Mr. Robot and the Great New Trend of Shows That Don’t Make Sense
WTF is Mr. Robot?
Mr. Robot is a show from the USA Network about a hacker named Elliot who has poor social skills and a form of mental illness that I’m pretty sure is wholly unique to him. After being approached by a random weirdo on the subway, Elliot gets drawn into a conspiracy by Anonymous a group of mask-wearing vigilantes called FSociety, who want to hack and bring down Evil Corp, the most powerful corporation in America.
The conspiracy sends Elliot bouncing back and forth between FSociety, Evil Corp, and the data security company he works for, Allsafe. His worsening drug addition also puts him in conflict with a supplier who wants Elliot to hack him out of prison. And he has to try to maintain FSociety’s fragile alliance with a group of Chinese hackers called The Dark Army. And he’s in psychotherapy for unspecified reasons that sound like they involve a court order. And his best friend, Angela, is trying to sue Evil Corp for killing their parents when they were kids. And Angela’s getting blackmailed by The Dark Army. And one of the executives at Evil Corp is a Swedish sociopath with a Danish sociopath wife and they’re trying to fuck their way to a promotion, and also they murder people, and also they have some kind of deal with the leader of FSociety, Mr. Robot.
And then, just when that seems like an overwhelming amount of information to keep track of, there is a massive plot twist that turns everything else upside down.
The main thing to understand about Mr. Robot is that it’s the same thing as Orphan Black and How to Get Away With Murder.
My first impression of Mr. Robot was that the writers didn’t understand technology well enough to sell the idea that Elliot is an expert hacker. They understood people being dickweasels enough to sell the idea that the CEO of Evil Corp was a dickweasel, and they understood people being awkward outsiders enough to sell the idea that Elliot was an awkward (but likeable) outsider, but the intricacies of the hacking plot he gets caught up in in the first episode are so… not at all intricate that I had to decide, right off the top, to just go along with whatever. And that’s good, in a way, because just going along with whatever is the bread and butter of watching Mr. Robot.
Like Orphan Black and How to Get Away With Murder, Mr. Robot is a medium-quality show that keeps changing direction every five minutes to stop us from asking questions or probing too deeply into any of its surface-level plot twists. It’s really exciting to watch – you don’t want to stop, because something surprising and confusing keeps happening all the time – but it also doesn’t make sense and evaporates from your brain as soon as you’re done with it.
The problem with all of these shows, at a narrative level, is that, at the core, they have a very simple story, and the complications that arise to throw the characters off course never serve to make the story more complex – the characters just get sent on side-missions that sometimes don’t even go anywhere, and only really serve as a way to kill time before the major questions in the main story are resolved.
For example, in Mr. Robot there is a whole episode about Elliot detoxing from the drug addiction he just picked up, where he lies on a bed and has a trippy dream, and the only reason it’s really happening is to stall him from doing a straightforward hack that would move the main story forward. Similarly, when FSociety is ready to hack Evil Corp, they suddenly can’t because The Dark Army stops talking to them with no explanation. There’s then a side-story about trying to get back in contact with The Dark Army, in which Elliot has to go and meet their leader, and then there’s an elaborate scene where the leader tells him something that could easily have been communicated without all this trouble and delay, and then the hack’s back on.
Half of what happens feels hollow and forgettable because it has no real impact on the story – it just pulls the characters off the main story and throws more information at us, as though information, by itself, will enrich the narrative. All that said, I could live with it easier if some of the go-nowhere surprise stories weren’t kind of offensive. Because…
SPOILERS, but some of the go-nowhere surprise stories are kind of offensive.
There’s a storyline where Elliot’s girlfriend gets fridged, for example. It’s actually the most straight-forward fridging I’ve seen in a long time, and so tone deaf and ignorant because of that that I kind of couldn’t believe what I was watching.
Here’s the scoop: Elliot starts dating his drug dealer, Shayla. Shayla has a supplier who’s a total dickweasel and proves this in the first scene we meet him by drugging and raping Shayla. Elliot hacks him and anonymously turns his info over to the police, which leads to him going to jail. Once the supplier’s in jail, Shayla stops selling drugs and gets a job as a waitress, which apparently makes her happy. Unfortunately, the dickweasel supplier figures out that Elliot is the one who turned him in, so he has his brother kidnap Shayla and hold her hostage. He tells Elliot that, if Elliot can hack him out of prison, he can have Shayla back. Elliot spends the rest of the episode driving around with the dickweasel’s brother, and eventually finds a way to hack the dickweasel out of prison. When the dickweasel gets out of prison, he gives Elliot the keys to the car and tells him Shayla’s been dead in the trunk the whole time.
Literally, the only reason Shayla exists is to get killed and stuffed in the trunk of a car. She’s barely even a character beyond that, her death occurs in a random side story that has nothing to do with the main plot, and it has no real repercussions on anything. Elliot’s sad about it and then that’s it. It’s purely there to surprise the audience at the end of the episode. And, once the surprise has done its work, we move onto the next distraction.
As if that’s not aggravating enough on its own, there’s another scene shortly after where the Swedish sociopath executive tries to seduce his rival’s wife and then, completely out of nowhere and for no discernable reason except that it’s surprising, he decides to choke her to death instead. Nothing really comes of that either.
The reason people like this show, though, is because of the huge surprise in episode eight, and I’m going to spoil it below.
There are a whole bunch of people in FSociety, but only three of them matter. Elliot, Mr. Robot, and a girl named Darlene who’s always been overly familiar with Elliot. In episode eight, we suddenly learn that Darlene is Elliot’s sister and his mental illness has caused him to forget who she is for some reason. She’s shocked to discover that he doesn’t remember who she is and hasn’t remembered her for quite some time.
This part of the surprise kind of makes sense, because it retroactively helps us understand how Darlene’s been acting, and adds to the existing body of evidence that Elliot’s an unreliable source of information. Unfortunately, the surprise continues from there.
It turns out that Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot’s imagination, or an alternate personality of his, that’s based on his late father. It’s basically a Fight Club situation. And, like Fight Club, there are some problems with it, once you stop and think about what’s happening for a second:
- I am not aware of any mental illness that actually works this way. The part where Elliot blacks out and becomes Mr. Robot is somewhat consistent with what people report about Dissociative Identity Disorder (if we allow some artistic license along the way), but the part where he apparently has vivid, coherent, hours-long hallucinations in which all of his acquaintances talk to Mr. Robot while he’s standing there, and act as though there are two distinct people present seems more suspect. So is the part where he chokes himself because he’s fighting with Mr. Robot in his mind.
- Everybody in FSociety should have had lots of opportunities to notice that Elliot’s acting really strange, but apparently no one ever said anything to him about it, or even said anything that didn’t jive with his perception of the situation.
- Mr. Robot is not told exclusively from Elliot’s point of view. There are scenes between other characters that Elliot’s not present for, and that the audience is presumably supposed to believe took place. This includes a whole host of things, but the best example is a scene where Elliot’s boss eats breakfast with his partner. There’s no reason Elliot would have imagined that or made that up – it’s clearly a scene of something that’s happening in the world and not filtered through his perspective.
- Because everything is not filtered through Elliot’s perspective, the catch-all explanation that Elliot’s an unreliable narrator and therefore we can’t trust anything we saw doesn’t work as well as it does in Fight Club.
- There are scenes where Mr. Robot talks to people on his own that are going to be hard to explain from a perspective where Elliot is Mr. Robot. This includes the big, important scene where Mr. Robot’s talking to the evil Swede about their plot, but it also includes little things like how he seems to have a history with the hacker Romero – that friendship makes less sense with the huge age difference between them. How do they even know each other?
Just as we’re trying to process the Elliot is Mr. Robot twist, we’re also hit with a whole new set of twists in the final episode. And, by “twists,” I of course mean “things that don’t make sense.” The internet’s alive with speculation about how those questions are going to be resolved, but my guess is that they won’t. There will be another “twist” that draws us away from those questions, and then a “twist” that draws us away from the first “twist” and so on and so forth until we all forget what we were even confused about in the first place.
No, seriously. If you strip out all the dead ends, the plot of Mr. Robot is not that complicated.
Elliot is approached by a group of hackers who want to take down Evil Corp. He isn’t sure he should join, and then he does. They come up with a plan to fry the servers Evil Corp stores its data on, but then they miss their opportunity, and Evil Corp backs up its data to another set of servers. It turns out that doesn’t matter, though, because they can still fry all the servers at all three backup locations by hacking into Allsafe, so they do that. Meanwhile, the Swedish guy is passed over for promotion and fired because he can’t get along with the staff member who got the job; he’s pissed off, so he (apparently) helps FSociety fry the servers and (possibly) gets murdered by Mr. Robot.
That’s honestly all that happens, but it’s tossed under a blanket of confusion to make it seem like more.
The other thing people like about Mr. Robot is the way the shots are framed, and I’ve got no beef with that.
Mr. Robot frames its shots in a really weird, socially-awkward way where people are rarely at the centre of the screen, and where conversations seem disconnected and strange. That makes a lot of sense, given the content of the show, and I agree that it both looks cool and fits the story.
Mr. Robot introduced me to this awesome song by FKA Twigs, and it’s shot in a really cool way, and I binge-watched the first season even though I was kind of dubious about it because there was so much suspense along the way. But it’s also sort of like eating a whole can of Pringles at once. You enjoy it, but then you look back and say, “What did I just do? There was no part of that that nourished me…”