ZABOSKI: why “Mr. Robot” is an essential social commentary

USA Network

USA Network


With the finale of USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” a week and a half behind me, I’ve been in my own head a lot. Television is a great way to escape my thoughts and engage in something outside of myself — but I feel guilty moving on from “Mr. Robot” so soon. The show tackles some uncomfortable implications about our society, and they’re hard to ignore. So I want you to watch it, too.

For those uninitiated with “Mr. Robot”: our peculiar protagonist, Elliot Alderson, is a cybersecurity engineer by day, disdainfully passing his time by shielding corporate kingdoms. By night, he is an impenitent hacker, a white knight revolutionary in his own mind who seeks to dismantle the societal system that he deeply resents being a part of.

Elliot, you’ll quickly learn, is also mentally ill. Social anxiety, morphine dependence and delusions plague his reality. You, the viewer to whom he narrates, are an invention of his mind, meaning that the only reality you experience is his. And frequently, that makes it hard to know what’s real and what’s imagined in the show. Elliot has identified “a conspiracy bigger than all of us,” connected to his company’s client, E-Corp. While paranoia of governmental conspiracies is a common delusion, Elliot is assured in his pursuits by Mr. Robot, a shifty renegade who wants Elliot to infiltrate E-Corp and ignite a rebellion against the 1 percent.

Elliot is so agonizingly awkward that he has trouble connecting with others, openly acknowledging, “I don’t know how to talk to people.” However, he’s not so different from the rest of us: Elliot hacks people’s digital shadows as a means of understanding the intimate details of their lives, in the same way we use Facebook updates, Instagram likes and Twitter conversations as a means of “knowing” each other.

The show’s characters drown us in socially relevant babble about Groupons, Starbucks and Twitter: “I only have 48 followers, but it’s growing,” says one. Watching this show makes me feel petty. I say those things! I’m left wondering: when did having 48 people interested in my existence become too narrow a goal? It seems substantial, but for many of us (myself included), this number simply isn’t high enough.

The voluptuously technological drama paints a nightmarish scene of what modern society has become, offering us a valuable social critique. Elliot, in all his mental and emotional unease, is more keenly aware of it than most. He may be a psychological — and therefore cultural — outsider, but so are the rest of us, even if we don’t experience psychosis. Most of us don’t belong to the elite class, so Elliot’s infiltration of E-Corp lends an unusual perspective of the society we belong to. “Our choices were premade for us a long time ago,” Elliot reminds us, harping on the omnipotence of capitalism.

The deep resentment he feels about the nature of American society has isolated Elliot, and while his inextinguishable loneliness is much grander than what many of us experience, it does mirror the gaping emptiness that the digital age has widened before us. We tailor ourselves to who we want to be, and that’s not necessarily bad — although this brand of aspirational thought is particularly American.

Even non-plot elements of the show, such as its visual style, confront the idea of our solitary connectedness to one another in the modern age. Characters are frequently relegated to the very edges of the frame, away from the spotlight that reminds us of their importance as story drivers. But “Mr. Robot” isn’t about important people. Every character, regardless of status, is equally insignificant. We are all part of the same machine.

Thinking about what this all implies makes me feel a bit delusional, myself. The fact is, we were born into this society. We did not choose for it to be this way. Does it matter if our virtual lives aren’t parallel to our actual ones? Are we conditioned to crave the validation that comes with “likes” on our profile pictures? Of the 152 people who currently like mine, only about a third know the most consequential things that I’m experiencing — like my dad and his wife expecting a baby next month, or my December graduation from college — let alone my day-to-day thoughts.

What does it say about me that I still feel validated by their interest in the person I portray myself to be? It seems, at its core, that this is what “Mr. Robot” aims to uncover: we conform to make ourselves appear unique. We are self-aware but continue to allow the status quo to dictate our lives. But what other choice do we have?

Elliot’s uniquely tortured ruminations about drinking Starbucks, working in cubicles and propagating the system he desperately wants to escape are uncomfortable reminders of how easily we are swept up by it all. Whether we choose to confront these thoughts is up to us — “Mr. Robot” demonstrates that our dystopia may be all we have, and if it is, it’s inescapable. Yet, for all of the internal monologues I’ve fumbled with after watching Elliot’s paranoia amplify, at the very least, he reminds me that it’s not all in my head.