Mr. Robot as a Comment on Revolutions and Revolutionaries
With the Emmys this show has garnered, it’s safe to say I’m not alone is judging it the best science fiction television show in recent memory. I’d previously mused about the centrality of this show’s philosophy of revolution as a blog post and later observed in a second post that it matters that Sam Esmail, the show's creator, and Rami Malek, the star, are both Egyptian and that it should be viewed, even though it is ostensibly about the US and China, as about the crushed Arab Spring and its aftermath. Now that the show is finished, I’d maintain I called both correctly, but there is another broader theme, oversimplified in the previous generation as “the personal is the political.”
The rest of this has huge spoilers. Don’t read it if you don’t want to see them.
The two major story arcs are, in my eyes, about the revolution and about the revolutionary. The former begins with a group of hackers who plot an overthrow of the world’s banking system, and it works. However, although it makes life miserable for the average person, it does nothing to the elites. They plot to restore the data from paper copies and rebuild. The hackers discover this, but they are misled into thinking all the paper copies are going to one Manhattan facility. When that facility is blown up, it becomes clear that the paper copies were really distributed to all of the other facilities. The true mastermind appears to be Whiterose, a Chinese bureaucrat, who in another guise, is the leader of a hacker army. She controls the American bank previously thought to be running the economy. Our hero, Elliot, manages to get the straight story from Phillip Price, the American puppet he had thought was the true enemy: Whiterose is the head of the Deus group, a shadowy cabal of moneyed individuals responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the world since the Persian Gulf War. So, Elliot takes them down. But, the funding was only to enable Whiterose’s pet project—a supercollider located under a nuclear power plant and drawing power from it—that she thought would be a bridge to alternate realities. In an alternate reality, Whiterose would still have the love of her life, who couldn’t exist in a China where gay and trans people are not accepted. She sees Elliot as an ally, because he too needs a re-set. She had a chance to kill him and didn’t for this reason, but also because he promised to help move her project to a safer place (in the Congo). After drawing Elliot to the site of her project, she ramps it up, risking a nuclear meltdown, and kills herself, thinking she’d move to the new universe. Elliot shuts it off and averts nuclear meltdown. The world is now free from the plutocrats and the autocrats and ready to move toward freedom.
The second story arc is how Elliot became, sustained himself, and eventually succeeded as a revolutionary in spite of serious mental illness. This story is told nonlinearly and only became clear with the last part of the last episode of the last season, but I’ll tell it chronologically for clarity. As a young boy, Elliot was sexually molested by his father and jumped out of a window to escape him. At that moment, dissociative identity disorder set in as a defense mechanism. He created Mr. Robot, who looked like his Dad, as a protector who looked out for him. Among other things, Mr. Robot convinced him the fall was an accident. The protector was insufficient for Elliot’s survival, as Elliot’s mom was a cruel person who blamed Elliot and showed him no love. Two more personalities emerged: the mother, who can punish Elliot, and the child—Elliot at the age of the abuse—who could take the punishment.
Elliot persisted largely because of the love of two people—his sister Darlene and his childhood friend Angela. However, Darlene withdrew and ran away when she found she couldn’t protect him. She only re-entered his life when she could be a partner hacker. And she did so knowing that she was talking not with the real Elliot, but with the mastermind—the one who could change the entire world in order to make his life better (whom we thought was the real Elliot until the finale)—and sometimes with Mr. Robot.
Elliot’s father and Angela’s mother die of cancer after an accident at the nuclear power plant. As such, both Elliot and Angela long for a different reality and are shaped by this loss. By this point, Elliot is the CEO of a tech company (we don’t know he was CEO until the last episode—he had appeared to be lower level), but he is also a morphine addict, and his personality disorder is worsening. The real Elliot (not revealed until the last episode) fantasizes about the mastermind and his friends. He puts the mastermind in charge, and the mastermind stores the real Elliot in a happy, infinite loop inside his mind, where he is about to marry Angela. In reality, Angela is dead, killed by Whiterose, after Whiterose initially manipulated her, promising her this alternate reality.
After the first hack that brought down the banking system, and after his neighbor is killed by a drug dealer, Elliot withdraws into another loop, where he hangs out with his friend Leon. In reality, he is in prison and Leon is a plant from Whiterose sent to look out for him. When he gets out of prison, Elliot (the mastermind) continues to fight against the powers that be. He wins. But Whiterose's project is still a threat.
With the nuclear power plant nearing a meltdown, the mastermind jumps into the real Elliot’s mental prison. He kills the real Elliot and tries to stay, but he can’t. His mind can’t handle it. The other personalities create an image of Elliot’s therapist who explains everything to the mastermind. A rather brilliant exposition device, in my opinion, it brings the viewer up to speed. In the last scene, thanks to the love of his sister, the mastermind relinquishes control and allows the real Elliot to take back his life.
Put together, this show is about the need of a revolutionary for the love and support of those closest to him. Mental stability as well as purpose disappear if one becomes solely one’s anger at the injustices of the world.
In my eyes, the showrunner and star were probably horribly disappointed by the collapse of Egypt back into a dictatorship. They needed personal support, and they found it through art. They then generalized their art by making this show about the US, China, and an international conspiracy of plutocrats, never actually mentioning Egypt.
Were you raised with the idea that what you chose to do in the world should make it a better place? Did you begin your adult life feeling that you could take on the most difficult problems in the world and prevail? At least as part of a cooperating group?
If so, at what point were your ideas tamed down, channeled, perhaps crushed?
Did personal demons force you off of this sort of path? Or perhaps was it the actions of others whom you couldn’t control?
Or was it just random factors that kept you from saving the world like Elliot did?
More depressingly, were you one of those who never had goals beyond your own wants and needs and perhaps those of the people immediately around you?
One possible message of this show would be not to give up. As long as there are those who care about you, you will find the strength to keep going and do some good in the world. It may be big things. It may be little things. But for God’s sake, don’t be part of the problem. Don’t become one of those destroying the world or their slave.
With the world on the cusp of catastrophic climate change and all it will bring, if enough folks heed the message of this show, maybe humanity will pull through. The artificial TV constraint of the protagonist who saves the world may not be realistic, but the mastermind Elliot still resonated.
Mr. Robot poses two questions to all of us: What is the part of you that is the mastermind doing to save the world? What does the real you need to do to find the love that will keep your internal mastermind going?
Ask those questions. Act on the answers. Thus sayeth the guy in the mask.
The real-life equivalent of the Deus group may be defeated if enough of us listen to him.