Episodes: The very human Mr. Robot


(I posted this to Facebook in August of 2015. Its length made me think maybe I should have an email newsletter, so I started one a few days later. USA! USA! USA! USA! Since Mr. Robot returns this week, and since so much of the discussion around it is driven by how many people find it lacking in humanity, I thought I would resurrect and expand this post. Woo!)

It's fitting that Mr. Robot and UnReal both debuted in the same summer, because they are, in roundabout ways, about the exact same thing: the attempt to escape the carefully crafted sphere of empty, false reality and embrace the actuality of human experience, the thought that there is something outside of the beautifully crafted contours of televisual or digital caves.

It's sort of surprising to me, in fact, that the predominant reading of Mr. Robot seems to be as a kind of warning about the online security state or the fact that hackers are probably reading this as I type it up at the local coffee shop or the giant corporate sphere that knows your favorite dairy creamer and whether you're pregnant before you do.

I suppose all of that is in there, or at least in the text, but Mr. Robot is a show that actively encourages you at all turns to reject the text entirely. To my mind, it is pretty sure that its main character is bullshit, and it actively spends its time constructing parallel figures for Elliott, who are meant to suggest, even if only obliquely, that he's missing out on fulfillment because of the prison of his own head.

I frequently tell people that if they can find their way to loving Angela (seemingly the most useless character), they'll probably love the show, because Angela is key. She represents all of the normal, human impulses. Buy a house. Get a job. Find a mate. And the show never demonizes her for this. Elliott does, but the show also knows he's a mess. (For more on the show's use of Angela, read here.)

These nods toward Elliott's fundamental instability are how the show gets away with being such a blatant ripoff of Fight Club. It's Fight Club, reenacted by people who didn't get the dark satire of that work, only the work these people are in has even more distance from them than Fight Club did. Fight Club made it seem just a little fun to engage in hypermasculine violence; Mr. Robot does not make hacking seem all that exciting. (The frequent descriptions of the main character as a "superhero" in others' reviews strike me as really strange.)

Look at this another way: Pretty much everybody who watches season one of this show will guess a major, Fight Club-esque twist from episode one or two. This is often written off as a flaw, and maybe it is. But the show doesn't even bother trying to hide this twist. It's right out there in the open, begging for you to spot it, and once you have, it's impossible to see anything else. But it's also telling you that the narrator isn't as together as he'd like you to think. Don't trust anything he says. Whatever's happening, it's not what you think. (It's also a good way for the show to sneak a few other twists past you.)

So what, then, is Mr. Robot about, if it's not about the global security state crumbling and cybersecurity issues?

To my mind, Mr. Robot is about what it means to live most of your life with the tunnel vision that only takes in the screen in front of you and imagines that everything happening on it is of the utmost importance, when all around you lives are going on and people are living and dying and loving and grasping for something they might not ever find. It's about the gap between knowing and feeling, and how they're sometimes the same thing. (In that way, it's the inversion of TV's other great tech drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which is about the idea of the online sphere being a kind of paradise where people can truly express themselves — until it's not.)

I used to work, late at night, on various TV recaps I don't even remember anymore, in my office at the back of my apartment, a cat at my feet and my wife in the other room. From across the alley, one of our neighbors had frequent, very loud sex, her gasps and moans ricocheting across that space. Since it was 2 or 3 in the morning, she must not have thought that anyone was awake, but both Libby and I were, and we'd often laugh about the weird little indiscretions you become privy to when you live in a large city.

But then, sometimes, I'd think about how what I was doing — writing a weird little recap for a bunch of people who would forget all about it a few moments after reading it — was this inherently ephemeral, fleeting thing, while what she was doing was, at the least, a really good time for her. But my world seemed so important to me. Hers likely seemed important to her, too. A few weeks later, she either moved out or broke up. I never met her or heard her again.

I think sometimes we think of the internet as a bridge builder, and it is. But it's also become a somewhat lonely place, a lot of the time, where we can feel less like humans and more like projections of the selves we wish we were. I think we forget, too often, about all of the bridges we already have, even the ones as slight as the person we nod hello to when we see them out in public, or the store owner who knows our name.

I always imagined the city as inherently cold and distant as a child who lived on a farm, but now that I'm here, I know it's filled with life, so much life, and the cold and distant places are in the air around us. It's easy to think they're the only things that matter, but they're not, and if we push through them, puncture them, we might find our way to some other place we already knew. The revolution is not just about upending the system; the revolution is finding what's still human about it and allowing it to flourish.

And that's what Mr. Robot's all about, Charlie Brown.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.