The Importance of Being Elliot: Predicting Robot (Mr. Robot Season 3)
Predicting Robot: Mr. Robot (USA Network)
Today’s post is going to be more about the social importance of Mr. Robot and less about predicting the future of the show.
If you are hungry for more of my traditional crystal ball style writing, I wrote a short piece about Mr. Robot’s Season 3 trailer last night and I compiled all 20 parts of my series on Red Wheelbarrow into an easy to manage guide night before last.
If this turns out well, I am going to be pretty proud of this one (knock wood).
Finally, I want to give a shout out to my friend Aaron who helps me with graphics and did the cool art piece that will be featured in this post and in my posts in the future. Thanks, Aaron (Everyone should follow his writing on music at Bearded Gent Music and 50 Third and Third)!
If you haven’t watched all of seasons 1 and 2 of Mr. Robot, it is possible that something I write tonight will be a spoiler, so beware. SPOILER ALERT!
Elliot Is Not White (In Case You Missed It)
The point of this entire post is to draw attention to how important the character of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is disrupting conventional media and social narratives. I don’t actually know Elliot’s ethnic background on the show but I do know that Rami is Egyptian-American.
We know that Hollywood has a diversity problem, a few years ago less than one-third of the 30,000 parts cast went to non-white folks and this happens at a time (only a few weeks after the tragedy at Charlottesville) when it matters a great deal who gets to talk and what they get to say. I suspect that there is a symbolic reason, that the characters on the show choose to hide behind the face of a whiskered WASPY man (even if the stated reason was devotion to a cheesy 80's slasher film).
Although diversity has improved on television, it only takes a bit of watching the shows Game of Thrones or Stranger Things to realize that lots of ‘must see’ television either is still casting people of color either as liberated slaves or as unicorns.
Beyond that, in addition to the spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in this country, many non-Islamic Americans of Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian backgrounds face discrimination and hate every day across the United States. I love that the "USA Network" is the network telling the story of a protagonist whose ethnicity might often make him a target of discrimination or hate.
Eliot Alderson is the central character in Mr. Robot, his journey is the show’s journey, and he is even responsible for the narration (fairly unique).
Elliot Is Mentally Ill
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. I myself, have at times in my life experienced panic disorder and generalized depression.
Elliot has dissociative identity disorder, and some combination of social anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. How many people on television represent mental illness in a way that is believable and natural (as opposed to theatrical). There were times when I felt connected to Elliot’s character specifically because I have myself been that boy in the corner, all alone, and crying to myself (luckily without a camera recording it all).
Generally, television shows and movies depict mental illness as a form of sociopathy and while it could certainly be argued that Mr. Robot is a sociopath it would be hard to argue that Elliot lacks empathy (If anything, I would argue Elliot creates paracosms because he feels too much and not because he lacks empathy).
A paracosm is an intellectually constructed protective fantasy world like the one Eliot (or Mr. Robot) constructed to hide out in as his physical body was being beaten down by Ray’s goons for digging too deeply into the TOR site (Word Up Wednesday). Elliot usually dissociates by allowing the portion of his personality best suited to deal with a situation to take control but there are multiple forms of dissociation.
It often comes as a surprise to people when I say this, but all human beings are inherently dissociative. When, for instance, you drive home and keep your mind on driving, but still end up in your driveway at home, that happens as a result of your ability to dissociate. When young human beings face extreme trauma, they cope by developing that same natural ability to dissociate in more extreme and protective ways.
It is incredibly brave for Elliot, to continue to see his therapist both in prison and out. There is a great social stigma to being mentally ill and celebrities (Tom Cruise most famously) and television shows (Legion) constantly push the message that mentally ill people aren’t really ill and that treatment is a form of discipline (not help). One of the great battles people with mental illness face every day is the desire to just ‘be like everyone else’ and not have to go to therapy or take psych medications.
Not all therapists are good and not all psychiatrists prescribe the right meds, but this doesn’t mean that mental illness is a self-help phenomenon.
One of my best friends, who happened to be bipolar, shot himself after unilaterally deciding to get off his meds. It has been over 25 years and I still think about him almost every day. It is ironic that I am a writer now because he was one of the best writers I have ever met but I try to write with the passion and integrity that he did (on my best day, I am a fraction of the writer he was).
Anyway, Elliot sometimes self-medicates or gets off of his meds but the show's writers have never suggested that he would be a better person by escaping his therapy or ending his meds.
Elliot is an Addict
Shayla, Elliott's late girlfriend, was also his drug dealer.
According to research, about 50% of people with severe mental illnesses (DID is considered severe mental illness) will develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives.
Sometimes it starts as a form of self-medication, sometimes it is another way to make the pain of social interaction more pleasant, sometimes it is a way to cope with social shame, and sometimes it is just how someone is wired.
I am recovering addict with seven years of sobriety, but before I found sobriety I struggled for twenty years balancing my professional and personal life with my “acting out” behaviors. I am very connected to the recovery community here and talk with people struggling to recover on close to a daily basis.
This is not just a problem for people who struggle with mental illness, according to the US Surgeon General, 1 out of every 7 Americans will struggle with some form of addiction in their lives.
For Elliot, using seems almost entirely a coping method (and another form of dissociation) which allows him to overcome his extreme social anxiety and depression.
Elliot is a Formerly Incarcerated Person
I assume most everyone remembers last season's big twist (Elliot was in jail not living at his mother’s house for the first half of Season 2)?
As you probably remember, if you have read any of my recaps of Season 2 (or my series on Orange Is the New Black), I am also a formerly incarcerated person.
Well over 2 million people in the United States (which is more than the rest of the prison population of the world combined). Another approximately 5 million people are on parole or probation. As of 2008 one out of every 31 adults in the United States was in prison or jail.
Perhaps more disturbing, as Sheriff Tom Dart mentioned in his 2016 Report on reforming mental health treatment in jails, “Ten times more mentally ill people are housed in America’s jails and prisons than in mental health hospitals.”
Prisons and jails have become our de facto mental health treatment facilities.
And if you wonder why I wrote a 20 part treatment of the Mr. Robot companion book “Red Wheelbarrow” this might be as good a place as any to look.
After I was arrested I was taken to the Macomb County jail for processing. They asked me a few questions, and since I had never been arrested before I answered the question about depression wrong (I admitted that I was feeling a bit depressed).
Faster than you could say “mistake,” I was put in a green padded suit and taken to the suicide watch room (a plexiglass cell visible from the outside on all sides). After they decided I wasn’t a risk to myself I was moved to the mental health wing where I spent 23 hours of every day locked in a cell with nobody to talk to and nothing to do (you were allowed out of your cell to shower and make phone calls or watch the unit television for one hour a day).
About 24 hours later, I was moved out of the mental health wing and then I bailed out. But while I was there I learned that some people had served over a year in those 23-hour cells.
Not all the so-called treatment that I saw in my three years of incarceration was that brutal, but nothing that I saw made me feel very good about how we treat the mentally ill in this country. Several weeks later, I ran into the therapist who was responsible for springing me from the mental health wing at Macomb and I had to ask her the question that had been burning in my mind ever since, I asked her:
“If I really had been mentally ill, and needed treatment, how would locking me up for 23 hours a day in solitary for a year help me get better?”
She responded after a long pause:
“It’s not optimal”
There may never have been a better description of the casual cruelty of the way our society treats the mentally ill.
Prisons and jail exacerbate mental illness, prisons and jails create mental illness, prisons and jails rarely treat mental illness.
Elliot got lucky, despite the history of his diagnosis, he wasn’t classified as a mentally ill patient. But, if you read Red Wheelbarrow carefully, you will get whiffs that maybe Sam Esmail and Courtney Looney knew something about mental illness in jails and prisons.
If You Met Elliot In Real Life, You Might Shun Him, Confront Him, or Run
There are tens of millions of Elliot Alderson’s all over this country.
Elliot is the homeless guy who looks too crazy or dirty to talk to.
Elliot is the ‘dangerous’ foreign looking guy in the subway.
Elliot is the addict our Attorney General wants to put in prison after throwing away the key.
Elliot is that prisoner we never want the parole board to release.
Elliot’s crimes would certainly be characterized as terrorism and likely create a national and probably racialized panic.
And let us not forget, Elliot has committed crimes. He doxed people, cyber-stalked people, and hacked personal and financial information of everyone he met (even of his close friends).
Just in Season 1, Elliot released an entire jail block full of convicted prisoners and collapsed the American economy plunging millions into poverty.
But we got to know Elliot and we have empathy for him. We even care about him. Heck, I know people who would claim to love him.
And, ultimately, I think that might be the point. Elliot represents the true face of so many otherized Americans that he really is a reflection of us AS WE REALLY ARE. We are often:
Sad, lonely, traumatized, addicted, mentally Ill, formerly incarcerated, subject to racial profiling or a target of hate crimes or intolerance.
At times Elliot is heroic, at times he is cowardly, and at times he is dangerous.
In essence, he is complicated just like so many of us.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we started extending everyone ‘like Elliot’ the same grace that we extend to Elliot?