“I jumped, I wasn’t pushed”: The uniquely millennial anxiety of Mr. Robot

“KRISTA: What is it about society that disappoints you so much?

ELLIOT: Oh, I don’t know. Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit. The world itself’s just one big hoax. […] Fuck society.” – “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov”, Mr. Robot (2015)[1].

There is a flashback in Mr. Robot’s second season where the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, is hanging out with his sister, Darlene, on Halloween. “Trust me, in this day and age, it’s sicker not having panic attacks”[2], she tells him in between rolling a joint. They’re both young, angry and isolated — a state that’s more common than not at this particular moment. Mr. Robot is a great show, it boasts some excellent performances, great cinematography and keen insights into what it feels like to live with mental illness. It could also only be made now, in this particular moment (politically and socially), and for this generation.

A popular meme on social media is to mock bad, contradictory ‘Takes’ on millennials –how lazy they are, how all they think about is work and money, how they’re killing off the diamond industry. Mr Robot is our best response to those ideas. It’s about what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the state of the world, and by the constant information we are bombarded with every single day. It feels like I check Twitter and find that the world has changed, and when that happens seemingly every day, it becomes stressful, but I can’t look away. It’s easy to forget the exact chain of events that drive what feels like a constant storm of chaos and confusion. Likewise, I could more easily describe scenes, moments of character work, far easier than the actual plot of the show. Sam Esmail, Mr Robot’s creator, has said that he doesn’t care about plot and he’s more interested in tone, which is something that definitely rings true in the show he has created over the past three seasons. It’s invested in portraying the complicated soup of horrible, exhausting news that makes up life in the 2010s. We are post-capitalist, post-information. Mr Robot captures the feeling of being inextricably bound to the hyper-rational (our computers, their code, and the internet), at the same time as each of us being just as irrational and driven by emotion as ever before. The extent to which we wait for justice to be enacted against our most controversial political and social figures (be it the bigotry of Donald Trump, the arrogance of Elon Musk, or the greed represented by Jeff Bezos) makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t believe any of them will ever be subject to anything resembling “Justice.” There is no “Great Hero” or saviour waiting for just the right moment to swoop in and offer the simple solution to each and every problem that plagues us, and waiting for them to do so is destructive. We won’t be saved because, quite frankly, we can’t be saved. Now, bear with me, I’m aware that sounds like a depressing thought.

Much of the first two seasons of Mr. Robot is about Elliot coming to realise this. It’s a failed superhero origin story. He has his powers, such as his ability to hack seemingly anything, to pull off elaborate schemes to destroy the world’s debt and hold the powerful to account, sincerely trying to introduce more justice to the world, but ultimately, these powers and good intentions don’t amount to much. “The top 1% of the top 1%”[3] carry on just as they did before, and those who were suffering to begin with only fall deeper into poverty, exploitation and abuse by the systems that control our society. It is only in season three that Elliot articulates this, after spending much of the second season in a convoluted state of denial over his actions. In the first episode, he monologues as he walks through New York, witnessing the destruction his well-intentioned hack has wrought, saying

“I can stand here and blame Evil Corp and every other conglomerate out there for taking advantage of us; blame the FBI, NSA, CIA, for letting them get away with this; blame all the world’s leaders for aiding and abetting them; blame Adam Smith for inventing modern-day capitalism in the first fucking place; blame money for dividing us; blame us for letting it. But none of that’s true. The truth is, I’m the one to blame.”[4]

Melodramatic, to be sure, but like I said, Mr Robot is very much a superhero origin story for the 2010s. I think a bit of melodrama is to be expected. Of course, Elliot isn’t to blame for society’s collapse — we all are. We have all been complicit in turning away from the news because we need a break, in giving attention to the symptoms, rather than our true problems, indulging in blame and recrimination instead of trying to find a way forward.

Mr Robot’s third season is a complicated beast. It’s much harder to watch than its (relatively) straight-forward first season, and less introspective than its second. Instead, Sam Esmail used his third outing to force the characters we’ve come to love to take responsibility for their actions and their mistakes. The opening episode features the above rant, and the season closes with Elliot realising his own actions were at the root of a large part of his childhood trauma. “I jumped, I wasn’t pushed”[5], he says to Mr Robot (Edward Alderson, his dead dad who lives inside his head as a manifestation of his Dissociative Identity Disorder), referring to the time that Elliot came to believe his dying father threw him from his bedroom window in a fit of rage. Gradually, over the course of multiple episodes, Elliot discovers that this wasn’t true. He blamed himself for his father’s cancer, so he jumped from his bedroom window and broke his arm in the snow below. The same applies to the hack; he jumped into the new world he created by eliminating debt, he wasn’t pushed, and now he has to reckon with that choice. It’s not an easy thing to watch. It’s not satisfying, as a viewer, to see a character whose motives and actions you admire come to realise that he has made a terrible mistake in attempting to bring about the justice that you fantasise about at each Breaking News notification you receive at work.

It comes back to that idea of us waiting for a saviour that will never come. Elliot will never be a superhero, and no one like him will emerge from the shadows to usher in a new world. We will not be saved.

mr109_2963
Elliot admits to Tyrell Wellick his core motivation for the hack – “I wanted to save the world” (“eps1.09m1rr0r1ng.qt”)

I’m of a generation that came of age just after the financial crisis, as the world economy was “recovering.” The year I went to university, our tuition fees trebled off the back of a vote by a political party that explicitly promised not to do so. We studied Barack Obama’s ‘08 victory speech in English class, and then saw that victory gradually curdle into an America where a white supremacist could be elected president. We’re more connected than ever before, and yet rates of anxiety and depression are rising exponentially, particularly among the young. It often feels like time is our most valuable commodity, that we’ve created the “attention economy” through pithy tweets and glamorous selfies on Instagram. White Rose, the Chinese hacker who is, supposedly, the mastermind behind all the happenings in the show, is obsessed with time. Her house is covered with clocks and she monitors the time allotted to each conversation obsessively, abruptly ending the conversation with the beep of the alarm on her wrist. She’s the mastermind not because she’s successfully carried out hacks, or brought corporations to their knees, but rather because she’s correctly identified that time, not money, is what we exchange today. Do you work an extra half hour in the hopes that your boss will notice the effort, or do you go home to unwind? How much “screen time” per day do you have? Do you monitor your sleep patterns on your phone to find the ideal duration for your sleep? Read newsletter roundups to keep up to date? We’re obsessed with convenience; with saving time.

This obsession is an isolating one, and I would know. I’m obsessed with time and my routines. I like them, they make me feel safe and secure and allow me to function, but they do come at a cost. It’s easy to forget that we aren’t evolved for the information age, that we need more face to face interaction than a lot of us get. Characters on Mr Robot spend long stretches of time, multiple episodes or even seasons, acting in isolation, hidden away from the other characters in storylines and problems of their own. No one else in the core cast can help them, they’re isolated both visually on screen in the lower corners of the shots, and in terms of their stories. This was illustrated in the show’s third season episode “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00”, which was filmed as though it were all one take, focusing on a race between two characters – Elliot and Angela, to get to a server room to do a hacker… thing (Like I said, the plot doesn’t really matter)[6]. You can see them, on occasion, lurking in the background of each other’s scenes, such as Elliot and his backpack running past as Angela tries to blend in with the rioting anarchists to escape. The two characters are connected on an emotional, thematic level, and yet are rarely allowed by Esmail to be in the same space at the same time, because that’s how we feel as young people. The musical cue at the end of the third season’s first episode is brilliant, Daft Punk’s “Touch”. It’s a song that moves between mechanical, futuristic bleeps and noises and the vocals of Paul Williams as he sings “Touch, sweet touch/You’ve given me too much to feel/Sweet touch/You’ve almost convinced me I’m real”[7]. The missed connections and moments in Mr. Robot represent an anxiety wrought by isolation, despite all the means of communicating that we have at our disposal. We’ve never dealt with this specific problem before, of being simultaneously connected and far removed from our loved ones, and it’s being worked out on television through seeing its consequences on a group of disaffected young vigilantes who can’t quite figure out the root cause of their problems.

We won’t be saved, not when our would-be saviours are in such dire need of help themselves. It reminds me of my favourite part of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, when Montag is told “Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore”[8]. We won’t be saved, but it doesn’t mean that we should give into our worst, most fearful impulses. There are moments of real beauty and human connection in the show, like when Elliot tries to reach out to his therapist[9], asking her to help him to not feel so isolated anymore, and when his sister tells him she loves him[10], and when Darlene and Angela find Elliot, lost and confused on the most intense level[11], and help him move forward as best as they can. Mr. Robot is a bleak show, to be sure, but it offers us possible steps, ways to move forward — accepting responsibility for our actions as a society, reaching out to people around us for help, and learning to see beyond our desire for a simple solution. We jumped, we weren’t pushed into the way our lives are now, but if we can recognise that, maybe we can find our way forward.


[1] Mr. Robot, “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov”, directed/written by Sam Esmail, 2015, USA. Further references will be to the name of the work, followed by the episode title.

[2] Mr. Robot, “eps2.7init5.fve”, directed by Sam Esmail, written by Kyle Bradstreet, 2016, USA.

[3] Mr. Robot, “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov”.

[4] Mr. Robot, “eps3.0power-saver-mode.h”, directed/written by Sam Esmail, 2017, USA.

[5] Mr. Robot, “eps3.9shutdown-r”, directed/written by Sam Esmail, 2017, USA.

[6] Mr. Robot, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00”, directed by Sam Esmail, written by Kor Adana, 2017 USA.

[7] Random Access Memories, “Touch”, written by Thomas Bangalter, Christopher Paul Caswell, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Paul Williams Jr, performed by Daft Punk and Paul Williams, 2013.

[8] Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, (Simon & Scheuster, NYC: 2012).

[9] Mr. Robot, “eps1.6v1ew-s0urce.flv”, directed by Sam Esmail, written by Kate Erickson, 2015, USA.

[10] Mr. Robot, “eps1.7wh1ter0se.mv4”, directed by Christoph Shrewe, written by Randolph Leon, 2015, USA.

[11] Mr. Robot, “eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.qt”, directed/written by Sam Esmail, 2015, USA.

 


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4 Replies to ““I jumped, I wasn’t pushed”: The uniquely millennial anxiety of Mr. Robot”

  1. Beautifully written article! I love Mr. Robot and this really puts Season 3 into perspective, awesome writing

  2. Well done! As a Mr Robot fan from S1E0 and frequenter of r/mrrobot, and as a parent of millenials, I congratulate you on a concise yet beautifully written essay on life for your generation in this era and how it is expressed through Mr Robot. PS. I’m sorry, we couldn’t see it coming, so failed to prepare you for this

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