I am really enjoying the new USA show, Mr. Robot.
Somehow Rami Malek renders disturbed, anti-social misfit Elliot Alderson a sympathetic everyman, the extreme embodiment of the alienation many of us feel at those times we are treated more like numbers than people.
At first, I was kind of put off by Christian Slater’s in-your-face portrayal of the title character. He seemed out of sync with the overall tone of the largely muted show. He was too, well, Christian Slater.
BIG SPOILER ALERT
But that all changed when I realized that Mr. Robot is Tyler Durden. Mr. Robot is Elliot’s unconscious projection, just as Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden was the leader Edward Norton’s narrator wished he were in Fight Club.
The show starts with Elliot saying: “Hello, friend.”
It’s natural to think he is speaking directly to us, the viewers, as is the convention of film voice-overs, but he continues . . .
“Hello, friend? That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name, but that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head. We have to remember that. Shit! It’s actually happened, I’m talking to an imaginary person.”
So Elliot immediately reveals himself as an unreliable narrator. Everything shown from his perspective must be questioned. Everything requires corroboration from other interior sources.
Our first glimpse of Mr. Robot is when he shouts across a crowded subway car to Elliot: “Hey. Hey, you. Hey, kiddo, what’s happening? Exciting time in the world right now. Exciting time.” No one else in the subway car reacts at all. Sure, New Yorker disinterest, especially on public transport, is legendary, but this is taking it to an extreme.
Mr. Robot later tries to panhandle two men in black who seem to be watching Elliot — “What about you two? Hunh? You guys got any spare change? Help me out? New York’s expensive, guys, c’mon” — but they do not acknowledge him at all; and even Elliot questions whether all of the men in black he sees following him are real.
When Elliot and Mr. Robot have their first one-on-one conversation, they are all alone in a subway car in the middle of the night. Elliot’s asks, “Are you talking to me?” Most film fans will immediately associate this line with the paranoid classic, Taxi Driver. An armed Travis Bickle is looking in the mirror when he says this. The next line is: “Well, I’m the only one here.”
Mr. Robot takes Elliot to the hackers’ arcade lair. When Romero opens door, he looks directly at Elliot, but does not even glance at Mr. Robot. No one else looks directly at him, but they all turn to look at Elliot at some point.
After Elliot has left the arcade, he worries:
“I’m crazy. I have to be crazy because that didn’t just happen, right? This is a delusion. Is this a delusion? Shit, I’m schizo.
“Have I really lost it this time? No, no, Last night happened. It was real. . . .
“I know, I know, I know, I realize I’m saying all of this to an imaginary person, but I created you. I didn’t create this.”
Or did he?
When Elliot later returns to the arcade to confront Mr. Robot, he greets Darlene by saying, “Hey, man. Where’s your boss?” She replies, “Okay, cut the bullshit. When are you going to give us access . . .”
As they speak, Mr. Robot slowly walks up in the background, crossing the frame similar to the way the previously presumed dead Harry Lime (Orson Welles) entered an amusement park in Vienna to meet Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in another paranoid classic, The Third Man (a beautiful restoration of which just so happens to be having a limited run in select theaters right now). She does not seem to notice “her boss” at all. And he does not fully enter the shot and speak to Elliot until Darlene has left.
The two are then alone on the Ferris Wheel in a scene straight out of The Third Man, where Lime/Mr. Robot explains to Martins/Elliot exactly how the world works:
There is more evidence for my theory in Episode 2, excuse me, Episode 1.1. When Elliot comes home to find Darlene in his shower, she says, “You were supposed to come last night. Did you forget?” But he has no idea what she is talking about, “Come? Where?”
And then there is this exchange:
“How do you know where I live?”
“Why wouldn’t I know where you live?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know where you live.”
“I don’t live anywhere at the present. . . .”*
This is followed by what an asshole her boyfriend is for proposing to her, which she ends by saying. “I’ll do my disappearing act. He’ll come to his senses. You know, it’s our thing.”
“Our,” as in her and her boyfriend or her and Elliot/Mr. Robot? Both? This whole interchange really reminds me of the scene in Fight Club when Marla walks into the kitchen after a night spent with Tyler.
When they reach the arcade, all of the hackers clap for Elliot’s takedown of Evil Corp’s Colby. This is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. Elliot turns to see Mr. Robot shooting ducks on an arcade game. No one else seems to notice. Then Darlene, speaking to Elliot, asks: “Can we please hear the plan?” Mr. Robot steps directly in front of Elliot to rebuff further questions. Darlene’s focus does not change.
Afterward, Elliot and Mr. Robot walk off on their own to discuss the plan, ending with Elliot asking:
“They know about all of this?”
“You’re the first.”
Mr. Robot then launches into his “Are you a one or a zero?” speech, referring several times to Elliot’s father. But wait, Elliot has never mentioned his father to Mr. Robot. We only know about it from Elliot’s confrontation with Ron at the beginning of the show. Sure, these are hackers, so they could find out public information like the cause of Elliot’s father’s death, but Mr. Robot knows details about Elliot’s personal feelings.
When Elliot leaves the arcade, Darlene confronts him about the plan, “Disappearing again? . . . You don’t get to disappear from this. We can do it with or without you, but you’re part of this either way! Yeah, even your stupid hoodie can’t protect you, bitch!”
When Elliot later returns to Coney Island, he finds Mr. Robot sitting alone on a rail reading a romance novel: “Deep passions, longing. The two of them had never felt such a love, such a closeness, such a connection.” Could this be an allusion to the close connection between Elliot and Mr. Robot?
When I presented this theory to my friend Tim, he said I made a convincing case, but he’ll be disappointed if I am right because then the show would be nothing but a ripoff of Fight Club. Me, I actually find the prospect reassuring, as it would anchor Christian Slater’s acting, give a context for why it was so out of sync with the rest of the show. Mr. Robot is Elliot’s unconscious projection of everything he feels he lacks, just as Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden was the leader Edward Norton’s narrator wished he could be in Fight Club. As such, of course, he has a far more outgoing personality. It also explains why Christian Slater is saddled with so many speeches and so much narrative explication. He is not explaining himself to us, the viewers, but to Elliot, his other self, the self that can actually carry out his plans. Mr. Robot is the id that comes up with extreme plans and does not worry about how much collateral damage might be caused by blowing up a gas processing plant to take out a computer server farm. Eliot is the ego tasked with keeping the id in check, coming up with less destructive (to people, not credit institutions) means to accomplish the goal and putting those revised plans in action.
* Shit, could Darlene also be a delusion? While she shares a scene with Elliot’s drug dealer, Shayla, they never interact. But that would mean the entire hacker crew would need to be in Elliot’s mind, which would be way over the line. Maybe it’s best to take Mr. Robot’s advice in terms of Darlene: “Let’s not focus on her, that’d be like entering a bad K-hole that you’ll never wake up from.” But I may have already entered that K-hole if I’m taking advice from a delusion about other possible delusions.
Update — Darlene was confirmed as a real person in Episode 3 when she directly interacted with Shayla.