David Foster Wallace & The David Lynch in Mr. Robot
David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, and Sam Esmail?
So, I have been putting off writing this for the few weeks since the Mr. Robot finale, it is based on a premise I have been defending on Reddit all season, that Mr. Robot Season 2 was more about "David Lynch" than it is about "Science Fiction."
As you may know, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Sam Esmail on the subject of David Lynch in regards to Season 2 and he admitted that both the work of David Lynch and his movie Mulholland Drive, in particular, had an influence on the season.
Of course, this was about the time that I was suggesting that Ray's computer functioned as a "Silencio" box between the world Elliot was explaining to us (he was living in Mom's house) and the world he was actually inhabiting (he was in jail).
I called that the "Ray's Computer Theory of Mr. Robot" and it turned out to be "true" which was probably my proudest moment of last season as a writer/watcher. Of course, since this entire post is going to be about why authority and mapping are not important...ummm, okay, not so proud?
Anyway, my operating principle has been that the intent of the surrealism is to keep the audience off balance and to leave spaces open for us to explore.
In other words, the oddness of proceedings on Mr. Robot is more about destabilizing traditional narrative spaces and expectations than it is about introducing time travel or even more complicated dissociations within Elliot Alderson's head.
That is not to suggest that there are not strange happenings inside of Elliot's noggin (of course there are). My argument has been that Elliot's Dissociative Identity Disorder follows the conventional medical understanding of DID (in other words, Dissociatives are a fragmented whole and not independent entities fighting over control of the same body).
The point is that, perhaps, we have become so finely attuned to the traditional narrative arc writers and directors change the frame in order to shake us free of the conventional shorthand for understanding and descriibing what we are watching.
I have even suggested, after noting that there have only really been three "twists," an overarching theory that explains the proceedings (My "Occam's Razor Theory of Mr. Robot - which suggests that the more gymnastics required for a theory to be true the less likely it will be true).
Anyway, many moons ago (in 1995), David Foster Wallace (RIP) wrote an essay about David Lynch called "David Lynch's Head." It is an amazing read and offers so much insight into David Lynch's work that a partial version of it is posted on Lynch's own website (see hyperlink above).
I found it amazing how much of it seems to apply to Mr. Robot as well.
Lessons About Mr. Robot Season 2 from David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace said (about Lynch):
"David Lynch's movies are often described as occupying a kind of middle ground between art film and commercial film. But what they really occupy is a whole third kind of territory. Most of Lynch's best films don't really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies' (certainly avant-garde movies') central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get at when he says that Lynch's movies are "to be experienced rather than explained."
"You almost never from a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to "entertain" you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: You don't feel like you're entering into any of the standard unspoken and/or unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch's films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't. This is why his best films' effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We're defenseless in our dreams too.)"
"This may in fact be Lynch's true and only agenda-just to get inside your head. He seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he's in there. Is this good art? It's hard to say. It seems-once again-either ingenuous or psychopathic. It sure is different, anyway."
Personally, I think that Lynch wants his movies to appear to us as more similar to how we see things in our dreams than to how we "logic-out" our normal daily experiences. I think he hates that people try to "figure out" what his movies mean. And, I think he cares much more about communicating with the emotional parts of us than he cares about people "getting" some point that he is trying to make through his films.
That is not to say you cannot figure out what his movies mean, or what parts of his movies mean. You can figure things out about the "meaning" of his work (I actually think I get Mulholland Drive, for instance, but who really knows). I am saying that you are, perhaps, missing the point when you try to figure a Lynch movie out.
I do not think Esmail has an entirely Lynchian opposition to "having an agenda" and I do think his show, Mr. Robot, is "about something." But, at the same time, it seems pretty clear to me that he uses this surrealistic element of Lynch's influence to keep the doors in his shows always held interpretively open and also to prevent us from defaulting to our narrative auto-pilot while we watch Mr. Robot.
This is why we are invited to have an explicit relationship with Elliot (Rami Malek). That is why we are literally invited into his thoughts, into what he sees, and even into his apartment.
This is why things on the show seem so strange and why the camera seems so often not to be as welcoming a friend as Elliot has been to us.
This is why Whiterose seems to be able to see beyond the 4th Wall and why it seems almost like we are being invited to talk to Dominique "Dom" Dipierro (Grace Gummer) through Alexa (and I kind of feel like this might be a future Easter Egg).
And, it is why Whiterose (B.D. Wong) met with Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) in a crazy room negotiated by an impossible girl, a telephone, a dying oriental Koy, a cat poster, ancient video games, and a Commodore 64.
I couldn't get past the feeling that I had seen a similar version of this scene somewhere before and kept searching my brain until it hit me, there was a similar scene in Season One of Lynch's Twin Peaks.
Making Lynchian Dreams Real
The Episode of Twin Peaks that I was referring to above was S1 E2 (technically 3 because the Pilot wasn't counted, guess who else follows that numerical system on his show) and it was called "Zen or the Skills to Catch a Killer."
At the end of the episode, Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has a very surreal dream, I am not saying that it is exactly the same as the Whiterose sequence, but it is similar (similar enough that my subconscious went crazy when I was watching the Whiterose/Angela scene).
In the Twin Peaks scene, Agent Cooper is confronted by an alternative reality version of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and her cousin "The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson)." The man from another place, like the young girl in the Whiterose room, starts saying things that barely register as relevant to the plot but are emotionally affecting. His voice is distorted, as is the alternative reality Laura Palmer's voice, to sound almost back-masked.
I would suggest that the strange subjects and affectations are similar to the questions the young girl asks Angela Moss. The point of this is to destabilize us, to put us in a place where anything is possible, for us and for the characters. It opens a place we can experience as if it is of dreams (Only in the Esmail version, the dream is a waking dream for Angela and for Whiterose).
Just like Agent Cooper thinks being confronted by this dream has given him the key to solving Laura Palmer's murder, the vetting procedure is likely what opened Angela to hearing and being transformed by Whiterose.
What seems surreal is, in both cases, opening up the space for "difference" to exist. Opening up this space for the radically other (Whiterose) to be persuasive to Angela (and to us).
In other words, it was an effective use of surrealism, not a prelude to Science Fiction.
The point of both "dreams" is not to replace the continuing conventional narrative as much as it used to continue to destabilize our traditional character expectations.
I have argued all season that every character on Mr. Robot defies traditional binary character development.
Every character can be empathized with, and mapped, but not fully understood through a simple binary (good/bad) interpretation.
Every character is capable of both profound good and of terrible violence (more like either Private Pyle or Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket than say a character on a CBS drama).
It may ultimately turn out that Whiterose can "literally" hack time. It is certainly possible that the Science Fiction crowd is right and that I am wrong. I could be 100% wrong. But I do absolutely think what is being conveyed here is that we cannot entirely map the characters.
Maybe the "Log Lady" on Twin Peaks really did communicate with her log and maybe she didn't, the truth is that we will likely never know (although Showtime is introducing new episodes of Twin Peaks soon).
Maybe, just maybe, part of the fun is in not knowing, not mapping, not colonizing. Life is like this, people act against their own interests and in unpredictable ways.
An aside, It is odd to be writing a map of how not to map Mr. Robot. I feel a bit like a marketer trying to "Keep Austin Weird."
Anyway, the point is that encountering people (or television characters) will always spark some level of familiarity, but, in the end, people are fundamentally unknowable (often even from within).
The point is to feel Whiterose but not to believe we can map Whiterose and the point, I think, was to allow Angela to be open to Whiterose as a full force of nature (think about the Wizard of Oz both as he was presented to visitors in the Emerald City and as he was hiding behind the curtain - was he both or neither?).
Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot, David Lynch, and the Problem of Evil
Mr. Foster Wallace continues:
"And if these villains <in David Lynch's movies> are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it's not because Lynch is "endorsing" or "romanticizing" evil but because he is diagnosing it - diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with open acknowledgment of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it's hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from."
"Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades...is in everything all the time...not "lurking below" or "lying in wait" or "hovering on the horizon"...evil is here right now, and so are light, love, redemption etc."
Just think of this in the context of Elliot, he has saved people and saved pets but in that same season, he let an entire jail full of prisoners go free to serve his own larger purposes.
We love Elliot's heart so much that we forget that he plunged millions of people into hunger and poverty in the service of his revolution (if you look at season 2 again, you will see Esmail intentionally shows us snippets of people's lives after the hack throughout - most memorably the turkey sandwich maker who has to sell his store).
Think about it in the context of Elliot's Dissociative Identity Disorder, when Elliot Dissociates it is because he needs Mr. Robot to do something that he is so uncomfortable seeing himself doing that he has to dissociate from it.
At the beginning of the famous "Word Up Wednesday" episode, the theme song distances Mr. Robot from the world where good characters are always good and bad characters are always bad. I would suggest that this is because Esmail believes that suggesting people are entirely good or bad is a political and hegemonic act. Even the most odious characters on Mr. Robot have empathetic human moments (Phillip Price's birthday, for instance).
I believe that this element of Mr. Robot, the desire to keep all the characters complex and unknowable and capable of both great good and terrible evil, is the element that turns the most people off about Season 2 (not the so-called 'twists' and not the move away from fsociety vs. E-Corp). It is also the most obviously Lynchian element of Mr. Robot.
As Wallace puts it (in the context of David Lynch movies like Lost Highway):
"I like to have my own fundamental difference from sadists and fascists and voyeurs and psychos and bad people unambiguously confirmed and assured by these movies. I like to judge, I like to be allowed to root for justice to be done without the slight squirming suspicion (so prevalent and depressing in real moral life) that justice probably wouldn't be all that keen on certain parts of my character either.
Just this week, I felt horrified yesterday by what Donald J. Trump said on that bus but I was also was trying to suppress my own certainty that I had participated in many of those same kinds of "bro" conversations in years past.
* I have been intensely lonely and socially insecure, just like Elliot Alderson
* I have done many really good things, just like Elliot Alderson
* I have done some terrible things, just like Elliot Alderson.
We love conventional narratives, to some extent, because we can use them to put ourselves in the position of the hero.
I even find myself believing that the hero is acting as I would act in similar situations.
When someone on television saves the damsel in distress, it reaffirms my conviction that I would save the damsel in distress.
I want to escape to "TV land (from reality)" because there is real dissonance between how I see myself (as the hero of every story) and how I exist in the world (often irrelevant and rarely the hero of any story).
A conventional narrative is a kind of reality distortion field in which my cognitive dissonance can be relieved temporarily (where my itches can be scratched). And, after I take my televised medicine, I try to carry that simple map out into the world, I am fundamentally good and totally alien from whatever evil exists in the world. When I watch Whale Wars, I feel like I helped fight the overfishing of Whales (and take offense when anyone disagrees with the cause of fighting the fishing of Whales).
In the end, I try to remake the world to fit my heroic narratives.
Lynch and Esmail (and others) are trying to remind us that, as Wallace concludes (in reference to Laura Palmer being both the tragic murder victim of season one and the so-called "whore" of season 2):
"...Laura's bothness required of us an empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable."
Ironically, the gritty realism so many shows attempt to depict anesthetizes us from the realities that Lynch and Esmail are trying to expose.
People are both complex and contextually good and evil.
That we are all (always) both heroes and villains.
In other words, Sam Esmail uses surrealism as a narrative tool and, most likely, not as a prelude to a Science Fiction turn for Mr. Robot .
Mr. Robot Is About More Than One Thing
Now, in fairness, I also believe that Mr. Robot is an open universe. It is open to Science Fiction and Fantasy and even to comedy.
In short, it is a place where you can play chess with yourself, or just sit back and watch television.
When I say that I don't think Mr. Robot (the show) is heading in a Science Fictional direction I mean it. But, I think Sam Esmail encourages us to do whatever we want outside of the direct storylines. I think that characters on the show have given explicit nods to fan-fiction and to the many theories posted virtually ever day on Reddit.
I believe that Esmail believes that all art is co-productive and that he doesn't have the final word. I believe that he uses the Easter Eggs to open space for people to co-create the larger Mr. Robot universe with him.
Think of it like all of the hundreds of authors who have written official Star Wars literature. For decades it seemed that there were a million stories but with no unifying "force" or coordination. I suspect that Esmail is all for a Mr. Robot universe just like that one.
So, even though I often disagree with particular theories, I also believe, at the same time, that all theories of Mr. Robot are equally valid (even if they don't play out in the timeline).
I do want to say this: Even when I disagree with a theory here or on Reddit, I love reading the theories and love the creativity and imagination that created them.
I think I am richer, every single time, for the interaction.
Thanks for all the support this season, I may have one more article before I put Season 2 entirely to bed.
If you want to catch up with all of my writing on Season 2, check out the Complete #OPS Guide to Season 2 of Mr. Robot.
Here is the initial Reddit version of this post from a few weeks ago:
Where do you see the David Lynch influence on Mr. Robot?
What are your theories for Season 3?
What are your favorite David Lynch movies and why?
What is your favorite Essay by David Foster Wallace?