The Brilliance of Mr Robot: Internal Voices, Reality & Desire
There are never any sure signs by means of which being awake
can be distinguished from being asleep.
can be distinguished from being asleep.
We live in a world based on fantasies. Delusions. Deception. Is any of it real?
I've been obsessed with Mr Robot from the moment I first set my eyes on it during an intensive midnight 'zapping' session; religiously holding on to the remote control without a specific goal in mind or with any intention on settling on something. However the moment Mr Robot appeared on the screen, I was fixed. Hooked. I didn't really understood it at first (I entered in the middle of -what later appeared to be- episode 8), but from what I saw -and interpreted- I could tell that this was something special. Something different than all of the other programmes I'd zapped passed that midnight. It was rich. In story. In cinematogrophy. In acting. As said, I was immediately hooked. Obsessed.
There are a million and one things I could discuss in this post. However I've tried to restrain myself on three topics: internal voices, reality and desire. These three topics, I believe, play a very important role in the Mr Robot world.
Hello, friend. Hello, friend? That's lame. Maybe I should give you a name. But that's a slippery slope. You're only in my head. We have to remember that.
Mr Robot is about Elliot Alderson (played by the wonderful Rami Malek), "just a tech" by day and hacker by night. Although it must be said that the distinction between these two (so "just a tech" vs hacker and day vs night) gradually overlap one another. Elliot basically hacks everyone. It's perhaps his way of 'connecting', but more about that later. First let us concentrate on the main way of communication between Elliot and us as an audience. Because oh yeah, he's very much aware of our presence -to some extend. The first words uttered on screen sets up a very particular premise. We don't know what happened before our arrival or how we've come into this situation in the first place (which will be a running theme throughout the season). All we know is that we're imaginary. Not real. We have to remember that.
So what does this mean? Well, as we all suspect: Elliot is an unreliable narrator. By seeing everything from his point of view we're already 'compromised' with a singular angle. We're part of a certain construction we can't elope from. We are not part of him, as he clearly demonstrates by specifically naming us, or referring to us, as his imaginary friend. By doing this he creates involvement and detachment at the same time. Intimacy and distance. It also gives his stream of consciousness a particular outlet. And it could be questioned whether this interior monologue is all the monologue he exposes or expresses, or that 'we' are only kept in the loop when specifically addressed to -as shown in multiple cases where he happily skips a moment, a day, a month etc. without keeping in touch with us. Therewith not only keeping us detached from his character for a certain amount of time, but also actually 'hiding' information from us. See for instance episode 8 when he's trying to remove the Honey pot from the system, and quite literally hides information from us -briefly- where he leaves us hanging in suspense whether or not he succeeded. The same goes actually for the season finale where we only pick up the story 3 days after the big hack had taken place, missing the whole thing. Of course he couldn't remember it either, but it goes to show once more that he's an unreliable narrator. This playing with time, skipping -what seems to be- important moments or something that's been build up to over the entire season (yes big hack, I'm talking to you), is what makes the story interesting in the first place. You don't know what to expect even though you're inside the head of the main character. Intimacy and distance.
Damn she's infected me with her time paranoia. We all live in each other's paranoia.
You definitely can argue that.
You definitely can argue that.
The game we're constantly playing is 'who's in control'? Well, we are certainly not in control. Or are we? We're just observers. Very limited observers. Again, the show -arguably Elliot- plays with our perception. By being dishonest to his friends, his colleagues, us and to himself, can lead to such plottwists as Mr Robot (played by the fantastic Christian Slater) actually being Elliot himself. The 'unknowingness' or 'unawareness' (or 'denial') serve greatly to the overall storyline, especially because he dragged us down with him. This not only sets you up for plot twists, but also keeps you in a way 'grounded'. You don't outgrow Elliot by 'leaving' him (or him leaving you), because it either drives the story further within our perception or we're actually still on the same level due to the multiple layers this show consists out of. And most interestingly our role or status doesn't change that much because of this. Even after the big reveal that Mr Robot is actually Elliot and vice versa, you still maintain within the stream of consciousness of Elliot. Still differentiating Elliot from Mr Robot, Mr Robot from you and you from Elliot.
You are going to make me say it, aren't you? I am Mr Robot.
This big reveal -Mr Robot being Elliot- is naturally something that can be compared to the film Fight Club, where the narrator is also being confronted with this duality or layering of his persona or perception of selfhood. 'Who am I if I am you?', is a very good question at this point. As Elliot also does (multiple times actually, even before the reveal). First of all he blames us, as a second or maybe even third -considering Mr Robot was there before us- party of his 'existence' ("I should never have created you"). However, how do we actually know Mr Robot was there before us? He only meets him after he addressed us and our existence. Thereby, in Fight Club the narrator wishes to be like Tyler Durden (the alter ego of himself, the imagined persona), but Elliot doesn't want to be like Mr Robot (because he's crazy. Although he [Elliot] also condemns himself for being crazy). He actually tries to disconnect himself in the first place from Mr Robot and it's only after their relationship grows that he 'accepts' his existence. Or maybe even better: appreciates his existence (hotel room scene, anyone?). As Jason Jones states on his blog in regards to Elliot and 'inner' Elliot (us): "This isn't an inner monologue. This is Elliot talking to himself as if inner Elliot is going to respond. (...) There is a sense by the end of the second episode that inner Elliot is the take action part of Elliot's personality that the real him wishes he were. Inner Elliot is what decided that Ron of Ron's Coffee, Michael Hanson and Fernando Vega had to be taken down. So in this case, inner Elliot is the Tyler Durden of the analogy." Dramatic music is in place. However before the big reveal of Mr Robot's identity he says "they are going to try and get rid of me again", which implies he was here before 'us', only Elliot can't remember it like everything else... (therewith the big hack was already taken shape before Elliot's arrival -which coincides with the idea that Mr Robot is clearly being differentiated from Elliot. He's 'taken over' his body which results in Elliot not able to remember what happened in the first place, because it wasn't him).
Do I even exist? See me, Elliot Alderson. I am here. Now I'm gone.
A very interesting notion to this is Gilles Deleuze's (philosopher, 1925-1995) ideas on thinking as an 'event' that happens to us: "It is not something that is grounded on a decision; thinking is not the cataloguing of different external objects. Thinking invades us. Indeed there's no 'us', no subject or individual, that precedes and controls the act of thought. There is thinking, and it is from events of thought that we assume that there was some subject, or common sense, that was their author." Deleuze says that thought is not something fully owned or decided, "thinking resides in an unthought element", and hereby we could argue that the 'conversations' between us (or inner Elliot) and himself are chosen moments to communicate a certain feeling.
Why does it matter, I don't know what's real anymore.
It's very hard to determine within the world of Mr Robot whether something is real or not. There are even theories online that say that nothing is real about the show, which is naturally true to some extend. We're talking about fictional characters in a fictional world shown on television (Ceci n'est pas une pipe, amiright?). However disregarding that or better: accepting the fact that the show creates its own reality, its own existence (aka 'the world of Mr Robot'), I don't -personally- think that every character and all aspects shown are a matter of illusions or delusions. As an article of Business Insider puts it in regards to the finale of the show: "If the hack was imagined by Elliot, then the whole show is imagined by Elliot. And while Elliot is surely an unreliable narrator, there's no suggestion that the entire reality of the show doesn't exist." Therewith, the reality of the show is based on the reality of this one guy, of Elliot. We're 'part' you could say, or are lead through this world from his perspective and perception of it. A constant -and almost literal- reminder of this fact (even when we're not directly talked at or Elliot isn't even in the scene) is the ongoing alteration of E Corps into Evil Corps.
Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven't lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century. We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMO's while we tossed the remnants in the ever-expanding dumpster of the human condition.
As an unreliable narrator, Elliot is surely not only playing a game with us, but mostly with himself (due to definitely a psychological dysfunction and probably a severe dissociative disorder). But also with us. In a way. I think in episode 7 this gets to be explored more when Elliot 'confesses' he hadn't talked to us for about a month after Shayla's murder. Basically we've missed out on a lot of things. Which begs the question: how often do we miss out? How often are we kept in the dark (on purpose or because he simply hadn't talked or thought about us)?
But now, confronted with the reality, I must say I'm disapointed.
Therewith, in the same episode it becomes quite clear what Elliot's view is on reality; most importantly on being your 'true self'. Because, I would argue, what's real or not can be based upon the idea whether you're pretending or not. Putting up a facade, perhaps, which can be unravelled and showcased as being the truth (or more truth than you've shown before). And Elliot sees this as the definition of 'true self' (and therewith a creation of the 'real' reality). When Gideon goes on about how Shayla's death shouldn't cut him off from his feelings and connection with other people where he could be his 'true self' around, we 'inner Elliot' are being addressed and see the workpalce and his colleagues wearing signs around their neck with -according to Elliot- their 'true self' on show (in comparison or even contrast to the 'self' they portray in everyday life). This self is being redundant to a few words ("I am Bulimic", "I'm scared of sex", "I pretend to love my husband"). The self or 'true self' in this case is seen as the secret you don't particularly want to share with the rest of the world. Or at least not your co-workers (as we all naturally can guess where Elliot is basing this information on). Hereby his reality is constructed not only through differentiating himself from others, but more specifically by the idea -his idea- of the concept of 'true self'. And in his mind this being perhaps the (single) 'obscurity' that actually narrows, or better: alienates his 'reality' from that of someone else. This is also very important to think about when confronted with a reality that does or does not exist. As Christian Slater said in an interview: "I'm as real as Elliot makes me out to be."
I understand what it's like to be different. I'm very different too. I mean,
I don't jerk off to little kids... But I don't know how to talk to people.
His perception of 'the other' and therewith 'the self' is almost solidly constructed through technology. When he tries to hack himself, to find out who he is, he finds nothing. Which makes him conclude that he has no identity (and therewith a serious crisis of 'self'), "I'm a ghost." When he wants to find out something or wants to (or better: tries to) connect with someone, he does this via a screen and not a face. Which is also a message that for instance Rami Malek has stated throughout multiple interviews. This show is as much about the intrigue and techy stuff as it is about social connection (and how the techy stuff actually has reduced the social part of it).
Spamming each other with our burning commentary bullshit masquerading as insight.
Our social media faking intimacy.
Our social media faking intimacy.
As already touched upon above, I think the desire for change and the desire for human connection are the two main 'themes' in this series. Besides naturally the question whether a connection is real or not (say Mr Robot and Elliot or -more cynical- anyone and Elliot), the actual connection is being put into question. The connection is being searched for through technology and in many ways distantiates one persone more from another. First of all you -Elliot- becomes an onlooker of society, of human behaviour, while 'safely' tucked away in the dark while his face is being lit by the computer screen(s). And this idea of connection, or perhaps desire for connection -as Deleuze would say- is in this sense a negative; a lack. A lack of (real) human connection -and perhaps the lack of change- is what brought 'us' to this world. To the creation of Elliot.
The disconnection of the characters within the world of Mr Robot is made very clear through cinematography (and arguably use of colour). I've read somewhere (but don't know where anymore, sorry), that they on porpuse chose for very wide lenses and a lot of space -room- for the person on screen. As you can see, and pick onto (although perhaps not immediately consciously), is that first of all it's very rare to see two characters at the same time in the same shot; it constantly focuses on one person at the time (disconnected literally through the framing of the camera). Secondly as I already mentioned, when someone is in shot they've got a lot of play room around them and therewith: they are mostly standing in a corner of the screen. Again: no connection, almost literally through imagery. Within a conversation you can get the feeling that they both move within other spaces. May this therefore be the literal space we see on our screen, but also again the underlying idea of disconnection: no one connects with eachother on a physical level as well as on a mental level. As Christian Slater said in an interview: "And as much as it is a show about technical issues and things happening in our world, it's definitely about human beings and interaction and how we relate to each other and how we're kind of isolated and cut off as a result of technology."
Everyday we change the world. But to change the world in a way that means anything that takes more time than most people have. It never happens all at once. It's slow. It's methodical. It's exhausting. We don't all have the stomach for it.
In her book Understanding Deleuze, Claire Colebrook writes about his -Gilles Deleuze's- main ideas that are to be found within his work. The following, I think, is quite similar to the goal of Mr Robot (and basically why the big hack is made operational in the first place):
"The orthodox Marxist position maintained that if there were an economic revolution -if the people rather than the market controlled production- then all our ideological illusions would be swept away. We would no longer be subject to the capitalist illusion that the market is free and fair and that we are all equal in the marketplace; our ideas would be liberated once we were freed from the ruthlessness of the market and exploitation. Phenomenology and existentialism put human meaning before material or economic forces; if we want to change our world we need to change the way we think. We need to transform the very structure of our ideas."*
The idea or need for change, the desire, is something that resonates very strongly especially within the character of Mr Robot (and naturally not to forget Darlene, the sister of Elliot, played by the marvelous Carly Chaikin). While Elliot takes a more nuanced look; trying to make himself belief he could live a 'normal life' watching superhero movies and drinking Starbucks. Spoiler alert: he can't. And soon enough decides he wants (or: wanted) to safe the world. To make a (real) change.
I'm very curious where season two will bring us. From what I've seen so far it will take us places. Dark places. OOoooOOOoooOOoooh.....
*To cite the famous Michel Foucault (French Philosopher and teacher of Gilles Deleuze): 'the 21st century is going to be Deleuzian'. This in relation to the popularity of the show and its 'proven' ability to sort of predict the future (we all should watch out for Sam Esmail), this sentiment -that of the quote mentioned above- really resonates with me together with the recent developments within world wide politics. And more interestingly: the reactions of the 'common man' towards those (political) developments and choices laid in 'their' (and perhaps 'our') hands. 'Are you a one or a zero?', is perhaps a way too easy question to ask if there's no presumption made beforehand what the consequences of those actions will be. Naturally we can't predict the future (and Sam -I may say Sam- is just freakishly in sync with the (to be) played out developments and is therefore not, in fact, a fortune teller), but we can try to inform ourselves as best as we can. Beforehand. Therewith: this doesn't just mean to open Google and type in any question you might have, as stated above, this calls for a change in our way of thinking. The bits and bobs I've seen from the second season so far, I sense, goes sort of further into this. Especially the preview of Darlene for season 2 gives off such vibes, not necessarily of failure, but of a struggle ("We didn't finish them off").
What I'm wearing: Top - H&M (old) / Shorts - Made by me / Fur collar - Made by me / Beret - Thrift Store / Shoes - H&M (old) /
Sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / And: Understanding Deleuze by C. Colebrook