There’s a great rant near the end of the season finale of Mr. Robot featuring wonderful Christian Slater. This rant about the uncertain nature of reality reminds those of us who remember of a much younger Christian Slater ranting in another film as another seductive bad guy who blows things up. So it’s a deeply meta moment – reminding us that we are viewers of unreal things happening on screens, and that we’ve been watching these unreal destructions happen on screens for a very long time, as our own real bodies age and wither, just like Mr. Slater’s has. There’s something real, all right — our death — but somehow we don’t talk about that much.
I don’t entirely love Mr. Robot. The intellectually part of me rebels against the title character turning out to be a figment of the hero’s imagination, a dark part of himself that he can’t admit to, just like Tyler Durden of Fight Club — a connection that alot of people have talked about already. Plotwise, this is a fancy way of saying “I woke up and it was all a dream ” which Aimee Bender cautioned us about when I was in her class on unrealism at UCLA 15 years ago. And what’s worse is that this is a dead dad figment of Elliot’s imagination. Sigh. Greek Tragedy here we go.
And yet, the show is captivating in other ways. First off, I’m really interested in its Schillerian THE ROBBERS inquiry directions that the show seems to going in. In that play from the 1780’s Friedrich Schiller wonders what actually happens, AFTER you you tear the place apart and burn everything down. Now what? It’s an answer the play can’t answer, but it sure asks that question. To its credit Mr. Robot pointedly asks that question near the end of the finale.
It’s an important question. In one of his final essays the socialist/ecologist Murray Bookchin asks if anarchism is really the way to go. No, he answers provisionally, because you need some kind of political organization to make things work, and so we’re back to town meetings, and talking things out and taking votes.
We will have to figure it out democratically, Bookchin argues, and this was the reason OCCUPY couldn’t last, according to him, although I am simplifying his argument, which is — I think — that OCCUPY needed to inaugurate a different way of doing things.It couldn’t just remain as itself.
But what? If everything is disrupted, how do we get clean water, food, medicines, transportation, education, and the rest?
I don’t know if Mr. Robot will end up talking about Murray Bookchin, but at its most powerful moments it’s asking us rather urgently to THINK ABOUT HOW WE MIGHT DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY. If we don’t want F-Society, then what DO we want?
The most surrealistic and most powerful moment for me in the final episode is when Angela confronts the shoe salesman at what might be Bendel’s or Bergdorfs. Her pumps are stained with Evil Corps’ CEO’s blood (he has just shot himself), and she has to buy new shoes to attend the press conference the company is having. The shoe salesman asks her how she can work for such a place. She answers truthfully “I need a job.”
This brings me to the second thing I love about Mr. Robot. Its bare boned truthfulness about our lives. We all do what we do because we need the money. I loved that moment of desperation and honesty. I love Angela trying to go home to dad in New Jersey and discovering that he’s broke. I relate. My dad was broke when I was in my 20’s and I had to get make good at grad school, because I had to get a job. Stocks may not be real, but being able to get what you need to survive sure is. And what we do to survive is not a pretty thing, usually. The fact that Angela is looking at beautiful shoes — the fetishized objects of Cinderella and the Red Shoes (her old ones are literally red) — makes that point pretty clearly, and tacks on to that the awareness that survival for young women gets tangled up with beauty and fashion.
In the midst of the digital and the paranoid and the traumatic, we live and breathe and earn, if we can, because we must. I love that Mr. Robot comes back to that. Murray Bookchin would dig it. And so would Schiller.
The show gets at that difficult truth by way of a hero who appears to be at least somewhat delusional and by a filmic style that reminds me alternatively of Fellini, Kubrick, and Cassavetes. At one point, the entire population of Manhattan seems to disappear, leaving Elliot alone at a CGI Times Square. It’s the most horrifying moment of the series. Late capitalism is hell, the show tells us, but to be alone in its wreckage is probably worse.
The final element that I love about Mr. Robot is its messy, fucked-up, paranoid, traumatized demonstration that we need each other — that Elliot is NOT talking to an imagined audience at all. He is talking to US, and WE are most emphatically listening.