Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Painful to Pretend: What Mr. Robot Does That Is Actually Like Nothing on Television

For weeks before the season premiere, the ads for Mr. Robot were unremitting. I listen to a lot of music at work via Youtube, where the incessant monotonous hum of skippable ads hammer at every conceivable interval between playlist tracks.  Mr. Robot’s campaign administered itself into this regimen.  The algorithim that wiggled and rigged these promos in front of me seemed targeted, an equation of websites visited, songs purchased, petitions signed, articles liked, twitter follows, et al., which is part of what made me skeptical.  The world Mr. Robot’s protagonist seemed to be targeting was the one that was producing it. 

It’s well-established that the culture industry produces interpassive modes of resistance that allow us to simulate rebellion without actuating it.  A show about a hacker fighting the 1% seemed destined to only be told in the circular language of existing tropes, resistance to the spectacle told in its native tongue.  We already know the one about the solitary hero who lives his* life thinking that something is off, but can’t quite place it; who through chance or a fateful step outside his comfort zone finds a pre-prepared underground whose existence forms the epiphany that helps him take on an authoritarian power structure filled with impossibly uncaring evil tyrants**.  We’ve seen that flick a million times before and Mr. Robot knows it.

In a way, Mr. Robot flirts with these genre conventions as it tries to subvert them. Four episodes in, the show has teetered on the edge of greatness, but it remains poised to spoil the good graces it has earned by tipping the scale back to the favor of the familiar at any given moment.   There’s plenty of writing out there right now on why this show is the surprise success of the season, so I want to focus briefly on why the show’s anti-capitalist bent, even if performative, does a number of things right, or at least in a way that television was seemingly never “allowed” to do prior to this show.

Shows with politics central to the plot tend to dilute any specific aims in an attempt to diversify their audience.  Like good democrats, studios don’t mind alienating passionate and fiery progressives in favor of satiating the middlebrow middle class.  As such, Mr. Robot’s narrative lead in Elliot, played by a masterful Rami Malek, is alarmingly acute in his gripes.  Rather than rage broadly against the machine, Elliot actually names names.  And not just when he calls out giant corporations like Eli Lily or Monsanto by name (the main target on the show is eCorp, whose logo is a not-so-subtle facsimile of Enron but whose brand encompasses BoA, General Electric, Google, Apple, you name it- essentially a stand-in for all conglomerated capital).  He targets exactly the performative aspects of popular culture that we liberals are sanctioned to enjoy- the biography of Steve Jobs, The Hunger Games, Marvel movies, nerd culture, et al.   A more winking show might have implicated the Mr. Robot brand itself in this list.  Yet, when the show attempts to throw a cheap jab against a character whose Facebook likes include “Transformers 2”, “Josh Groban”, and “George Bush’s Decision Points”, Elliot retreats, admitting that said douche is still not that bad a guy, careful to separate institutions from their unwilling control subjects, and cautious to delineate that people are not the sum of all they consume.  Still, fuck that guy.

Elliot is a contradictory character, an outsider who longs for acceptance, but also an extreme narcissist, which is a dangerous thing to be in a first-person narrative show.  Within the first ten minutes of the show, he has “destroyed a man’s life, his existence, I deleted him”, the latter being a child pornographer hosting websites routed through servers in his franchised coffeehouses that contained Wi-fi too good to be true.  Elliot can’t socialize with actual humans and instead snoops around online, collecting information via every available channel***. He considers himself to be extremely perceptive, but fails to notice that his boss is gay and misinterprets half of what his childhood friend seems to be communicating at any given point.  He outs a cheating boyfriend to dispossess his psychiatrist of her trustworthy nature, but fails to open up to her about what’s irking him on a day-to-day basis.  He creeps like a creep in the shadows, placing no value on what others perceive to be safe spaces, exposing those portals as the insecure hubs they are.  While playing a hero, he assumes the pose of a predator, and unlike our current crop of superhero films, Mr. Robot is upfront about how problematic this thin veneer is.

The show walks a tightrope around Elliot’s moral gray areas.  On the one hand, it expects us to be sympathetic to his crusader efforts against eCorp.  I don’t anticipate that the show will eventually turn him into some kind of Walter White style villain, but by making him the singular focus it does veer the narrative towards his loner/lonely perspective in a very Notes from the Underground way.   Elliot is a self-avowed pessimist who sees and expects the worst in people and is often right.  His antisocial online activity stems from a place of male privilege, where intentionality is always the white horse even if the methods he uses to track his psychiatrist and his best friend mirror abusive behaviors women face daily from cyberbullies (the likes of which appear later in the show in the form of a hacker group trying to extort a couple in a revenge-porn like scheme). Elliot attempts to be chivalrous standing up for a female colleague in a boardroom meeting, but actually ends up just humiliating her and re-affirming the institutional sexism of the executives he’s speaking with.   Mr. Robot is smart in presenting Elliot as an unreliable narrator, often as much a product of the world he’s dismissing as those he writes off, but it’s also subtle in ways that may be lost on potential audiences looking to ride out his corporate takedown on Elliot’s terms alone.

What’s interesting and unique about Elliot’s issues is how the show clearly implicates capitalism in his malaise, and not just because his father suffered from Leukemia brought on by radiation he was exposed to as an employee at eCorp.  His loneliness, insularity, anxiety, and depression are all augmented by the barriers of neoliberal ontology, specifically how late capitalist society does not allow a space for people like him to exist.  In the pilot’s opening scene, Elliot attempts to identify with the child pornographer; “I know what it’s like to be different.  I’m very different too.”  Capitalism treats both of them as equals, the hacktivist and the black market sexual predator, the Arab kid too awkward for most gainful employment and the small business owner too perverse to be satisfied with what’s on the market.  The massive ethical divide between the two doesn’t really make a difference to the reigns of control.  If Elliot is caught, he will likely face as much jail time as the child pornographer, if not more.   

Elliot’s too shy to create the kind of Pinterest dream life he sees his friends and coworkers enjoying, too disenfranchised to consume away his troubles with anything but narcotics and cheap thrills from hacking personal accounts.  And even though he knows this is all fantasy, that none of us actually live the lives we’re expected to simulate online, he still desires it. He longs to live there, a “bug-free life”. 

“What are you thinking about?” asks Elliot’s psychiatrist at one point in the pilot. “Nothing”, he replies. On the one hand, this is just an accurate portrayal of living with anxiety or depression. When there’s so much weighing on you at any given time and the vastness of it so great that language fails.  Or perhaps you just don’t feel like sharing. Elliot mentions at one point that he isn’t on Facebook.  On the other hand, there’s the desolate feeling of complete ontological isolation that comes from living in a world that seems fundamentally unjust, governed by hierarchies that benefit so few and cause great suffering to so many.  You walk around and see the wiring, the artificiality everywhere, but it persists with the consent of everyone around you.  “We voted for this,” Elliot remarks at one point.  Speaking up about this is a constant, often futile struggle when so many seem to either willfully ignore it or, worse, be just fine with it.  This cripples Elliot. 

Mark Fisher described the inner voice of depression as an “internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest indenying any connection between depression and politics.”  Elliot’s feelings of self-worth most definitely have a political dimension to them, which is something television never shows.  He simultaneously thinks he is too good and not good enough for his peer group and the divide is largely ideological.  In the third episode, he compares the way he and others are guided by outside forces to daemons, background programs that run an operating system without direct input from a user ( a term which also has some obvious religious overtones as well).   

“There’s a saying- the devil’s at his strongest while we’re looking the other way. Like a program running in the background, silently- while we’re busing doing other shit.  Daemons, they call them.  They perform action without human interaction. Monitoring, logging, notifications- primal urges, repressed memories, unconscious habits- they’re always there, always active...We can try to be right.  We can try to be good. We can try to make a difference.  But it’s all bullshit.  Because intentions are irrelevant.  They don’t drive us. Daemons do.”

“I think you secretly hate it here”, his longtime friend and colleague says to him.  “No, I love it here.”  Here is the workplace no film or show would ever show- a place where people fight for jobs they hate because they’re terrified of what would happen if they didn’t go there every day with a smile on their face.  A place where people lie to their coworkers in order to confirm something that no one believes.  “It’s painful not to pretend”, Elliot intones in his dry, affectless monotone. 

Television is wont to always portray the liars as the bad guys and the truth-tellers as the good guys, but in actuality we all lie, regularly, in service of nothing more than the status quo.  We lie because lies are reinforced by the gatekeepers, and the penalty for not lying could be severe, painful even.   Even Elliot’s pivotal turn, an act that spins him from a cybersecurity tech curmudgeon into a would-be revolutionary is enacted because of a personal, rather than political qualm.  Had his friend not been insulted, he would have gladly handed over the hacktivists of fSociety to his corporate overlords on a silver platter.  Because even though he hated his job and everything about the corporate world he found himself trapped in, it would be too painful not to pretend that the wage security was a best case scenario for a misfit like him.

Mr. Robot breaks from the old lefty lie of the dignity of labor, the liberation of work, as if full employment would be some heroic end to the age of austerity.  Show creator Sam Esmail, an Egyptian, said he wrote the pilot as a film after witnessing friends and relatives experience firsthand the events of the Arab Spring, suggesting that an equivalent uprising may be coming for the west.  Mr. Robot may be the first real post-recession show, one that acknowledges that things are not shaping up to be business as usual, nor should they be, that the ground has shifted.  That the recent recession is not, as Elliot calls his fSociety stint in a moment of despair, “a glitch in the otherwise neat reality…created over the years.”

*Always his. Never her.

**In this scenario, authority is generally depoliticized into a kind of strict despotism with no actual strategic goals.  A stand-in father figure that must be removed as part of the adolescent fantasy of replacing one’s parents

***The show makes it clear just how many pathways into human experience exist in explorable online outlets. The candyland of online information permits him to be a virtual NSA or information-gathering

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.