“Hello, friend.” That’s the first line of Mr. Robot, as its protagonist, Elliot Alderson — a cybersecurity engineer and hacker — hails the viewer before launching into his manifesto:
What I’m about to tell you is top-secret. A conspiracy bigger than us all. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about. The guys that are invisible. The top one percent of the top one percent. The guys that play God without permission. And now I think they’re following me.
These opening thirty seconds establish Mr. Robot’s two centers of gravity: the 1 percent are destroying the world, and our narrator can’t always discern reality from fantasy.
Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot came as a surprise when it premiered last year: not only does the series stand out from the USA Network’s typical programming — handsome men in nice clothes either enforcing or evading the law — but it also asks viewers to root for an anticapitalist, drug-addicted protagonist, who may or may not be imagining most of what happens to him as he attempts to take down one of the world’s largest corporations and seriously disrupt “the system” in the process.
Mr. Robot took revolution prime time, and the Left should pay attention to what it has to say.
If Tyler Durden Were A Hacker
On a basic level Mr. Robot functions as political allegory, indexing progressive movements’ failure to enact large-scale change. The first season broadly explores two methods for achieving social transformation as Elliot (recent Emmy winner Rami Malek) and his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) work independently to get revenge on E Corp, a multinational corporation too big to fail.
They hate the company because it caused a chemical spill that killed Elliot’s father and Angela’s mother. The corporate players have, of course, done no time and paid no settlements, and their surviving victims are drowning in medical debt that E Corp, conveniently, also owns.
In the first episode, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), recruits Elliot to join a hacker collective called fsociety, which is preparing to break into E Corp’s files and delete all its debt records. There’s something off about Mr. Robot: no one speaks directly to him except Elliot, and, when Mr. Robot speaks, characters often respond directly to Elliot. Although viewers picked up on this immediately, it takes Elliot most of the first season to realize that Mr. Robot is his very own Tyler Durden.
The tension between the audience’s suspicions of Mr. Robot’s reality and Elliot’s unwillingness to acknowledge this makes fsociety’s plan to rid the world of debt feel hallucinatory: we cannot trust anything we see on screen.
Elliot’s drug addiction contributes to the sense of unreliability. He goes cold turkey just before breaking into E Corp’s server farm to install a raspberry pi that will corrupt the plant’s thermostats and destroy their data. The withdrawal-induced dream sequence calls into question whether the heist actually happened or if it is another of our narrator’s fantasies.
Meanwhile, Angela is busy trying to convince a lawyer to reopen the wrongful death lawsuit against the company. She gets an outgoing executive to testify to his participation in the spill; and, impressed with her negotiating skills and fearlessness, he recruits her. Believing she can leverage her position within E Corp to get justice for chemical-spill victims, Angela takes the offer and joins the public relations department — just when fsociety successfully completes it mission, throwing the corporation into a tailspin.
Season two finds the main characters in defensive positions: rather than intensifying their assault on E Corp, fsociety hacks the FBI to stay ahead of their investigation. Angela has since positioned herself in E Corp’s risk management department, but her boss knows that she was involved in the lawsuit and won’t trust her with damaging company information. She finally steals the data she needs, only to discover that the government regulators are E Corp pawns.
As we follow the exploits of Elliot and Angela, the show encourages us to connect Mr. Robot’s plot elements to real-world corollaries. Fsociety is Anonymous and Occupy; E Corp’s logo is identical to Enron’s, and the computers it builds, the insurance it sells, and the banks it runs makes it interchangeable with Apple, Lehman Brothers, and Wells Fargo.
In the second season, the production team re-cuts, splices, and dubs over news footage to update us on the state of the world post-hack. We see Barack Obama say, “The FBI announced today that Tyrell Wellick and fsociety engaged in this attack.” (No, the media-friendly president did not record the clip himself.) Images of riots and strikes appear in news reports about the ongoing crisis. Edward Snowden gives his take on the FBI investigation.
The integration of actually existing political figures into the plot of Mr. Robot heightens its hallucinatory feel. Mr. Robot’s world is our world, shifted just a few degrees.
This allows Esmail to dramatize the two lines of attack taken up by the American left in recent years — protest and change from within — and how they have been diverted or captured by the combined power of capital and the state.
Both fsociety and Angela find themselves more directly at odds with elements of state power than their real target — financial capital — mirroring what happened to both the Occupy movement and the Sanders campaign. After all, Occupy wasn’t cleared by Goldman Sachs; it was the police, under the cover of public safety. Attempts to reoccupy the park and build more permanent camps have been blocked by police, not capital.
Likewise, it’s business as usual at the DNC. Listening to Hillary Clinton’s campaign speeches or considering her bland vice presidential nominee, you’d never know that a social democratic insurgency rocked the party this year. And while hope remains for down-ticket candidates, the trouble that plagued Our Revolution’s launch underlines the difficulty of enacting change from within a capitalist party.
But treating Mr. Robot as a show that bears a one-to-one resemblance to contemporary life misses the point. The bleak picture Esmail paints of contemporary revolution isn’t designed to depress us, it’s designed to force us to confront how we engage with politics, capital, and our best (and worst) utopian impulses.
The Mediation is the Message
Mr. Robot is made from popular culture. While Fight Club and American Psycho are its most obvious forebears, it also draws on Lolita, Back to the Future II, V for Vendetta, Taxi Driver, Raising Arizona, Breaking Bad, Fringe, Alf, and a hundred others.
Culture critics call this pastiche — a mode of representation Frederic Jameson famously decried as “blank parody.” Jameson argues that pastiche removes its cultural references from their historical moment, erasing history — and therefore politics. The recycled surface of pastiche blocks the audience’s capacity to engage politically with the work of art.
Reasonable people can — and do — disagree with Jameson’s assessment. Mr. Robot certainly offers a compelling counterexample: its use of pastiche doesn’t mask the relationship between viewers and politics, it reminds them that this is, in fact, how they encounter capitalism everyday.
The final moments of the first season drive this point home. We discover that Whiterose, leader of the Chinese hacker group Dark Army, works with E Corp CEO Phillip Price. As they discuss fsociety’s success, Price admits, “of course” E Corp knows who pulled off the hack and that they will “handle that person as we usually do.”
The scene establishes two things: it reveals that Whiterose operates at the highest levels of both the anticapitalist hacker movement and the business world. It also shows the extent of E Corp’s power: they know who is responsible for the attack, hinting that they perhaps even knew it was coming. This seeming omniscience underlines how “the guys that are invisible,” whom Elliot references at the beginning of the season, have remained invisible: there’s another layer of power and conspiracy behind the one fsociety just took down.
This scene handily sets up season two — new villains, new plots, a broader, more global perspective. It also plays into our cultural obsession with conspiracy theories. Across the political spectrum, frustrated people devise improbable explanations for the world’s problems. Whether it’s Alex Jones’s New World Order, the Illuminati mess, or 9/11 truthers, everyone — right, center, and left — finds comfort in having a faceless enemy to blame.
But we don’t need a conspiracy. In life, as in Mr. Robot, something does stand between us and the real players, protecting people like Price and Whiterose from the underclasses.
In a financialized economy, we increasingly deal with virtual wealth and property — money, stocks, bonds, mortgages — more than we do with material. This doesn’t mean that there was ever a time where capitalism wasn’t mediated — the money form as a general equivalent, in Marx’s words, has been with us all along.
But these representational instruments have, in recent decades, exploded. To give just one example, the 2008 crisis was brought on by financial products that shed their connection to the thing itself: a house becomes a mortgage, which is then sliced up and repackaged with other slivers of homes, and sold. These assets then get sliced up even further, while other investors get in on the game buying and selling insurance.
The levels of mediation spiral higher and higher until we are no longer dealing with the thing itself, but — as in pastiche — recycled material completely disconnected from the object it was designed to represent.
It’s nearly impossible to represent this; much easier, then, to show Price and Whiterose pulling the strings. Mr. Robot’s second season increasingly uses these shady powerbrokers’ scheming to move the story along, presenting them — and not the structure of the economy — as Elliot’s real enemy. This ultimately dulls the political intervention Mr. Robot might make — at least on the level of plot.
But as long as Mr. Robot underlines that something always mediates our relationship to power, the show’s politics will be worth thinking about, and, indeed, engaging in.
From the moment Elliot addresses the audience as “friend,” viewers are implicated in the actions that unfold onscreen. Season two takes the audience’s involvement a step further: as Elliot is forced to listen to a tertiary character ramble on, his voiceover implores viewers to tune out the speech and search his apartment for clues to Mr. Robot’s plans. The camera obligingly moves up to ceiling level and slowly scans the set.
Elliot asks us to intervene, to help him figure out what his alter ego has in store. We should do as he asks and apply our answers to our world.
Granted, these answers aren’t easy coming. The show’s political takeaway isn’t always clear, and it hesitates in showing the hack’s human costs. We hear from news reports that the attacks devastated the economy, but Esmail doesn’t give viewers much more. Elliot questions whether the revolution had positive effects, and we are shown long lines for an ATM and a massive swap-meet that seems to have popped up as an alternate economy.
None of this seems to touch the main characters however — all of whom are engaged in high-end service- and creative-sector work like cybersecurity, sales, and public relations. At worst, they have to wade through a protest before enjoying their expensive dinners.
The characters’ position in the economy, on the one hand, gives them access to some of contemporary capitalism’s most important nodes: Elliot can plant viruses directly in corporate servers; Angela can access E Corp’s files to document their malfeasance.
But their failure to enact positive and meaningful change raises questions about the limits of the creative class’s political and economic engagement. Can an insurgent collective really change the world?
Esmail raises this question when Angela encounters an old friend of her father’s. He criticizes her for joining E Corp and implies that she traded sex for promotions. She responds angrily, throwing his working-class status in his face: “You’re a plumber. Right, Steve? You had what, sixty years at life? And that’s the best you could come up with?” Neither character looks great after this exchange — he’s a hateful misogynist; she’s a smug classist. The audience isn’t meant to side with either.
So far Mr. Robot has refused to decide if the fsociety revolution is good or bad. And that’s not a bad thing. By relentlessly presenting us with popular-cultural representations of capitalism and resistance to it, it demands that we think through what new shapes a radical challenge to capitalism might take.
Should we organize only those who have a “direct” relationship to production? Should we follow Kim Moody and focus on logistics? Is there hope for an insurgent campaign within a capitalist political party? Can a horizontal organization like Occupy do anything more than temporarily inconvenience the bankers? Should we all don masks and learn to code?
Mr. Robot doesn’t offer answers. But for a network whose biggest hit before this was a legal drama called Suits, we should welcome every cultural product that raises these kinds of questions, pushing economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and the cozy relationship between business and politics into the light. Even if Esmail isn’t interested in his characters’ politics, his viewers are.