With a hero who wants to tear down the banks and a villain who’s really just a loser, USA’s smash summer hit is like no Difficult Man story we’ve seen before.
BY JAMES S. MURPHY
By 2013, the year that Brett Martin’s Difficult Men was published, the bad, (mostly) white TV characters at the book’s center had already begun to lose their grip on prestige television. Even with Walter White and Don Draper still on the air, Showtime, Netflix, and CBS had proven that dramas about women, such as Homeland, Orange Is the New Black, and The Good Wife, could attract critical praise and popular success. Even a show like The Americans, which kept the antihero alive, added a her to a him and made them the servants of communism rather than cash.
That swing toward communism may have been a sign, given the drubbing of the Difficult Man that’s come this summer at the hands of Mr. Robot, which puts capitalism in its crosshairs. Much has been made of prestige TV’s obsession with crises of masculinity, and the shows that succeeded The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men were clearly intended as a corrective to all the dick-swinging. But that first generation was as much about money as it was machismo. Martin’s Difficult Men were all, at bottom, capitalists. What made them antiheroes rather than villains was not what they wanted, but how they went about getting it: openly and shamelessly. Vic Mackey (The Shield), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Al Swearengen (Deadwood), Stringer Bell (The Wire), and, to a lesser degree, Don Draper (Mad Men) not only laid bare their greed, but they acted in ways that mimicked and exposed the brutality and callous indifference hidden away in what is sometimes referred to as the shadow banking system. Bankers quietly smothered homeowners in impossible layers of debt, but Tony Soprano at least took the trouble to run you over with his car in order to collect what you owed him.
These drug dealers and crime bosses were the perfect heroes for a moment, in which Wall Street became an inspiration for the financial wizards that would tank the economy rather than a satire. In the wake of the Great Recession and the Occupy movement, however, who can still imagine a capitalist hero? History revealed the wizards of finance to be a bunch of gamblers and borderline crooks who didn’t really understand what they were up to. The bankers weren’t just bad men; they were bad at their jobs, and TV finally caught up to them this summer with Mr. Robot.
On the face of it, the show’s hero, Elliot Alderson, looks like a Difficult Man updated for the age of Anonymous. Elliot, it now appears, is the leader of F Society, a group of hackers determined to take down E Corporation (a.k.a. Evil Corp), which owns 70 percent of the world’s debt. By erasing “every record of every credit card, loan, and mortgage,” F Society will enact “the single biggest incident of wealth re-distribution in history.” Like the difficult men before him, Elliot lives on the borders of the law and suffers from addiction (morphine). Where he differs from the first generation of TV’s antiheroes, however, is in his contempt for capitalism. By destroying Evil Corp, F Society will ostensibly destroy capitalism as well, since debt is both a requirement and a motor within that economic system. F succeeds E.
Even more intriguing is Elliot’s corporate double, Tyrell Wellick. Wellick is senior vice president of technology for Evil Corp. When he was first introduced on the show, Tyrell looked like a master of the universe, with all Elliot’s smarts but none of his shame. He was cocksure and bound to realize all his ambitions, largely because he was ready, as the Difficult Man always is, to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. In an early episode, he seduces a male executive assistant to the company’s C.E.O., just as he would have done with a woman, in order to position himself to become the youngest C.T.O. in the history of the company. In Episode 5, however, Mr. Robot took a turn. Wellick failed to become C.T.O., which led him to an even more spectacular failure when he attempted to seduce the wife of the new C.T.O. She told her husband, who humiliated Tyrell the next time they meet. The embarrassment pushed him so far over the edge that when the C.T.O.’s wife condescended to have sex with him, Tyrell ended up killing her on the rooftop of Evil Corp’s headquarters. After he panicked and left the scene, we knew we were no longer dealing with a Tony Soprano who can code. We were in the presence of a loser.
In the ensuing episodes, Wellick has fallen apart: he came under suspicion by the police; his Lady MacBeth–like wife informed him, just after the birth of their son, that this was in fact her second child and, by the way, she no longer wanted him; and the C.E.O. of Evil Corp fired him. Wellick turns out to be just another employee, expendable like the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession. By the end of the last episode, Wellick had lost everything and gone to Elliot, ostensibly to join him in his destruction of Evil Corp. The final scene’s soundtrack—a beautiful, piano rendition of “Where Is My Mind?”—suggested that Wellick might be another of Elliot’s alter egos, like Mr. Robot, but even if that is the case, it does little to take away from the show’s critique of capitalism as an out-of-control monster capable of devouring itself. It just means that this monster lives inside of each of us.
Mr. Robot gives us a hero who wants none of the traditional markers of success and a failure who already has them, which amounts to a rejection of not just capitalism’s but Hollywood’s ultimate fantasy, namely, the idea that he who wants success most will and should get it. The show hasn’t killed off the Difficult Man, but it has begun to dig its grave.