliot with the words “Hello, Ollie.” Several readers brought the omission to my attention. When I saw several other recappers had been similarly baffled by “Hello, Ollie,” I became convinced I had made a terrible mistake and failed to serve the readers with a complete summary and some analysis, or at least, a decent crazy theory. So I wrote some something new to make up for it. The day after the piece posted on Sept. 7, several readers brought to my attention a new error in my thinking: I was mistaken to believe I had made a mistake that required a correction. While I did indeed miss the “Hello, Ollie” moment, I was wrong to treat “Hello, Ollie” as some kind of new or lingering mystery. It isn’t. A scene from the season 1 finale makes clear why Joanna would call Elliot by the name “Ollie.” In my attempt to “solve” this non-mystery, I put forth ideas that risked confusing people about the story Mr. Robot is telling. I regret not doing enough fact checking before or after writing the piece and for the all-around fail. I apologize. But I stand by my gaslighting theory of Mr. Robot, as well as my thoughts on the show’s use of “meta,” synchronicity, and my crazy conjecture about The Matrix. The following piece has been edited to fix the buggy “Hello, Ollie” portions.
You know how on Mr. Robot, Elliot keeps overlooking really important things, like how he’s the leader of an anarchist hacker collective, or how he’s hatched a plan for global revolution with the security minister of China? So unbelievable! Nothing like that can happen in real life, right?
Well, I’m here to tell you it can.
Somehow, someway, my recap of last week’s episode completely failed to acknowledge the moment every Mr. Robot fan has been talking about this past week: the very end, when Joanna Wellick intercepted newly paroled Elliot outside his home and greeted him with a baffling salutation. “Hello, Ollie.”
I swear to you, my friends, I watched every single second of “init_5.fve.” I even saw the scene when Joanna rolled down the SUV window and moved her mouth and produced noise with it. But according to my notes, the sound I heard was “Hello, Elliot.” It wasn’t until Monday, when I found some time to read the comments and check out other recaps that I had made a mistake.
Maybe I misheard her. Maybe I have a terrible TV with terrible sound quality. Maybe I’m hallucinating selective aspects of my life because I can’t face the fact that I’m in prison for stealing my neighbor’s dog. Or maybe I wasn’t wrong! Maybe I correctly heard “Hello, Elliot,” but since last Wednesday, I’ve been transported to an alternate reality that’s exactly the same as mine, except for this one tiny little difference. You know, the “Berenstain Bears” memes. Because memes are true!
The real truth is that I might have heard “Hello, Ollie” had I been anticipating it. Something else I forgot? The season 1 finale scene when Elliot went hunting for MIA Tyrell and encountered baby buggy-pushing Joanna outside the Wellick’s brownstone. It was unclear if Joanna was meeting Elliot for the first time, if she had had met him before, or if she knew of him through Tyrell. Througout the scene, Joanna pressed Elliot to reveal his name, in a smooth, sexy-friendly way that belied some anxiety. Elliot was convinced that Joanna had the power to hack consciousness and eavesdrop on meta-fictional conversations. “You’ve got to help me get out of this,” he told us, his imaginary friend. “There’s something about her. I feel like she can hear us.” He finally lied and told her his name was Ollie. Did she believe him? Unclear. But she did say, in Danish, “If you’ve done anything to him, I will kill you.”
How did I blank on that, too? Maybe Joanna broke into my brain and erased it from my mind…
Okay, let’s be serious. I owe you some analysis, and I’ll try to make it good. Call this: The Gas Light Theory of Mr Robot.
1. Let’s start with the fact that there’s no mystery regarding Ollie. Some fans and recappers had forgotten the season 1 “Ollie” moment just as I did and therefore questioned why Joanna knew Elliot as Ollie. (Answering that question was the original goal of this essay.) They even wondered if Elliot had a second split personality named “Ollie.” While it’s entirely possible Elliot holds a sibyllic array of alter-egos in his batty head, the truth is that “Ollie” represents a nasty, private joke, and possibly a reckless one. Elliot called himself “Ollie” after Angela’s ex-boyfriend and Allsafe colleague, Ollie Parker. Elliot didn’t care for the guy all that much. He was bland, he tried too hard to be friends with Elliot, and he was unfaithful to Angela. Dark Army operative Cisco hacked Ollie and demanded that he infect Allsafe’s computers. Angela executed the job on Ollie’s behalf, but using his name and log-in. He was subsequently fired. Ollie’s one appearance this season — an attempt to secretly record a conversation with Angela so he could clear his name with the FBI — occurred in an episode that took place on June 26, 2015. We know this, because in the background of the scene, we saw a TV showing breaking news coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.
2. There is evidence that Elliot forged an alliance with Tyrell before the events of season 1 or in moments unseen during season 1. Elliot doesn’t remember this because Mr. Robot was in control during those encounters with Tyrell. Given Tyrell and Joanna are super-tight partners in life, romance, upwardly mobile ambition, and crime; it’s quite possible Joanna knows a lot about Elliot and has history with him. Last season, Tyrell had that still unexplained meeting with Mr. Robot and told him that he new Mr. Robot’s “dirty little secret.” Joanna might know that, too.
3. Over the course of the season, Joanna has received gifts from someone she believes to be still-MIA Tyrell. Those presents have included a phone, and everyone once in a while, it’ll ring and Joanna will only hear heavy breathing. At one point, Joanna was convinced that the caller was outside her home or passing in a car with an open window. Joanna has assumed that this caller is Tyrell and that he’s been doing these peculiar things for a very good reason. He’s in hiding because he’s the chief suspect in the Five/Nine hack. He’s executing a secret plan and can only communicate in indirect ways. He can’t speak over the phone because of possible surveillance. Joanna’s being a good wife, she’s keeping the faith, at least in the context of a strange relationship in which infidelity is permitted and even used to express love…
4. And yet, at the same time, Joanna’s become increasingly desperate without Tyrell. She’s taken a lowly DJ for a lover and makes him play Tyrell’s part in risky S&M role play. She’s running out of money and E Corp. won’t release Tyrell’s severance. I’m still confused as to what, exactly, flunky Kareem was doing for her. But I think it was one of two things, or both: 1. Keeping tabs on Elliot in prison; 2. Trying to hack the phone and locate Tyrell. (Regardless, Kareem eventually buckled from the pressure of failing — or getting caught — or from a troubled conscience, so Joanna had Mr. Sutherland kill him.) On the night in which she thought Tyrell was calling her from outside her home or cruising her, Joanna was spotted running out into the street and calling his name. The press, which has been fixated with her, began portraying her as going bonkers.
5. I walk you though that history to suggest another way to consider the Tyrell-Joanna relationship. Yes, maybe Tyrell is trying to tell Joanna that he’s alive and well and loves her with his gifts and heavy breathing phone calls. But you’d think a better way for him to support and love his wife during his absence would be with money. His actions are hurting her as much as pleasing her, just like their S&M lovemaking. Maybe he’s trying to duplicate that perverse intimacy. Or maybe the press is onto something. Maybe Tyrell is trying to drive Joanna insane.
6. There’s a very specific term for this kind of abuse that is very relevant to the Wellick relationship and to phenomena occurring throughout Mr. Robot. It’s called gaslighting. “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological abuse in which one person manipulates another person into doubting their experience or believing something that isn’t true. It comes from a 1938 British play called Gas Light (it’s been made into a movie a couple different times). The story concerns a psycho husband, Jack, who tries to drive his wife, Bella, insane in the course of other criminal activity. Bella insists that the gaslights in their apartment are going dim during the evening. Jack tells her she’s just imagining things, but she’s not. The lights are indeed fluctuating, because at night, Jack goes upstairs, to the apartment of a woman he murdered, to search for jewels he believes to be hidden there. Turning on the lights in this vacant apartment causes the lights in the building to dim.
“Gaslighting” makes a lot of sense for a show about a character who’s gaslighting himself (i.e., Elliot, whose alter-ego manipulates him and fogs him and often leaves him constantly doubting his own mind), not to mention a very meta show that gaslights its own audience, albeit in playful and purposeful ways. It’s part of a larger project that reflects on how culture works on us, controls us, manipulates us, co-opts us in various ways through various means, including media and its mediums.
Neil Postman, a media theorist who believed TV had a gaslighting effect on audiences, argued that one way to mitigate TV’s negative influence is for TV to produce TV shows that reflected on the manipulative properties of TV. (Got that?) He proposed that such programs take the form of satire or parody. But he also worried that TV would essentially absorb and co-opt this kind of subversion, rendering their revolutions worthless.
Hello, Mr. Robot.
Note how season 2’s major “meta” moments were many things at once: examples of Mr. Robot gaslighting Elliot, examples of media influence, examples of media parody, and sly satires of subversive entertainment owned and controlled by the very mediums and industries they’re trying to subvert.
We later learned that this fantasy parody of Mr. Robot itself was inspired by two TV shows, ALF and The Simpsons — two examples of irreverent, ironic, “That’s so meta!” media/TV satire, and two expressions of a once rare aesthetic that has now become so commonplace on that it’s basically meaningless. The alt-pop revolutions of today become the mainstream pop of tomorrow. Note the faux commercial break during the faux show: They included ads for E Corp. past and present. Later in the episode, Mr. Robot explained why he took control of Elliot’s head and tried to fill it with a sitcom. He explained that he was just doing this to help Elliot through the ordeal of getting beaten up by Ray’s goons. This, too, represents a satirical poke at TV, as basically, the most banal poke at TV, as it’s a metaphor for the oldest, most banal and arguably anti-art appreciation of TV, as a panacea of discontent, as a temporary distraction from the hardships of living. There’s room for this, but we can also get lost in such escapism, which was another sly point of the Mr. Robot sitcom. Concluding the episode’s impish comment on fantasy, manipulation, and cultural influence, the final music cue: “Guiding Light” by the band Television. Nice. In the end, the experience of the Mr. Robot sitcom brought Elliot and Mr. Robot closer together. Which is exactly what Mr. Robot wanted. The scene of their reconciliation took place in a dimly lit basement, with Elliot desperately, tearfully clinging to Mr. Robot. This, in an episode entitled “m4ster-s1ave.” I dare say Mr. Robot has been running a rather complex mind game on Elliot all season long to achieve various goals, from covering up murders and other crimes and hiding other secrets, too. In short, Mr. Robot is gaslighting Elliot, i.e., Elliot is gaslighting himself.
Another proof that gaslighting is at play metaphorically and literally in Mr. Robot: the new development of rolling brownouts, causing lights to dim and flicker. That’s pretty freakin’ on the nose! Interesting: The brownouts can also be seen as being linked to “meta” tomfoolery. The shifty, untrustworthy lady at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission explained to Angela that the brownouts are the result of a labor strike at a major utility known as Comet Electric. This is another example of conspicuous synchronicity: Comet is the name of a movie written and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail. It’s a trippy, non-linear romance that floats the notion of alternate realities. Whiterose loves it, I’m sure. (It was one of the several movies seen on Elliot’s computer when he went searching the web for The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie.) I would contend that this story of Comet Electric being on strike is itself a kind of gaslighting. Theory! Comet Electric is owned by E Corp. and linked to Whiterose’s secret project at the Washington Township plant. These brownouts? They’re happening because Comet Electric is redirecting energy to the plant to power… something. A super-collider, probably. The Dark Army is either: A. trying to produce dark matter so it can harvest dark energy and save the world from its dependency on planet-killing fossil fuels; or B. trying to access parallel universes; or C. Both.
Okay, back to Joanna and “Ollie.”
7. Last time Joanna saw Elliot, she threatened to kill him if he had harmed Tyrell. Mr. Robot has since led Elliot to believe that he murdered Tyrell on the night of Five/Nine. Joanna’s life has suffered as a result of Tyrell’s absence. He was the human battery that powered her fantastic luxe life. Now, he’s gone and her matrix has crashed, thanks to Elliot’s subversions. Elliot should be very afraid that she’s come to get some vengeance by trying to make good on her threat. [Note: we now know that Joanna came to pick up Elliot so she could take up the work of hacking the phone and locating Tyrell.]
8. Speaking implicitly of The Matrix: Was Joanna’s “Hello, Ollie” roll-up in “init_5.fve” foreshadowed by an implicit homage to the movie?
This is a fun bit of crazy more than anything, though it does bring us back to “gaslighting.” “init_5.fve” tracked Elliot’s increasingly turbulent adjustment to “normal life” after six months in prison, most of which he spent in an elaborate fantasy of his mother’s house. It was Rectify, Mr. Robot style. The primary symptom of Elliot’s disorientation was a renewed bout of disassociation, and Esmail found some razzle-dazzle ways to depict it. Elliot would see Mr. Robot talking to other people in another room, then reconnect with himself as if teleported. There were also shots of Elliot toggling in place between himself and Mr. Robot, like a flickering, crackling image. In a way, Elliot, too, was experiencing rolling brownouts.
The episode’s visual effects reminded me of the scenes in The Matrix, an elaborate sci-fi allegory on individual enlightenment, social control, and cultural gaslighting, when the agents of order in the film’s machine-controlled virtual prison would hijack avatars and take them over. An allusion to The Matrix would be appropriate for this episode for two reasons: A. Theme. Elliot’s discombobulating movement from a prison of unreality to “gray and quiet” post-Five/Nine dystopia = Neo moving from The Matrix to a post-apocalyptic “desert of the real.” B. More gaslighting. I think Mr. Robot is taking advantage of Elliot’s disorientation and manipulating Elliot. (My prediction for the season finale is that Mr. Robot will completely take over Elliot. Here, the homage will be to Twin Peaks: Elliot will travel to his version of a Black Lodge underworld — the Washington Township power plant — and lose his mind from some head-spinning revelation, allowing his doppelgänger to take control. But we’ll see.)
In The Matrix, there’s a scene in which the characters see a black cat pass through a room. Another black cat soon follows. Neo likens the experience to déjà vu, but he’s told that it’s a sign of something more sinister. The repeating felines are a glitch in The Matrix — an experience of coincidence that occurs whenever the robots are rebooting the system and sending the Smiths to deal with a problem.
Now, there was a moment in “init_5.fve” that mirrored that black cat foreshadowing. It occurred as Elliot was exiting the prison, ruminating on the “gray and quiet” of the outside world and reuniting with Darlene via a communion of French fries. Esmail shoots the scene from across the street, as if spying on them. Three cars pass in front of the camera and temporarily obstruct our view of the brother and sister. The first was a black SUV. The second was another black SUV. Then, we see a police car.
Two black cats, arriving ahead of an agent of order.
Let’s assume homage to The Matrix was intended and I’m not being a Mr. Crazy-Pants. You could see it as a nod to glitchy, rebooting Elliot. You could also see it as foreshadowing of Joanna, who arrived at the end of the episode in a black SUV driven by her Mr. Smith, Mr. Sutherland. Yes, Elliot should be afraid. But what if Joanna has come to help Elliot, not hurt? What if she’s come to bring him to Tyrell, who I am sure is still alive? In the language of The Matrix, she could be Trinity, bringing Elliot to his Morpheus.
9. The two black cats moment in The Matrix is a kind of coincidence known as “synchronicity.” Mr. Robot absolutely loves synchronicity, especially this season. Let me give you three examples:
Synchronicity is often an aspect of dream narrative, so little wonder that many people continue to theorize that everyone in Mr. Robot, not just Elliot, is trapped inside a matrix. Synchronicity also speaks to a worldview of intelligent design, where everything is controlled and nothing happens by accident. Conspiracy vs. randomness, order vs. chaos, stasis vs. change have emerged as major philosophical tensions this season. (It was renewed last week, when Whiterose blanched at the word “accident” and Phillip Price, playing the role of chaos bringer, mocked her for her want for order.) Synchronicity is also linked to far-out theories about collective consciousness, that people and all of reality is linked via the medium of the mind.
But synchronicity also speaks to so many characters stuck in self-destructive, self-sabotaging ruts of thinking and behavior, from Angela’s dependency on people and systems outside herself for affirmation and direction, to Elliot’s use of fantasy, compartmentalization and disassociation to navigate the complexities and ordeals of modern life. Even as they try to change and redeem themselves, they find themselves falling back into old patterns, mostly because their strategies for change and redemption are so flawed, so steeped in their issues. In this way, they experience life as uncanny and looping, déjà vu all over again. May they find true, liberating enlightenment in their gas-lit world.