BY ALEX MCCOWN
A revolution is only what it means for those affected
“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” - Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics”
What do we want from revolution? Are we looking to unshackle ourselves from the forces we see as driving contemporary society? It depends of who you ask. To the contemporary leftist, the greatest threat to liberty and equality comes not from government—the traditional bugbear of oppression—but from the capitalist system of free enterprise that has allowed corporations to become more powerful than governments, and imaginary currencies more valuable than people. To the conservative, it is still the government that is encroaching on the freedoms of individuals, abetted by a totalitarian culture that supports the restricting of our ostensible freedoms in the name of tolerance and equality. Freedom and equality, in these admittedly reductive equations, are not supporting one another—they are opposing forces. We sacrifice the freedom to be unequal in our zealotry for equality. We lose our equality through the freedom of others to exploit and structure the economic and political system for the benefit of the few. We all just want, in the words of Fsociety, to be finally free.
But from what do we want to be free? For Elliot, it’s his past. When he said he wanted to save the world, he meant it, but what is the world, to him? It’s the psychological chains of his family, and his childhood. It’s the emotional toll of holding himself accountable for the actions of a troubled father and an abusive mother. It’s the guilt with which he has burdened himself. Elliot’s world is a constant tug-of-war between the demands of an angry separate identity, and the very simple, very human desire of Elliot to live a life of not hurting anyone, especially himself. He wants that struggle to end, to have a peace that can saturate his life and his mind. That’s the world he wants to save. Fsociety doesn’t just mean “fuck society, because global capitalism is an oppressive regime that breeds poverty and despair,” the way Trenton, Darlene, and the others assume. It means—quite differently—fuck society, because society isn’t what’s important. Family, intimacy, and identity are what’s important.
Unfortunately, those can’t be disentangled from capitalism. Elliot ultimately had to reshape the world to remake himself. And just as it’s unclear what’s going to happen next, no matter the erasure of the debt record, it’s uncertain what’s going to happen to Elliot. The hack wasn’t the conclusion of the story. It was the scales dropping from our hero’s eyes, showing him that he doesn’t even know what the story is, because he doesn’t know himself. Elliot has simply revealed the gap at the heart of himself, and it’s being filled by the only materials he has, the very ones he was trying to banish. “I want you to leave,” he cries, only to have the younger version of himself smile and respond, “You can’t leave us, and we can’t leave you.” Who we are is the accumulated receptacle of our encounters with the world, and no hack can delete that. All that can happen is we hurt ourselves, the way Elliot did, by slicing off pieces of our identity. We don’t all have the ability to manifest a wholly separate identity, like Elliot. Most of us stick to the small lies: “I’m not really who I am at work/with my parents/in public/etc.,” as we select our own narrative of our true selves.
When Elliot tries to make them disappear by insisting that Mr. Robot and the family don’t exist, that it’s not real, Mr. Robot plays the trump card: “Neither is whoever you’re talking to.” Sure, none of this is real—which, to put it another way, means that all of it is real. “Are you? Is any of this real?,” he continues, knowing that by interceding between us and Elliot, he can force him to listen. And yet, what he then says is almost beside the point. Mr. Robot launches into the spiel that supposedly gives purpose and intent to the Fsociety movement, but it doesn’t matter. Yes, he’s right—the world has been bought and sold into submission, people have been narcotized into thinking capitalism is inevitable, when it’s actually a tool of the powerful that can be upended, and so on and so forth. The show brilliantly splices his little radical rants into soundbite-sized pieces, the better to quietly undermine the significance of the words. Everything he’s saying might be accurate, and none of our life experiences are real anymore, but if that’s true, it includes him and his revolution. How real can they be?
Because men in power will always try to find their harp players, their roaring fireplaces, their luxuries. The post-credits scene with Phillip Price and Whiterose (no longer looking quite so feminine—ah, the fluidity of power, it always finds a way to adapt) is a testament to that sadistic confidence in the face of destruction. Price, as he revealed to Angela, is a firm believer in the Nietzschean will to power. Weak men disgust him. And he reminds her that he is the head of a multinational conglomerate that is in league with every dominant power structure on Earth. “Matters like this tend to crack under that weight,” he reminds her. Indeed, he would find much common cause with Mr. Robot—how real is this revolution?
The scenes of rebellion, and the music cues of fiery punk, are stereotypical signifiers on the surface, that kind of thing that would normally indicate some sort of joyous “fuck the man” insurrection in Hollywood films and network TV shows. But look and listen to the ringing of the revolution: It’s hollow. That frenetic song playing while Darlene, Mobley, Trenton, and Romero burn the evidence of their hack? “People Who Died,” by the Jim Carroll Band. The people all in masks, marching through Times Square, don’t end up burning anything down. They end up looking right into the camera. For all the good Fsociety has wrought in the world, it still hasn’t brought down the system. Mr. Robot undermines the solidity of this revolution, even as it defends its necessity. Maybe this will change, but Price doesn’t see it that way.
Whereas poor Angela doesn’t know what she sees. She took the job at Evil Corp, but she doesn’t know what it means, yet. She’s in public relations, a symbolically fitting department for someone who believed in revealing to the public what happens behind closed doors. And one of her very first tasks ends in death, as her boss blows his brains out on national television. It traumatizes her, but—in an unsettling turn of events—it also numbs her, anesthetizes her to the feeling that she has somehow capitulated in the face of an unstoppable machine. She can’t figure out what they want with her yet, but that curiosity drives her to shake off the suicide that bloodied her shoes, and attend the afternoon press conference.
And it begins: That same spark of resistance and righteousness that allowed her to stand up against Evil Corp in the first place, is now in the service of the company that killed her mother. So when an anonymous shoe salesman tries to shame for her choice, she snaps back. “I don’t know who you think you’re taking to, but I’ll try the Pradas next.” It’s a satisfying bark, but in service of what? A company she no attachment to? The slight widening of her eyes after she takes pleasure in dressing him down is the realization that her outburst served no cause but her ego. Angela’s not used to having to defend the indefensible. But until she knows what she’s gotten involved with, she can’t stop.
Which is the opposite of Darlene, who—in the mysterious absence of Tyrell Wellick—is the closest to a mirror image of Elliot there is for this revolution. Where he sees it all as a mistake, she sees victory. Where the success of the hack exposed the hole in the heart of his identity, it patched something up for her. “This isn’t about tomorrow,” she tells the team, and it’s true. This is about the past. This is about Darlene feeling like she accomplished something essential. And sure, maybe she dressed it up in the veneer of Fsociety, like Elliot, but she wanted to save the world, too. Only we’re not yet privy to Darlene’s world. It feels like she’s atoning for something, some past that had haunted her, some failing she could put to bed by pulling off the mission. As she looks out on the “End Of The World Party,” she lets slip a small, contented smile. “We’re finally awake,” she says, quietly and mostly to herself. “We’re finally alive.” It’s a rare moment of quiet beauty, right up until you remember she’s quoting exactly Fsociety’s masked insurrectionist, enjoining the world to join them. That’s when it hits: The true voice of Fsociety was never Elliot, who isn’t even sure what his own voice sounds like. It’s Darlene.
Like Elliot, we still don’t know what happened, but we’re trying our best to infer from the bits and pieces of information left in the aftermath. While presidents and prime ministers frantically try to restore the old order, Elliot’s left looking for the only one who could make sense of the previous three days: Tyrell Wellick. But the insecure murderer is nowhere to be found, raising worrying questions about just what Elliot has been up to, other than triggering the hack that’s in the process of bringing down Evil Corp. He’s been sleeping in Tyrell’s SUV, with no indication of why or to what end. But it’s awfully telling that the music playing as Elliot wanders the halls of Evil Corp, looking for his frenemy, sounds like nothing so much as a comical waltz. This is a dance, the show is suggesting, but Elliot doesn’t realize he’s dancing. Elliot wants to get off the dance floor, to look into the eyes of that masked figure on the TV and understand what transpired. But he’s jumping the gun, again. Elliot may be trying to get over the past, but the past keeps becoming the present.
There’s a giant question mark hanging over the end of the season, and not just because it cuts to the end credits right as Elliot is opening the door to his unknown visitor. It’s a question of how seriously we are intended to take this revolution. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show so deliberately goose viewers with appeals to simple passion, getting the blood boiling with exciting imagery and sound, only to undercut it at every possible opportunity. The show has no more faith in revolution than Elliot does in us. It sees the overthrow of rapacious, greedy capitalism as a necessity, just as Elliot requires our unseen presence, but it doesn’t trust what comes of that. (”What do you remember? Wait, I don’t even trust you,” Elliot says to us early on.)
Gideon’s CFO might say it the most succinctly: A conversation about money is always a depressing conversation. It’s inevitable, and awful, and it runs our lives in terrible ways. And yet, it can only ever be a stand-in for the emotional scars that truly wound: Our families, and friends, and ethics, and morals, are inextricably bound up within a system that regularly asks us to place the ignoble and anonymous accumulation of wealth above these emotional ties, and that disjuncture wreaks havoc on our internal lives. But those wounds would still be there, outside of this system. It makes things worse, true, but it’s not the end-all of our turmoil. Who we are is not determined by us. It’s the end product of a thousand external influences, all changing us in immeasurable ways. By trying to save the world, we’re only ever trying to save ourselves. And when we no longer know who we are, it’s impossible to know if we’re on the side of good.
- I was surprised to see the entire pre-credits sequence dedicated solely to setting the table for season two. Having that worm Lenny try and rally Krista to his cause, only to learn the fall of Estonia might give him the chance he needs to go after Elliot, was an unexpected turn. It’ll be interesting to see if Krista’s refusal to participate means she’s coming around to Elliot’s way of thinking.
- Did you notice that Elliot’s final subway ride home was exactly the same framing as that in “wh1ter0se,” right down to the woman with the parrot on her shoulder?
- Elliot’s meeting with Joanna Wellick might have been the most intriguing scene of the whole episode, even as it gave us almost nothing concrete. Elliot’s suspicions suggest further layers to the relationship with Wellick: “I feel like she can hear us.” I’m still not convinced Wellick is another aspect of Elliot, as some of you are, but it’s an exciting development.
- Phillip Price continues to be the most impressively off-putting human in existence. “You need some new shoes.”
- Mr. Robot getting the guy in the cafe to punch him—and by extension, Elliot—felt a little unnecessary, but it sure was fun.
- Also, that tracking shot in the post-credits sequence was gorgeous.
- “I was only supposed to be your prophet; you were supposed to be my God.” Mr. Robot sounds like no one so much as he does Tyrell Wellick, with this line. Remember Wellick telling his wife they should’ve been looking up, to God? Yeah, I get the impression Tyrell and Mr. Robot were entirely too friendly with one another.
- I want to thank everyone for reading, and commenting, and getting into lengthy Twitter debates, for the past couple of months. It’s been a blast watching this show with all of you. Mr. Robot is one of the best new shows I’ve seen in years, and having the chance to dissect it with such smart readers has been a treat. Since our coverage started with episode three, for the next two weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of episodes one and two on Wednesday nights, just to give us a chance to go back and relive how it all started, and see what looks different now. I’ll see you on Twitter, in the comments, and—without a doubt, because I am hooked—next season.