BY JOANNA ROBINSON
For nine episodes, the surprise hit USA drama Mr. Robot worked pretty hard to make a statement about the current state of affairs in American culture. The series kicked off with an anti-capitalism speech from our hacker hero Elliot (Rami Malek) reminiscent of Edward Norton’s famous Ikea scene from Fight Club and ended with an even more volatile anti-establishment rant from Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), which, naturally, evoked Tyler Durden. But no matter how hard the show leaned into the chaos-friendly vibe of David Fincher’s seminal 1999 film (and it leaned pretty hard), Mr. Robot’s most potent social message came by accident, via tragic coincidence.
A ghastly on-air suicide in the Mr. Robot finale mirrored the on-air shooting last week of two Virginia journalists, so closely that USA postponed the episode out of respect to the families of the victims. When an Evil Corp executive offs himself in front of a camera out of desperation over a hack-induced global crash, it’s Elliot’s childhood friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), who acts as the audience proxy. Warily drafted into a job at E Corp, Angela is close enough to the suicide to get the executive’s blood spattered all over her cream-colored heels. (We see a deliberate shot of those pristine heels earlier in the episode when she’s on her way to work.) Angela is naturally shocked, appalled. Later, when E Corp C.E.O. Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) asks her to stick around for a presentation she says no, of course she won’t, she’s going home to recover.
But she doesn’t go home. She takes Price’s money, buys herself a fresh pair of shoes, and returns to E Corp to attend that presentation in her new black heels. Angela isn’t callous. She’s a sensitive, sympathetic character. So the shoe salesman helping Angela is speaking for the audience when he says, “You’re telling me you witnessed this thing and you’re here to buy new shoes. That’s pretty cold.” Angela responds, “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I’ll try the Pradas next.” And we’re not meant, as an audience, to see Angela as cruel in this moment. She’s coping. Price is the cruel one; later he acts surprised that she’s “still thinking about this morning,” and Angela says, “I don’t think I’ll ever get that image out of my head.” Price goes on to smear the suicide victim, saying the world was better off without him. That’s evil, but Angela isn’t. She’s doing what so many people do when faced with horror. She’s compartmentalizing. Like the rest of us do when faced with horrors, like the one in Virginia or anywhere else.
Is it possible that we, like Angela, compartmentalized the events last week a little too well? The shooting is no longer making headlines in the news cycle, while other lower-level stories like the Ashley Madison hack (which got shoehorned into dialogue in the Mr. Robot finale) is still the subject of conversation several weeks later. Like Angela in her new shoes, there are more digestible stories to grapple with, like Kanye West for president or Kermit the Frog’s love life.
When he wrote the episode months ago, Mr. Robot’s creator, Sam Esmail, couldn’t have known just how chillingly resonant Angela’s reaction would be. But more than any other element of the episode, Angela’s experience puts a piercing point on Mr. Robot’s final grand speech. Spinning under the glowing lights of Times Square ads with a riotous crowd in the background, Slater shouts:
Is any of it real? I mean look at this. Look at it. A world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the form of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertising. Mind-altering chemicals in the form of food. Brainwashing seminars in the form of media. Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You wanna talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century. Turn it off, take out the batteries. [. . .] Digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real.
The episode ends with another chilling real-world echo. Elliot is in front of his computer at home, as Mr. Robot instructed, to “watch and enjoy the beautiful carnage that we have all created together.” Just as many of us watched the carnage in Virginia, and so many other moments of terrifying chaos, through glowing computer screens. “We’re finally awake. We’re finally alive,” Elliot’s sister Darlene cried in triumph over the mayhem she helped cause. But are we? Or are we still sleeping?