In the previous text, I explored how the Arab Spring influenced the TV show creator Sam Esmail on setting up a story about the youth angst he found during that revolution, and how there would be a change of perspective from his side on those events. Mr. Robot is a TV show which suggested that anger may be a positive backbone towards societal equality, but at the same time wondered if that anger could had made things worse.
Critically, I would argue that part of the message is somewhat lost or blurred by Mr. Robot’s problems with pacing and mystery delivery, especially during season 2. A review from Matt Zoller (2016) provided a very interesting point of view: he argued that the TV show is at the same time brilliant in some moments while failing in its basic storytelling. Indeed, one of the perceived problems of Mr. Robot, especially striking in the second season, is how less tight it feels. For all the quite exciting TV show techniques, like setting up a 90’s sitcom excerpt with its own advertisements, the constant play between Elliot and the viewer, a season 2 premiere release before its official date under the pretense of a hacking attack, all the introduction segments for each episode becoming part of the narrative; there were also a lot of unresolved plots being established throughout the second season.
A co-occurring problem Mr. Robot has is that some of its tangential subplots developments coexist with more “unfair” attempts to hook the viewers up. Interestingly, Sam Esmail admitted in an interview (Bryant, 2015) he didn’t intend to make big surprises with the “revelations”, as he would aim focusing in character reaction to those twists (therefore their personal evolution throughout the TV show). But perhaps he misjudged the viewer’s guessing. Esmail’s expectation was that the audience was going to discover at the beginning Mr. Robot being a creation of Elliot and Darlene being Elliot’s sister, yet most of the audience were quite surprised by that revelation. In reality, however, the actual structure development of the show enticed a Lost mindset, which I would argue breaks the audience down. From Reddit’s group of the show, I found several people who believe some plot elements tie with time-travel phenomenon, namely the secret project surrounding the Washington Township facility. It even got to the point that Sam Esmail had to address this speculation, although critically he neither denied or confirmed a shift towards sci-fi (Egner, 2017; Sullivan, 2017). Let´s focus on the bedrock from this sci-fi interpretation.
The dialogue with sparked this fan-theory off can be found in the episode “eps2.3_logic_b0mb.hc”, in which Minister Zheng, of Chinese State Security, chats with Dom, and FBI agent, while in a party. Zheng wonders the following: “Let me ask, Miss DiPierro, have you ever wondered how the world would look if the Five/Nine hack never happened? How the world would look right now? In fact, some believe there are alternate realities playing out that very scenario, with other lives that we’re leading. Other people that we’ve become. The contemplation moves me very deeply.”
By itself, these lines could suggest indeed that Zheng, who is also the leader of the Dark Army, is working with some time-travel device. It would match the huge interest he had on keeping the Washington Township Plant, a nuclear facility, away from US federal hands. However, this interpretation critically misses the context from which it was presented. Zheng is another character from Mr. Robot having an identity conflict. As a Minister of State Security, Zheng is a regular male. However, Zheng is a façade for Whiterose, a transgender woman, who is leader of the Dark Army, a rogue organization of hackers. She holds art banned by the Chinese government, has a collection of select luxurious dresses (which she pretends they belong to a fake sister), and has a (male) love interest. The fact Whiterose has to hide her identity from such a controlling entity as the Chinese government while at the same time guiding Dark Army’s interests wonders how stressed she must be from holding this duality intact. Then, her dialog on multiple realities could refer to her wish live in another context in which she does not have to be Zheng. What’s important is that she talked to Dom about alternative realities just after showing to Dom her dresses, which Whiterose conceals to most people, again pointing towards her need to cover her identity. It may be tempting to connect the Washington Township Plant mystery with this dialogue, after all, is a resource to provide explanation of something unknown, but it’s a tragedy people follow this rationale and instead miss character development. Granted, this is only another interpretation, and dialogue from the s301 supports the notion that inside the facility there is work done on something related to time-travel or multiverses. However, I would argue it is utmost important to frame any events in relation to the story is it trying to be presented; so far it is about social inequality harming people, and how their anger can change that society.
The problem is that perhaps Mr. Robot creates such a mystery from its premise (I mean, we’re talking about whether a group of hackers can effectively take down E-Corp while at the same time avoiding getting played by the machinations of the Dark Army) that it misguides the viewer’s attention away from what the show can truly offer, which is its personal emotional drama. Maybe the issue with promoting symbolism and plot twists throughout the episodes entices the audience on going one step ahead from the writers and producers. And some of those hooks are not so clever as one might expect at first. Elliot’s reveal he was in prison during the first part of 2nd season wasn’t very shocking; Joanna’s subplot involving the murder of a witness did not showcase any new trait or facet from her character; the fake revelation of Elliot’s murdering Tyrell was quite obvious. And that’s a shame: when Mr. Robot just lets its characters to interact through their world, some powerful scenes appear and say more about the Elliot and society injustice than any other internal monologue from Elliot.
Take for instance the episode “Eps2.4 m4ster s1ave.aes”. There’s a scene between a young Elliot and his father, Edward: Elliot’s been picked up by his dad after he got into a fight. It already shows their level of bonding between them as Edward reassures Elliot kindly he’ll be there for him whenever he needs to talking. As a way to proof Edward’s degree of trust, he admits being fired from his software engineer position at E-Corp. Edward had gone absent for some work shifts in order to get medical checks. Edward, despite probably knowing by the doctors of his condition, remained confident to calm his son, and brought him to his what would be his next and self-employer workplace; a computer store. We know that Edward developed leukemia, leading to his death, and that the cancer was a result of toxic leaks in his workplace.
This, in my opinion, showcases a lot about both Elliot-Edward (and indirectly Mr. Robot) relationship and level of wrongdoing from E-Corp. Edward got a terminal disease which he had to hide from his company, as he would get fired. Unfortunately even the mere fact of seeking medical advice led him to be kicked out, leaving his whole family vulnerable to his medical debts. In one scene, we get a deeply intimate commentary of the consequences from a corporate culture which aims at squeezing the most of its employees until there is no life from them, and toss their remains, forgotten immediately in the company’s goal of greed. We also get another piece understanding Elliot, since in our position we know Edward’s death has probably shaped immensely Elliot’s personality; his only (so-far) social pillar crushed, promoting his trauma and avoidance behaviour and his thirst for revenge against E-Corp.
Everyone involved in the show creation truly wants to imagine what would happen to such an emotionally broken character in a contemporary western society when he is trying to destroy the system which marked him to his own tragedy. It really wants to explore the implications about what would occur when a group of people tries to shatter the current economic world. And it is aware enough to know this message comes from a capitalist, marketed production system, in which the show is promoted to Facebook while rising us the concerns of data privacy violation. At the same time, some of its political commentary explained in the ongoing season may be too hand-fisted and showcase a very explicit will from the creators to denounce Trump. Perhaps this TV show is at its best when it seemingly intermingles character development with discussion on social struggles. So far the third season has shown this indeed, however, it is worth noting the more sci-fi focus is going towards. Either way, it will be interesting watching how third season unfolds, which one way or another Mr. Robot will be worth discussing about.
Adrià Tàpia Córcoles
I would like to thank Dindia Gutmann for her editing assistance and Robin Willardt for the discussion provided, which inspired to write this text.
Adam Bryant (2015) Mr. Robot Postmortem: Has Elliot Finally Lost Control? TV guide. Retrieved from http://www.tvguide.com/news/mr-robot-season-1-finale-postmortem-sam-esmail/
Jeremy Egner (2017, October 11) ‘Mr. Robot’ Season 3 Premiere: Sam Esmail on Parallel Universes and President Trump. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/arts/television/mr-robot-season-3-premiere-sam-esmail.html
Darby Maloney (2016) ‘Mr. Robot’ creator Sam Esmail: How Arab Spring influenced his hit show. The Frame. Retrieved from http://www.scpr.org/programs/the-frame/2016/08/26/51640/mr-robot-creator-sam-esmail-how-arab-spring-influe/
Peter Russell (2016, September 22) MR. ROBOT Script Analysis – Pilot Episode – FULL VERSION. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY1Dl5ELSPg
Alan Seales (2015, June 6) Christian Slater & Sam Esmail: “USA’s Mr. Robot” | Talks at Google. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9aaTSn8qX8
Kevin P. Sullivan (2017, October 11) Mr. Robot creator on how ‘unprincipled and unfit’ Trump figures into new season. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://ew.com/tv/2017/10/11/mr-robot-trump-time-travel-season-3/
Robin Yassin-Kassab, Alaa Abd El Fattah, Ahdaf Soueif, Mourid Barghouti, Laila Lalami, Raja Shehadeh, … , Joumana Haddad (2016). ‘I was terribly wrong’ – writers look back at the Arab spring five years on. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/23/arab-spring-five-years-on-writers-look-back
Matt Zoller Seitz (2016). In Season Two, Mr. Robot’s Biggest Weakness Is Trying to Be Too Clever. Vulture TV review. Retrieved from http://www.vulture.com/2016/09/mr-robot-season-two-big-weakness-is-trying-to-be-too-clever.html