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 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.

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.

Penny Dreadful reaction

Penny Dreadful is the Dracula fix-it fic I’ve been wishing for since I first read Bram Stoker’s staggeringly awkward and tacked-on ending when I was sixteen. Within the first few episodes it’s obvious that this show is a genre retrospective and deconstruction, which I gotta admit made me a little hesitant at first. Deconstruction and nostalgia is kind of the big thing right now, what with every other new movie being a remake, popular old TV shows getting reboots, etc. It’s also combining a bunch of different stories which is also a current flavor of the week- I mean, it seems like every other super-hero movie or TV show has some sort of cross-over angle. Penny Dreadful distinguishes itself, though, by being written by people who seem to truly love the source material, and judging by what they eventually did with the re-imagining of Dracula, they seem like they love the source material for many of the same reasons I do.

 
Even when they’re being faithful to the letter of the original stories, it’s still pretty bomb. Case and point, Frankenstein. So. Freaking. Welcome. After decades of adaptations that paid little to no attention to Mary Shelley’s novel. I mean, props to the Kenneth Branagh movie, Robert DeNiro makes a pretty neat Creature. That’s kind of the only nice thing I can say about that movie though. I haven’t seen Branagh’s Hamlet adaptation, but his Frankenstein film doesn’t make me too confidant in his ability to direct movies that he’s also starring in. That box being checked, Penny Dreadful seems like it cares about the letter and spirit of the work more than anything else. Other than the over-arching Dracula plot, it doesn’t try to adapt the blow-by-blow story of anything else. But it does use alternative details of Frankenstein’s plot points in really imaginative ways to develop new versions of the characters.

 
Mostly. It does have the Creature’s demand that Victor make a bride for him, but that’s used in a way that’s far more relevant to the characterization of the new Victor Frankenstein and Brona/Lily. Even though it’s the Creature that makes the original demand, everything that follows relates way more to Victor and Brona/Lily.
To almost anyone who has read Frankenstein, it’s hard to overlook the role of Victor’s attraction to his adopted sister. In Penny Dreadful, the sublimated incest is re-interpreted as a kind of sexualized father-daughter relationship when Victor resurrects Brona without her memories and tries to isolate her. This is an important detail because it begins a problem that may, potentially, last until the very last frames of the last episode of the third season. And it may even have some substantial roots in the original novel.
Mary Shelly gave Frankenstein the subtitle The Modern Prometheus and there’s more than a few analogies drawn in the text between the book’s plot and a sort of Edenic “fall from grace” situation. Prometheus and Eve\The Serpent gave humanity the gift of it’s next great step forward at the cost of a simple life. Shelley’s novel also begins with a quote from Paradise Lost in which Adam is wondering if the naked state of innocence upon birth can allow for any responsibility to a creator, almost as if innocence connotates autonomy and God should know better than to expect otherwise. So that sets a clear parallel between Prometheus, Eve and Adam speaking as one of the first creations in the universe.

 
These parallels matter in Penny Dreadful because of the various statements about the goals of Dr. Frankenstein throughout the story. Near the end, when the Creature is reunited with his human family, his wife asks him if Victor meant for his memories to be wiped. The Creature replies “his only goal was resurrection” and that any other consequence was accidental. The words of Victor himself do not seem to contradict this. In the original novel, though, Victor creates a being from different body parts with the expressed wish to make an original newborn being.

 
Getting back to Brona/Lily, this point of departure from the original text seems to be informing the new portrayal of Victor’s incestuous desire, but I’m not sure how yet. Novel Frankenstein starts with the framing device of Victor talking to the ship captain on his death bed and then begins his story from his earliest memories. We see Victor’s attraction to his foster sister blossom in childhood and early adulthood. In Penny Dreadful, we know almost nothing about his background and we see the incestuous dynamic unfold in the present of the story. And entirely through showing rather than telling. When Brona awakens as Lily, she’s absolutely docile and credulous. It’s kind of hard not to see the father-daughter parallel. Since we know that Victor’s creations in Penny Dreadful definitely had former identities, Victor moving into an authoritative creator/father role is really hard to ignore. What was shown implicitly as sublimation in the original novel is now a visible, front and center plot point.

 
I’m not sure what the writers were driving at here, but moving a layer that was implied in the original text to the level of plain visibility seems like it has got to be intentional. Whether this is supposed to give any new dimension to the incest, though, it does face us directly with the different pictures of the creatures as newborns versus pre-existing beings. After all, Victor is treating Lily like a (sexually available) newborn. And the story ends with Victor abandoning his sense of possession because he’s absolutely convinced of the authenticity of Lily’s pre-existing identity. If something ends with one side of two different things being validated, then presumably the discussion up until that point matters.

 
The conflict between these two different pictures is even more inescapable with season three’s inclusion of the scene from Frankenstein when the creature is watching a family from a distance. In Penny Dreadful, it turns out to be the Creature’s actual family from his prior lifetime. Something I should maybe get out of the way now is that Susan Stryker’s essay My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamounix had a powerful and life-affirming impact on me as a young adult, when I was just beginning to come out as trans.

 
Both Susan Stryker’s essay and the appearance of the Creature’s human family both originate from the same source within the text: the monologue the Creature delivers to Victor on the mountain range, detailing his life experience up until that point. In the original novel, this is the first and only time we see through his eyes. Penny Dreadful used a scene described in the monologue as his literal human origin. I mentioned Susan Stryker’s essay because it deals largely with ubiquitous transphobic beliefs holding that trans people are artificial, medical “inventions” and transsexuality is therefore not real.
I’m not gonna have a big digression here talking about Susan Stryker or transsexuality, but I find Stryker’s parallel between societal repulsion with trans people with the isolation of the Creature very relevant to Penny Dreadful’s rendition of the Creature’s story arc. This show is, after all, contrasting the idea of Victor Frankenstein as the creator of new, original beings against the possibility of those beings having their own prior existence before Victor’s meddling. The repulsion with things that are thought to be a blasphemous aping of the work of God versus reverence for God’s creations is relevant here. And the possibility that the charge of being a false/evil creation is wrong is also important…and if it’s wrong, then the idea of a single God responsible for everything is suspect.

 

 

This is not the only time Penny Dreadful examines the idea of God, and this particular examination does not end with Victor setting Lily free and letting go of his desire to control and possess. While the rest of the events of the final episode are unfolding, the Creature has returned to his human family to find his son dying. There are a few transparent attempts by the writers to tie up plot threads before the final season ends and this is one of them: kiddo starts dying just in time to have an impact on the rest of the story. The Creature’s wife, remembering what her husband told her, wants to bring their son to Victor to have him brought back to life. She gives him an ultimatum: bring their son to Frankenstein or leave the house and never come back. The Creature choses the latter and then learns that Vanessa Ives is dead. Dot, dot, dot!!!!!

 

 

Along with the Frankenstein analysis of creation and divine sanction, there’s the lingering possibility that everything to do with the vampire plot points may be unfolding according to Biblical myth. The first explication we get regarding the vampiric source describes two fallen angels from the dawn of time, one of them confined to Earth and the other to Hell. The scarified writing on the bodies of the vampiric thralls uses language like “hidden ones” that later comes up again when Mr. Lyle is helping everyone decode the origin story written on random objects. Interpreting all this is made even messier since the big bad of the second season is talked about both in terms of one brother or the other.

 

 

At least, I thought it was unclear which brother is identified as the spirit inside the Vanessa doll. At times, it seemed that the Hell brother was completely off-camera and that, from the beginning with Mina and the Murray household, we had always been dealing with the earth-bound brother. Victor Frankenstein even asks if this is the same “vampire master” that targeted Mina and gets an affirmative. The on-camera appearance of Dracula in season three renders this understanding incorrect. It also seems much of the ancient lore of angels is not reliable- there is no reason to think that the brother inside the doll still exists. Evidently fallen angels are quite mortal. At least on Earth? Or something?

 

 

Anyway, Dracula is A. a fallen angel and B. the source of all other vampires. It is possible to watch the first season and think that the Christian language with demons and angels and sin and all the rest are things that the human characters are bringing to the party in their own minds that the supernatural creatures are taking advantage of telepathically. Dracula’s identity as a fallen angel seems to make it literal, though. During the confrontation in the asylum in season three, when Vanessa proclaims her devotion to God in the presence of Dracula’s projected astral form, is she talking about “normal” religious belief as we understand it, or is this God a being she personally interacted with? Or simply a language for the supernatural that her belief gives psychic power to?
Near the end of the third season, though, Kaetenay tells us that the prophecy of the Wolf of God was known to the Apaches and that it ties into the apocalyptic events foretold in the myths of all cultures. Evidently, at that point, the writers are easing off of the Christian language and are trying to portray the prophecies and supernatural activity as something that is known to all cultures and exists with or without human belief. The ending of the overarching story is not at odds with this change, but it ties into other themes that had evolved over the series in a way that could inform the story’s earlier Christian perspective.

 

Por exemplo, action versus inaction. Many character arcs in this show involve either a character trying to maintain the status quo of their existence or trying to change it. The vampire plot-line takes us, at the end of the story, decisively to a place that’s deeply involved with the inaction story arcs. Dracula begins to earnestly fall in love with Vanessa and wants nothing other than to be with her. Dracula tells Ethan that Vanessa is where she wants to be and she doesn’t need rescuing and he’s literally telling the truth. When Vanessa confronted him in the museum and he admitted to what he was, he didn’t force her to be “embraced” in Vampire: The Masquerade parlance (to embrace someone is to make them into a vampire). By way of agreement she says “I accept myself”.
Everything Vanessa does from that point onward contributes to the protection of Dracula. She and Ethan have a tearful goodbye before he shoots her, but just look at the actual consequences for the other characters. Vanessa persuades Ethan to kill her to make the diseased air go away, meaning she made a decision for the greater good rather than her own desire. So what about what she does want?

 

 

When Ethan, Malcom & co. convene in London and start the planning for their final raid, Dracula describes Ethan as the one who is prophesied to kill him, to which Vanessa says not all prophecies come true (paraphrasing, obviously). And she totally succeeded in protecting Dracula from the prophecy- her own death stopped the plague and therefore the reason for Ethan to go after him. At least from the perspective of external obligation- London’s not filled with an inescapable sickness any more. He still might seek vengeance. But by ending the plague, Vanessa got rid of the reason for everyone else to think of Dracula as a threat. Vanessa fell for Dracula as much as Dracula fell for her, and she died standing up for her love. You could argue that her own statements on that subject are ambiguous but look at the actual consequences: actions speak louder than words. And even confining ourselves to her words leads us in that direction (“I accept myself”/”not all prophecies come true”).

 
I understand that my digressions may be one of this blog’s shortcomings but stick with me here because this one matters: in Bram Stoker’s original novel, there was an early subplot regarding Lucy Westenra’s multiple suitors and the possibility of everyone letting her make her own decision. The subplot wraps up benignly enough, but consider how the character ends up. With all art forms that I know of, there are really basic inferences that can be used to deduce authorial intent. One of them is that if two things/actions/images/sounds/motifs/characters are placed together, the author either wants you to see them as connected or the author feels they are connected in spite of their intentions. Lucy’s presence in the foreground starts with multiple men suing for her affection and ends with her as the “bloofer lady”, the newborn vampire that gets the rest of the male characters involved in the essential plot. Need I say more?

 

 

Oh hey, something like this happens in Carmilla also. That story opens with some interesting plot doo-dads, like the question of whether the shared dreams between Carmilla and the narrator are predatory telepathy or if it has a more organic and innocent cause. But really it just turns into what modern readers would recognize as a straightforward lesbian romance. And shortly after Carmilla and the narrator confess their love for each other, the narrator’s family kill her off camera. The narrator is just sort of like “oh she was a vampire? ‘Kay, nevermind”.

 
I haven’t read The Vampyre or Varney The Vampire but at least two of the foundational vampire stories communicate a lot of anxiety about female sexual autonomy. And it’s not like that fear doesn’t bear itself out in the derivatives of those stories. Obviously, this is a trait of older, supernatural gothic fiction that Penny Dreadful attempts to turn on it’s head. Not only does Vanessa “grow up” in the end and make her own commitments on her own terms, but a few of the characters that represent Lucy Westenra’s suitors in the original Dracula novel are also re-imagined in ways that bear this out, i.e. Dr. Seward and Ethan Talbot.

 

 

The original Dr. Seward is introduced to us as the author of the medical notes in the subchapters dealing with Renfield and his “zoophagy”. Fictional in-world documents as a narrative device had already been used at the beginning of the novel to make the reader feel like they are getting a private glimpse of something from a second hand source. There is the excitement of eavesdropping paired with discovery- in other words, it creates a voyeuristic effect, like the reader is watching characters that don’t know they’re being watched and discovering something way more dramatic than “normal” secrets.

 

 

The medical documentation of Renfield is used in a similar way. We are seeing notes that lay people would not normally be privileged with and also getting more than we bargained for in the end. Essentially, the notes encourage the reader to identify with Dr. Seward, thereby exoticizing Renfield and what is happening to him. Like the female characters whose fates are presented as dependent on the male characters (with the exception of Lucy which conspicuously brings all the characters into the central plot), the person in the care of a doctor is turned into a spectacle. Not just a spectacle, but a spectacle whose potential freedom could invite disaster. With both Renfield and Lucy falling under Dracula’s influence in the end, it even seems implicit that these characters can never truly be autonomous- to lose your grip on them is not to let prisoners escape so much as it is letting your property fall into the hands of a stranger. The presence of the American cowboy suitor bottom lines this as well.

 

 

I know these sort of inferences could set people off and one common objection is that these conclusions rely on the implications of circumstance instead of openly stated intent. Again, with any art or anything created by someone, to put events and ideas close to each other in your work reveals that the author either thinks they’re connected or feels they’re connected. At a certain point, ignoring inference could lead to corrosive skepticism where you even interrogate sequential logic into nothingness. In other words, implied statements are still statements. In fact, I think any adult who has read Dracula would be hard-pressed not to pick up on this.

 

 

Anyway. The inversion: Vanessa, as a patient of Dr. Seward, is not something viewed from a distance- in fact, Seward furnishes an opportunity for explication and back story which further situates Vanessa as a protagonist. Renfield still retains his function in the basic story, as one of Dracula’s human thralls, but this time he’s Dr. Seward’s secretary. Even when Renfield is confronted and interrogated by Seward, his unlocked memories prove to be directly helpful to the search for Dracula. During Vanessa’s treatment, a moment of telepathic contact between the two women even establishes equality between doctor and patient.

 

 

Essentially, Penny Dreadful is attempting to reverse the portrayal of women in Bram Stoker’s novel while trying not to abandon the Christian framework altogether. While the role of Christianity in this story is handled with flexibility, the attitude of this fix-it fic isn’t altogether irreverent or dismissive of it. This could be that Christianity was simply too big a part of the Western imagination to completely leave out. Or maybe because the nineteenth century was a profound transitional moment in Western history, with evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and the rest of modern science as we know it beginning to threaten religion’s cultural supremacy.

In any case, Christianity isn’t just a force for evil in Penny Dreadful. It’s importance does fluctuate, though. At first the origin of Dracula and his disembodied brother are explained exclusively in the language of Christian mythology and then Kaetenay makes it clear that the Apaches are familiar with the same prophecy (is that true irl?  I dunno, I’m a different kind of Native), suggesting that all religions, like all humans, exist in the same world and therefore no single one can be the one true cipher. The flexibility also remains in the foreground by Vanessa’s struggle with her faith: she is embattled and feels committed to God, but since her stated belief is the most consistent expression of Christianity throughout all three seasons, it seems that Christianity has a bigger role with Vanessa alone rather than shaping the cosmology.

 

 

The presentation of the demon brothers emphasizes this neatly. The one that claims to be Satan will jump from body to body, taking and leaving different identities according to opportunity and usefulness. It’s possible that a few of the instances of possession in the first and second season could have been Dracula astrally projecting himself into another body, but it’s still obvious that while Dracula might come and go from his body, his soul has a mortal anchor. The soul of the second brother does not. One brother has a non-physical form that changes with circumstance and necessity, the other one may attempt this or that psychic ruse, but still retains a discrete, permanent identity. If we trust Dracula during his talk with Vanessa about vampire bats and nocturnal animals and his reverence for nature, then it seems like he doesn’t have very much conceit about himself. In his own eyes, he simply is what he was “born” as, nothing more or less. The plague unleashed by the embrace of Vanessa is an unavoidable consequence but not desirable.

 

 

Even though Penny Dreadful distances itself from Christianity near the end of the third season, the fact that the demon brothers were introduced to us initially as fallen angels pairs with the apocalyptic prophecy about Vanessa to keep the Biblical timeline of the universe at the front of the story, with the Edenic fall and the return of the kingdom of God on earth bracketing all of history. The second bracket, however, is pushed out of the way by Vanessa’s desire to protect the object of her affection. And the last image of the story is The Creature hanging out around Vanessa’s grave, taking us back to the relationship between the creator and the created.

The timeline of the world’s salvation, beginning with the fall from grace and ending with the return of God, is mandated by God, and this portrayal of it ends with humans standing up for their ability to both claim ownership of their lives and thereby achieve peace with death. The dignity of the mortal, tangible existence is affirmed over the immortal and intangible one, which Penny Dreadful talks about in terms of a creator learning reverence and love for the creation. Neither a divine timeline nor an unnatural and sadistic ideal for a mortal being can survive natural chaos, and even the meddling of self-appointed creators can be reconciled with nature when those that survive “creation” achieve the grace that comes with owning your history, feelings and unique truth.