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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mr. Robot Season 2: Interpretation (1)


Like many viewers, I was totally puzzled by Elliot's story line in Season 2. Nothing of apparent consequence or forward motion happened to Elliot. All the conflicts and drama occurred to the other characters: Darlene has killed someone and watched her boyfriend killed. Angela has infiltrated Evil Corp and nearly defeated Philip Price, before falling under White Rose's persuasion. Dom DiPiro almost gets killed, twice, and almost solves the case single-handedly. White Rose, Philip Price, Joanna Wellick, and even the CTO played by Brian Stokes Mitchell all have plenty of action that, in the end, makes sense. (White Rose's logic may be a bit opaque but it's definitely there.)

What did Elliot do this season? He got himself jailed (in a pretty minimum security place, it seems) for the minor hacking and dog-robbery he committed in Season 1 against his psychotherapist's boyfriend. His goal, of going to either jail or his mother's house, was the same: to stay away from computers and the Internet and, in turn, to prevent his alter ego, Mr. Robot, from doing further damage to society. For over half of the season, Elliot does little more than arguing with himself --- we should remember this point because it's important. Meanwhile, he is involved in a self-contained story loop, in which the jail warden, played with menacing sympathy by Craig Robinson, is running an online black market site much like Silk Road. During all this, Elliot has several hallucinatory episodes and/or dreams that seem to go nowhere and do not pay off by the end of the season. The forward move of his is to help Darlene and Angela hack into FBI.

And then, by the final episode, he is suddenly reunited with Tyrell Wellick, and it becomes clear that he and Wellick had long planned to execute Stage 2 of their grand conspiracy (ie, the revolution), which would destroy Evil Corp's paper financial records, and that this whole scheme is carried out with the support of and perhaps direction from White Rose, who may or may not represent the interest of a foreign government.

So what is the point of all the meandering of Elliot's story in the first 8 episodes? Why does Sam Esmail spend so much screen time doing nothing? Is this merely artsy-fartsy self-indulgence?

Upon second viewing of Season 2, I realized that my mistake lies in my conviction that Tyrell was killed by Elliot/Mr. Robot at the end of Season 1. But that was wrong, and all subsequent deductions were wrong, too. I should have realized that killing someone and disposing of his body did not require 3 whole days. When Tyrell showed up alive, the entire Elliot story line must be re-interpreted from the start.

(Continue after the break)

In Part 2 of the first episode, Mr. Robot said something to the effect that when people see me, what they see is you. Or vice versa. It is another reminder that Mr. Robot and Elliot are the same person. He is not only the meek, awkward, gentle, harmless nerd who does not want to kill anyone. He is also the obnoxious and destructive Mr. Robot.

And we are told, again and again, that Elliot continues to have black-out episodes in which Mr. Robot takes over. When he finally figures out how to spy on Mr. Robot through lucid dreams, we get a glimpse of what it's like to be Mr. Robot. This is when it dawned on me that Mr. Robot is the "real" Elliot Alderson, or perhaps the more substantive Elliot.

Recalling a line in S01E10 that more or less suggested that Elliot did not exist before the start of Season 1, or, to put it in another way, Elliot Alderson had been wholly and entirely Mr. Robot before the story began, until a secondary personality split off as Rami Malek's Elliot that we have been sympathizing with. This Elliot tries to wrestle control of his body and action from Mr. Robot, ie, his other self, but Mr. Robot is very likely the primary personality, which is why the latter has all the control.

Therefore, while Elliot hasn't done much of anything during Season 2, the right question is really "What has Mr. Robot done?"

It is almost for certain that Elliot/Mr. Robot has been in continual contact with Tyrell, possibly through the jail telephone as well as via Leon, who is a Dark Army operative. Why would Dark Army send Leon to protect the Elliot we see, who is not doing anything? The answer is that they are protecting the Elliot we do not see, ie, Mr. Robot, because he is doing something. Like a gangster boss, he continues to run the show from jail, remotely collaborating with Dark Army and Tyrell Wellick, while Elliot is trying to eliminate his other self but fails.

Hence, "control is an illusion," at least for this Elliot.

Hence, the side story of Ray the warden is no longer a meaningless diversion or waste of time. Like the side story line of Shayla and her murderous boss Vera in Season 1, the warden is parallel to the main story. Ray's wife started the online black market and let horrible transactions take place by turning a blind eye. As long as Ray and his wife maintained willful ignorance, evil could fester in their creation, until the mere act of seeing destroy its viability. "I told you not to look," he says to Elliot with exasperation. It's a warning again pertinent to Elliot in S02E10, when he spies on Mr. Robot in a lucid dream. Mr. Robot is doing something --- probably bad things --- without Elliot's knowledge. Is Elliot Alderson innocent of the devastating consequences of his actions, because he, or half of him, is unaware of his actions?

Or is he truly unaware? If Ray's story is any indication, we may conclude that Elliot just doesn't want to know and has shut down his awareness of Mr. Robot's activities. Let's not forget that when people see Mr. Robot, they see Elliot, and Mr. Robot is, in all likelihood, the original, primary, and more complete Elliot. He is not a good guy who just wants to save the world, but rather full of hubris like Tyrell (or, as we can finally acknowledge now, Julian Assange).

Esmail dropped several hints about Stage 2 of Elliot/Tyrell/White Rose's plan, including a dream sequence in which Elliot's friends, including Tyrell, and his sister all sit down at a long table for dinner on an empty New York street. In the background a building is blown up.

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