BY KENNY HERNOG
Spoilers ahead for every episode of Mr. Robot so far.
Despite centering on an archetypal outsider (Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson), Mr. Robot is an extraordinarily inclusive experience, typified by creator Sam Esmail’s transparency about its tele-cinematic influences. His USA Network hacker thriller seduces you with familiar tropes and touchstones from the oeuvres of Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher, among others, but keeps you watching and guessing with a wholly original parable for humanity’s greatest hopes and shortcomings. And within all that, there’s one fun little mystery in particular that fans and critics have been trying to decrypt: Is Elliot in fact root-kit kingpin Mr. Robot? Or, at the very least, is Christian Slater’s personification of him Elliot’s own personal Tyler Durden?
This Wednesday’s episode at least revealed what most of us suspected: that Slater is, in some form, a doppelgänger of Elliot’s father. But, naturally, there’s still ambiguity surrounding whether the elder Alderson is an actual or imagined fragment of Elliot’s reality. So in the rabbit-hole-inspiring spirit of Mr. Robot’s storytelling, we’ve fastidiously combed through each episode for evidence that suggests proof positive, or contrary to, Elliot and the show’s titular meddler being two sides of the same damaged soul.
Proof Positive: No one on the subway even flinches as a lounging, vagabond Christian Slater sizes Elliot up and nudges him about it being “an exciting time, kiddo.”
But Then Again … New Yorkers are hardwired to steadfastly ignore all mass-transit weirdos.
Proof Positive: Slater is seen panhandling for change from the ominous corporate dudes Elliot thinks are stalking him, but next time he glances over, Slater’s gone!
But Then Again … Slater could have been pursuing him and scurried off in the half-minute or so during which Elliot was doing his due diligence on Krista's crappy boyfriend.
Proof Positive: In their second underground encounter, Slater and Elliot are the only two men on an empty subway train. There's even a billboard inquiring, "How do you sleep at night?" You ask us, and Elliot's either dreaming or in some sort of fugue state.
But Then Again … We, and Elliot, observe that Slater's jacket sports a patch reading "Mr. Robot: Computer Repair With a Smile!" So, there it is: He's Mr. Robot, end of story. Or is it just the beginning?
Proof Positive: Slater’s smoking on the subway platform! That is not permitted in the city of New York.
But Then Again … It’s a cleaner New York, but the cops can’t be everywhere.
Proof Positive: The camera shows us Elliot making his way down an alley, and it sure felt like he was guiding himself.
But Then Again … Slater’s the one we see open a door to the alleyway and rap on the door of Fsociety’s hangout for Romero to open.
Proof Positive: Romero only looks at Elliot when he opens the door for him and Slater.
But Then Again … Maybe Romero was just sizing up the new guy.
Proof Positive: Elliot asks Darlene, “Where’s your boss?” to which she rolls her eyes and remarks, “Cut the bullshit. When are you gonna give us access to the root directory?” 'Cause, ya know, he’s the boss. Plus, Slater happens to first arrive only after Darlene wastes her butt and heads inside. Case closed!
But Then Again … She could genuinely just want the location of where he rerouted her root kit, and as Slater points out, they come and go when they please and mostly ignore one another.
Proof Positive: After receiving a round of applause from Fsociety for his hacking aplomb, Slater fires off shots in a quasi–Duck Hunt arcade game called Mallard Murder, but only Elliot reacts to the startling noise.
But Then Again … The camera cuts to Slater with a fuzzy Elliot in the foreground after the first shot goes off. Not to mention all the other techies might be nonplussed by Slater’s antics by now. More important, Slater steps between Elliot and Darlene when she asks about the status of Steel Mountain, and he encourages patience. Darlene even rebuts, and Mobley backs her up by assuring, “The lines are clean, boss.” (But then again, they could simply be filling in the silence of Elliot’s actual non-reply, and he could be the stoic “boss” in question. Zoinks.)
Proof Positive: After the above debrief, Elliot and Slater conveniently slink over to the concession stand and confer in private. Slater even reveals that Elliot is (again, conveniently) “the first” one privy to Fsociety’s plans for destroying Evil Corp data-storage center Steel Mountain.
But Then Again … It’s not as if two grown men can’t kibitz as and where they wish, nor unthinkable that Slater would select Elliot as the linchpin of his latest operation. It’s all a series of tests, after all.
Proof Positive: Elliot totally launched himself off that boardwalk rail after the worst self-help pep talk any traumatized man messing with his meds could muster. Also, wouldn’t some of those kids on the benches have caught Slater in the act?
But Then Again … Why bother lingering on Slater after Elliot’s been presumably knocked unconscious, while he observes that Elliot “didn’t commit to the sacred pact you formed”? And would Elliot really take the leap mid-thought like that? As far as onlookers go, let’s be real: Someone could have been performing bestiality yards away and it wouldn’t have pried Brooklyn preteens from their iPhones.
Proof Positive: After Elliot and Gideon have a heart-to-heart, Elliot finds Slater kicking back in an Allsafe cubicle. The two have a testy, profane conversation that nearly comes to blows, yet no one in the office bats an eye. Come to think of it, how did he get past security to begin with?
But Then Again … Let’s assume he found some way to counter that last conundrum. (Otherwise, it’s the most irrefutable demonstration yet that Slater’s Mr. Robot might be pure imagination.)
Proof Positive: Bartender looks at Elliot sideways for ordering an appletini, even though Slater’s already slurping one down beside him. For that matter, the drink-slinger doesn’t even acknowledge Slater.
But Then Again … A bartender doing the day shift at some no-name juke joint isn’t exactly all smiles, and he may have rightly been flummoxed as to how yet another customer at his dive craved an afternoon appletini.
Proof Positive: While looking at Steel Mountain blueprints, Slater wedges himself between Elliot and Darlene and reiterates, “You sure you don’t wanna just blow it up?” to utter crickets from the crew.
But Then Again … Hey, these guys are in deep concentration here. No time for sidebar snark.
Proof Positive: Slater backs Romero’s hunch that Elliot’s useless until he kicks his morphine withdrawal, but Romero doesn’t even seem to register the second opinion.
But Then Again … How did that second pillow get behind Elliot’s head?!
Proof Positive: While Elliot endures withdrawal in his hotel room, Romero, Mobley, and Slater debate their options. From Elliot’s bedside, Slater’s disembodied voice insists on no hospitals. Romero votes to move on without Elliot, angrily retorting back in that direction about how he (whomever that “he” might be) “said all the time there’s casualties in every revolution. What matters is the end result.” He glances at Mobley for approval before Slater, now on-camera, abruptly shouts, “Fine, you wanna leave? Leave!” You ask us, and that jarring last word from Slater was Elliot’s fantasy of his protector intervening, and Romero was already on his way out the door.
But Then Again … That pillow! Seriously though, it could be as innocuous as Slater being their leader, Mr. Robot, avower of mandates about end results and prone to ill temper. And anything about disembodied, unattributable voices is overthinking it. 'Cause why skew paranoid when it comes to this show?
Proof Positive: In his withdrawal delirium, Elliot has an arguably prescient fever dream wherein he confronts his destiny and duality as the face of Fsociety.
But Then Again … Amid the same hallucinatory episode, a drug dealer overtly acknowledges Slater; Elliot’s fish can talk; and he and Angela enjoy a romantic meal behind Allsafe cubicles. So, while artistically worthy ofRequiem for a Dream, the sequence can’t be entirely trusted as a mirror of truth.
Proof Positive: Slater’s in the backseat of Fsociety’s van as they infiltrate Steel Mountain, barking orders over Romero and Mobley’s shoulders to Elliot via his earpiece. Romero and Mobley don’t so much as flinch, budge, react, or recoil at him shouting obstinately in their eardrums while they’re trying to focus.
But Then Again … Theoretically, they could be so in the zone nothing short of actually blowing up the joint as Slater so desired would shake them up.
Proof Positive: Elliot so happens to be blurred out, ghostlike in the background of Fsociety HQ, as Darlene fesses up to Slater that she bungled the Dark Army connect. Slater goes into a rage and becomes further incensed when she threatens to unleash their beta plan without backup. It’s then Slater who recedes and hazy Elliot comes into clear view, entering the frame with a reassuring approach toward Darlene, who unsuccessfully appeals to Elliot to “tell me to hit execute.” Mr. Hyde relented to Dr. Jekyll (though they co-exist in Elliot’s skin), and crisis was averted as Darlene deferred to Elliot/Mr. Robot’s compassionate self.
But Then Again … Darlene could have been having it out with Slater, who is Mr. Robot — plain and simple — until Elliot tried a gentler approach, since he’s a gentle guy and all. Doth our sense deceive us?!
Proof Positive: Elliot’s being watched by Vera’s brother and one of his goons, i.e., his ostensible kidnappers. They allow him to step outside his building and talk to Angela, while under close scrutiny. Yet somehow, when he heads back inside, Slater’s there on the stairwell to confront him about playing ball with these lunatics to hack Vera out of jail. In the virtual world, Slater’s all but omnipresent, but à la the questions surrounding his appearance at Allsafe, since when can he casually pop up in heavily guarded physical spaces undetected? Forgetting that, wouldn’t Elliot’s captors get a bit antsy over the delay between Elliot bidding Angela adieu and reappearing in his apartment?
But Then Again … The somewhat-doofus-y bad guys keeping watch seem preoccupied with lamenting the state of Elliot’s CD collection, and are just stoned enough on the job to have somehow missed Slater sauntering through a fire escape or alternate entrance.
Proof Positive: Elliot’s been MIA since Shayla’s murder, making it awfully conspicuous that Darlene and Slater are having a tête-à-tête about the Dark Army’s elusive White Rose without Elliot anywhere in sight — a first for those two.
But Then Again … The number of apparently undeniable interpersonal exchanges between Darlene and Slater is piling up, and at what point do we begin to trust our eyes? Or why couldn’t Darlene have her own invisible friend, represented redundantly by Esmail as Slater? There are no rules!
Proof Positive: You mean to tell us that at the exact point when Elliot’s coming out of his self-imposed exile, Slater so happens to drop by Romero’s and give the “getting the gang back together” spiel? It’s getting harder to shake the fact that whether it’s Elliot or Slater on our TV (and regardless of whether they’re both in the scene), the other character(s) only sees Elliot. The boy’s personalities have done finally split.
But Then Again … Does Elliot seem like the type to pull guns on his colleagues and coerce with violence? Slater’s the loose cannon and Elliot’s the soft touch. That’s how this thing works, isn’t it?
Proof Positive: Refute this! Trenton explains her motivation for joining Fsociety to Darlene by contrasting them with everyone else’s. Darlene wants “momentary anarchy,” Mobley likes “palling around” (oh, Mobley), Romero craves a “whiff of fame,” but what about Mr. Robot? How come there’s no assessment of him? Because he is Elliot!
But Then Again … She doesn’t cite Elliot’s incentive either. Damn, this show’s good.
Proof Positive: Would White Rose (and all hail B.D. Wong, by the way) really meet in her Better Call Saul–approved, electro-magnetism-free lair with anyone but the Mr. Robot? P’shaw. Hardly.
But Then Again … She’s seen Elliot’s work and vetted him closely. He’ll do. (Yeah, we’re not persuaded by that reasoning either.)
Proof Positive: Far as we know, Elliot should be Tyrell’s lone link to Fsociety and its whereabouts. And based on what we’ve started to deduce from the timing of Elliot’s absence with Slater’s sudden on-screen autonomy, one can posit that it’s Elliot whom Tyrell sees beside him in that SUV, and that this back and forth is the latest volley in a highly volatile game of leader and follower. In fact, Tyrell, for all his insecurities, seems to genuinely see through Elliot in a way no one else does. Putting all that aside, Tyrell rushes home from his clandestine meeting and rants to his weirdo wife about the Allsafe tech who can help him see God. Check. Mate.
But Then Again … Tyrell’s all but cracked up, and it’s difficult to comprehend his end gains or grasp on things when he’s feeling in control. (Flimsier yet, we know.)
Proof Positive: Darlene just shook up Elliot’s world by reminding him she’s his sister, for the umpteenth time in their adult lives. Now he’s in full free fall and processing his myriad, divergent coping identities at way too fast a speed. He sees Slater’s face (and Angel’s, and Tyler’s — ack!) in his mirror. Are they all him, or merely the relationships he’s taken on under all his different personalities? He hacks himself, but he doesn’t exist. A blank CD in his collection unlocks folders of images making it plain that Slater is his father, frozen in time, down to the dusty Mr. Robot jacket. They’re heartbreaking, but also undeniable. Elliot’s got some ’splainin to do, but mostly to himself. There’s a knock on the door. Enter: Mr. Robot.
But Then Again … His dad could be alive. And have preserved his likeness incredibly well. Can Elliot hack a man back to life? Okay, it’s not that kind of show.
Our Verdict: Slater’s Mr. Robot is Esmail’s surrogate for at least one of Elliot’s other selves, as much as he’s a devil and angel whom Elliot consults and confides in. It arguably appears that Elliot is aware of the show itself messing with his head to tell its own narrative. But in Slater’s scenes with Romero, Darlene, Tyrell, and others, his Mr. Robot has duly functioned as a serviceable stand-in for their own anxiety. The question, at this point, is less whether Elliot and Slater are a singular character yoked by intertwining backstory than whether anyone — be it Elliot, Darlene, Tyrell, Esmail, or us — can claim ownership over Mr. Robot. He is, as much as anything, an idea, and he is everywhere.