DC/Vertigo The Dreaming reboot

Yes, they’re still in the sleeves after I read them. They’re just so pretty ^^

Warning: no reservations about spoilers

A continuation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story without Neil Gaiman is both shocking and irresistible at first glance. The original Sandman run along with Sandman: Overture were all authored by Gaiman and were such a meticulous and careful body of work that it barely seems advisable to have anyone else at the helm. Even if the right perceptive and empathic author came along, the original Sandman stories unmistakably bear the stamp of Gaiman’s authorship. They just feel so much like Neil Gaiman stories that another author, however talented or well-intentioned, just wouldn’t be capable of picking up the same thread that I and so many others had lovingly followed.

To say nothing of the fact that there weren’t a whole lot of loose ends that needed tying up. At least, none that really mattered in my opinion, and Gaiman handles implication so deftly that details that were not explicitly played out before the reader are still intelligible.

(Those being things like what exactly was Loki doing, what was going on with the angels, etc)

One day I’m sure I’ll write a big fat text brick about how Gaiman’s run on The Sandman employed empty spaces and implication. That’s not this text brick, though.

So…at least in my assessment, there was no real need for a continuation. If a new story was going to be attempted, it would be about Daniel experiencing a wholly new plot, sequentially distinct from anything that happened earlier.

So I was dubious, but I couldn’t help but be reeled in by the sheer ambition of such an attempt. I also have to admit to simply wanting more of The Sandman after so many years. Overture was a very welcome development but it held no promise of things to come: simply a chance for a new reading of the base story.

As it turns out, this isn’t a Sandman continuation per se, but a reboot of a separate series that was contemporary with it, called The Dreaming. This comic involved Gaiman as a co-writer and consultant and he eventually dropped out of it altogether: it wasn’t turning out to be the sort of long running, elaborative story that he wanted so much as a series of one-off episodic plots. It did not long survive his absence.

This current incarnation of The Dreaming retains the basic concept and little else: as the name tells us, this is a story about the place rather than a specific individual. This time, the premise is being implemented in the (almost) direct aftermath of The Sandman’s ending. If not a Sandman continuation, this is at least a sequel series.

The previous Dreaming comics were driven by characters that played minor roles in the source material and so is this. Now, though, this doesn’t seem to be an adjustment in perspective that simply excludes Dream of The Endless, but a consequence of his actual absence.

The blurbs on the back of the two collected editions currently available state that Dream appears to have abdicated, after the example of Destruction and Lucifer, and that a botched love affair was a factor.

This didn’t inspire my confidence. While The Endless- such as Dream, Death, Destiny, etc. – are eternal beings, they possess distinct, individual identities that can in fact die and be “replaced”. These identities are denoted by a name separate from their function: the Dream that the series was once about is named Morpheus. Del is the personal name of Delirium of The Endless.

The old Sandman story saw the end of Morpheus as a character and a being called Daniel currently occupies the title of Dream of The Endless. Morpheus wrestled with his duties as Dream and his closeness to the inner lives of all sentient beings seemed to engender a growing need for an individual existence. He frequently had problematic romantic relationships with mortals that always ended because he could not bring himself to abandon his duties however much he wanted to.

Morpheus needed something that was psychologically impossible for him which caused him to walk into his own demise, to be replaced by a new incarnation named Daniel.

I have an edition of Sandman: Overture that contains Gaiman’s script and notes wherein he states his belief that Daniel is a fundamentally different character than Morpheus. Gaiman’s notes say that Morpheus would never approach someone in a familiar way or casually lay hands on another person, while Daniel is a warm, approachable presence who is not afraid of touching. This contrast is emphasized in Daniel and Morpheus’s speech balloons: Morpheus’s balloons are black with white letters and Daniel’s are white with black letters (both have wavy boarders).

While Gaiman has not written nearly as much material about Daniel as he has Morpheus, he clearly intended him to be a very different character. We’ve already seen Dream wrestle with his responsibilities and a growing need to be his own person. That was the story of Morpheus, which is now over.

Daniel falling into Morpheus’s rut hardly sounds like the different character Gaiman had in mind, nor is it a strong vouch for the originality of the new writers. Since only two collected editions are currently out, the overall success or failure of this cannot be judged yet. In the meantime, though, we may concern ourselves with how this new Dreaming series handles the setting and the characters that were once at the periphery.

In the first volume, Pathways and Emanations, we spend a lot of time with two older supporting characters: Lucien The Librarian and Mervyn Pumpkinhead. In Dream’s absence, Lucien has assumed temporary leadership of The Dreaming. Since Dream (embodied in Daniel) and The Dreaming have an interconnected existence, separation is catastrophic. The Dreaming is coming apart at the seams and Lucien is at his wits’ end trying to hold it together. Mervyn is also picking up a lot of slack on his own end and both feel abandoned and afraid.

We are also quickly acquainted with some new characters, including a refugee from another world named Dora who was given sanctuary in The Dreaming by Morpheus. She is British, has amnesia and will undergo a monstrous transformation when she’s in the wrong mood. We also meet some beings that are traveling from dream to dream that suddenly plop down roots halfway through the story. By roots I mean a large wooden ship 😛

Along with the structural vulnerability caused by Dream’s absence, there are a number of external pressures. Featureless, mute mannikin-like beings are pouring into The Dreaming in large numbers and an infant divinity, not so different from the Endless, is gestating in a fissure outside of Dream’s fortress.

The being that hatches from the fissure is part of a bigger, mysterious plot thread that simply isn’t finished yet. The faceless manikins, called Soggies by Mervyn, soon reveal an unfortunate weakness. Mervyn Pumpkinhead is in charge of the nuts and bolts of The Dreaming running smoothly, which is also the bedrock that many dreamers and traveling minds interact with. The Soggies get in the way without guidance so Mervyn is tasked with giving them things to do. Mervyn now has a burgeoning staff that is too numerous to govern effectively and too difficult to communicate with. Soon, he starts sounding off about the necessity of strong borders and invasive newcomers upsetting a perfectly good status quo. This goes exactly where it looks like it will.

Neil Gaiman hasn’t always been great at social commentary, but the original Sandman was never this blunt or awkward. It doesn’t compromise the integrity of Pathways and Emanations, but it is an eyesore. Luckily this use of Mervyn ends almost immediately when a new character, a nightmare called Judge Gallows, is introduced.

Nightmares have always been an interesting background detail in the world of The Sandman. In the past, Morpheus seemed to have a special passion for crafting them. They also belong to the species of dream that are actually sentient individuals, like Fiddlers’ Green, Brute, Glob, Cain, Abel, etc. Naturally, some of them are named characters, like the Corinthian and the Borghal Rantipole.

Morpheus appears to be driven by a rough idea while crafting a nightmare but the nightmare might not embody it completely at all times. The Corinthian, described by Morpheus as a “black mirror”, is designed to reflect everything about humanity that it chooses not to accept. However, the Corinthian, upon being recreated after his death, seems to have a patient and arguably benign personality.

As of the end of the Empty Shells book, Judge Gallows does not seem to have had much influence on the story that outlasts his destruction. This is the tricky part of reading things that aren’t finished yet. The real force behind the plot seems to be Dream’s disappearance, the person who accidentally forced him into it and the being that hatched in Daniel’s absence. If Judge Gallows turns out to be more than a bit character, that would be neat.

Mostly though, he just keeps the plot moving while the newborn deity gestates and allowing other arcs to develop. He creates a chance for Dora to recover her lost memories through forced closeness with Lucien and the sword of Destruction. This matters because Dora is the protagonist of the next book which gets into the more fundamental plot, regarding what specifically happened with Dream and what specifically is the entity that appeared in his absence.

Which brings us back to the problem of how Daniel is being handled. The Dreaming is ostensibly about the location and the characters that were in the background of The Sandman but it still uses Dream/Daniel to hold it together. Unfortunately, it also brings us back to how Daniel’s behavior looks a lot like Morpheus’s.

The unwelcome sense of repetition isn’t helped much by the prevalence of call-backs, particularly at the World’s End Inn with the different stories with different art styles and lettering. Those visual motifs are only used long enough to establish a plot point but it doesn’t go well with the lack of originality regarding Daniel.

Another possible thematic reason for the Worlds’ End callback is subversion. In the older frame story called Worlds’ End, each story was complete and would take over the foreground for its’ duration. These storytellers tell incomplete stories that cannot seize the foreground because they go in circles while more interesting stuff happens at the same time. This could be an attempt at deconstruction, signaling that the new Dreaming stories will break their consistency with The Sandman. That would be my preference, but as with so many things in these new stories, it’s too early to tell for sure.

The reason that I’m dwelling on what might be tiny details is because things that look like callbacks are rarely done on accident. Their presence alone begs you to wonder why. And the problem with things that occupy your attention that are meant to signal a break in continuity is that you inevitably wonder why not simply…break the continuity in a way that’s plainly visible?

Season of Mists, for example. That book starts in a way that barely resembles any other beginning in The Sandman and it’s simply allowed to speak for itself. I would love to be wrong about these nit-picky little worries but naturally it remains to be seen.

This reminds me of the other details that call back to commonplace motifs from The Sandman. Near the end of Pathways and Emanations, the baku from Japanese mythology that made an appearance in Dream Hunters are brought back. In Empty Shells, Dora uses the baku to sniff for Daniel’s scent trail across worlds. The search leads her to Hell, where a new demon character named Balam leads Dora and Matthew to the very bottom of the cosmos where lies the primordial serpent that surrounds the world. You know, like Jormungand. On their way to the serpent, the panels twist around until you are forced to hold the comic upside down.

Stuff like that was commonplace in The Sandman. Overture made the reader turn the book upside down a few times, used implication to guide unconventional panel progression and even had fold-out pages with events that follow the outside depicted on the inside. What I liked most about the panel experimentation were the ones that implied movement at dramatically significant moments. In Brief Lives (possibly my favorite Sandman book), there is a page that has several thin panels that are mostly empty except grass with more and more flowers in each. These panels show space behind Morpheus and, when they catch up with him, they are so thin that his body is contained in more than one of them. In these, we see that Morpheus’s hands are covered in blood and, as it drips onto the ground, it is turning into flowers.

These innovations all felt organic in the original Sandman and they often snuck up on you. The really imaginative ones were paired with jarring, unusual events and were often used to convey disorientation. The panels slowly turning upside down in Empty Shells is a bit of a one-off. In those first two books, nothing else like that happens- almost as if the script was trying it out to see how it went.

My only other thought concerns another concept first used in The Sandman (in Brief Lives, actually). Destruction tells Dream and Delirium that each of the Endless embodies both their function and it’s opposite. Destruction is also creation, Desire is also hatred and Dream is also reality. The newborn god that appears in the Dreaming- referred to erroneously as a new Endless -initially defines itself as clarity and that nothing hurts worse than to be “solved”.

The crack that this being is forming within is first found by Cain and Abel. Cain pushes his brother into it on a whim and emerges without his stutter- he even fakes the stutter a few times to keep Cain at ease. Cain himself then descends into the fissure to ask the unknown presence what ze did to Abel and if ze can change him back.

Cain introduces himself as the personification of murder itself and the new presence disagrees. Ze tells Cain that jealousy has always been at the heart of his story and reminds him that the sacrifice preferred by God was the livestock blood sacrifice of Abel. Cain was driven to kill Abel when his own sacrifice of vegetables was ignored. When the new presence says that Abel’s “hands were red long before yours” ze’s saying Abel’s murder was an act of both possessiveness and emulation.

The new center of the Dreaming says that it solves things, above all else. This implies that the new creature hatching in the absence of Dream embodies the opposite side of Dream’s coin mentioned by Destruction: reality. This encounter also has deep implications for the function of Cain and Abel within the Dreaming.

Since the beginning of The Sandman, we’ve learned that Cain lives in the House is Mysteries and Abel lives in the House of Secrets. They also hold dominion over those respective things: all mysteries belong to Cain and all secrets belong to Abel. What secrets and mysteries are within this story is touched on in a short piece in Fables and Reflections called The Parliament of Rooks.

Near the end, Abel tells Eve, Matthew and Daniel what rooks are actually doing when they form a circle around a chirping rook and then kill them. It turns out that this is a mystery and therefore belongs to Cain. Cain then kills Abel in the ineffectual and somewhat slap-stick way that he often does. (Cain frequently killed Abel in The Sandman although he never stayed dead- the brothers behaved rather like sitcom characters with Cain randomly killing Abel being a repeating gag).

Mysteries, according to Cain, may not be revealed. Abel, to whom all secrets belong, is less protective. When Abel is asked where ravens end up near the end of The Sandman, he says he doesn’t know because the answer is not a secret. Abel also goes on to ferret out secrets for Judge Gallows when he takes over the Dreaming.

This tells us that secrets may be known but that mysteries may not. The hatchling in The Dreaming embodies clarity, the opposite function that Dream embodies simultaneously with stories, and it is a clarity that abolishes mysteries and, for a while, allows secrets to be exploited.

Secrets and mysteries, it seems, are fundamental to the side of Dream that deals in stories and symbols. Stark clarity, perhaps, has no use for symbols and immediately reduces them to tangible values. This interpretation of Cain and Abel and their role within the Dreaming never occurred to me before reading these new comics and I’ll be interested to see what happens with it later, especially since, by the end of Empty Shells, the hatchling is less of an opposite of Dream than ze initially appeared to be. Especially since a few characters see a ghostly flicker of Cain’s old home, The House of Mysteries, after Abel kills him (and Cain, unlike his brother, seems to actually stay dead). As if Secrets and Mysteries need each other and one half will soon bring back the other.

If the function of Secrets and Mysteries are tied up in the eventual fate of the hatchling, I wonder how that will be impacted by the bombshell at the end of the second book where we learn that the hatchling has a symbiotic relationship with a human on life support in the Fawny Rig manor.

Vigil: The Longest Night- open beta!

As soon as Salt and Sanctuary came out I was smitten. That game captured the 50% of my brain that Bloodborne did not take over. It’s still my favorite game available for the PS Vita, and to date it looks like no follow up is planned (nor has there been any new updates from Ska Studios, the developers).

Recently though, while I was putzing around on a Salt and Sanctuary Facebook group, someone uploaded pics of a new game currently in development called Vigil: The Longest Night. The art style immediately grabbed me, and I love side-scrolling Soulsborne \ Metroidvania hybrids even if…they kinda stumbled over each other as soon as it became clear that there was a market for them.

Like, by the time Blasphemous came out, I had already been seriously hooked by both Salt and Sanctuary and Hollow Knight. Blasphemous was a perfectly good game with great level design, platforming and combat, but I just couldn’t get into it since I’d been neck deep in similar things recently.

What caught my attention about Vigil: The Longest Night though was the enthusiasm it seemed to garner among my fellow S&S fans. My appetite was also freshly whetted by a recent Symphony Of The Night play through so I couldn’t have been more stoked when I got wind of a recent open beta event. Best believe I snatched that shit up ^^

This being a demo of the beta version, I wasn’t surprised to run into a few hiccups, some of which may very well have been the fault of my machine. There was some truly aggravating collision detection with climbable/grabable surfaces. The second biggest annoyance was the lagging, which would get worse whenever I loaded a file immediately after a death and the game would get stuck whenever I got killed by the first boss.

Speaking of, the lagging made that fight unplayable for awhile. Luckily, this demo is generous with exp, enabling you to either brute force it or experiment with unlockable combat upgrades. Which isn’t such a different beginning- it reminded me of the Festering Banquet and the Sodden Knight from Salt and Sanctuary, really.

Personally, my breakthrough with boss one came when I lost patience, tried playing it like Bloodborne and got totally confrontational. As in, keep rolling past them and spam from behind. Which makes me wonder if, when Vigil is finally released, it will be the kind of game that rewards aggressiveness the way Bloodborne did, where attempting to play it safe is the quickest way to die.

After that fight, we get our first taste of familiar Meteoidvania level design. We find a locked door that separates two halves of an area we see separately at first. It was also around this point that I found that the lagging almost completely disappeared when I turned off every graphical bell and whistle in the ‘video’ menu. Which was fortunate for my nerves since that’s when the platforming ramps up…and I don’t think my sanity could survive platforming at that pace.

The art style clearly excels at creating an understated sense of relative depth across different textures and layers of the background and foreground. Up to and including facial features and skin.

As the old woman with the lantern shows us, this game also succeeds at fanciful yet uncanny fluctuations of proportion. One minute I’m reminded of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the next I’m thinking that Leila, as she descends a ladder with a full moon behind her, looks like she leapt out of something like Batman: The Animated Series or a Genndy Tartakovsky creation like Samurai Jack.

Yes I have a flaming magic pike shoved in the back of my neck, what of it?

Not that it doesn’t have its weaknesses here and there. Leila’s face and her faster leg and arm movements and sword-swings often look like PSP graphics. It just messes with my sense of immersion, is all. A single, cohesive art style would be for the best. Imagery with a frank resemblance to CGI should be kept to an absolute minimum except when something is supposed to starkly contrast with everything else.

After turning off all of the graphical options like dynamic trees and saturation and whatnot, the occasional use of CGI-looking imagery meshed a little better but was far from seamless. Leila’s facial profile and cloak still looked a little bit like they came from a PSP, but the tentative steps into 3D made the second boss fight both eerie and gorgeous. The shrieking monstrosity’s girth and arms seem like they’re about to pop through the screen occasionally.

In fact, with all of the graphical enhancements turned off in the pause menu, Vigil: The Longest Night has a very memorable beauty. Faces often have an offbeat look reminiscent of fairly tales. The 2.5D graphics shine the best, though, inside of houses and caverns.

In fact, everything really starts to go uphill very fast near the end of the demo. When you make contact with Maye Village you find that, unlike many other Soulsborne protagonists, Leila is actually well-known in her town and seems to have specific relationships that we get to modestly explore in dialogue. We encounter stories about a young couple and their recent elopement. A suspicious and pedantic professor keeps mentioning the relevance of mythology and then we pass through a small clique of eerie and serious looking women, raving about a “DEITY”. Shortly after that, we’re in an underground cave with this shit going on:

The music that was available on the demo also stood out well. In the menu screen and the opening level area I particularly liked the use of music boxes and oboes. The cemetery music was another highlight. Nice change of pace with the strumming guitar and the keyboard. Both the music and the sound design partake in the general upward swing near the demo’s end.

Other than some glitches that I’m sure will be patched well before the game officially launches, my only real complaint are some awkward English translations that make some of the dialogue in the town of Maye feel a little wooden. And that’s probably gonna see some attention before launch as well. I like how Leila is not a player-insert like protagonists of Dark Souls, S&S and Bloodborne (even the Knight in Hollow Knight is something of a silent enigma that the player can project themselves onto…in spite of having very character-specific lore that stops them from being an “everybug”).

I mean I do appreciate ambiguity in story-telling, especially if it allows other strengths of the given medium to shine through. But we’re all very familiar with Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brand of uncertainty and Leila is just a breath of fresh air. Really, I can’t freaking wait for this game to actually be playable in its entirety.

More on Mr. Robot

Content warning: discussion of pedophilia, sexual abuse in general and sexism.

To say nothing of massive spoilers.

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Evidently I can’t shut up about this 😛

In my last post about this show, I discussed what I believe to be some of Mr. Robot‘s central, overarching themes, mostly regarding its nature as a politically-oriented psychological drama. There are some finer points that I just didn’t get around to, though.

While roughing out what I wanted to write here, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on Mr. Robot‘s discussion of God or masculinity. There is a third possibility, though, that captures both of those topics and relates them back to the show’s main structural feature of an inside and an outside half. That encapsulation is simply power.

In eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes, Elliot returns from his “Word Up Wednesday” dream to find himself hospitalized after a brutal attack in prison. Elliot’s voice-over says “Masters. We all have them. Every relationship is a power struggle. Some of us need to be controlled.”

How often, in Mr. Robot, does this turn out to be true? We might start by thinking of the ones for which it is not. Or at least the ones that don’t obviously look like it.

I actually can’t think of any relationship portrayed in Mr. Robot that has no power dynamics at all. Off the top of my head, I think you could argue that Dominique and Darlene are close to being benign in spite of the power that separates them, as well as Whiterose and her lost lover. (And yes I get that Domlene is not frankly romantic or even sexual beyond a calculated one night stand- we’ll get to all that later)

Are Qwerty and Elliot in a power-free relationship? Which one of them is in charge of whose container? (“Only one thing you can do for a brother in a fish bowl…MOVE ME TO A GODDAMN WINDOW!!”)

Speaking of Elliot and relationships, this is a pretty good time to talk about the scene that tugs on my heartstrings every single time I see it.

Elliot is lying in bed thinking of something Leon told him, about visualizing a world worth fighting for. “How would my fairy tale unfold? Would I finally get close to the ones I deeply care for? See the ones I love achieve true happiness? Make amends to those I’ve unfairly wronged? Maybe this future includes people I never would have dreamt I’d ever get close to. A future that’s not so lonely. Even you would be there.”

While Elliot has conditioned himself to his own toxic isolation and suspicion, he can’t help but yearn for a world with no divisions and unconditional good will. In other words, relationships that are not power struggles.

In fact, the frustration created between his genuine alienation and his misguided solution can be seen in that Mr.Robot, a facet of himself, is constantly attempting to deceive and manipulate him. It can also be seen in Elliot’s professed altruism: whenever he cyber-stalks anyone, psychologically tortures anyone or does things like trick an addict into relapsing, he is always doing it for the common good.

Elliot’s frustration is visible in the warring factions of his mind and his determination to do good even if it means being the 1 to everyone else’s 0. If “(e)very relationship is a power struggle” and everyone has a master, then one must be a master to effect anything, either for good or ill.

Is that every relationship in this show, though? Look at Gideon and his husband. Oh wait never mind- in season one, his husband tells him he loves him and he’s grateful to wake up next to him. In season two, his husband leaves him as soon as Gideon is falsely implicated in the Five/Nine hack.

Darlene and Cisco? I mean, Darlene calls Cisco the love of her life, but most of the time she treats him like a resource that requires a bit of emotional pressure to keep pliable.

I suppose there is Elliot and Shayla. Except Shayla dies when Elliot tries to take on Vera and loses….while Vera is using her as a bargaining chip. Whiterose eventually gets involved with Grant, but Grant is still a Dark Army foot soldier who lays down his life when Whiterose tells him to.

Before Dominique ends up in bed with Darlene, she is investigating Darlene as a possible domestic terrorist and later keeps Darlene’s interrogation footage for spank bank. Also Dominique has several nightmare scenarios spring from internet hookups or blind dates (including a literal nightmare).

If we bring up Tyrell and Joanna Wellick, we might as well get to the point. Not only are all relationships a power struggle in Mr. Robot, but a central aspect of the power play is the ability of one partner to completely ghost the other.

When Joanna first met Tyrell, she told him to fuck a woman with earrings she wanted and to steal them for her. He succeeded, and Joanna knew she wanted him.

Whenever we’re allowed to see Tyrell and Joanna’s domestic life in season one, it appears to be entirely structured around Joanna giving orders and Tyrell obeying them. Tyrell is frustrated when, under Joanna’s direction, he tries and fails to seduce Sharon Knowles, the wife of a professional rival. When he gets his second bite at the apple, he murders Sharon, evidently in the heat of the moment. Joanna, being pregnant, self-induces labor to get Tyrell out of a police interrogation in their home.

After giving birth, she tells Tyrell that he is no longer a man she wants to be married to, and if he wants to remain in “this family”, he will “fix this”. Not only was Joanna’s original plan for sabotage thrown to the wind, but Tyrell now has to solve the problem of a murder investigation over an act he probably can’t even explain to himself. Electing to keep his eye on the ball, he goes back to targeting his professional rivals by collaborating with Mr. Robot on the Five/Nine hack. In the process, his manic loyalty shifts from Joanna to Mr. Robot / Elliot.

Everything about these early exchanges between Joanna and Tyrell permeate all other relationships in the story. Gideon gets dumped as soon as he gets in legal trouble, Ollie hides his black-mail driven sabotage of Allsafe as an extension of his cheating and Vera physically and economically enslaved Shayla.

And Elliot jumped out of a window to avoid his pedophile father. But how does Elliot first explain the event to himself via Mr. Robot in season one? He says his father pushed him out of the window because Elliot told the family he had leukemia against his will. What does Mr. Robot (who is modeled on Elliot’s father) accuse Elliot of before “pushing” him off the boardwalk? Breaking his word. Of not being sufficiently loyal. In this exchange with his own alternate personality, Elliot frames the event as a punishment for his own ethical failure. Elliot, at this point, blames himself for what he feels was a disowning.

The biggest trauma in Elliot’s life has supported tension on two fronts- an inside acceptance that is intolerable and dangerous versus outside abandonment that is suffocating and alienating. The alienation of rejection, in the long run, turns out to be the lesser of two evils and so becomes his state of normalcy.

Therefore, all relationships are power struggles and the world is made of 1’s and 0’s. Sure enough, the relationships between Elliot’s personalities are power plays that echo the same power plays outside of himself.

And on the outside, this theme is no less present. Darlene, when faced with an fsociety gopher that’s on the brink of death, would rather leave him to die than risk the potential exposure of bringing him to the hospital. She says that there are casualties in every war, that the man is a soldier and knew what he was getting into. As for the Dark Army…Elliot says in season three “they didn’t kill us. That tends to be how they deal with disagreements.”

We even get a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this with Whiterose. Literal manipulation of time to make it so everyone survives and is happy, even if they are currently dead, can justify any measure taken in its pursuit. Whiterose embodies the whole principle of using others for the eventual good of all. If literally no one can die in her endgame and anyone currently dead will be alive, then in the mind of Whiterose it is literally impossible to do wrong in the pursuit of her project.

The final three episodes of the series show a full confrontation with this, wherein many other themes converge. And yes, we’re still talking about God, masculinity and power.

When I first saw those final episodes, the whole source of tension for me was whether or not this was simply going to turn out to be exactly what it looked like. Angela and Philip Price are both alive again and appear to be enjoying a rather normal father-daughter relationship. Kinda? Maybe? Normie Elliot says “Your dad sure likes to drink.” And he does seem a little compulsive about it when we see him on camera. And where is Darlene, anyway? Did some Danish person who shall remain nameless get to keep the daughter she adopted out?

But anyway, for me the stakes were higher than whether or not Sam Esmail was going to make a prompt genre change to science fiction in the final episodes. If Whiterose’s machine had turned out to be an unambiguous success, where does that leave everything we saw before hand?

Would it have been a simple fairy tale ending where everyone got what they wanted in the end? If the whole story up until that point wasn’t true anymore, it becomes functionally identical to being a figment of Normie Elliot’s imagination.

(Sorry I can’t resist calling the alternate timeline Elliot “Normie Elliot”. I saw someone online use that name and it just kinda stuck in my head)

What are we to think of a new Elliot with none of the outward signs of the life he once knew? Did the window event not happen? If not, does that mean his father simply continued molesting him forever while Elliot never said or did anything?

That was the real possibility that haunted me as I watched part one of the finale.

When we see part two, when our Elliot is able to see and react to this world, his immediate panic around his father made a world of sense.

In any event, Elliot is now a successful powerhouse at his job and is about to marry Angela, his constant unrequited love. Whiterose has openly transitioned and is a famous philanthropist. No one’s parents died to construct a nuclear-powered gateway between timelines.

The loss that provided motivation for Elliot and Angela to target E Corps is now gone, thanks to the architect behind the project that caused that loss. It seems manifestly clear, for a moment at least, that Whiterose has undone the wrongs that she and E Corps are responsible for.

If not a reductio ad absurdum of the ends justifying the means, this at least epitomizes the idea.

Along with the sucker-punch of momentary uncertainty as to whether or not this is real (if you’re seeing it for the first time), it may also sink in that this idea has been discussed at some length in the third season.

Particularly, through Angela, who goes above and beyond her directives to ensure that stage 2 happens. In spite of Elliot/Mr. Robot’s homicidal idealism, it seems to me that Angela emotes her grief over her lost mother and her desire for justice more clearly than Elliot. Her mother’s death by cancer through the Washington Township power plant is mentioned more than once in her early efforts for the class action lawsuit. Elliot, on the other hand, has mixed emotions about his father and his motivation is largely ideological.

Even if we, the viewers, are never explicitly shown what Angela learned after Whiterose says that she “(doesn’t) want (her) proof” and that she “wants (her) belief”, we are still shown enough. We are shown Angela changing from someone driven by justice for an irreparable wrong to someone who believes that Whiterose is capable of literally fixing anything. Including death. And that Angela believes that no price is too high for Whiterose’s success.

Or at least…believes as much as she can. Or perhaps the psychological state called ‘belief’ can only carry one so far in direct opposition to their senses and logic. After the coordinated bombings, Angela is reduced to a neurotic wreck, rewinding and watching footage of the falling buildings over and over again. She is constantly telling Darlene that “everyone can come back” over and over again, possibly to reassure herself as much as Darlene.

This event happens while Mr. Robot is constantly deceiving Elliot while reassuring him that he is finishing their revolution, that he is doing the hard work that Elliot cannot. Whiterose and Angela are a mistress-slave pair, in which the mistress is given license by her good intentions. The same is true for Mr. Robot and Elliot.

Angela attempts to accept her role to the letter even to the detriment of her sanity, whereas Elliot fights his slave status every step of the way. These two struggles happen while Angela is subtly keeping Elliot in the dark about how Tyrell and Mr. Robot are solving the problem of his daytime subversion at E Corps.

Completing the trio of overburdened subordinates is Tyrell Wellick. Tyrell seems to yearn for a single dominant personality in his life to attach himself to. Late in season one, we see him shift the center of his universe from Joanna to Mr. Robot. As fervent as this transition is, it is not without angst.

He repeatedly says that he and Elliot (meaning Mr. Robot) are destined to be gods together, prompted in part by a misfired bullet which he takes as divine sanction. In fact, Tyrell’s stretch in the cabin and his conversation with Mr. Williams have the flavor of an Old Testament trial of faith. Nonetheless, he still cherishes his family role as a husband to Joanna and a father to their son. He repeatedly reads about her apparent infidelities online and recites a Deuteronomy quote to Irving with a creepy absence of context (“One who has been emasculated by cutting or crushing may not enter the assembly of the Lord.”)

Tyrell very nearly breaks faith with Elliot before being reigned in by Agent Santiago. One may only conjecture on how this might have effected Tyrell’s feelings of sacrifice and predestination toward his collaboration with Mr. Robot, but we can safely assume it added gravity. Continuing with the scenarios that feel like quasi-Biblical tests of faith, Mr. Robot once gave Tyrell a gun to protect his revolution from absolutely anyone, and Tyrell is shocked to find this may even include Mr. Robot’s own host body: Elliot.

Like Abraham poised to kill his own son, Tyrell’s god tests his faith by his ability to take orders sight-unseen and carry them out to perfection. The scene where Tyrell shoots Elliot is also powerful for bringing us back to what the show presents as a central weapon that masters use against slaves: absence.

Here I think we have most of the pertinent information to begin systematically exploring Mr. Robot‘s thematic treatment of power.

If my laundry list of character relationships earlier seemed a little…obsessive, it’s because I find the ubiquity of alienation and power games in this show almost…weirdly pervasive. I began to realize this when Dominique had her nightmare about the internet-hookup turning out to be a Dark Army assassin. I mean, I happen to have BPD, so I personally am not unfamiliar with having abandonment issues up the wazoo and being paranoid; it just seems like it’s either a structural or maybe even a genre choice in Mr. Robot.

The specific genre it reminds me of is a certain kind of film about fascism. A lot of them come from the seventies but the type itself isn’t exclusive to that decade. I’m thinking of The Conformist, Salo: or, the 120 Days of Sodom and Max.

The Conformist is a character study about a man named Marcello, whose life-long avoidance of intimacy due to psychological trauma makes him uniquely suited to be a member of a fascist secret police force in WWII-era Italy. Eventually, Marcello is tasked with assassinating an old mentor of his named Quadri.

Salo is an adaptation of a Marquis De Sade novel, which sets the story, similarly, in WWII-era Italy. It documents the final, objectified and commodified days of a collection of civilians rounded up to be used as sex slaves until their eventual murders. The captors are perpetually frustrated by their inability to derive any satisfaction from their harem. At first their sadism appears to be a sexual experiment but later turns into true fury and desperation as pleasure eludes them, until they are wearing bondage gear and cross-dressing with looks of dark, brooding rage on their faces.

Lastly, Max is a fictional historical drama about a hypothetical meeting between Adolf Hitler and a Jewish art dealer, both of whom harbor trauma from the grisly battle of Ypres during WWI. The two men bond over their shared suffering and slowly develop an awkward yet earnest confidence in each other. Along with their physical and psychological war-time injuries, both men also struggle with alienation in their private lives, particularly how to re-integrate into a society of people with whom they cannot share understanding of the experiences they endured at the hands of the state.

Max Rothman, the fictional Jewish art dealer, has lost an arm and can no longer paint. He goes into art dealing, seduces a woman with an amputee fetish and creates a theatrical, non-linear art installation. Hitler fails to take to Rothman’s post-war pragmatism, feels emasculated by Rothman’s success with the ladies and spirals into a pit of rage wherein he fails to produce art but discovers a gift for propagandist speeches and architecture.

That Mr. Robot has thematic similarities to these films is not surprising. And I’m definitely here for any work of art that intelligently attacks fascism. In the improbable event that these similarities are intentional, I would gladly applaud the ambition of picking up threads commonly used in WWII films.

At any rate, an artist worth their salt knows the conventions and history of their craft and Sam Esmail has acknowledged the influence of Psycho, Taxi Driver and Fight Club. Two of those films have protagonists that are deeply alienated from society and all three involve dark, dangerous explorations of a single character’s mind. Two of those films have characters with psychological personas that function as characters themselves.

However, I was repeatedly reminded of the three WWII films in particular. And the association doesn’t strike me as far-off. All three of those WWII films have male characters that struggle with trauma or neuroses that stop them from connecting with society, all three deal with betrayal against or at the hands of power and all three use the act of seeing or being seen as an essential plot element.

All three films also look at these themes of alienation from power through the lens of male identity, intentionally or not. Rather like Elliot, Marcello was sexually victimized as a child. As an adult, Marcello always feels as if his role as a husband is not as close to his true self as his role as a spy. He even encourages his wife to have an affair for an espionage goal. Rothman’s gradual recovery and Hitler’s failure to thrive are both passively expressed in terms of sexual success or failure. Salo is initially presented as a male sexual fantasy of supreme dominance over the women and men they desire.

This may be a good place to clear something up: when I say that Mr. Robot discusses male identity, I don’t think it’s necessary to consider any evidence outside of the show itself. Not unlike the three WWII films. The show hinges on an inside/outside structure with Elliot representing the inside. With the exception of Tyrell, female characters like Darlene or Dominique are our main viewpoints of the outside.

What’s more is that female characters are often presented according to male anxieties. Joanna Wellick represents the sexually desirable woman who will only pair with the strongest male and Angela, to Elliot, is an object of perpetually unrequited love. Krista, Elliot’s therapist, is a comforting maternal presence in his life that plays to the lack created by his abusive mother. Tyrell and Joanna perhaps represent the most gendered example. After his murder of Sharon Knowles, Tyrell tells Joanna “you pushed me to this” and Joanna tells him “if you want to remain a part of this family, you’ll fix this”.

Typically, these male fears represent either a real or imagined threat of abandonment or rejection. Even Whiterose, as unconventional as she is, represents a kind of threatening absence: the loss of context made possible by the uncertainty of your mind and the minds of others.

I know this attitude is far from universal but in my opinion this does not make Mr. Robot sexist. All it means is that Sam Esmail is a man writing from a man’s point of view. All artists work with what they have and that, in and of itself, is perfectly fine. And anyway, in this specific case, the prominence of a male perspective does not stop Mr. Robot from having compelling, three-dimensional female characters like Whiterose, Darlene and Dominique.

And yes, I realize I have rose-colored glasses when it comes to Whiterose. God I love that character 💕

Many of these male anxieties- an unloving mother, a wife who might leave you if you show weakness and an idealized woman who will never want you -revolve around conditional worthiness. More specifically, the fear of conditional worthiness.

In my previous entry about Mr. Robot, I wrote at some length about how Elliot is the male point of view on the “inside” and Tyrell is the male point of view on the “outside”. Both of these men are tortured by the specter of conditional worthiness and it shows in their behavior.

Elliot holds the whole world at length and will only deal with it through a persona modeled after his father (Mr. Robot). Tyrell is a perfectly submissive male who will do anything to meet the conditions set for his validation. Both men assuage these anxieties through fantasies of active prowess and capability. Tyrell constructs his appearance to either intimidate or seduce and Elliot’s skill as a hacker is the main way he experiences power over others- power that he exercises with or without consent. The fantasy playing over and over again on a loop to occupy Elliot’s submerged true self revolves around an imaginary marriage to Angela.

These gendered characterizations are not reductive though. The division between outside and inside is the central plot device in Mr. Robot and much of Elliot’s arc concerns his struggle for freedom- not just against a corrupt society but the psychological echoes of that society created within him. The show even ends with the retiring of the defensive Mastermind persona and the emergence of the real Elliot.

In other words, Mr. Robot is about escape and transcendence. That Elliot’s master-slave world of 1’s and 0’s is expressed only through Mr. Robot and the Mastermind is cause for optimism. Whiterose, more of a 1 than any other character, cannot stop Elliot’s struggle for freedom even with Elliot’s temporary belief in her absolute power to magic any problem away. The most compelling and irresistible power still cannot destroy context and the wider world.

This is also what makes the show’s discussion of God more than just a few random lines of dialogue. The treatment of God frequently reveals itself to be a symbol of transcendence. Ray, the warden of the prison Elliot lands in during season two, compares the voices in Elliot’s head to the voice of God heard by Moses. The leader of the prison Bible study also mistakes Elliot’s conversations with Mr. Robot for conversations with God.

The show positions E Corps as an unambiguous villainous force and, while the show grows suspicious and critical of fsociety in general, fsociety is never actually vilified by Sam Esmail. E Corps is morally black, fsociety is gray, Elliot is the hero and Mr. Robot is the anti-hero. Mr. Robot has his dark and unsympathetic moments, like Vegeta in early Dragon Ball Z, but by season four he has almost turned completely benign as Elliot grows into a darker character.

Mr. Robot, as a character, explores a moral spectrum and the show always uses E Corps as a villainous foil. These details lend credence to the remarks of Ray and the prison pastor. Ray says that Elliot’s voices could either be an illness or divinity and the show doesn’t contradict this.

The thematic equivalence between God and transcendence is also upheld by the character that mentions God the most: Tyrell. For a man that wants, so badly, to be someone, he is totally unlike anyone. Tyrell wants to serve someone perfectly yet is totally unpredictable. He is obsessed with social-climbing, yet readily joins fsociety at first and later moves on to the Dark Army. Mr. Robot has characters that are frankly LGBT (Whiterose, Dominique, Gideon, etc. ) without pussyfooting around with any “queer coding” nonsense, yet Tyrell’s sexuality defies any obvious classification.

Tyrell yearns for the definition of belonging while defying all definition. His last definite, non-delusory on-screen appearance, nearly resembles an alien abduction. He wanders off into the woods, approaches the source of a strange, repetitive sound, and is bathed in blue light. I mean…presumably, Tyrell just died of a bullet wound out in the woods in season four. No other clear possibility is really provided.

But…since we get so used to Elliot being an unreliable narrator, we get so used to seeing and hearing weird shit that we might not immediately question weird shit that happens outside of Elliot’s mind. So…while Tyrell wandered off with an untreated gunshot wound and probably died for that reason, we cannot actually know. And that same repetitive mystery noise appears in Elliot’s dive into his subconscious in the final episodes. Both God and the character that is most interested in God represent the presence of the genuine outside, beyond anyone’s subjective definition.

This wraps up the majority of thoughts that I couldn’t work into my first Mr. Robot analysis and it’s definitely been a long and winding road. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Seriously. I know this is probably not my best writing but I just had to get this stuff out of my system. And yes I’m perfectly aware that I probably sounded like Leon on one of his Seinfeld or Fraiser monologues 😛

Jabberjaw…Pure Sweet Hell

Back when I was more of a Ween fan, I’d search YouTube for live performances since they seemed to pull those off well.  Ween’s lyrics and imagery are typically either surreal or juvenile but they’re great musicians and they have done some very witty genre deconstructions. The early seventies glam rock decon of Captain Fantasy and Beacon Light, the country decon of 12 Golden Country Greats and the prog decon of The Mollusk all come to mind.

And they’ve been known to do some killer live shows. So I was browsing YouTube for Ween concert footage and I stumbled upon a cover version of the song Birthday Boy by someone called Mary Lou Lord.

The original Birthday Boy has the stonerisms turned up to eleven. It starts with a groggy and exasperated voice saying “Jesus Christ…pain…take one!” before some electric guitar strumming kicks in. One of the two Weens (either Dean or Gene) then starts caterwauling as warbly and discordantly as he can, dragging out vowels at the end as his voice cracks to add an extra touch of insanity.

The guitar riff, the subject matter and specific word choices suggest that this is a deconstruction / parody of a country song. The lyrics are deliberately repetitive and simplistic and the crazed vocal delivery clearly is poking fun at the earnestness of a country break-up song. To add to the stoneresque weirdness the song ends with a voicemail containing someone singing the Happy Birthday song. I can actually imagine the original version of Birthday Boy fitting in just fine in an Earthworm Jim game, honestly.

So I find the Mary Lou Lord cover and she plays it completely straight. The riff is slowed way down, almost like grunge, even though the country influence is still noticeable. And I couldn’t believe it- it totally worked. The self-effacing humor of the barebones lyric construction actually seemed to lend it some non-ironic feeling. And I was actually really into it.

But while there was some Mary Lou Lord material on the digital market, that particular cover of Birthday Boy was nowhere to be found. After some googling I found out it was credited to an album called Jabberjaw…Pure Sweet Hell. The album art seemed to even mesh with some of the imagery from the video on YouTube.

So after awhile the inevitable happened and I decided that I needed to have it. Sooo a few months and a few bucks later:

As the track listing tells us, it does in fact have Mary Lou Lord covering Birthday Boy, among many other things.

Go! by Brainiac is a lovely, crunchy little lo-fi piece that makes me feel the same bouncy energy I used to feel while drinking cheap booze to get fucked up as quickly as possible when I was twenty-two or playing 16-bit beat’em up games when I was seven. The Charm by Steel Pole Bathtub and Shine by Laughing Hyenas are precisely the kind of dark, growling 90’s alternative that I love.

Speaking of the kind of transformative re-imagining that Mary Lou Lord pulled off with Birthday Boy, Star Lust by Redd Kross seems to invite something similar. It just has a really strong, sturdy and simple pop-rock structure. It’s simplicity serves it so well that I can easily imagine this song being re-recorded as a stripped down acoustic song or something resembling a 60’s or 70’s singer-songwriter track.

Low and Everclear do covers as well. Low has a stripped down, shoegazey version of I Started A Joke that’s relentlessly melancholy. Not tears in beer so much as tears in vodka. I can imagine it being used in a movie in a scene where someone commits suicide or goes on a depressed killing spree. The Suicide Squad rendition of that song for Harley and the Joker doesn’t even come close to this level of darkness.

Everclear’s cover of How Soon Is Now is believably energetic, but whether or not I enjoy it depends on my current mood. It follows Go! by Brainiac, which works in its favor. But unless I’m listening to the album from beginning to end, I don’t normally wish to hear it the way I wish to hear Go!, Birthday Boy, Star Lust, The Charm, Shine or I Started A Joke. I also can’t stop comparing it to another post-punk Smiths cover, the rendition of This Night Has Opened My Eyes recorded by At The Drive-In, which I much prefer. Everclear’s How Soon Is Now also reminds me a little bit of Filter….but after doing a bit of research, the odds are more in favor of the relationship being the other way around.

Jabberjaw, actually, was the name of a Los Angeles music venue that became famous among the post-punk underground and later, to the dismay of those that cherished its comfortable obscurity, achieved fame among the established grunge and alternative bands. The CD I had hunted down is actually one of a few different anthology albums of the venue’s regulars.

A Vice article with Brian Ray Turcotte, a contemporary of Jabberjaw founders Gary Dent and Michelle Carr, discusses the intentions and circumstances of the self-proclaimed “coffee house” wherein brown-bag alcohol was often welcome. Jabberjaw was founded by music lovers who simply wanted a place to listen to their favorite bands and be around others like themselves.

It’s a nice read (link below) and actually made me a little nostalgic. In my hometown, I have a few friends in local bands and I often went to house parties and bars to hear them perform. I even humiliated myself a few times as a teen by going to open-mic nights to read excerpts of a fantasy novel I started at fourteen and finished at eighteen. Which got me laughed at by very polite people who tried very hard to contain their laughter before losing control. Early experiences of suffering for my art and making connections with others who did so as well helped make me the woman I am now. That, and I don’t think I’ll ever encounter another punk-R&B fusion band with the lyrics “I wanna make love to your asshole.”

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/exqbn7/jabberjaw-was-the-coolest-la-venue-youve-never-heard-of-511

Mr. Robot just ended

Last month, one of my favorite TV dramas ended in a way that begs you to look back on the rest of the series. In general, I don’t care about spoilers but we can at least describe the nature of the question without them: Mr. Robot is either an introspective story informed by society or a social story informed by introspection. The series finale seconds the first assessment but it’s not that simple.

Now we’re gonna get into spoilers. The plot of Mr. Robot is supported largely by protagonist Elliot Alderson’s many psychological personas. I’m not well-read on the subject of dissociative identity disorder so I can’t assess how accurately the show portrays it, but Mr. Robot at least give us consistent rules to pay attention to.

One rule that is so basic that it’s easy to lose sight of is that the walls that separate Elliot’s personas are shapes by the ordinary boundaries of his mind. The ordinary boundaries that delineate the ordinary world- such as Elliot’s assessment of probability.

After our first encounter with the persona called Mr. Robot, Elliot’s narration is saying things like ‘I’m crazy, that didn’t just happen’…and sure enough, Elliot is more ready to treat Mr. Robot as an actual person than as a persona of himself. The expectation that Mr. Robot is actually his father even stops him from considering that he’s not “real”. When he’s in prison during season two, the “lie” that he’s recovering at his mom’s house serves to isolate Mr. Robot just as much as the enforced sobriety. Within the fantastical or delusory world, Elliot even claims to be attempting sobriety specifically to isolate and “starve” Mr. Robot.

Speaking of the role that subjective believability plays in Elliot’s navigation of his nesting-doll psyche, season two brings something else to the foreground that was only observable in passing in the first season. This is the story’s structural division between an outside half and an inside half.

Season two is largely divided between an arc about Elliot and an arc about literally everyone else. The Elliot arc contains the revelation that he he has been in prison the whole season and everything else he’s encountered in his fantasy has a tangible analogue in the real world. Leon, apparently, is the detail that changes the least when the rug is taken out from under the viewer. Away from Elliot, Darlene and the rest of fsociety are engaged in things that are absolutely real. Presenting these two different arcs side by side makes us feel a great psychological distance between Elliot and Darlene in addition to the physical and legal ones.

This distance is definitely present in the first season, if comparatively understated. Elliot dominates the foreground and the episodes about his withdrawal and the revelation of Mr. Robot being an alternate personality make us wonder about the world outside of the limiting subjectivity of our main character. In season one, Elliot’s nearly exclusive dominance of the foreground makes us wonder anxiously about our separation from the “real” world.

In other words, the reveal that we are only seeing one, very subjective side of the story makes us wonder about the rest of it. Through it’s absence. Season two actually gives us the comparison between Elliot’s subjectivity and the reality of everything else.

Season two does something else with the mom-to-prison switch, though, that’s so understated that it’s easy to miss in the shock of the change. We are being shown a meeting between Elliot’s sense of probability and the things he would rather not believe about himself. Probability deals in averages and in season two we are confronted with Elliot’s loss of the state of predictable “normalcy” that keeps his self-image intact.

In season one, Elliot spends the first few episodes waffling on whether or not he wants to join fsociety. After a confrontation with Mr. Robot that leaves him with the feeling of having made a “clean break”, Elliot vows to live a “bug free” life, get a girlfriend and be the most normal normie in all Seven Kingdoms and the Riverlands. There is a part of Elliot that thrives on stability, that needs it more than anything.

This vulnerable need to keep his head down is his main barrier in season one and it’s the wound that needs healing in season two. This need for stability and safety is also mixed up with his belief in his anonymity and computer competence though.

This psychological meeting between probability and belief is exemplified pointedly in Elliot’s arrest. We learn later that the machinations of the Dark Army helped things go smoothly here, but right now let’s talk about why he was arrested. It wasn’t for slapping the basket with all the financial eggs out of the hands of E Corp. And the thing that got him arrested was definitely not the act of a criminal mastermind. Elliot simply got busted taking part in his most fundamental vice: cyber-stalking.

This practice is so engrained in Elliot’s life early on that he has lost the ability to think critically about it. The casual boundary-breaking mentality that his stalking conditions within him also has long-ranging consequences throughout the series. For now, though, we need only concern ourselves with two of its attributes: it insulates Elliot from the outside world (enabling him to maintain his stability) and allows him to feel power over others. He may choose to target pedophiles and other wrongdoers in order to keep his conscious on his own side, but power is power. Power is simply power especially when the person wielding it only has to bear the scrutiny of themselves.

So Elliot Alderson’s cyber-stalking allows him to feel power over others while continuing to remain in his isolated bubble of static predictability. It allows him to maintain his isolation while fulfilling fantasies of closeness that his isolation engenders.

It enables him to lick his wounds without actually solving the real problem of his loneliness. It also empowers his feeling of competence as a hacker and a programmer which has been the guiding passion of his life. Elliot’s feelings of competence- if not supremacy -as a hacker are how he crosses boundaries in solitude as well as the agent of separation that protects his solitude from his own boundary-crossing. He does this, after all, from a computer in his apartment.

The isolation that Elliot depends on as a voyeur also enables him to assume the moral mask of a vigilante and a Good Samaritan. It is also no accident that our perspective, as viewers, functions as a lens through which Elliot watches himself (this also turns out to be a big deal at the very end of the story). Consider how associative positioning of events early on shapes our ability to overlook or forgive Elliot’s voyeurism.

The first instance of it involves exposing the owner of a Tor-protected pedophile hub to the police. If anyone deserves to be locked up, it’s that person. This can allow the viewer to accept at face value Elliot’s claims of altruism later on, such as when he illegally obtains private information about his therapist and her boyfriend. The fact that this boyfriend is cheating on his wife could also ease the viewer into siding with Elliot…and he rescues a dog from a bad owner through blackmail.

Aaaand then after that he bluntly tells his therapist that he knows what kind of porn she likes. At the point he blurts that out, though, we have already seen Elliot “hack” a number of people. On one hand, the sequence of events is shaped by Elliot’s self-image. On the other, someone telling you bluntly what kind of porn you like is creepy no matter what.

And it is the cyber-stalking and bullying he carried out on his therapist’s boyfriend that gets him in prison in season two. And the arrest only happens after we’ve had several episodes of Elliot assuring us that everything is under control and he is attempting to shed himself of Mr. Robot in the best way he can. In other words, Elliot was shown in no uncertain terms that he is not the untouchable, all-seeing hacker god he thinks he is…and he only gradually admits it to us after a brutal attack in prison makes it hard for him to keep up the illusion.

And when he does admit it, he admits it to his therapist who was forgiving enough to treat him in prison. She is the one he can relax around enough to be truly honest with, but only if he protects himself from the knowledge that he was busted because of his violation of her and her boyfriend’s boundaries.

He relies on the separation for his peace of mind and his esteem in his own eyes. And that separation is tied up with his belief in his ability to run circles around anyone with a computer. His confidence and his feeling of safety are wrapped up in the same skill which lets him down when he gets arrested. His belief in his superiority as a hacker was tied up in the isolation he depended on, making its refutation a clash between what he believes is possible and what he needs to believe.

Other than the importance of the arrest in Elliot’s psychological fracturing, it has a few other functions as well. Elliot taking his competence for granted and getting busted over it makes him more relatable. Not every protagonist can or should be Goku. And in a psychological thriller like Mr. Robot, flawed characters orient the audience’s point of empathy within the fragile world of the genre.

It also builds on a detail of Elliot’s characterization that may at times be eclipsed by his vulnerability: that he is truly talented but cannot accomplish much on his own. Darlene says so often in the middle of the final season. Elliot is too easily hemmed in by his need for protective barriers. And personas such as The Mastermind or Mr. Robot need other people to motivate them. With the right help, though, Elliot is the man behind the Five/Nine hack.

How these collaborations usually go also connect the events of the season finale with the status quo of the series. It is not uncommon for Elliot to be in the dark within his own cohort while his alternate personas pull the real strings. Plot points often hinge on Mr. Robot or an unseen separate persona hiding something from Elliot, or Elliot’s own efforts to hide things from Mr. Robot. The Elliot that we know as our main character is often playing catch up with himself.

I say “the Elliot that we know as our main character” because (finale spoiler coming immediately) he is not the “real” Elliot. “Real” meaning the mind that “hosts” the different personas. In fact, we only begin to meet the “host” in the last two episodes.

The Elliot that we spend most of our time with is a persona called The Mastermind who specializes in networking between personas. His function is to exist between different personas and between all personas and the “host”.

In a way, all personas who are not The Mastermind or the host are specialized actors. They exist to act in specialized ways. The Mastermind connects the acting personas and can at times stabilize them.

So when someone like Tyrell or a group like fsociety are collaborating with Elliot, they are almost always collaborating with Mr. Robot. And Mr. Robot can…at least a little bit…be described as a suffocating protector. He keeps Elliot in the dark and acts against him because he thinks it is for Elliot’s own good. Mr. Robot is so deeply defined by the function of protecting Elliot that he will shelter him to his detriment.

lol…”define”…”function”…sorry I’ll stop 😛

The Mastermind, who exists between personas and between the persona group and the host, does the same thing. The Mastermind is so determined to protect the host that he has walled off the host in his own subconscious. The overzealous isolation turns into frank malice when The Mastermind attempts to literally murder the host in the second to last episode and assume Elliot’s identity permanently.

So The Mastermind and Mr. Robot echo each other’s behavior patterns. The layers of Elliot’s hacker collaboration can be thought of as concentric circles. To bring Elliot into fsociety is to bring in Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot is the outermost circle. Mr. Robot networks with The Mastermind and, uh, tries too hard to protect him. The Mastermind is the intermediate circle and could be said to share that space with all the other alternate personas who are not in “the driver’s seat”. The Mastermind connects everyone and tries too hard to protect the host.

Oh and there’s Elliot’s cyber-stalking which he justifies to himself as altruistic but is actually a toxic way of seeking connection with others. There are two layers of personas that try too hard to take care of Elliot within himself and Elliot tries too hard to care for everyone around him.

I realize I’ve taken us far afield of the topic of how Elliot’s grasp of probability and what he can’t bring himself to admit either prevents or allows contact between personas. Or even how the role believability plays can be a little meta…considering how the “friend” The Mastermind refers to may be the host. While the word “friend” constantly seems to refer to the viewer.

I don’t know how much attention to pay to the whole “meta” dimension of the show…but considering the contrast between the plots of the first and last stories, it’s a little hard to ignore. Especially given how the beginning and ending handle the appearance of probability.

I mean…the ending plot at first gives you the idea that Whiterose actually managed to combine the current timeline with an alternate timeline. And then brings everything back through Elliot’s willingness to believe in Whiterose. Instead of Elliot’s subjectivity taking the rug out from under us, Elliot’s subjectivity brings us back to normal.

Because the final plot line involves Elliot’s willingness to believe in the success of Whiterose’s time-manipulation technology. Depending on the disposition of the viewer, you may or may not find the possibility of Whiterose literally manipulating time patently absurd. A lot of viewers probably did, anyway. It would have been a hard jump toward science fiction in a show that is largely social and psychological. At the very end. So we’re not joining Elliot on his ride so much as we’re watching him go on his own ride.

Which firmly contrasts with the first plot point to ever push the boundaries of probability in this show: Elliot encountering fsociety through his unwillingness to remove the rootkit he finds at Allsafe. He simply walls it off and made it inaccessible to anyone but him.

And a mysterious stranger reaches out because this mysterious stranger knows to say just enough to reveal that he knows Elliot didn’t delete the rootkit without incriminating himself. Because he just knows Elliot that well. When this mysterious stranger, Mr. Robot, turns out to be an alternative personality within Elliot, it actually makes the initial meeting make more sense.

And yet, the revelation that Mr. Robot doesn’t physically exist is something of a gut-punch the first time you see it. Because, before that point, it seems at least distantly possible that the stranger knows enough about cyber-security protocol to gauge the amount of time it would take a tech of a given skill level to find the rootkit. Or a tech of a very specific skill level, if they had their eye on Elliot. It at least seems vaguely possible. But improbable enough to make you feel silly for even considering it.

So that moment is a balancing act of credulity. The very end, with the final confrontation with Whiterose and everything that happens afterward, is not a balancing act. For most of us, this seems like exactly the kind of thing Elliot would fabricate with the right stimulation and misdirection.

Not that I was totally averse to the idea of the show going science fiction. I don’t know how it would have worked but if Sam Esmail had some special genre-changing Ace up his sleeve I would have been there for it.

In the end, though, you can’t fault Mr. Robot for going back to its main subject matter. Most of it, anyway. Mr. Robot is either a psychological story informed by politics or a political story informed by psychology and I still stand by that assessment.

By ending the show with a deep dive into Elliot’s mind, Sam Esmail is emphasizing that Elliot’s psychological journey has always been the central plot. Yet there has been too much exploration of objectivity versus subjectivity and political subtext to just accept that Mr. Robot is a psychological drama and nothing else.

The final season shows us three pointed reminders of the importance of outside before it’s final epic descent through the inside. And again, it often has to do with dividing the plot of individual episodes between Elliot and Darlene.

In the episode with Elliot and Tyrell in the woods, the whole second half of the plot revolves around Darlene feeling used and abandoned by her notoriously erratic brother. If ever she was going to give up on Elliot, it would be then.

It was also Darlene who told Elliot that their father didn’t push him out of the window: he told her to hide in the closet, threatened his father with a baseball bat, and then jumped out of the window on his own.

Later, we find out why he felt compelled to do this, and it’s probably the darkest moment in the whole story. After that particular episode I had to take a break and play FFVII on my Vita to calm down. Like, Mr. Robot came as close as it could possibly get to being too dark for me to watch.

And right before the last revelatory episodes, we see Darlene on the verge of eloping with Dominique after she and Elliot complete their hack on the Deus Group. We are given the smallest taste of an ending that simply leaves Elliot after the Deus Group hack, of trailing off into the “outside” that has always contrasted against Elliot’s “inside”.

Through Darlene, we have glimpses of “outside” and the freedom it represents, freedom that goes hand in hand with the harsh objectivity Elliot avoids. And this objectivity is not even harsh by necessity: Darlene joyously deposits large sums of money in the bank accounts of random, ordinary people.

The end-game of fsociety was never about a destructive solipsist lashing out: it had a genuine egalitarian goal and was meant to be a real attack on those who have taken their supremacy for granted. As Elliot puts it, “those who play god without permission.”

If, however, Elliot’s arc is our main plot (as the ending firmly states), Mr. Robot is not simply a psychological drama. Or rather, it is a psychological drama about how the outside world can subtly, insidiously convince us to use the language of a corrupt system to speak to ourselves. It is a psychological drama about society.

Naturally, this is on display the most in how Elliot speaks to himself through his different personas. And like I’ve been droning about ad nauseam, the dynamics between Elliot and those personas are tied up in his experience of probability.

The key thematic function served by Mr. Robot‘s discussion of probability is stated plainly in the first season. Krista asks Elliot in an early episode what’s bothering him. In his head he trots out a few examples, including Steve Jobs’ mainstreaming of child labor in tech production and several other large social problems.

This, like a lot of things in Mr. Robot, is easy to overlook. Put simply, we live in a world where the true gravity of many problems is almost indistinguishable from paranoid catastrophising.

If I may be a little personal and hyperbolic with an example: Donald Trump recently assassinated an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani during a peace talk in Iraq. Jane Arraf, am NPR journalist, tweeted that the Prime Minister of Iraq was asked by Trump to host peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was the event that Soleimani was attending when he was killed by an American drone. Turns out, his presence in Iraq was a violation of a travel ban that was being imposed on him and by violating it he was putting himself in harms way.

To summarize: Donald Trump asked the Prime Minister of Iraq to invite general Soleimani to his country, in violation of Soleimani’s travel ban, where Trump then gave the order for the drone killing. Subsequently, Russia, China and Iran have begun joint military operations and Iran has decided to ignore the centrifuge stipulation of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Trump far-sightedly planned an assassination that has galvanized three countries against us and a nuclear confrontation may not be as far off as we would like to believe.

End of nutty off-topic digression. Three paragraphs ain’t that bad, is it? 😛

But that’s what I mean about real world events barely having a discernible difference from neurotic catastrophising. How do you not freak out about that? And how credible do you feel when you’re freaking out? Oh yeah and we might only have a few decades of time left (optimistically) before the biosphere starts to go seriously tits up.

If you don’t feel close to the edge then you’re not paying attention. Problem is, real world events can be dangerously enabling for our worst psychological tendencies. Deadly complication can easily tempt us into escapist simplicity. Most conspiracy theories involve some sort of global shadow government because believing that there is a single evil monolith is more comforting than believing that the world is rudderless and may end on accident.

And yeah, I do think Mr. Robot deals with the psychological risk of paying attention. Elliot Alderson is not stupid, but an alternative persona within him is still able to temporarily convince him that his psychiatric meds are driving him crazy. And in the end his willingness to believe in Whiterose’s time manipulation enables him to confront his true self.

If there is a treacherous resemblance between what objectively happens and our worst possible imaginings, and this resemblance is what gives the outside/inside dynamic of Mr. Robot it’s gravity, then it’s worth examining the characters that represent this “outside” to us.

While the story uses Darlene for this often, her function within the plot is more of a link between outside and inside rather than someone who is “of” the outside.

So what characters contrast the most with the bottomless subjective immersion we experience through Elliot? You might be tempted to say Whiterose. I think this is a mistake since she seems to be every bit as involved in her own solipsistic world as Elliot is in his own. She is simply a different “inside” than Elliot.

If Whiterose, for all of her plot-based opposition, resembles Elliot too much to contrast against his subjective immersion, then who does contrast?

I would go with Tyrell Wellick and Irving. Obviously, Tyrell contrasts with Elliot on the surface: Elliot is anxious, dresses for comfort and tries not to be noticed. Tyrell projects confidence, dresses to impress or intimidate others and is desperate to be noticed, and the contrasts only get stronger from there.

Although the surface presentation of those two characters is only the beginning, it is still worth paying attention to. Elliot and Whiterose work narratively as opponents because they are so much alike that they clash. Think of Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker. The similarities between Elliot and Whiterose make them ideal adversaries.

Tyrell is the inverse of this: he has almost nothing in common with Elliot and works well in the story as Elliot’s ally.

So- our first look at Tyrell is as a visiting suit who initially confuses and alienates Elliot and from there we have the eerie, unexpected job offer.

When do we first see him without Elliot, though? He is getting ready to go out and seems to be avoiding giving his wife details whenever possible. He goes on to seduce a man he knows from work in order to get access to his phone so he can plant surveillance software it.

Much later, Joanna Wellick tells another character when she fell in love with Tyrell. When they met, she told him she wanted a pair of cubic zirconia earrings that another woman was wearing. Tyrell then seduced that woman and stole the earrings for Joanna while they were having sex.

Joanna fell in love with Tyrell because he always, without fail, will make anything happen that she needs. In this same fashion, Joanna contrives to sew the seeds of psychological manipulation within the family of E Corp’s CTO. One move is getting her husband to seduce the CTO’s wife. Instead he murders her. This causes him to unravel and Joanna later tells him “If you want to be part of this family, you’ll fix this.” Which prompts Tyrell’s full tilt defection to fsociety, where he ends up under Elliot’s influence.

Elliot is so alienated that he has layers of alternate personalities to deal with the outside world for him. Tyrell is so defined by his relationships that he is completely and utterly slavish. Interestingly, all he wants is to serve others, either Joanna or Elliot, but he still manages to be the most unpredictable character other than Elliot himself. Mr. Robot even nicknames him Looney Toons.

So Tyrell strongly contrasts against Elliot’s struggle with his isolation. He also constantly defies any and all easy labeling. All Tyrell wants is to be someone, but he is totally unlike anyone. He is presented as an early villain and turns out to be a loose cannon supporting character. In the beginning, he is portrayed in a way that could easily be construed as a closeted gay man but later appears to be sexually fluid. This show has frankly queer characters but none that defy categorization like Tyrell does.

What really secures Tyrell’s standing as the anti-Elliot, though, are the events of the third and fourth season. In two, it is strongly implied that Tyrell is dead and in the trunk of a parked car. Elliot receives a mysterious phone call from him, but with the reveal that Elliot has been in prison, it’s entirely possible that the phone call was a delusion. If the early season two interactions with Tyrell are a figment of Elliot’s imagination, it looks more probable that Tyrell is dead.

When Tyrell is shown definitively to be alive later in season two, we are shown a longer version of his first meeting with Mr. Robot. Our first glimpse of this meeting was from Elliot’s perspective, which means we saw Christian Slater embodying the Mr. Robot persona with details missing. Now, from Tyrell’s, we see the entire exchange without omissions, along with Rami Malek portraying Elliot.

Now, with the chronology shifts, the flashbacks and all that, it’s easy to get confused about the order of events. Since we see all of Mr. Robot’s first meeting with Tyrell for the first time with a different actor playing the same role, it may be tempting to think that this is a later scene rather than an earlier one. If you think this is an entirely new scene, then Mr. Robot’s word choices seem creepily familiar: “You’ve spent so much time looking at what’s in front of you that you’ve forgotten what’s above you.”

If this is a new scene, how the fuck would Mr. Robot be aware of the words Tyrell spoke to Joanna during one of his last conversations with her? (“You’ve spent so much time….”) If this is a new scene, then Mr. Robot appears to know something that he cannot possibly know. Which could lead you to think that Tyrell is still dead and this whole scene is imaginary.

But it’s not a new scene. This is the full version of an old one. Which means that when Tyrell made the comment about God to Joanna, he was repeating a version of what Mr. Robot told him. Through chronologically deceptive framing, we are shown the conversation in a way that gives it the appearance of surprising depth that Tyrell himself perceived.

Through the illusion of Mr. Robot knowing something he can’t possibly know, the viewer is made to feel the same sense of an uncanny, almost supernatural event that Tyrell feels.

So not only does Tyrell shift away from his earlier villainous appearance and obsess over others to the same extent that Elliot avoids others, but he even threatens to buck the structure of a show that purports to be all about Elliot and his internal drama. He tempts the viewer to overlook the chronology and entertain the idea of abandoning the psychological thriller assessment in favor of something closer to science fiction.

On every level, Tyrell Wellick embodies the outside and uncertainty in proportion to Elliot’s inside and certainty. He nearly does this to a fault. In Tyrell’s final episode in season four, Elliot and Tyrell appear to be lost in the woods where they keep encountering a strange, repetitive noise out in the distance. During Tyrell’s death scene, he encounters the source of the sound which is never actually seen. It simply gets louder as it bathes Tyrell in blue light. And we are never told what it is. The next time we hear that sound, it’s during one of the long delusory segments of the final episodes.

Tyrell can’t even leave the story like a normal character, he has to disappear into a genuine, mysterious void. And this is in a show where we’ve seen layers of subjective delusion unpeeled to see the objective truth. Yet Tyrell’s disappearance, during a part of the story that’s not supposed to be “in Elliot’s head”, makes you wonder if the apparent reality is simply another layer to be peeled back.

Tyrell seems to disappear into an “outside” that is never addressed again, except for a subtle nod in the finale. The unexplained nature of his ultimate fate is another opportunity for the viewer to latch onto the more otherworldly possibilities, such as the science fiction genre-shift everyone was either anticipating or dreading.

This “outside” is never made any less mysterious either. When Dominique DiPierro runs into Irving pushing his book during her brief elopement with Darlene, he seems to have nothing but good feelings and good memories of her and no mention is made of his apparent death earlier. This almost seems like an Elliot-style hallucination even though Elliot is almost completely absent from that episode.

While Irving may serve as a visual and thematic cue representing the “outside” (similarly to Tyrell), I feel like Darlene and Dominique are the real lenses of the “outside” in that episode. Is the world outside a bottomless pit of random that could be every bit as destructive and destabilizing as the worst products of your imagination? Absolutely. Perhaps our own Jungian “shadow-selves” are in some way derived from the world outside.

Bottomless chaos, though, also means bottomless potential, perhaps even bottomless freedom. The “Domlene” episode stands out for its potential optimism as much as it does for Elliot’s absence.

Sooo while that might not be all there is to unpack about Mr. Robot, it’s what makes its social commentary resonate with me. There’s a lot I wanted to mention that my analysis hasn’t enabled me to comment on, though. I mean, I’m nearing the end of this long ass post and I’m realizing I haven’t sufficiently gushed over Whiterose.

Whiterose is an amazing character. I mean queer villains are over-done, but we’re also living in the culture that says that DC has the best villains. And when people say DC has the best villains, they mean Batman. In this current social climate, people root for and identify with villains as much as heroes. I mean, in a show like Gotham (speaking of B.D. Wong) villains are who you are spending the majority of your time with.

With that in mind, I freaking love Whiterose and I love her back-and-forth with Elliot. The episode where she and Elliot meet for the first time is probably my favorite character introduction in recent history. “Every hacker has her fixation. You hack people, I hack time.” Love that shit.

Also, with all of the Back to the Future references, I kept equating Whiterose with Doc Brown in my head. More then once, I visualized an Epic Rap Battle episode between Whiterose and Rick Sanchez with Doc Brown crashing it halfway through.

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani via American drone

Sooo as a lot of you are probably aware, an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani was recently killed with an American drone. At the time Soleimani was assassinated, he was attending a peace talk with Saudi Arabian representatives hosted by the Prime Minister of Iraq.

An NPR journalist named Jane Arraf tweeted that this peace talk was actually initiated by Trump in an exchange with the Iraqi Prime Minister. Later, the American media ascertained that Soleimani had a travel ban imposed on him that prevented him from entering Iraq: his presence at the peace negotiation was therefore a violation of the ban.

So it’s possible that Donald Trump not only orchestrated the event at which Soleimani was killed, but indirectly caused him to violate his travel ban and place himself beyond the reach of legal and military protection.

When I learned about this nuance I had this huge depth of “what the fuck” going on in my head.

To keep my reaction somewhat concise: I think the American public has underestimated Donald Trump. Specifically, they have overlooked the difference between lacking wisdom and possessing base cunning. I don’t necessarily think this level of planning is terribly sophisticated, but it does show a little bit of thoughtful calculation. In addition to the obvious moral bankruptcy. Donald Trump lacking wisdom or morality should not cause anyone to think he is not dangerous. At the very least, this reveals a depth of malevolence that goes beyond ordinary self-interest.

My level of shocked incredulity also for awhile made me forget something both terrible and obvious: Trump never made any secret of his disposition. He said over and over again, prior to his election in 2016, that he wanted to “go after” the “families” of terrorists. In essence, making it clear that he is prepared to kill civilians in the Middle East. He even crassly expressed support for police brutality during a Bill O’Reilly interview. He never gave us any reason to expect anything else from him.

I also felt like an idiot because we’ve all known that warhawks in Washington have been jonesing for a war with Iran. But I’ve been assuming that they would seize an opportunity to go to war with Iran if one presented itself. I was too naive to consider the possibility that they would actually orchestrate it on their own. And this brazenly. I mean, if Trump wasn’t suggesting the peace talk to get Soleimani to violate his travel ban so he could kill him then why did he suggest it?

Think I’m catastrophising? Let’s consider the arguments to the contrary: Mike Pence has since stated that the White House has intelligence that Soleimani was involved in 9/11 and he therefore needed to die. When pressed for clarification, Pence said that the information they received suggested that it was possible that troops trained by Soleimani may have fought against America during the 2003 Iraq invasion. You know, that thing that occurred after 9/11 and later proved itself pointless when it was made clear that Saddam never co-operated with the 9/11 hijackers. So no, the information Pence was referring to does not hold water or even any relevance.

Oh hey, while we’re on the subject, do you know where the majority of the 9/11 hijackers came from and were radicalized? Saudi Arabia. You know. The country that Trump has made multi-billion dollar weapon deals with. The country that executed an American journalist and had nothing but co-operation from Trump. That is the country the hijackers were from.

Not to sell short the bottomless loss and mourning that’s bound to ensue from these events, but I wanna talk about my personal reaction. For me this is the latest in a series of “what the fuck” moments. The one before this was learning that we might, optimistically, have maybe a few decades before the real consequences of climate change start ramping up. That has been my highest political priority ever since then. Now, in my dark moments, I wonder if homo sap will even last long enough to die from floods and hurricanes before we vaporize ourselves.

Oh yeah, and Iran is now participating in joint military operations with Russia and China. Iran is also now ignoring the centrifuge stipulation of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Sooooo I….don’t want this to mean that we’re walking right up to the brink of annihilation…but….but….but…but…

What if we never sufficiently internalize the possibility of our shared extinction until the moments before which it is inevitable? This is the price of avoiding the possibility of death and catastrophe. Death is scary and it’s therefore tempting to act like it doesn’t exist.

The problem with such indulgences is that they can add up to cumulative disasters. I remember after Trump got elected a lot of friends on social media were saying things like “Your world won’t end, this doesn’t have to be a disaster, we just have to ride it out.” If every bad political decision is an innocent mistake then what do you do with a million innocent mistakes? Are we always gonna say “we’ll do better tomorrow” up until the point where there is no tomorrow?

I want these thoughts to be mistaken so badly. I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong on this in the long run.

Text-aware TV reboots (Watchmen & Hannibal)

Warning: casual disregard for spoilers, as usual 😛

For the last few months a close friend of mine has been showing me Hannibal, which he describes as his favorite TV series. I read the Thomas Harris books Hannibal, Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Rising as a teenager and, in the second and third season, a very interesting relationship with the texts of those works is established.

It may also be helpful to mention that, when the first three seasons of Hannibal were shot, the creative team did not have access to the rights for Clarice Starling or much of the Silence of The Lambs material.

So, going into Hannibal, it has every appearance of being a prequel. After all, the story is before Will Graham’s capture of the title character. However, the writing of the show demonstrates an awareness of Clarice Starling as being a moral, logical opposite equal to Hannibal Lecter’s amorality and freedom from logic. This is present in Silence of The Lambs but it is at the center in the novel Hannibal. The novel is structured as a collision between the separate worlds of Clarice and Hannibal. And this alleged prequel show takes its name from that book.

Hannibal the TV show puts separation and conflict between subjectivity and objective reality in the foreground. In the first two seasons in particular, there are moments that seriously tempt you to wonder what is objectively going on and and what is an imaginative, non-literal construct.

Late in the first season, Will Graham has a drug-addled exchange with Abigail Hobbs and then there’s a slam cut to Will being somewhere else. What the cut was meant to imply was that Will blacked out and can’t remember what happened. What it at first looked like, though, is Will waking up from a dream. Then there’s a cut back to Abigail talking to Hannibal. At first, it looks like the show is cutting back to the dream Will just woke up from where stuff is still going on even though he’s awake.

In all fairness, what the cut is meant to signify (doubling back in the timeline before Will’s blackout) is not at all obvious. This might look like careless editing, but the dialogue and other sequences are so tightly written that I can’t get around thinking that the occasional blurred meanings are probably nothing short of deliberate. The line is especially easy to blur given the frequent usage of dreams and hallucinations.

Near the end of the second season, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the impression that Hannibal is a prequel. Mason and Margot Verger appear at this point, characters originally from the novel Hannibal who only enter the chronology of the books at the later stage.

The appearance of these characters, in and of itself, does not necessarily call anything into doubt. We’ve already met other characters from later in the chronology, like Frederick Chilton. But many of the events from the ending of the novel Hannibal happen, with dialogue from both the novel and the film.

Hannibal is taken to be fed to Mason’s pigs and he makes the same remark about how one of his handlers must smell “almost as bad” as his dead brother. Later, Will and Hannibal recreate a well-known exchange that he originally had with Clarice: “Given the chance, you’d deny me my life? Wouldn’t you?” “No, just your freedom.” Honestly, when Hannibal was rescued from the pigs, I was expecting Will to say “Do right and you’ll get out of this alive,” with Hannibal’s reply: “Spoken like a true Protestant.” They didn’t use that dialogue, but it would have worked.

So there is enough of Clarice’s transplanted dialogue in Will’s mouth, combined with the conversational cat and mouse with Hannibal, to make Will Graham look like a substitute for Clarice Starling. With the Clarice dialogue from the books and the movies, he seems almost like a literal gender flipped re-interpretation of Clarice like Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom (both males in the source material).

This whole topic of which character is channeling Clarice Starling is exacerbated even more when we see Hannibal fleeing on a plane in the company of Dr. Du Maurier, which seriously mirrors Hannibal eloping with Clarice at the end of the book.

So. The broken sequence of events tells us that Hannibal the TV show is less of a prequel and more of a ground-up re-imagining of the whole story. Clarice Starling getting split in half between Will and Du Maurier goes smoothly with the idea of a radical re-telling as well. Another word commonly used recently for this kind of re-telling is a reboot.

Lately I have also been watching the new Watchmen adaptation from HBO. Although Damon Lindelof, the producer and writer, has insisted that his version of Watchmen is not a reboot, it beats a lot of reboots at their own game.

One way that both Watchmen and Hannibal achieve this is through writing that clearly reflects a thoughtful reading and exchange with the source material. In fact, you could almost argue for the possibility that both of those shows contain a version of the original text within themselves.

Lindelof’s Watchmen definitely does, but you could also make a case for the same thing occurring in Hannibal. Dialogue from the novels are constantly used and the re-arranged chronology reflects a careful awareness of those novels.

Many of the events of the show are re-organized content from the books; the main innovation that Hannibal brings is the frank discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity. It dwells on tension between perception and forensic analysis- if you wanted to go full lit-crit, you could say that it’s about seeing or, perhaps, reading.

The relationship with the source material in Lindelof’s Watchmen, though, is far more lucid. As someone who absolutely adores the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this delighted me. Watchmen the graphic novel is all about language and how belief, popular wisdom and the idea of documented fact is explored. In other words, how language and perception shape reality.

There are multiple texts-within-texts, many of which are placed between chapters. There are excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoir, psychiatric medical documents relating to Rorschach, in-world academic papers, in-world interviews and a whole other in-world comic. The intertextual nature of the world building is emphasized even more with how Rorschach is originally positioned as a narrator and how the reader comes to doubt his reliability. In fact, his narrations are nothing but excerpts from his journal, another in-world text.

One way that Damon Lindelof’s adaptation preserves this literary device- while simultaneously connecting that device to the show’s relationship with the graphic novel -is an in-world TV series called American Hero Story.

American Hero Story is, quite simply, a representation of the graphic novel within the TV show. For example, only very few people in the graphic novel knew about the romance between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, almost no one. In the new adaptation, it is frankly spelled out in American Hero Story. This strongly suggests that the average person in the world of the TV show knows about this. In another episode, a young FBI agent with a passion for the history of the Minutemen, casually relates the story of Laurie Juspeczyk’s parentage. The reveal of the identity of Laurie’s father was a huge dramatic event in the book but, like the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, is common knowledge in the world of the TV show.

This all adds up to tell us that the average person, in the TV show’s fictional universe, knows everything that a real-life reader of the graphic novel would. So the events of American Hero Story function as a representative of the original graphic novel within the show…and that graphic novel had multiple in-world documents within itself. Yo dawg… 😛

There are other more understated, thematic bells and whistles, such as Hooded Justice being inspired, in part, by a Superman comic. Then there are more overt reminders of the present of the TV show being inspired by its past, the comic. There is a white supremacist terrorist network inspired by the words and example of Rorschach. They are not just inspired by his publicized actions- they actually quote from his journal, which itself constitutes text from the original comic.

Between the manifested legacy of Rorschach embodied by the Seventh Kalvary and the portrayal in the graphic novel, though, there are fascinating gray areas. For example, the character called Looking Glass. He wears a reflective mask which no other character equates with the Rorschach mask and he regularly pulls up the lower half to talk and eat, something readers of Watchmen the comic will instantly recognize as typical of Rorschach.

However, there is no reason why the characters in the TV show would know that. They have American Hero Story and Rorschach’s journal is circulated among white nationalists, but there is no reason why that particular mannerism of his would be known of.

Meaning that, while the world of the TV adaptation knows the general plot points of the original, we also see reflections of things they shouldn’t know about. Rorschach probably never wrote about his unshaven mouth and love of canned beans in his journal, after all. So there is one level of intertextual exchange- the popular wisdom of the TV show’s world -and something less meta, a connection that characters know nothing of, but the writers and viewers are.

There are more explicable examples of the gap between text and reader as well. We get a glimpse of a scene from American Hero Story where Hooded Justice is outed as queer and forced to remove his mask, revealing a white actor. Later, the viewer learns that Hooded Justice was originally a black man.

Then there is the use of the colors black and white as a thematic device. In the racial sense as well as the abstract sense. This immediately reminded me of the graphic novel’s chapter called Fearful Symmetry, which made frequent use of panels with alternating color patterns. The character Sister Night says, early on, that if any bit of yolk is allowed into egg whites, the whites are ruined. She even tells her son, Topher, that people like to fill the world with all kinds of fake colors but she and him both know that the only colors are black and white.

This kind of dialogue smacks of Rorschach, which I found ironic. When the first trailers dropped, we saw a brief glimpse of Sister Night in a police station saying she has a guy in her trunk. The casual police brutality, combined with what looked like a face paint domino mask, made me wonder if this was a re-imagining of The Comedian. Then in the TV show, we receive more visual cues equating her with Nite Owl. The riffs on Fearful Symmetry continue in the episode when we see the original Hooded Justice receive face paint around his eyes and nose bridge to make it look like he’s white under the hood.

I guess one question this begs is…what exactly does this kind of sensitivity to the text add? The biggest gain I can think of is more reverence for the source material and more freedom to explore one’s own interpretation of it. You can do more while acknowledging the authority of the originals than you can with a straightforward, note-for-note adaptation.

And by reverence I mean…acknowledgement of the influence while maintaining a respectful distance. The original ideas are present and influential, but still have a distinct degree of separation from the derivative product allowing for interpretive freedom. If the reader or the viewer can perceive the influence of the original while understanding that the current interpretation is not a literal,word-for-word recreation, more room for imagination opens up. You could almost call it a more frank display of the dialogue between the original text and its readers.

Earthworm Jim Special Edition!

Two days ago I played a Sega CD for the first time as well as the definitive version of one of my favorite games from my childhood: Earthworm Jim.

This is a game that I played so often that I basically have the progression route for a whole play through etched in the muscle memory of my hands. The only other games that I might have a similar intimacy with are Mega Man 3, Sonic 2 and maybe the first Tomb Raider game. That last one is a real maybe but I wouldn’t rule it out. Final Fantasy VII may be my favorite video game period but that came into my life at a much later time.

Even with that deep level of nostalgia and rote memorization, though, there is still so much to be delighted by. Not to say nostalgia still isn’t mixed up in it though 0.0

For one, consider the era it came out in. It was the early nineties and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were just ramping up. I remember Nickelodeon being turned on a lot in my home and my parents liked it more than I did. You see, I was probably around four years old, and almost everything on that channel terrified me. I remember an episode of Rugrats that had a freaky as hell dream sequence.

My mom was also a big fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the niche it carved out for itself. People these days seem to call it toilet humor. When I look back on things like the episode where Ren had cavities, I’m more tempted to call it comedic body horror.

Whatever it was, though, it caught on and we got things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Eek The Cat, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs. And Little Kid Ailix liked every single one of them more than Ren & Stimpy. Cow and Chicken was probably my favorite. Maybe you could lump in Ed Edd n Eddy if you cared to. That hooked me also.

Considering that Earthworm Jim dropped in the early nineties and its blend of juvenile humor and absurdity, I think it’s fair to say that it was part of the same general trend. Earthworm Jim also may have had more personality than all of them, though.

I mean, who else remembers Boogerman? Nonstop toilets, nonstop boogers, nonstop monsters made of literal crap, it just played out the whole toilet humor gimmick to death. I was in elementary school back then and that game was somehow really popular with my peers. But it was a lifeless golem made of pandering gimmicky bullshit. I mean I’m being way more articulate than Little Kid Ailix was, but Little Kid Ailix knew that Boogerman was built on two or three gags being cycled over and over again. It was a distillation of all of the laziest tendencies of the Ren & Stimpy derivatives.

Don’t get me wrong, Earthworm Jim was totally one of those derivatives as well, but it was more than that. In fact, the gross out jokes were kind of the smallest part of the whole equation. There were other gags to, but even those gags were just one part of the whole.

(Is it just me or do the loading screens in the special edition look like the title screens from shows that were part of the What A Cartoon block from Cartoon Network?)

I mean, the For Pete’s Sake level, for example. That clearly relies on a big versus small gag. Jim is big and Jim is protecting Pete who is small. If Pete get’s hurt, Pete turns into a giant red bulldog monster with throbbing veins, clutches Jim in his teeth and drags him back a few obstacles behind where he was. It’s a classic gag, sorta reminiscent of Looney Toons, really.

But look at all the other details that the game gets you to take for granted. What planet are you on and why can you see space? Why does this seem to be the only level that gives you a sense of having just come from the interstellar race with Psycrow that you do between every level?

The music also adds something. It adds something during every second of the game, because Tommy Tallarico is an angel sent to Earth to make beautiful beautiful music. But in For Pete’s Sake the music is restrained, which lets everything else go to the foreground. But still has this droning, rhythmic, science fiction quality.

Oh, and this tonal balance that happens between the normal gag stuff, cuteness and eerie atmosphere? It shifts dramatically in the second to last level, Intestinal Distress. The level is weirdly minimal, save for the appearance of being inside of someone’s digestive tract. And the music is…well…horror movie music. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Sure enough, the last level is called Buttville.

During one of my early play throughs, I remember the growing realization that the final boss and villain of the game, Queen Slug For A Butt, is bodily connected to Buttville. As in, you are actually inside her and your progression to the exit- AKA her asshole -triggers the final boss fight. Little Kid Ailix was like “is this…seriously what it looks like????”

That, needless to say, goes beyond “toilet humor” and is truly weird. And the music in this level. The track commonly known as Falling, in a different context, could actually create a feeling of vertigo and dread. I almost wanna say it reminds me of falling into Hell. Certain puns come to mind, like “the belly of the beast”.

Actually, at the age I was when I first played this, it hooked my imagination. I’ve always written stories, almost compulsively, and Little Kid Ailix was set on a kick of designing stories set inside of bodies.

Anyway, on the special edition for the Sega CD, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the soundtrack is so crisp and perfect that the music alone could fully justify it. It’s just that good. If you’ve played the SNES or Gameboy Advance ports and thought they were markedly inferior to the Sega original, then the Sega CD sound quality makes them absolute garbage by comparison. Maybe it was re-recorded- I don’t know just now. I do know that the Sega CD was capable of CD quality sound so it wouldn’t surprise me.

And while I love how smooth the muscle memory of my endless play throughs can make things, my heart was instantly warmed to find out how many of the levels are expanded. In the part of New Junk City where Jim is suddenly without his suit, he announces “I’m nude!” with a Southern drawl.

Did Jim have a Southern accent in the WB cartoon series? I don’t think he did. But the “Ahm noood” combined with his “woah Nelly!” from the original makes me think he was meant to be Southern in the game. Could that be why there’s a loading screen with him *snickers* loading stuff into a truck bed? It also seems consistent with the banjo music that plays when you race against Psycrow. And yes, banjos are a commonly recognized hallmark of Earthworm Jim music. Banjos, science fictiony electronic beats, parodies of music from nineteen-thirties Disney cartoons and industrial rock. And it all fits into the same atmospheric whole. Did I mention the composer, Tommy Tallarico, is a freaking gift?

So I was wrapping up the Psycrow race after What The Heck? when this shit happened

I blink and I’m like “What the fuck is this shit??”

This shit wasn’t in the original game. After tooling around for a minute, I notice the music for this new level has creepy, empty wind sounds and dry wooden creaks, like a plank dangling from its nail off of a crappy cobbled-together fort. And what is that pink thing? It’s kind of like…a dinosaur? I guess? Are those nostrils or its eye sockets? They’re empty so I wanna go with nostrils. Please let them be nostrils.

So you inch up to it, it starts to stalk you, it speeds up and…and…what the fuck are those sounds it’s making? It sounds crazed and hungry, but what are the actual noises? Hoots? Grunts? Gibbers? All of the above?

Whatever this nightmare fuel is, you gotta deal with it throughout the whole level. In fact there are a few puzzles built around getting the pink, sightless, hooting crazy fucker to crash into things to remove barriers or step on levers to launch you into the air.

What delighted me more than all that, though, was that this new level, called Big Bruty, required me to use all of the same problem solving strategies I used as a seven year old. It re-connected me with Little Kid Ailix’s feeling of having solved a few puzzles, got a game over but still eager to press on in spite of the frustration. This bizarre little curve ball of a level actually made me feel a lot of things that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.

It was a very pleasant night of gaming with my amazing girlfriend, in other words. And a lovely way to get re-acquainted with a gleeful part of my childhood. Now I kinda wanna see if that graphic novel the original devs are working on is in any way obtainable

(Eat your heart out, Doug Funnie, someone did the black and white pencil intro better then you! 😀 )

El Camino!

The Breaking Bad movie El Camino debuted last night and it was refreshing to see more of what Jesse Pinkman alone brought to the Vince Gilligan mythos.

In my “reading” (and according to many other people) Jesse was the emotional and pro-social point of empathy in a defensive and calculating fictional world. After Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, moving to a more humane protagonist is a good decision.

This is given dimension by how a plot is typically set up to guide or provoke a character arc. One way to do this is through opposition. Walter White and Saul Goodman have important connections with other people that put them at odds with their negative character arcs….which paradoxically send them on their negative arcs.

Walter starts to cook meth for the benefit of his family and later becomes “the one who knocks”. Saul Goodman / Jimmy McGill turns his life around and gets a law degree to win the approval of his brother and later reconciles his reinvented self with his previous knack for petty crime. Vince Gilligan characters tend to start out enmeshed with others and end being isolated from them. Jesse Pinkman in El Camino experiences this formula from the opposite end.

Jesse is deeply connected to his friends, lovers and mentors and is on a path toward personal freedom while growing more deeply enmeshed with the world around him. I’m pretty sure me and most of the people watching the movie on launch day kept thinking that Jesse should run his ass off and never go back to any place where anyone would find him.

Instead he seeks out the few old connections he could go back to. He even touches base with his parents and the story’s final confrontation involves a welder that was hired by Jesse’s captors. Speaking of Jesse’s captivity, memories of Todd, possibly the member of the Neo-Nazi gang that Jesse despised the most, provide a pivotal plot point. In fact, two of his most important connections whom we know to be dead, Jane Margolis and Walter White, make appearances in rather emotional flashbacks near the end.

Jesse’s film ending with him both alone and more connected also opens the door for the first happy ending I ever saw in a Vince Gilligan story and it’s nicely convincing.

Also, as usual, the Breaking Bad creative team is great at creating a sense of place. Two of my favorite movies (which I still find difficult to watch at times) are Mysterious Skin and Boys Don’t Cry and, as someone who grew up in a low-income area in the early nineties, I was pleasantly surprised by how much those two films would get right with their set design or shooting locations. El Camino doesn’t tug on my nostalgia to the same degree but the Breaking Bad team nonetheless has delicious attention to detail, especially in the end at Kandy’s Welding.

I was watching this with my SO and during the shootout she told me that the welder has a holster that’s not meant to be drawn from quickly. It would have been a lil cooler if they took advantage of that but I liked the ending anyway. Like I said, the happy ending is a very welcome change in the Breaking Bad fictional universe. And it has a cool closing credits song ^^

Halloween Quiz re: Thinking Moon!

1. What is your favourite Halloween Movie?

Thaaat….is a toughie. Both my dad and one of my best friends like to watch Interview With The Vampire on most Halloweens so that instantly earns points. Hellraiser 2 is also a contender.

WAIT WAIT WAIT- there is only one acceptable answer at this point in my life- Over The Garden Wall!!!!!!!!!!!

2. How much do you enjoy Halloween on a scale of 1-10?

10!

3. What is your fondest Halloween memory?

Being in a haunted house for two years in a row with my best friend from high school. During the first year, I was a disemboweled corpse on an operating table and I had to lay in cold wetness all night to keep my organs looking realistically gory. The second year I was Jason and my best friend was Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Soooo….I was a mother whose serial killer alter ego was her son and my best friend was a son whose serial killer alter ego was his mother. Some kind of minds think alike, anyway ^^

4. Have you always been a Halloween lover?

Sure have 😀

5. How do you get into the Halloween spirit?

Just feeling the warmth of the sun combined with some cool breeze really does it for me. I also might drink some pumpkin spice deliciousness and play Silent Hill 2. Or maybe Strawberry Cubes! ❤️

6. What are your favourite Halloween decorations?

Fake body parts!

They also used to high key scare the shit out of me as a kid 0_0

7. What are your favourite Halloween / fall scents?

Petrichor! 😊

I also had this boyfriend a long time ago who smoked and briefly got me into smoking. I quit a long time ago, though. And it was around October. Soo I also associate the smell of menthol cigarettes with Halloween and I rather like it. Call me crazy 😛

8. Vampires or Zombies?

Vampires, easily

9. What is your weird/odd fear?

The undead have always freaked me out. Which is weird because I’ve been a total vampire fan girl since I was a preteen. But yeah, in media, ghosts and zombies can freak me out.

In real life…hm….the feeling of being watched.

10. What are you going as this Halloween?

Hmm…..either Jenova from Final Fantasy VII or a gender-flipped Riddler 😃

11. Do you believe in ghosts?

Short answer is yes