post cover

Life jacket

Or: I watched the Mr. Robot finale and had an existential crisis


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 13 2020

15 min read


Spoilers for Mr. Robot follow, but honestly, just read them.

Christian Slater and Rami Malek star in the series finale of Mr. Robot. (Courtesy of USA)

The series finale of Mr. Robot does something that should, by all rights, utterly alienate its audience — and if some reviews are any indication, it did. Right as the show reaches a climactic moment, where the truth is about to be revealed about everything so far, the action stops in its tracks for a lengthy monologue in which one character explains to another just what’s happening here.

It could be seen, I suppose, as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, another series in which a protagonist with dissociative identity disorder has his condition explained by a medical professional who knows what’s up. Here, the protagonist is the troubled hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), whose multiple personae and struggles against mental illness have driven the series’ action, while the medical professional is his therapist, Krista (Gloria Reuben, who was somehow better the more thankless her role became).

The action of the finale halts while Krista explains to Elliot what’s been going on this whole time. And explains. And explains. And explains. And before that point, the episode had been an enjoyably mind-bending trip through what at first seemed to be an alternate universe, one where Elliot had had the kind of life he’d always longed for, including the love of his childhood best friend and a father who didn’t horribly abuse him as a child, and what eventually revealed itself to be a weird hallucination of some sort, one with two Elliot Aldersons in it — one the hoodie-clad Elliot we knew and the other a peppier, preppier guy who represented The Man.

(The series had teased this idea throughout its final two seasons by contrasting Elliot’s idea of a better world — one where vulture capitalism has been broken and wealth redistributed to the people — with the better world of his archnemesis Whiterose, who longed to create a literal better world, aka an alternate universe where nothing was wrong and nobody hurt. The finale’s greatest trick was briefly convincing you that Whiterose had actually pulled this off somehow and Elliot’s final act of defiance would be unmaking her better world.)

So here’s what Krista tells Elliot: He’s not actually Elliot. He’s a persona that Elliot developed who would be able to right wrongs and make the world better — a persona called “Mastermind.” Just as the titular Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) was a protector personality that Elliot conjured up as a child to protect him from his actual father (a terrible person), the Mastermind was just one fragment of a brilliant but shattered mind, a fragment who trapped the “real” Elliot in this dream state, where he gets everything he wants but nothing feels real.

Indeed, the “real” Elliot — the primary personality — is likely the “friend” that the person we thought was Elliot has been addressing throughout the entire series, aka the audience. The series begins when the Mastermind assumes control of the body the two share, and it ends when the Mastermind (having literally changed the world) relinquishes that control. We only see what the Mastermind wants us to see, a retroactively cheeky way to make sense of some of the show’s wilder missteps.

The last shot of the series is from Elliot’s point-of-view as he wakes up in a hospital bed to greet his sister, Darlene (the great Carly Chaikin). She says, “Hello, Elliot,” in a mirror of the series’ first line (the Mastermind greeting us in voice-over with “Hello, friend”), and we cut to credits.

But, of course, to get to that beautiful final image, we have to wade through Krista’s explanation of just what’s going on, which requires lots and lots of exposition and flashbacks and hand holding. As somebody who loves increasingly convoluted exposition and infodumps, I didn’t mind this. But I also felt, intensely, as though there was something right about this explanation for the show.

And then, after the episode was over, when I sat down to try to begin writing about it, at 3 in the morning, a handful of days before Christmas, I broke down and wept.

When I was a child, my cousins and I would go out into the middle of the Missouri River on my uncle’s boat. We would put on life jackets and plunge into the cool river water, under the warm South Dakota summer sun. I would sometimes swim a little ways from the boat and look up at the sky, imagining myself alone, in the brown-blue. The currents there were not strong enough to sweep me away. You could float for as long as you wanted, a speck in the middle of nothing.

I thought, sometimes, of swimming for shore, even though shore was at least a half-mile away and probably more. I knew the life jacket would hold me up long enough to reach the sand. It would float even when I no longer could. Even if I drifted, even if I rested, I would make it eventually.

My mother, sensibly, pointed out that I never would make it. The distance I had to swim would be too great for my tiny body. I would tire, and even if the current wasn’t a strong one, it was a present one, and it would take me eventually, sweeping me downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, I would drown, become waterlogged. Asking a life jacket to support any one person that long would be asking for a miracle.

Mr. Robot has the power of not knowing what it doesn’t know. It is a show about dissociative identity disorder written by people who don’t struggle with dissociative identity disorder. It is a show where a trans woman is played by a cis man. It is a show about the death of capitalism produced by NBCUniversal. It is a show that aims to say something profound about the human condition whose core idea is (as the creator has admitted!) pretty much ripped off from Fight Club. It’s a meticulously researched series about seemingly everything but its characters, who are often presented as schematic blueprints of the human mind.

And yet that ends up being something of the point. The first season reveals that two of the characters really are the same person (Mr. Robot and “Elliot”), and it doesn’t really bother to hide this either. In a very similar way to how Elliot hides his true self behind a facade of anti-capitalist fervor, Mr. Robot is hiding its true self behind a forward-facing attempt at feeling like it was assembled by a group of film bros playing Mad Libs with cinematic history (post 1994, of course). The characters feel schematic because Elliot fails to understand them beyond the way they might fit into his overall plans.

For me, Mr. Robot grew richer and deeper the more it fell out of the public consciousness. Its troubled second season — fatally kneecapped by a string of early episodes that were too fucking long — did the hard work of taking the first season’s chilly aesthetic and letting something human in around the edges, developing the characters who didn’t live in Elliot’s head like Darlene and even Whiterose. And the third and fourth seasons slowly built out a world that was rotten at its core and needed to be changed, but not only in broadly systemic ways. The technology that Elliot used to bring down capitalist vultures ended up also dragging people away from each other precisely when we might need each other most.

This doesn’t mean the core of Mr. Robot was an earnest plea to its viewers to put down their phones. It wasn’t blinkered enough to miss how often we human beings do find connection online, but it understood how often our friendly online spaces have been warped by the market and how thoroughly the connections we form have been manipulated by capitalism into feeling like friendship exists mostly to be monetized.

The modern world is designed to partition us off from each other, but the only way change happens is by bringing those partitions down. The series ended up being just about the hokiest thing imaginable — an incredibly sincere and earnest plea to all of us to just, like, try and fucking talk to somebody else for once in your goddamn life.

God, it was a good show.

In the middle of the wide Missouri. (Courtesy of USGS)

For most of my 20s and a fair bit of my 30s, I spent a lot of time in an online forum under the name hurricanesmith — named not for the briefly popular musician but, rather, a character I played in a terrible high school play. The forum was ostensibly meant to predict the Oscars, but most of us used it for film discussion. In time, we formed friendships and more. Several marriages and long-term relationships began on that forum, and many of the people I still call among my closest friends are people I met there, including several folks whose writing I’ve been pleased to publish and edit over the years.

For a long time, this forum, this fake online space, felt like the most real thing in the world to me, to the degree that I got reprimanded at work several times for how much time I spent fucking around on the boards. (Had my actual work not been the peak of excellence as you’d expect, I’m sure I would have had even worse punishment.) But I couldn’t help it. Hurricanesmith felt like who I was — friendly and funny and a little bit catty and way, way, way, way too much — and Todd felt like a person who was evaporating. I moved to California, and the sun was so hot that I started coming apart into pixels, disappearing into the sky.

But a few months after I discovered the movie forum — and before I moved to California — I discovered another online space, one where people would act out scenarios where men changed into women. Some part of my brain cracked wide open, and I tried to re-seal it with whatever I could find, but it refused to stop leaking all over. Somewhere deep inside of me was a true self I had tried to keep repressed for her own good. I was protecting her, wasn’t I?

The name I used in those trans spaces was hurricanesmith, too. I was essentially daring anybody who might to enter both spaces and realize that the same person was behind both accounts, because who would possibly have that nickname besides me? (Actually, I became such a bigwig on the movie forum that some of the junior members stole the name when they went to other forums, which probably muddied the waters.)

Hurricanesmith felt more real to me because she was Emily, finding a safe outlet for her expression of herself, even if she still “presented male” online. I didn’t have an alternate persona, not in the traditional sense, but I came up with a way to worm my way out of myself anyway.

The writing style I cultivated on that forum followed me to a blog, then to freelance work, then to The A.V. Club, then to here. Todd had been stopped up, unable to write, too focused on staying afloat. Hurricanesmith, though, could write all the fucking time, because that was how Emily took a deep breath and started kicking for shore, trying to outswim voices now growing more distant back on the boat, voices insisting she would never make it.

What does Elliot Alderson remember when he emerges from himself? Does he know what his alter ego did? Does he understand what sacrifices were made in his name? Will he miss all those who are dead, whom he kept alive in his alternate reality? Will the pain be too much to bear?

I don’t know, but I can tell him that my pain was significant, but not too much to bear, that every memory I have now has a different tinge to it when I realize that both my old self and me remembered it differently, that I know how much he threw away in the name of keeping me alive, that I miss all of the people I never got to know as myself. The longer I am Emily, the more I remember the ways that I always was Emily but was convinced otherwise by people who claimed to have my best interests at heart.

I think Elliot might understand what I’m talking about. Whatever limitations the writing staff of Mr. Robot had, they got at something true about the way that constructed identities are sometimes the only way to deal with a world that is not always kind to those who find themselves tossed into the water, their only choice to swim. So many of us don’t make it, but some of us find life jackets. Some of us float, and rest, and float some more, and rest some more, and bring ourselves to shore at long last, and sink our fingers into the sand.

Read me: It’s Oscar nomination morning! By the time you read this, the new nominations will be out, and they will surely have angered a great many people. The older I get, the more I grow irritated by the vast Oscar predicting industrial complex, and Mark Harris got at a big part of why in an essential Vanity Fair column:

The acting question is much more troubling. It’s not an accident that discussions of diversity tend to land in this category, because what can sometimes be explained away about 5 nominees cannot be explained away about 20. Several months ago I wrote a piece questioning why so many predictors were lumping four eminently worthy women of color—Cynthia Erivo (Harriet), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Alfre Woodard (Clemency), and Awkwafina (The Farewell)—together in a fight for the fifth best-actress slot, while simply assuming that the top four positions belonged to four white actresses: Renée Zellweger, Scarlett Johansson, Saoirse Ronan, and Charlize Theron. Since then, Nyong’o, the star of the biggest hit in the best-actress field, has been named the year’s best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle, the New York Film Critics Online, the Toronto Film Critics Association, the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, and the Chicago Film Critics Association—that’s more prizes than any lead actress has won this year. And where does she currently stand on the aggregation site GoldDerby? In sixth place.

In a situation like this, we tend to start our harangues with our outrage at Academy voters. But the truth is, we have no idea what Academy voters have or have not done yet. We only know that they have been told, over and over again, in every conceivable way, that Lupita Nyong’o is not a front-runner, that she is a long shot, that she has only an outside chance, and that no number of honors and awards can change a narrative that seems to have been agreed upon early and then zealously defended, a narrative that has also put Nyong’o’s fellow SAG nominees Cynthia Erivo and Jamie Foxx juuuust out of the running. Oscar voters don’t like to waste their votes; if you tell them again and again, “That’s not happening,” it sinks in. I hope enough of them were able to ignore the dully reactionary noise and fog of this year’s punditry. But if they didn’t, and no black actors are nominated, this one’s not just on the voters; it’s on those of us who set the table for them.

Listen to me: I love the beautiful boys on the Blank Check podcast, and they were so lovely as to have me back this week to talk about one of the most unlikely Oscar juggernauts of all time — The Silence of the Lambs. The show’s great, director Jonathan Demme is one of my favorites, and I would love for you to check out the episode!

And another thing… Hey, everybody! Thanks for putting up with our longer-than-expected holiday break. The TCA press tour (which is still going on!) always takes it out of me.

In the new year, I plan to continue the regular Monday edition of the newsletter, but I’m also considering adding a Thursday edition, which will be a for-pay edition. It will be shorter, and it will consist of TV recaps of completed shows — sort of a revival of the A.V. Club’s TV Club Classic feature. I’m still mulling whether I want to take on the extra work, but I thought I’d throw the idea out to you, my loyal public, and see what you thought. So let me know, either in comments or by replying to this email! Would you pay? Would you read? Would you care? Let’s find out!

(The first show I would tackle, by the way, would be Fleabag, probably followed by a short-run drama. Maybe The Leftovers?)

This week’s reading music: “404.4 Going for a Walk”

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter