Understanding Friendship: Predicting Robot (Mr. Robot Season 3)
This is my series where I will predict some things I expect to see in Season Three of Mr. Robot. My goal isn't to create spoilers or to solve Mr. Robot as much as it is to engage in discussions about my perspective of what has happened so far and how things could play out from that perspective. I have long believed that one of the coolest things about Mr. Robot is that it is an "open universe" where multiple theories can be correct at the same time.
I will be as surprised as anyone if I am occasionally right (but, as always, the contemplation moves me deeply).
Today's post will be, by far, my most esoteric because I am writing about one of the most interesting but mysterious relationships on the show (the friendship between the audience and Elliot Alderson). I also might not always make an actual prediction (but most of the time I will).
As always, if you haven't watched all of Season One and Season Two of Mr. Robot already *Spoiler Alert*
The series Mr. Robot starts off its very first episode with its “protagonist” Elliot referring to us (yes, us, the audience) as his “Friend” and throughout both seasons Elliot often (seems) to refer to us collectively almost as an off-stage element of the fictional world that he inhabits.
Perhaps most astonishingly, in Season 2, there is a scene where Elliot asks “us” to find something he lost inside his apartment (and after his request the camera actually pans around in an approximation of “our” gaze). It is hard not to wonder if we have become a viewer composite of “Harvey” the rabbit.
Obviously, directors have long played with “breaking the fourth wall” but there is something different between quipping to the audience (Annie Hall) and making the audience into an actual character that interacts with the show and is sometimes treated as if they are literally present at the creation.
In fairness, we don’t really know that “we” (the television audience) are the object of his dialog. In fact, it is possibly just narcissism to assume that he is talking to us when he makes aside (he could easily, in fact, be talking to another alter or with another entity or spirit residing in his own head or slightly outside of the camera’s coverage of the filmed scenes). It is certainly worth considering that it could only be our own collective narcissism that leads us to believe that Elliot is actually talking to each of us directly (Let us not forget, this is a show full of manipulation and misdirection).
At the same time, we aren’t “really” there or actually interacting with Elliot except that he seems to sense “our” presence whenever the cameras are on. It is still a one-way relationship outside of our contact to characters through the extensive universe of Easter Eggs hidden throughout Mr. Robot (for the uninitiated, you can usually get responses from the many email addresses or chat handles displayed on the show and from many of the video interfaces too).
Even in the episode where Elliot asked us to search his apartment (for what turned out to be the menu for Red Wheelbarrow BBQ), it was not two-way communication in any real sense (we could only respond to the different show addresses using Twitter or Reddit).
With friends like this, who needs physical communication?
What Does It Mean? Part One
So, we don’t know for sure that “we” are Elliot’s friend and we don’t really have an authentic means of communication with Elliot even if we are friends. But, for the sake of argument, let us assume we are the collective object of Elliot’s attention. That we, the gathered millions of audience members, are literally being invited as a collective but unitary character into the show’s universe by the shows “protagonist.”
First, we know Elliot only senses us when some form of media or technology is present (We know this because, in the companion book Red Wheelbarrow, Elliot mentions that for most of his time in prison, he was not talking to us anymore, necessitating the use of the notebook to record the thoughts he would normally share with us).
Anyway, we know that he loses contact with us when Season One ended and we know that he started talking with us again at precisely the moment that the television show overlapped with the book. At that precise moment, Elliot became able to see/sense us again but mentions that he might still be withholding information from us because he no longer fully “trusts” us. So, most likely, given all available evidence, Elliot requires the existence of some technological mediating device to be able to see us (his Friend).
Yes, I am suggesting that the reason Elliot doesn’t trust us is that the USA Network ended the season shutting off the ability for him to sense and communicate with us. We require the camera to SEE HIM and he requires the cameras to SEE US (this also is interesting in that it might suggest that we are possibly both living in parallel real or fantasy worlds or perhaps the point is to suggest that neither we nor Elliot either lives in a ‘real’ world or that a “real” world even exists.
** An aside, I had a conversation on Reddit with a friend named “bwandering” who responded to this notion by explaining that Elliot’s inability to see us without an operating interface might also explain why all of the episodes are named after different kinds of computer file formats (some of which are video) **
What Does It Mean? Part Two
This notion that reality itself is always contestable is one of the elements of Mr. Robot that most reminds me of David Lynch movie “Mulholland Drive,” or more specifically, the connection between the two parts of the film through the “Silencio Box” (kind of a box that connects the two very disparate parts of the movie that both include the “same” characters but the “same” characters acting very differently).
One possible interpretation is that our relationship to Elliot exists to remind us that Eliot's fictional battle is really our contemporary battle against depression, despair, and corporate fascism. In this interpretation, Elliot is standing in for us in a battle that we should be engaging in ourselves. Like Elliot, we don’t have to sit quietly in the face of depression, despair, or fascism.
This also may explain why Elliot thinks of us as a friend, we are "like" him or he sees himself in us.
One cautionary note here, I do not think Sam Esmail is uncritical when it comes to the possible ethical consequences of sparking revolutions or economic collapse. Season two can easily be seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended but predictable consequences of instigating an economic collapse.
Another possibility, as I suggested above, is that Sam Esmail intends to call into question the legitimacy of appeals to “reality” itself. If Elliot’s world is parallel to our world and Elliot’s world isn’t real, perhaps the point is that our world isn’t “real” either. What I am suggesting here is that our ability to describe our world (or any world) accurately is always questionable. In this sense, Elliot isn’t an unreliable narrator as much as the canary in our coal mine, an indicator that unreliability is the defining feature of the real.
Jose Luis Borges, my favorite author, wrote a short story about a group of cartographers who made a map of such specificity that it ended up superseding the “real” world it was supposed to describe.
I think it is possible to argue that Elliot's position in relation to us calls us (and him) out for being cartographers (Elliot is desperate to try to map his own world too).
I think it is possible to argue that Elliot is calling into question the entire idea of drawing accurate maps. Or suggesting that our descriptions of the world are themselves always hegemonic processes that do violence to the real.
In other words, our descriptions, like Elliot’s always come from a place that the kids today might call “political.” We tell all of our stories from our own contested perspectives and we describe the world in the ways we desperately want it to be.
Perhaps the point isn’t that people have descended into political silos. Perhaps the point is that it is impossible for us to describe the world other than from a silo of our own perspective.
What Does It Mean? Part Three
Okay, now I am really going to go off the deep end now (warning).
For fans of the Matrix movies, here is the Jean Baudrillard quote that Morpheus borrowed his most famous line from:
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable <a reference to Borges>, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.”
What, I think Baudrillard is suggesting here is that “Real” is the uncomfortable and upsetting space we find ourselves in when we can’t find words, when we can’t fix the problems or explain them away, or when we are confronted by people and things we truly can’t map.
The “real” is when we realize that we don’t really understand someone we have known our entire life or realize that we deeply love someone we have never talked and most likely never will.
The “real” is a confrontation with a world radically itself and not radically ours to control and shape.
We can say someone is “fat” or an “addict” or a “gambler” or a “hero” or a “hotty” but in that description, we are trying to define the undefinable. We can use language to construct someone as mentally ill (like Elliot) but Elliot is not only mentally ill. Language is always an attempt to create a stereotype to plaster over the place where a radically “other” person actually stands.
I think this is why the post-holocaust philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests that it is in the unmediated confrontation with a face that hospitality lives (paraphrasing).
Anyway, in constructing the royal “us” as his “friend,” Elliot is, perhaps, suggesting that we are related to him because we both still have a desperate need to make sense of a world often so painful to us that it makes us construct hyper-realities (descriptions and maps that make the world seem survivable or even wonderful).
I guess what I am saying, in reference to what a good friend recently suggested to me, that Elliot is trying to “embrace the ruins” and that maybe we should too.
At the end of the day, I am not sure I can definitively explain our relationship to our friend Elliot, but I hope this article has added a few new thoughts about how you look at it.
Anyway, what are your theories on our “friendship” with Elliot Alderson?