Culture

'Mr. Robot' Is the Defining Show of the 2010s

No other show on TV grappled so seriously and thoughtfully with the staggering human cost of wealth inequality and late-stage capitalism.

by Emma Garland
20 December 2019, 10:15am

Photo courtesy of USA Network

How much trauma can you take? To what degree can an individual change society for the better? What would that change even look like? Is the world, increasingly chaotic and painful as it seems to be, worth living in? These are all questions posed by the fourth and final season of Mr. Robot, which will provide a cultural gavel bang for the 2010s with its last ever episode on Sunday.

A drama about a hacktivist group called “fsociety” whose goal is to erase the world’s debt, Mr. Robot began as nihilistic commentary on late capitalism; Fight Club for the Anonymous age, striking a similar balance of psychological distress and revolutionary ideas communicated through medicated monologues about why we should “fuck society”. It’s less topless and self-serious than Fight Club, which is primarily a critique of male violence. Instead, Mr. Robot is concerned with the human cost of wealth inequality on all sides.

It’s a fitting show to wrap up the decade. Airing from June 2015 to December 2019 – just before the US presidential election put Donald Trump in the White House to just after the UK election that gave Boris Johnson a landslide majority Mr. Robot has overseen the West’s greatest lurch towards the right since the 70s. Whether it’s a rise in the number of billionaires, the near total eradication of the welfare state, the fact that our collective heads of state look like a sentient piece of Bristolian street art or the culture of distrust fostered by clashes between social and traditional media, the 2010s has been entirely reflected – and in some cases foreshadowed – by Mr. Robot.

For the first two seasons, the show seemed to align with reality in terms of the stakes. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cybersecurity engineer and the leader of fsociety, spends his spare time hacking pedophiles and miscellaneous strangers he views as deserving of comeuppance. He also hacks his therapist, who accuses him of “playing God without permission”, and his childhood friend Angela in an attempt to cancel her student debt. Elliot suffers from social anxiety disorder, clinical depression, delusions and paranoia.

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Carly Chaikin as Darlene. Photo courtesy of USA Network

It’s later revealed that he has an alternate personality known as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) – seen on screen as a separate character assuming the form of his dad. His sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), also a member of fsociety, is equally damaged but not delusional, making her the more reliable narrator. In the beginning, the stakes seem pretty low: a small group of lonely hackers against the most powerful forces in the world, but they rise over the course of the series, eventually transcending the battle for wealth equality entirely and entering more philosophical territory.

Fsociety’s ultimate goal is to set in motion “the single biggest incident of wealth redistribution in history” by targeting E Corp – an international mega-conglomerate that owns 70 percent of the global consumer credit industry. The hack, referred to as “Five/Nine”, was designed to destabilise the financial markets, destroy all financial records and redistribute wealth in America. They pull it off at the end of season one, but things immediately go to shit. E Corp’s EVP of Technology shoots himself in the head on live TV after stating the situation is “hopeless”. Everyone involved in fsociety is picked off by the FBI, leaving only Elliot and Darlene.

Mass unemployment, homelessness and civil disobedience turn New York City into a ground zero of tents and burning rubbish. Hard cash becomes obsolete and the Chinese government bails out E Corp to create a digital currency called Ecoin, making people even more reliant on E Corp than they were before. Anger leads to destruction which leads to chaos. Most anarchist narratives depict the struggle to throw off the old world order. Mr. Robot goes beyond that to wrestle with the even greater problem of starting over.

After Five/Nine ostensibly makes things worse, fsociety shifts their focus onto the Deus Group – an elite cabal of billionaires run by Zhi Zhang (BD Wong), the Chinese minister of state security. The plan this time is to target the group’s members individually and transfer everything out of their accounts. Again, they manage to pull it off. In episode 10, Darlene sits on a park bench and transfers all the money they stole from Deus Group to the public, like Robin Hood in heart-shaped glasses (trust me when I say it brought a tear to my eye after I watched it approximately ten minutes before looking at the UK exit poll).

When the money gradually pops up in people’s Ecoin wallets, Dom – an FBI agent initially tasked with investigating Five/Nine, whom Darlene becomes involved with – looks at her phone and asks: “Did everyone get this much?” What started as nihilistic commentary on late capitalism eventually becomes a utopian fantasy. While season two showed us the consequences of – quite literally – blowing up one target and hoping for change, season four showed us what it would be like to actually “win”.

Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. Winning becomes an increasingly confusing prospect as the concept of heroes and villains, good and bad, collapse in on each other. The most significant sub-plot running through Mr. Robot is that of Zhi Zhang, who is the public-facing persona of Whiterose – a transgender woman who leads the Chinese hacker group the Dark Army. Long positioned as the final boss, Whiterose’s cause becomes more sympathetic as Elliot goes increasingly off the rails (Whiterose refuses multiple times to kill Elliot off while Elliot seduces a Deus Group-adjacent woman, who then tries to kill herself, in order to pull off the final hack). Eventually, they meet in the middle.

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BD Wong and Jing Xu as Zhi Zhang and Wang Shu. Photo courtesy of USA Network

The penultimate episode features an emotional conversation in which Whiterose and Elliot exchange worldviews. Whiterose believes she is acting out of altruism. Forced to live publicly as a man her entire adult life, she sacrifices everything – including her partner – to bring “order” to the world’s “chaos”. Elliot, on the other hand, is a lone wolf motivated by his own fear of people. Whiterose believes people are inherently good, trying their best when they’ve been “dealt a bad hand by a world unfit for us”. Elliot believes they are mostly bad, saying “people that I’ve loved, people that I’ve trusted, have done the absolute worst to me”. Ahead of the finale, we’re left with a blue pill / red pill conundrum. If you were offered everything you thought you wanted – stability, sanity, a timeline in which you were not hurt by the ones you love – would you take it?

Generally speaking, most decades tend to be responses to the ones before them. In reaction to 90s counterculture full of nihilism and slackers, the 00s doubled down on aspirational lifestyles and the fetishisation of wealth. The most watched shows were teen dramas like The O.C., Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl, or reality shows like The Simple Life, Big Brother and Jersey Shore (et al): total escapism in the lives of the rich and famous, or the spectacle of working class people elevating themselves into those lifestyles.

Watching a show like The O.C. back today is a wild ride, with any common ground felt with Bright Eyes-loving Seth or tragic Marissa melting into the background of their huge fucking mansions and people writing half-a-million dollar cheques like they’re handing over £2.50 for a McMuffin. If the 00s were about escapism, then the 2010s were the decade reality caught up. Relatability – previously a valueless currency as people watched TV either to look up or down – is now the only thing that matters.

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Rami Malek as Elliot. Photo courtesy of USA Network

The growing divide between the one and 99 percent has been baked into post-Occupy American TV this decade, to the point that Vogue coined an “inequality entertainment” trend in 2015, citing shows like Silicon Valley, High Maintenance and Show Me A Hero alongside Mr. Robot. Sadly the same can’t be said of the UK, where we’re still stuck on the ‘middle-class whimsy to poverty porn’ binary. A few shows like Derry Girls, Chewing Gum, This Country, My Mad Fat Diary have worked to subvert that, portraying average people with comedic empathy, but they operate within narrower contexts. By and large, we don’t ‘do’ wider commentary on wealth inequality. I’m not sure how much that actually matters (although it's worth saying that, with politics and the media being the way they are, there is a greater need for pop culture to communicate ideas that help people make sense of things). A TV show won't make radicals of us all, but it’s certainly the most tapped into the zeitgeist. In that sense, it often feels more comforting than escapism at a time when turning a blind eye seems to be the bewildering default.

In a 2017 interview, Sam Esmail, the show’s creator described Mr. Robot as “a period piece of today”, which rings true. “The world is so heavily influenced by technology and it has started to feel like it’s not on solid ground,” he said. “The world has become unreliable, unknowable. Facts are vulnerable and things you have come to rely on are no longer there. It’s an overlap that I’m not going to be so bold as to say I predicted, but that was what I was thinking about when I constructed the character of Elliot.”

As always, it’s hard to know what exactly will happen in the finale on Sunday – though Esmail has said the clues have been there all along, and the Mr. Robot subreddit has gone into hyperdrive trying to piece everything together. But either way, the point has largely been made already. In the penultimate episode, Elliot counterbalances his hatred of people in his monologue to Whiterose with a call to arms: “We’re all told we don’t stand a chance, and yet we stand. We break, but we keep going, and that is not a flaw.” Later in the episode, when it seems like Elliot about to die, his final words are “It’s an exciting time in the world.”

That might be hard to believe at the moment, especially in the UK. In a post-election blog for Verso, Lorna Finlayson writes: “It is difficult to hope now. We knew the system was closed. It was more closed than we knew.” But if there’s any broad takeaway from Mr. Robot, it’s that change doesn’t happen immediately with a bang. You can’t change society unless you change people. It’s unclear what the general public in Mr. Robot actually want, but it’s interesting that the show has moved away from anger and towards more empathetic dialogue when reality has done the opposite. Regardless of what happens in the finale, the overall tone of Mr. Robot been one of galvanising optimism. Even when faced with the most insurmountable demons, both internal and external, the central characters doggedly pursue their convictions.

Even if you don’t buy into its earnestness, you can’t argue with its bittersweet irony. As much as Mr. Robot is the definitive show of the decade, it’s also an apt parting message that the revolution is something to be observed from the couch, as streamed on Amazon Prime.

@emmaggarland

Tagged:
mr. robot
wealth inequality
Rami Malek
2010s