Having just recently caught up with Mr Robot season one (twice) am struck by the extraordinary edges that the story potentially gives us.
The first thing to say is how well cast and acted it is, there are recurrently some excellent performances, none more so than Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, whose face is a remarkable screen of minimalist expression, suffused and drenched with meaning and impart, through the lens of an autistic-like flattened affect. The result being a transported rendering of someone at once both utterly consumed by an intensity of feeling to mysterious degree while also simultaneously distant or removed from it.
As a focus for one of the most extraordinary of the story elements which, it’s necessary to look at two characters that Elliot (our near-supernatural level hacker) encounters who hail from the darkest of amoral action sets.
The first is the frightening street dealer Fernando Vera, whose recurring invocation of the cosmos, its will and ways and his heavy one-time statement of love for Elliot are among the most disturbing kinds of expression. For alongside these come his absolute violence and will to control, ultimately rendering that any expressions of love from him are simply masks of ill intent, pervading his desire for power, ruthless manipulation and unconscionable violence.
His recognition of Elliot’s extraordinary power in our technological world is something he identifies with excitement, even at the point of understanding that it is this which has been the undoing of himself and his entire street operation (replete as it was with references to warring drug commerce, assassination and territorial disputes).
The second character whose dark and positively vile trajectory (the executive ‘tech at heart’ Tyrell Wellick) is the deeper rooted of the two within the story. While of course neither is close in scale or sense of entitled, insulated power to the shadowy, semi-conspiratorially positioned power-crats identified in the context of our ‘Corporate Overlords.’ Effectively marking the return of feudal power structures, now cut loose from territory and abstracted alongside the virtualisation of money, simultaneously hidden at the ‘top’ among an entire class (or wannabe class) of suited corporatees, let loose in the world and unknowingly (perhaps) charged towards achieving identikit notions of success and achievement in the pure hierarchy of status, wealth and power.
Of course, Wellick at this point in the story, cannot make it to the top, driven as he is by his own pathological need as he expressed when finally being fired ‘I was on a track’ begging not to be let go. Ironically he is too out of control, murdering when the plan was simply to seduce and blackmail, a realisation a la Patrick Bateman. He is part of a two person ambition crew, he and his terrifying wife, the aesthetically precise Swedish dark-power team who work together transgressing any and all boundaries in the name of power (seductions both hetero and homosexual, blackmail, casual presumably cathartic violence paid for against an itinerant), the endless analysis of enemies and opponents for weaknesses to exploit.
Wellick’s final confrontation of Elliot where he outlines how he has killed a woman with his bare hands and how this brought him contact with power is his kind of apotheosis, the sharing of his understanding of this contact with ‘absolute power’ which he feels needs to be placed alongside Elliot’s (as in his estimation they will be working together and were destined to do so, even from their first chance-like encounter).
This is one of the most illuminating tides of Mr Robot, that in the execution of actions and ‘moves’ Elliot becomes entangled with these characters on dark paths of power, who see what he is capable of and attempt to co-opt, coerce and control him into alignment with them (ultimately as a supplication). In fact, meeting Elliot dramatically changes both these character’s (Vera/Wellick) awareness of power, breaking them out of their own dark power-cast of dreamings; initially limited for each with Vera in the jungle of the street and Wellick the corporate battlefield. It is in this sense the playing out of an earlier description of Elliot by the Mr. Robot character himself, as ‘the only force of nature at play here’.
As such, those who are dedicated to power as its own end are uncontrollably intoxicated by the realisation of what Elliot can make happen. Vera explains that he wasn’t even angry when he realised that Elliot had tracked his operation and turned him in, he says he was excited and that the feeling of wanting his power gave Vera a hard on (a notion for male sexuality to consider in terms of its power problem). For Wellick, the realisation is that he and his wife were ‘blinded by a myopic focus on the wrong players’ and that above them all along, had been ‘God’.
So far, so dark… So understandable… Criminals, corporate psychopaths finding someone whose potential they see as nearly limitless power and potential that they must harness.
That the toll they take on Elliot includes the loss of his nascent love Shayla (Vera chooses not to kill Elliot when he has forced him to make his jailbreak possible) is the result of a course of action which we see Elliot had set in motion himself when she confirms at their first meeting that she can get him withdrawal medication (something he takes simultaneously with his morphine) but that it is from a ‘psychopath’ – additionally crushing in its sadness. Vera’s darkness is all the more unpalatable for its overtones of love and cosmic utterance, the final violation being that as promised he will hug Elliot when this is all over (knowing that Elliot has a deep aversion to physical contact).
The show riffs on Fight Club as we are aware, persons are displaced in questions of reality and virtuality and we are played with in this sense, even as we are consistently spoken and referred to by Elliot as his imaginary friend. What for me becomes so fascinating in this context is that in the slew of possible agencies at work within and to a definite narrative degree – outside Elliot – is simply put, a space of the unknown.
Also, it is not simply that the space is the action of a dislocated Elliot – unrevealed in narrative terms – although this may be the case as the story continues, but that there is the feeling of an actual ontological gap in the story.
When finally explaining to Wellick (who has by now put most of the pieces together) what and how he was planning, he is asked by Wellick what he was hoping to achieve, to which Elliot responds finally ‘to save the world.’
The idea of a story in which a character saves the world is nothing new, in fact most stories catering for the male (or the adventure story seeker) can be about saving the world. Often the risk is some semi-apocalyptic control ploy and the objective of the ubiquitous hero is to use their unique skill sets – more often that not involving exceptional combat ability and generally unmatched poise and intelligent sangfroid, to return the world to its normal situation – which of course confers to us all that everything is well with the world, that the world is as it should be (it can have its problems and delimmas, but generally is always worth saving). The starting position of Mr. Robot is that the world is primarily fucked, that people are fucked and that the rule of corporate culture, money, advertising and individual isolation and loneliness is something terminally wrong which needs to be rectified (part of Mr. Robot’s debt to Fight Club). In which case, ‘saving the world’ in this case becomes a genuine act of seeing the world’s situation (including and beyond the human dimension) and undertaking a fundamentally ‘destructive’ act to turn things around.
That a character has been dreamed into existence that can actually truncate this reality by electronically resetting all debt and potentially mortally wounding the largest corporate monolith on the planet; E Corp, permanently labelled in Elliot’s reality – and our narrative access – as ‘Evil Corp’ and which controls 70% of the worlds debt infrastructure, is still kind of within the architecture of the hero/anti-hero. Yet Elliot is deeply dysfunctional (beyond the roguish hyperbolic of the rough edged diamond hero or the distant, inscrutable antihero). Borrowing from Chuck Palahniuk again, it is an implication of the deeply unreliable narrator which presents for me the most potent element of possibility within the story, that there is no ‘character’ or ‘personality’ at the heart of many of the actions described.
Even though we may have seen all of the possible outcomes of Elliot’s personality in action, there remain blind spots in the story, left deliberately as unknowns, which can suggest this kind of possibility.
The question of the unthinkable target or achievement, who after all can genuinely set out to save the world? When the ‘world’ at least from the human space is also the deep problematic of each individual self in train with the emergent trajectory of the human impact on the world, surely such a thing is a futility almost absolute in its scale?
Mr. Robot’s answer at this point almost seems to be that no one contained individual, or self can or would do this or be able to. In fact, Elliot himself almost turns the entire enterprise in on a couple of occasions, notably after an early but critical hack when he relents only at the evidence of the monstrous and petty vindictiveness of the Evil Corp executive that he is meeting with in his role as a tech security engineer.
So, perhaps at this point we return to Elliot the force of nature, bringing this as it does, to the notion of alternative, unknown, perhaps unthinkable possibilities in terms of the agent of this extraordinary attack on the corporate reality.
Of course, we could simply discern that there is some additional unknown delusionary profile at work, whose memories or behaviour we are unable to access, but that will become known to the story in time. And yet… while we rest, at the conclusion of the story’s first chapter (season one) it remains satisfyingly unknown, that the power identified by Wellick and Vera, a power of intelligence, of virtual productions and coding and endless overcoming of barriers and protections has within it a space of possibility, that requires a fundamentally aformal ‘subject’ to exist. We could probably say that the breakage this might involve (to Elliot and his consistency, his character) is a tragic one, his level of delusion that leads to forgetting family and history – and yet in terms of necessity on the scale of action, whose to say that Elliot is not himself (as we experience him) simply another unknown fragment of a force within the story that at heart, fundamentally and brilliantly defies realisation. The necessary access point to the human world of forces required to fundamentally alter its trajectory? And specifically definable only by their absence in ordinary human personality and reality terms?
Even if this turns out not to be the case, the prospect itself seems extraordinary.