Mr. Robot vs. the Criticism of Matt Zoller Seitz
Who Is Mr. Robot's Landlord?
For anyone new to this space, I write a recap of Mr. Robot called "Who is Mr. Robot's Landlord?"
You can read everything that I wrote in Season 2 here or on Reddit about Mr. Robot by reading The complete #OPS Guide to Season 2 of #MrRobot.
In my last post, answering the criticism of Matt Zoller Sietz, who is the television and movie critic for the website Vulture.com, NY Magazine, and Roger Ebert's web site.
Before I start, let me say up front that I have nothing but respect for Mr. Sietz. From what I can tell, we love all of the same movies and television shows. He is a much better writer than I am and I am sure he is a great person.
My goal here is simply to suggest a few differences of opinion with someone whose writing I respect. Probably my favorite interview from the entire season was the interview after the finale aired on Vulture (including Mr. Seitz).
And just to show how classy Mr. Sietz is, he almost immediately sent this response mere minutes after I posted this response:
And, I must have done okay below, because then someone else chimed in (so flattering):
If you have not seen Season 2 of Mr. Robot * Spoiler Alert *
Mr. Robot as Fight Club "Homage"
One theme that Mr. Seitz returns to several times in his writing about Mr. Robot is the idea that the Season One "Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot's personality" is primarily an homage to David Fincher's movie "Fight Club" (This has been an almost universal criticism about Season One from critics).
Seitz, in his version of the criticism, says:
"But in the last three episodes, the story indulged in seemingly blatant homage, mashing up twists from Fight Club and the original Star Wars films: We learned that Elliot’s closest confidante in fsociety, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), was actually his sister; that the title character (Christian Slater), a snarling hepcat instigator, was a Tyler Durden–type hallucination of Elliot’s deceased dad, a failed computer-store salesman and domestic abuser who was fired by E Corp and died of leukemia; and that Elliot wasn’t aware of any of this because his disorder suppressed it. These developments didn’t appear out of nowhere, but they made the show seem less special than it was — more tediously plot-driven, more about the “Wow!” factor than about the characters and their world."
I have always felt (and written about) the "twist" as if Fight Club was less an homage and more of a jumping off point for Mr. Robot.
I have hypothesized in the past that it as if Esmail had seen Fight Club and felt it chickened out at the most morally complex and important moment.
My suspicion was that Esmail wondered, "wouldn't it be more interesting to see what happened when Tyler Durden (Edward Norton/Brad Pitt) faced the moral consequences of instigating the crash?"
Subsequently, through reading interviews, I discovered that Mr. Esmail has a friend who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Many Dissociatives have written about how much they hate the depiction of DID usually put forward by Hollywood. I also believe that Esmail saw Mr. Robot as an opportunity to write a more medically accurate depiction of someone suffering from DID.
My working theory eventually became that Mr. Robot was a show about examining ethics.
Specifically, I suggested that the show was about the ethics of being a hacker revolutionary (fsociety), a corporate leader (Phillip Price), a leader of a sub-state organization (the Dark Army), or being an enforcer of the law (Dominique DiPierro) after the instigation of a near economic collapse.
Many people want love Fight Club because it has the courage to suggest that it is time for a revolution. I love Mr. Robot because it has the courage to take a deep dive into the consequences of instigating a revolution.
I guess what I am saying is that it would be fair to suggest that Mr. Robot is both an homage and also a critique of Fight Club.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
I also believe Mr. Seitz is wrong about Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) being Elliot's "hallucination."
Dissociatives are fragmented parts of one unified whole person. As the show has taken great pains to explain (at least ten times by my count): Mr. Robot is Elliot and Elliot is Mr. Robot.
Given that much of what Seitz writes can be boiled down to his belief that the show is only truly interesting when it only focuses on Elliot, it seems odd to me that he doesn't understand Elliot very well (due respect).
Dissociatives favor the parts of their personalities that are best suited to take on particular tasks. In other words, a dominant alternative personality (Alters) lets one of the other personalities take over when it makes the most sense or when they are facing something that they cannot emotionally handle.
Usually, dissociation is born of trauma. It is a coping mechanism for processing echoes of the original trauma.
The best way I can explain this is:
Elliot 1 = The whole Elliot together, the strategist, the nice guy, the machiavellian.
Elliot 2 = The Dominant personality, the person we love and love to defend. He is sweet and cares about his family and friends. He also dissociates whenever something that he thinks is "bad" is about to happen or when he is going to be physically or emotionally hurt.
Mr. Robot = Elliot's "wet-work" alter. He puts his dead Father's face on Mr. Robot because his relationship with his Father Edward was so complicated and full of both love and hate. The likely cause of Elliot's DID was Edward pushing Elliot out of a window. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Robot carries out the "bad" things E2 dissociates from and takes any and all beatings.
Mr. Robot is real because Elliot is real. Elliot does not literally look over Mr. Robot's shoulder near the end of Season Two (as Seitz suggests) that is a visual depiction of the new relationship negotiated between the two of them throughout Season 2 (see the "Handshake" episode). Mr. Robot and Elliot start to glitch as this new relationship starts to go into effect (it is like how Esmail shows adjustments).
In the past, when Mr. Robot needed to do something like call Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) E2 would dissociate. Later in the season, Elliot was present at times and in ways, Mr. Robot did not expect (and visa verso).
Invisible Friend (Us) = Here is one area of agreement between us. Early in the season Mr. Seitz wrote:
"Now that Mr. Robot is out of the closet as a manifestation of Elliot’s issues, we think of ourselves that way, too — as another of the hero’s multiple personalities. At one point, Elliot calls the viewer “my invisible friend,” but how friendly are we, really? What do we truly want from him? To reaffirm “the invisible code of chaos” that prevents society from self-destructing? Or to light another match and make the world burn again? “Sometimes I wonder what mask you hide behind, my friend,” Elliot tells us, with a smile in his voice."
Again, he doesn't technically have "Multiple Personalities" which is why they changed the name from MPD to DID in the first place. A dissociative is one fragmented personality. But, I agree that "WE" are probably his invisible friend (not an Alter per se). I believe when Esmail has talked about something everyone is likely missing, this is what he means.
Anyway, I agree that Elliot, when he is lonely, constructs us to talk to. I believe he thinks we are real, and attempts to interact with us as if his invisible friend were real. This affords us many benefits, we get to participate in IRC chat's with people on the show, email people in the Mr. Robot universe, and even search Elliot's room (easter eggs).
The second season, in fact, starts with him surprised to see us (much like he is surprised Mr. Robot disappears later in the season). It turns out from the end of last season to the start of this season, Elliot could not talk with us (thanks to the USA Network for forcing Elliot to be alone for approximately three months).
Anyway, Mr. Seitz and I also agree with the many movies and directors who have influenced Season 2. We have both written a TON about basically the same Directors in relation to Mr. Robot. To read more of Mr. Seitz perspective, read his piece about Mr. Robot's references.
The Trouble With "Twists"
What really seemed to get Matt Zoller Seitz goat most was the idea that Elliot was in jail for the entire first half of the season. He really hated this "twist" (which he didn't even entirely seem to understand after the reveal - he said Ray was another prisoner etc.):
"Can we expect a twist, or "twist," along these lines in every season of Mr. Robot? Because, if so, I might have to stop watching — not because it's devoid of other merits (it's brilliantly directed, photographed, edited, and scored, and has a superlative cast), but the insistence on building perceptual tricks like these into the narrative diminishes the show's real and far more substantive virtues."
Except that was the opposite of the point.
First, there was a good reason for the twist (renegotiating the relationship between E2 and Mr. Robot) and the evidence was right in front of our faces (Ray's computer - why would Ray have the only computer that Elliot could use in the entire city of New York).
I don't mean to be dismissive but I think Seitz is mostly angry that he didn't figure it out (you can look back in my writing to E2 and see that I was on top of it). And that's the point, the season wasn't about the twist, the twist was part of understanding "reality" as Elliot sees it.
Elliot was misleading us because he was mad we left him alone but, at the same time, he was also maintaining the illusion in order to make his own existence in jail survivable. We are given a window into this "magical" thinking when he imagines an overdose on Adderal as being abducted by sinister Government agents. E2 does the best he can to make sense of reality, and when he no longer can translate it into something he can handle, he dissociates (The entire "Word Up Wednesday" episode - the one with Alf - demonstrates this).
Seitz also has a bit of shade to throw at us Redditors:
"I should probably ’fess up here and admit that I don't watch Mr. Robot, or any other TV series, to test my knowledge of TV tropes and say, "I called it!" whenever I successfully predict where a show's plot might be headed. That particular viewing approach doesn't interest me. I know there's a pretty sizable contingent of people who watch films and TV series mainly to see if they can successfully guess what will happen next — Reddit is a virtual mecca for this sort of viewer — but I've never encouraged that impulse, because it seems to me that it rewards screenwriters who are thinking about their plots and characters on the most superficial level, constructing a puzzle for others to solve and to feel good about having solved; this also encourages some writers to cheat a bit, withholding evidence that might tip their hand early, or just obscuring details and piling twist upon twist and reversal upon reversal until none of the characters make sense anymore as anything but figures in a nonsensical dream."
I will admit that, like Whiterose (B.D. Wong), I enjoy contemplating the possibilities hidden on the show, but Seitz is just flat wrong here. There have been three twists on Mr. Robot so far:
1. Darlene is Elliot's sister
2. Mr. Robot is Elliot's alter
3. Elliot was in jail for the first half of S2
I believe I have explained why the S2 "twist" explicitly furthered character and the understanding of the characters and the plots. I welcome a debate with Mr. Seitz at any time on how each twist was a help and not a hindrance to plot and character on Mr. Robot.
How in the world can you convey the world Elliot sees or how he dissociates without visually depicting the world as HE sees and/or translates it (at least at times). Elliot is a Dissociative with depression and social anxiety.
These are not cheap parlor tricks, this is Sam Esmail trying to share a unique interiority with us.
In addition, most of the most interesting discussions that I have ever had about the show were with Redditor's as we played out different theories on Reddit. In every instance, we were deepening our understanding of the show and characters using free-play with Esmail's ideas and not just trying to one up each other in some kind of odd pointless gamification exercise.
Finally, I deeply believe this all has one other point. I believe that Sam Esmail deeply believes that art is co-productive. I believe that he thinks that the Mr. Robot universe is open to other interpretations beyond the ones that he "intends". And, I certainly do not think his point is for us to figure him out.
It is odd that Mr. Seitz name-drops David Lynch without understanding that sometimes the point of experiencing art is to feel it and not (necessarily) understand it. Esmail's universe is incredibly detailed, but I believe that it is not entirely a hegemonic exercise.
Our free play with his ideas is, I believe, often intentional and encouraged.
When Seitz says that Esmail is, "devoting an inordinate amount of energy to an aspect of storytelling that's vastly less interesting than the things the tricks are meant to enhance and support." I would counter that Mr. Seitz seems mostly to desire that the world of Esmail conform to the expectations of Seitz.
I do agree with Seitz that when one has the desire to "solve" a show at all costs it becomes an empty way to enjoy television. However, I think that the contemplation and appreciation of all of the possibilities, even the ones that don't turn out, is part of the enjoyment and appreciation of a larger and more interesting Mr. Robot universe.
In other words, where Mr. Seitz sees Mr. Robots Redditor's engaging in trying to solve the plot through extensive CSI work, I see engaged co-production in an open an interesting world of possibilities.
In other words, I find, like Whiterose, that the contemplation of the nooks and crannies of the show's possibilities, "Moves me deeply."
Too Clever? Or Just Right?
In a final salvo at Mr. Robot Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a piece suggesting that Esmail was often too concerned with shooting for clever (instead of good).
First of all, even the title and theme of this article was a clever allusion to Brad Pitt's insult to Edward Norton in Fincher's Fight Club (when Pitt responds to a Norton quip by insulting seeing cleverness as a virtue).
I made my argument about Mr. Robot being an "homage" to Fight Club above. Mr. Esmail is not being "clever" just to be clever. The relationship between Elliot 2, Mr. Robot, and Tyrell exposes the illusionary aspects of how Elliot has constructed his world.
Anyone who has read my "Occam's Razor" theory of Mr. Robot knows I see this scene as literal. I have no doubt that Tyrell is alive or that he shot Elliot. Mr. Robot is sometimes surreal but the central plot is never a dream.
I do, however, agree with Mr. Seitz that the actual Edward Alderson very well may have been both physically and sexually abusive. There have been some hints of this (watch the 'Word Up Wednesday' interactions between Darlene, Elliot's Mom, and Edward carefully or as Seitz notes the many Lolita references).
I also agree about 70% with his claim that the solution, in the finale, to Joanna's dilemma, seemed contrived. I wrote about that myself.
Unlike Seitz, however, I am fascinated, in general, by Joanna Wellick (Stephanie Corneliusson) who is unlike any other female character I have ever seen on television (she almost seems like a purely carnivorous and entirely consequentialist character - almost beyond any ethical sense of a greater whole.
I also absolutely reject the idea that the only recurring characters beyond Elliot that retain interest are Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and Angela (Portia Doubleday). I find Whiterose endlessly fascinating, I love hearing Phillip Price's (Michael Cristopher) bombast, and I have grown very fond of Dom as a character (Grace Gummer). Even Cisco grew on me over time.
The rest of Seitz' criticism in this article reverts back to his bemoaning why Elliot had to be in prison, so I won't spend too much more time here. Let me just say that I think the time in prison was incredibly important to the understanding of Elliot and of Elliot's condition. I also truly enjoyed Ray (Craig Robinson).
He concluded this article by oddly claiming:
"The most exciting scene in the entire season, for me anyway, was the bit where Elliot seemed to stand over the shoulder of Mr. Robot at his computer and eavesdrop on his thoughts. You don’t get much more dreamlike and lucid than that: One invisible friend eavesdropping on another eavesdropping on another. I’d rather the show delve even further into this kind of storytelling strategy, embracing a deeper kind of misdirection, and championing complexity and ambiguity — all in the name of doing what the show keeps purporting to be doing, even when it isn’t: giving us a highly subjective portrait of a reality that is impossible to fully perceive."
Which, to my mind, is exactly what the show HAS BEEN DOING.
Elliot is a complex and ambiguous character with a unique point of view. A point of view that is almost impossible to understand or depict by using only traditional narrative devices.
In fact, all of the characters are complex and interesting and resist simple binary descriptions, this is a strength of the show.
Now, all of that said, I do have a great deal of respect for Mr. Seitz as a critic and as a writer. I chose to answer him because I respect him much more than the army of second-season popular press trolls who could only repeat the tired "second season blues" mantra ad infinitim.
I have gained knowledge from reading and thinking about my agreements and disagreements with Matt Zoller Seitz. I wrote this post in the spirit of sharing my appreciation, even when we disagree.
I doubt he will ever read this, but in case he does, thanks for taking Season 2 seriously enough to write about it from the serious and thoughtful perspective that you did (I only wish that all of the critics had done the same).