BY DARREN FRANICH
How did Donald Trump get elected? Ask that question in a dinner party, or yell it in a crowded room, or ponder it in the dark of an insomniac night. Everyone has an answer: Conspiracy, revolution, old-fashioned racism, new-fangled innovation, misogyny, patriotism, the silent majority, the one-percent elite, JD Vance, George Orwell, Mark Burnett, Silicon Valley, Russia.
Mr. Robot has its own theories. In the third season premiere, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) wanders the streets of a New York. The city’s in a bad way: A power outage, an economic collapse, all of it caused by a gigantic hack that essentially constitutes an act of domestic terrorism. The year is 2015, but in creator Sam Esmail’s vision, the actions of Elliot and his compatriots have chrono-mashed three recognizable aesthetics of tragedy. It is as if Hurricane Sandy blackout spread Occupy-era Zuccotti Park throughout a whole metropolis gone dark from post-9/11 paranoia.
This is not what Elliot intended. He wanted to fix the world, rescue it from the elaborate corporate tyranny of a conglomerate he calls Evil Corp. He had a plan, but was this the goal he had in mind? “Did my revolution just bury our minds instead of freeing them?” he asks. “Encrypting Evil Corp’s data was meant to empower us. Instead, it left us powerless.” He’s talking to himself, thought bubbles slipping into speech bubbles; he is ranting aloud in the apocalyptic comment board that America has become.
The disarray around him becomes more surreal. There are poor folk in tent cities, but there are also posters for an NBC series that seems inspired by Elliot’s revolution. The show is called Shift + Control and doesn’t look dumber than Blindspot, and on the soundtrack, you hear NBC’s chimes. Did Elliot’s rebellion fail because it was commercialized, like a protest filmed for a Kardashian-adjacent soda ad? “They packaged the fight into product, turned our descent into intellectual property, televising our revolution with commercial breaks.” The editing starts slashing together real and fictional news footage. There is a shot of Frank Cody (Erik Jensen), a fictional conspiracy newsmonger. Cody’s popped up a few times; I’m not sure Mr. Robot‘s ever specifically stated which network he works for, but in this montage, his appearance is spliced with a brief shot of the Fox News logo.
You might assume that the show is saying that Cody and his ilk are part of the problem. But the wondrous joke of this sequence is that Elliot’s rant sounds like precisely the kind of paranoid soliloquy that powers the Alex Jones contingent. The difference here, maybe, is that Elliot isn’t pointing fingers at lizard people or fluoride. For Elliot knows – or thinks he knows – that he made the world this way. Where will it go from here? “That’s what I’m afraid of the most,” says Elliot. “This dark future that I set into motion. Who knows what can come from this?
Cut to: Donald Trump, Theresa May, 2016, Brexit, candidate Trump on black protesters saying “These are not the people who made our country great.” Elliot is in 2015, but he sees the next two years clearly. “What if instead of fighting back, we cave, give away privacy for security, exchange dignity for safety, trade in revolution for repression?”
The news footage unfurls; you’ve seen it all. Maybe you don’t agree with Elliot’s assessment. (Slightly less than half of American voters were, presumably, happy about the 2016 election.) But Elliot’s not offering himself as a hero; far from it. He lists off all the obvious villains of our modern moment: Conglomerates, the security complex, Adam Smith, the American people. “But none of that’s true,” he offers. “The truth is, I’m the one to blame. I’m the problem. This was my fault. I did this.” And then he blacks out, and when he’s blacks in, he’s inside a barbecue joint named after a William Carlos Williams poem.
It’s a wild scene, the kind of thing Oliver Stone used to conjure up in his ’90s heyday. And it speaks to how Mr. Robot has successfully reset itself this season, less by spinning off of current events than by showing how completely the mood of 2017 was baked into the show from the beginning. One thinks of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a book written in 1955 that conjures the futile horrors of America’s involvement in Vietnam a decade hence. Mr. Robot was always skeptical of the political-capitalist system – but it was also skeptical of the forces that seek to overthrow the system.
The skepticism runs so deep in this scene, and you can watch it three different ways. Maybe this is Elliot the heroic revolutionary looking in the mirror and realizing he was a villain all along. Or maybe this is Elliot, a narcissist with delusions of godhood who believes only he can save the world, deciding that the world has gone wrong because of him – a phony confession that is really an act of ego-stroking vanity, the humblebrag variation of “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Or maybe Elliot’s as crazy as he has always appeared to be, one more lonely American in a nation of strangers, seeking for self-worth by speaking to the voice in his head.
You could argue that, within the context of the show, Elliot has ruined the world. This is a kind of godhood, but it’s not like Icarus felt better when he flew close to the sun. Elliot’s role within the show is complex, often paradoxical. You could interpret this scene as the cry of an American everyman who never wanted this to come to pass. Or maybe it’s more accurate to compare Elliot to his brilliant ilk, all the other young men who used their computer skills to try and create a new world. “Elliot as Zuckerberg,” Discuss, “Elliot as @Jack,” discuss. Then again, don’t trust anyone in media who says they know who to blame. Those NBC chimes are a joke within a joke. Mr. Robot is intellectual property owned by NBC-Universal. We have met the enemy, and this is us: Look, Mom, normalizing!
So is Mr. Robot saying that Trump was created by all of us, supporters and opponents alike? Yes – and also, quite the opposite, no. The episode that aired on Wednesday marked a flashback within the show’s greater 2015 setting. In a beautiful dead-tech postmodern house on some remote island somewhere, BD Wong’s Whiterose sat on a couch watching television. Whiterose was dressed in what we may consider her costumed alter ego: Her public face, “Minister Zhang,” high-ranking Chinese politician, either Mr. Robot‘s Thanos or its Nick Fury.
Whiterose welcomed a surprising visitor: Frank Cody, the aforementioned Fox-ish newscaster. This conspiracist is part of the conspiracy, taking orders from this foreign national. There were some recognizable plot elements to discuss: Whiterose wanted Cody to propagate the notion that hacker collective fsociety has roots in Iran, demanded an image rehabilitation of soon-to-be-fugitive Tyrell. Cody responded to these directives with lowest-common-denominator showmanship recalling the late, unlamented Roger Ailes. Blame Iran? Sure, “That’s brown enough, shouldn’t be too hard.” Defend Tyrell? “Any chance Obama goes after him? People love to defend anything he hates.”
Whiterose had one more command: “I may have a potential candidate for President I want you to back.” They turned to the television, and there was Donald Trump, on May 9, 2015, at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, talking about all the jobs he’s created (mentioning none of the lawsuits), claiming “I would be the greatest president ever.”
“You can’t be serious,” said Cody. “The guy’s a buffoon. He’s completely divorced from reality.”
That last piece is a codephrase for Whiterose, who speaks often of alternate realities. There is a read on Mr. Robot that considers all that talk seriously, assumes a turn toward genuine science-fiction sometime in the near future. Or maybe it’s not science-fiction; Elon Musk thinks we live in a computer simulation, which is the kind of thing people believe when they spend all day on their goddamn phones. And Mr. Robot has referenced the popular fabric-of-reality fan theory about the Berenstain Bears, which is the kind of thing people start believing when they can’t just admit they forgot how to spell “Berenstain.”
But it’s equally accurate to read Whiterose’s alternate-reality talk as simple strategy, from someone powerful enough to play Risk with reality. Back in October 2016, nominally real human being Newt Gingrich went on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show and described the final stage of the presidential election as “a contest of two parallel universes.” This is the kind of dumb thing you say when you can only conceive of people who disagree with you as occupying a literally different corner of the multiverse. But it’s hardly a framework unique to the rich and the gasbaggy. After the election, it was common to hear Democrat voters describe the new political reality as “the Upside-Down,” a reference to the monster-breeding mirror-verse of Stranger Things.
So maybe Whiterose is speaking metaphorically. Trump is divorced from reality? Then he’s Mr. Robot‘s kind of man! “If you pull the right strings, a puppet will dance any way you desire,” Whiterose concludes. (No, you’re a puppet! says the puppet.)
This scene is quieter than Elliot’s rant but just as wild. It seems to combine every conspiracy theory into one abrupt conversation: Whiterose is the foreign government agent influencing an election, and the hacker terrorist sliding behind the American firewall, and the fact of China as an all-encompassing superpower. And the newsman is selling fake news, state-sponsored by forces beyond America’s borders. This is like four seasons of 24 mashed into an Illuminati stew: China WANTS Trump to start a trade war, man! The fact that Whiterose’s motivations are shrouded in mystery only adds to this scene’s lunatic power. Can you guess why he’s doing this? Or is there a why? Is this an act of world-ending nihilism by a god grown tired of the planet he controls?
Godhood comes up with some frequency on Mr. Robot, mainly through conversations with maniac Tyrell (Martin Wallström). Esmail’s a learned student of TV history, and I wonder if he’s ever read the old Nick Hornby Believer interview with David Simon. The Wire‘s producer was, at the time, newly minted as America’s angry-uncle-for-justice, and he had a clever assessment of how his series differed from the other HBO dramas of the decade. A show like The Sopranos or Deadwood was Shakespearean in its mode, focused on the internal struggles of recognizably modern minds. The Wire, Simon explained, was more of a Greek tragedy, rooted in an older model where humans struggled against higher powers, and inevitably failed:
In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In [The Wire], the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak.
Mr. Robot scrambles both dramatic modes. Elliot is a character with the hubris to tackle postmodern institutions. He has internal struggles – he plays chess with his bad self! – and yet he is also some sort of new god, destroying those institutions or somehow making them stronger. He is his own worst enemy, but also, in rooms much nicer than his own, Whiterose and Evil Corp CEO Philip Price feel his machinations, like gods on Olympus feeling a sudden shiver from butterfly wings. Elliot caused Trump, but so did Whiterose, and the media, and reaction to the media. The best intentions and the worst, together at last!
It’s not clear right now whether the show’s notion of Trump’s rise is a key subplot, or just helpfully topical thematic flavor. I’ve seen the next few episodes – they’re great! – and there’s at least one more reference to the 45th president, less analytical but much funnier. The show can only glance at recognizable social factors that motivated Trump’s rise, and its noir-thriller style lends itself more to dystopian farce than political specificity. Elliot can only ever be desperately confused about what he has wrought, and what his world has become. Who can’t relate to that?