Mr. Robot, Robert Smith, and FKA Twigs
by Joshua B. Hoe
It is rare a television show or movie that feels so real that it has a transitive pain property.
Sure, we often feel emotional watching television or a good movie.
The episode starts with one of the most effective uses of music I have ever seen in a television show...and then later makes a truly confounding musical choice towards the end.
**Spoiler Alert: If you did not see episode 1.5 or 1.6 yet, you should probably read this later**
Robert Smith Disintegrates Elliot
Shayla’s CD is labelled “The Cure Disintegration.”
The only four times that I can remember being actually upset watching television were when John Goodman’s character committed suicide on ‘Treme’, when Aiden Gillen’s Mayor character chooses not to go to the Governor for money on ‘The Wire’, when Joan feels compelled to take the faustian partnership bargain on Mad Men, and when Shayla was found dead in the trunk of the car on episode 1.5 of Mr. Robot.
Shayla was Elliot’s very sweet and caring drug dealer and girlfriend.
I knew she was going to die...but was really sad when it happened.
When she first appeared on the show, she seemed an annoyance, someone he hooks up with only to deal with the pain of not being able to connect with or date Angela (his supervisor at the computer security firm and long term friend that he works with).
Shayla seems like that classic ‘annoying character’ that is only there to stand in the way of his progress towards the female lead of the show (in fact, the USA series page does not even list her on the cast page which is crazy because...good acting).
But something strange happens on the road to her kidnapping and her death.
Elliot and Shayla, against all odds, actually grow to really care for each other over the first few episodes.
And Frankie Shaw does such an amazing job creating a fully functional human character in a period of only a few minutes per episode with her Shayla that I actually started to care.
I started to care about them almost as much as Elliot seemed to actually care for Shayla.
I wanted them to make it (of course I was sure they could not make it).
I actually was starting to believe there was hope for him and for her through the relationship (how rarely does a show make you care about fictional characters enough that you start hoping that they ‘make it?’).
Then the last episode happened and you knew she was over. Knowing he would see her when he opened the car trunk did not lessen the blow for me (or for Elliot).
In a beautiful piece of writing. Episode 6 starts with the original meeting of Shayla and Elliot on the stoop of the apartment building they shared (the meeting takes place at sometime before the shows events start unfolding).
This bookending of her death and life is made even more beautiful by a tiny touch of genius music curation..
As Shayla meets Elliot on the stoop of their apartment building, she removes her headphones, and as they talk, you can hear one of Robert Smith’s most emotional compositions, The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You (from the album Disintegration).’
Pictures of You is one of my favorite Cure songs (it was, despite being about loss, ‘our song’ with my girlfriend in one of my longest relationships).
‘Pictures of You’ is about loss and memory.
Having a character that just died (Shayla) appear in a flashback where she is listening to a song about memory and loss is pretty thoughtful bookending and displays pretty great attention to detail by the showrunners.
The song is played by Shayla but the message of the song is not intended for her, it is intended for Elliot (and for us).
The song, ‘Pictures of You’ is literally about looking through your pictures of someone who you lost but that you love..and it is about being forced (by the pictures) to face the emotions raised by such a specific and painful confrontation with memory. It is about ONLY having pictures of someone you love to remember them by (In the show, the flashback coincides with his disc, which is all he has to remember her by)
When people we know die, our brains tend to try to focus on basically anything but our pain (the things we have on our schedules and the things we look forward to)...Elliot even makes reference to this emotional distancing in the episode..He talks about how we naturally erase people when they die. And, generally, that is what we do…(except when those memories are so strong that we cannot erase them….When they can no longer be erased).
Elliott doesn't know it yet, but he is devastated...And he is starting to disintegrate.
As he puts his CD (one of the plot devices is that Elliot puts all the information that he hacks on people onto discs that he labels as music CD’s) of Shayla in his CD case it signals the beginning of the end of his ability to erase and compartmentalize people. The death of Shayla is the first sign that the walls are coming down (if he wants them to or not).
This is also an interesting plot point as his character seems to live somewhere between reality and insanity. It is never entirely clear how much of what he sees and experiences is real and how much is hallucinated. He has mental issues that require medication and takes powerful legal and illegal drugs.
As he writes “The Cure Disintegration” on the (Shayla) CD he narrates that this is all he will “have to remember her by.”..but by the end of the episode you realize that his memory of the song and the album are more important than just a title for her CD.
She was his salvation, the first person to break through his defenses. The first person he could see himself loving. He even was able to say she was his girlfriend and treat her as such (no small feat for a person who can barely utter a complete sentence to people he has known for years).
Elliot is defined by loss and the resulting isolation caused by loss.
As far as we know, his parents are dead (his father died of Leukemia ostensibly caused by a corporate pollution event). He loved his Father and was emotionally (and maybe physically) abused by his Mother.
He is so contaminated and locked away that even touch from friends makes him uncomfortable. He has never been able to communicate his deep feelings for Angela (or anyone else), he cannot talk to his therapist, and his only real means of communicating that he cares is being a secret angel who hacks and covertly exposes evil people (and people who hurt the people he cares about).
His story seems similar to Batman’s story. But, instead of working out his loss/anger with fists and a belt full of toys he uses an ethernet connection and a genius for hacking. Bruce Wayne’s stable relationships are only with the people who enable his vigilantism. Elliot’s only stable relationships are court ordered (therapist) or people tied to his work (Angela and his boss) and genius for hacking (fsociety).
It becomes obvious as he disintegrates throughout the episode that he does not need physical pictures of Shayla to be forced to deal with her death.
By the end of the episode he admits to his therapist that he has hacked her and many others and begs her for an answer to the loneliness and pain he is constantly surrounded by. For him, his pictures of her are not erased, they have been reborn as ghosts and he is constantly aware of what has been the price of connection for him (loss and pain).
He is not asking how he can meet people, he is asking how he can make sense of connection to others in a world where everyone he cared about either hurt him or died.
By the end of episode 6 he is truly defined more by ghosts than by people.
I am deeply appreciative of the show’s writers for being so thoughtful about using music to truly make the story more amazing.
FKA Twigs and the He-Man-Woman-Hater Club
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, last season might have been frustrating for you like it was for me.
I am certainly not the first person to become annoyed by the repeated use of violence against women to move the story of GOT along. I am certainly not the first person to be annoyed by how the writers continually use terrible (and unnecessary) torture porn and violence against women to remind us how terrible the character of Ramsay Snow is.
Anyone who has read the books or watched the show knows, without being constantly reminded, how terrible Ramsay Snow is. Reminding us with new awful scenes week after week and year after year seems unnecessary, it starts appearing to be a strategy of entertainment as opposed to a productive narrative device.
Mr. Robot is starting to travel the exact same ground with the character of Tyrell Wellick (executive at Evil Corps).
Wellick is the other Mr. Robot character disintegrating in episode 1.6
In the last several weeks we have seen him cruelly sexually use men, women, and his wife. We have seen him invade bathrooms to sexually intimidate women.
And now, we have seen him seduce a woman (his bosses wife Sharon Knowles) only to kill her with his bare hands.
I was even more disturbed by the show using FKA Twigs song ‘Two Weeks’ during the sexual encounter which turned into an assault and then into a murder.
I am a big fan of FKA Twigs last album, and I find the song and album aggressive and sexual but not murderously violent...It is about the power of dark desires for sure….it is openly about the intersections between sex and power and attraction...It is certainly about dominance and attraction...but, I don;t get the feeling that Wellick wants to dominate her so successfully that she forgets about everyone else.
I think the song is about sex intended to be so over the top and dominant that the object of the sex doesn’t ever want to leave….Not sex so over the top and dominant that it is about causing real pain or injury.
Even if you take a more literal interpretation of the violent imagery in “Two Weeks” (pull out the incisor, give me two weeks, you won’t recognize her” and I don’t, I personally feel this is a reference to the earlier “I can fuck you better than her” - as in, my sex is so good you will forget her after two weeks)...I don’t at any point get the feeling that this is a sociopathic song...And Wellick is clearly a violent sociopath.
Wellick is not acting from a place of sexual desire. It seems confused at best to conflate what his character does in this scene with sex. The character is acting from rage and exposed impotence. He is furious at the people frustrating his advancement. He is furious at the wife of his boss (Sharon Knowles) for telling her husband about his attempt to dominate her in her own bathroom. He kills her out of his rage and humiliation not out of desire or even lust.
In other words, while Two Weeks is a passionate song, it does not fit this scene...And could lead someone down the wrong road emotionally (connecting his violent actions to pleasure)....It could be misinterpreted to be an accident caused by romance...instead of what it was, a violent sociopath losing control….I guess another way to put it is that for her, that song might have been playing in her head until Wellick crossed the line….but for him, any music would, most likely, only have been an annoyance...There was no romance or play in what he was doing, only rage.
Wellicks’s character is a sociopath barely contained behind an OCD mask. You can imagine him spending hours getting every hair to sit right before leaving the house. He is perhaps the least original character on a really original show (There is very little difference between the absurd perfectionism of Wellick’s and that of Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho character Patrick Bateman).
Of course, there is also one other issue, Two Weeks is sung powerfully by a woman and could be an act of her claiming, spectacularly, her own agency or talking to us from her perspective about her own power and desire...I guess, with something this personal, it could also be seen as pretty questionable appropriation of her voice. I mean, it is track one on her album (LP1) and she is declaring her own power, no?
I kind of remember, Bruce Springsteen getting mad when GOP candidates he did not agree with were appropriating his voice to represent their campaigns….Sometimes songs are not just commodities, they are about a specific person making specific statements in a particular way.
Anyway, I think FKA Twigs certainly wasn’t talking about Mr. Wellick. Yes, it was smart for Mr. Robot’s creators to know the song was about sex and dominance….but, not like what you were portraying (at best).
The use of “Two Weeks” is as clumsy (surface smart but clumsy) as the use of “Pictures of You” was thoughtful...
Robot On Woman (Lights, Violence, Action?)
The subject of male rage is explored again in episode 1.6. Later in the episode, while trying to force deposed Evil Corps CTO Terry Colby to admit to Evil Corps choosing to release the chemicals they knew would kill her mother, Colby responds in the most sexualized degrading manner possible...promising to only tell her the truth if she puts his balls in her mouth first.
Rage, anger, and violence against women seems to be a go-to move on this show.
In Mr. Robot’s treatment of Shayla, Sharon Knowles, Psychologist Gloria Reuben, Joanna Wellick (apparently by choice), and Angela...it is starting to seem like the consequences of the tension building on the show are almost exclusively being born by the women on the show.
It would certainly be fair to suggest that most violence in society happens against women...but, I don’t get the feeling that the show is trying to expose society’s misogyny as much as participate in it...I hope that future episodes will prove me wrong.
It might also be fair to suggest that villains are supposed to be odious and that each circumstance is realistic. Like I said, I am hopeful each of these strong female characters will master or transform their scenario.
At the same time, you have to be impressed by the wide-variety of really talented women actors on this show (and I have not even mentioned the insane Hacker Darlene played to the hilt by Carly Chaikin). How many contemporary shows have six major female characters that each have real emotional impact? I guess I have some faith given how many strong women actors are on the show that Mr. Robot is not an extension of the all too real he-man-women-haters-club.
But, I hope progress is made soon. and that really cool characters don’t just get sacrificed left and right (like Shayla)...especially not to preserve the male characters performing the violence.
Conflicted, Connected, and Hopeful
I have to be excited and hopeful about any show that makes me think and feel this deeply.
I have to be excited and hopeful about any show that make such impactful music choices that I can write thousands of words about the show without stopping for a break.
I often get frustrated by talented singers who take runs on every line of a song simply because they can. I wish all of them realized that one well placed run is more impactful than ten random runs.
I often get frustrated by movies who try to ensure the success of every scene by backgrounding each and every one with hit music (maybe people will forget that the movie sucked if they liked all the music).
At least Mr. Robot thinks about its music choices and uses them sparingly (for the maximum impact).
It is really refreshing to see any song used as thoughtfully and in such an impactful way as ‘Pictures of You’ was used in episode 1.6 of Mr. Robot. It is awesome to see only a few songs used in an episode and to see them used in such a careful and thoughtful way (even if I think they messed up on the FKA Twigs song).
I just hope that the rest of the season will alleviate my growing dread that a cast full of strong women characters are going to all be grist for the mill of misogyny. I hope that the writers have not run out of the imagination necessary to create a more complete world.
If you want to listen to The Cure's Disintegration, listen here:
If you want to listen to LP1 by FKA Twigs, listen here:
Do you watch Mr. Robot? How have you liked it or the use of music on the show? I would love to hear from you….Please feel free to comment!