Mr. Robot playlist

1. The Order of Death- Public Image Ltd.

2. Walking in My Shoes- Depeche Mode

3. Pictures of You- The Cure

4. Where Is My Mind (Pixies cover)- Maxence Cyrin

5. The Hall of Mirrors- Kraftwerk

6. Daydreamin’(feat. Jill Scott)- Lupe Fiasco

7. This Ain’t No Hymn- Saint Savior

8. The Head That Controls Both Right and Left Sides Slobbers and Eats Meats Even Today- Bleach

9. Basket Case (Green Day cover)- Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star

10. Touch(feat. Paul Williams)- Daft Punk

11. Heroes and Villains- The Beach Boys

12. White Widow- Afterhours

13. Turn up the Radio- OK Go

14. The Moth & the Flame- Les Deux Love Orchestra

15. Flesh without Blood- Grimes

16. People Who Died- The Jim Carrol Band

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 😛

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 politics or a political 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 political and psychological. 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 push the boundaries of probability even further: 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.