TV Rewind: How Mr. Robot Bridged the Unique Evils of the Obama and Trump Eras

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TV Rewind: How <i>Mr. Robot</i> Bridged the Unique Evils of the Obama and Trump Eras

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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I’m not going to say Mr. Robot radicalized me, but I will say it was perhaps the first show I saw that humanized the idea of a revolutionary. A sleeper hit, Sam Esmail’s USA drama—a network otherwise known for breezy procedurals like Psych and Covert Affairs—slowly crept into the public consciousness after some awards show buzz during its first season, later awarding lead Rami Malek with his first Emmy alongside composer Mac Quayle for his synthy, dark contributions. On many levels, the show is a TV marvel, with stunning advancements in cinematography and production for basic cable dramas. Look no further than the show’s “one take” Season 3 episode; Mr. Robot is nothing if not dedicated to the art of TV, exceptional in its editing and unwavering in its dizzying anxiety.

Malek’s stellar performance as Elliot Alderson is easily one of TV’s most complex characters—each season, layers of Elliot’s mental health peel back as he wars with his mind and body, which thrust him precariously between righteous rage and intense loneliness. At the show’s inception, Elliot’s a preternaturally talented cybersecurity engineer working for Allsafe, a contracted firm for the largest too-big-to-fail conglomerate in the world, E Corp. Much of the first season follows Elliot as he toils with his deteriorating mental health, thanks in part to an intense sense of nihilism imbued in him after his father (a former E Corp software engineer) died from Leukemia complications thanks to a E Corp-led toxic waste scandal in Elliot’s hometown.

After meeting Mr. Robot (played as something of a streetwise prophet by the equally luminous Christian Slater), the leader of a hacktivist group known as fsociety, Elliot begins working towards deleting all of the world’s consumer debt in an ambitious encryption project. By the end of Season 1, they are successful. Credit cards across the world are no longer accepted, people are unable to withdraw their money from all the world’s banks, and E Corp teeters on disintegration as they struggle to achieve a bailout. A newfound cult of fsociety fanatics run rampant in the streets, throwing paint.

Mr. Robot maintains that the most fallible aspects of hacking, revolution, and collective action are human errors. Elliot, our unreliable narrator, eventually wises up to lapses in his memory—he remembers doing terrible things, remembers fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is his sister, and remembers his dead father looked just like Mr. Robot. Ultimately it’s revealed that Elliot has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Mr. Robot is a hallucination—a fractured aspect of his personality in which he channels his seditious tendencies, an impulse that pivots him towards self-destruction. The show makes a pointed choice to reveal this right as fsociety gets away with their proverbial murder; Mr. Robot’s following three seasons deal with the aftermath of both these events.

Though Mr. Robot is first and foremost a character-driven drama, the show’s four seasons are guided by populist politics that condemn techno-fascism. But the show also investigates something even dedicated leftists contend with—what happens after the revolution? How do we pick up the pieces of a truly broken society? Though Elliot possesses the talent to enact a paradigm shift, he lacks the leadership to run one. He tries his best to be a good person—Elliot dreams of a future where he can share a table with his closest friends and even a few of his worst enemies as they watch E Corp’s building collapse in on itself. But his idealism channels into depression, unable to coexist with a world where there are few safety nets for the mentally ill. Elliot is a prime subject for Marx’s alienation theory: estranged from his coworkers because he sees through the pointless dread of capitalist day-to-day life, he struggles to keep lasting connections because of his own learned helplessness.

But aren’t we all like Elliot? We yearn to connect, despite having everyone we know available at all hours of the day through social media. We know little about each other despite having access to every person’s idle thoughts on Twitter. Elliot feels disconnected to others because he is able to know so much about them—he hacks nearly everyone he meets, reads through their texts and sorts through their bank information. He knows their struggles, and fears vulnerability. Elliot may be a precursor to the doomer, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t find him at least somewhat regretfully relatable.

Then there’s Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday), one of Mr. Robot’s unsung stars as well as Elliot’s childhood friend and coworker, whose mother also died because of the same toxic waste incident. Angela is, in many ways, a portrait of a frustrated modern woman—she struggles with self-worth and overcompensates with zen self-affirmation videos, dates a man significantly less intelligent than she is, and struggles to be taken seriously in her male-dominated field. Angela’s arc is Mr. Robot’s most shocking; initially an insecure doormat jilted by Elliot and Darlene’s innate talents, she eventually decides to reignite a class action lawsuit against E Corp in hopes of justice for her mother and a solution to her dad’s crippling debt.

After impressing an E Corp exec with her raw determination, Angela is offered a job with E Corp and begins working for them on a “trial basis” while still cooperating with her lawyer. Whether she fell down the ensuing rabbit hole out of morbid curiosity as to the lives of the white collar criminals who ruined her life, or if she simply was taken in by the allure of a job where she feels respected and powerful, Angela eventually settles the lawsuit, screwing over her own dad in the process. Angela is an excellent vehicle for portraying the mollifying shape of Obama era liberalism—she thinks she can change E Corp “from the inside,” but is swayed by financial stability, small luxuries, and a semblance of control into sacrificing her morals for what might seem an adequate, if unjust, life. Angela’s capitulation to capital is offset by a reinvented “girl boss” personality; after retaining her job upon the on-air suicide of an E Corp exec, she tells the clerk cleaning her bloodied shoes not to question her choices. Her perceived freedom is the same honey we can all fall victim to, left to distract us from the incurable, systemic traumas that run deep in our minds—illness, poverty, sexual exploitation, discriminatory violence.

Season 2 ends with the cast in shambles. Fsociety has fled NYC to escape being picked off, Darlene is taken in by the FBI, and Elliot is left bleeding out with a gunshot wound.

And then, Trump was elected.

Season 3’s tone echoes the material change felt across the world once Obama’s tenure—an era of progress, but teeming economic colonization across the globe and a cloud of numbness for leftist thought—comes to a screeching halt, replaced with the overt, anti-intellectual Trump administration. Within Mr. Robot’s slight alternate history, Trump’s election was secured by the very villains driving the show’s plot, a clever nod to the sort of futile loop Mr. Robot views Western civilization as being caught in. The evils creeping in every pore of the United States’ corporate world stop working in silence, instead coming full-force to sever the efforts of fsociety through a $2 trillion dollar bailout gifted from the Chinese government (who, as we know, colluded on the hack to begin with). Fsociety, meanwhile, has become little more than a trendy marketing ploy. Corporations seize their open source imagery and brand it on t-shirts, playfully warping what was once an attempt at collective action into a slacktivist photo op. All of fsociety’s efforts have only served to bolster the capitalist regime and shift the country back into a post-9/11-esque conservative panic.

Instead of centering on tangible events from 2016 onward, Season 3 invokes the general mood of America at that time: exhausted, paranoid, despairing. How foolish we were to think things couldn’t get this bad, to assume history would steer itself away from calamity. The vanity of liberalism and the cowardice of leftism led to untold right-wing destruction, which we will be picking up the pieces of for decades to come. We created the shambling world we live in today—but maybe there’s mild comfort in knowing everyone’s aware of it now.

Mr. Robot’s cynicism isn’t pretty, but it’s certainly prescient; every beat rings bizarrely true to just the last few years of tragedies and political scandals. Late-stage capitalism is terrifying enough to blunt the senses, to deafen our minds, to splinter personalities. But as bleak as Mr. Robot was, and despite offering few counter-solutions with actual results, the show always centered itself in human stories, the kind worth fighting for even if it’s a fight we’re sure to lose. Out there in the myriad of possible futures is one where we truly can be liberated from corporate malice. It remains a cathartic show for me; it’s a somber reminder that we’re all suffering, all trying our best.

Watch on Amazon Prime



Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire

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