How Comfortable Do You Feel in Your Mask?

 

What is Mr. Robot about? Is it simply about a group of hackers cosplaying Fight Club attempting to overthrow the world economic order? That description would be a clean and timely elevator pitch, but the hacking is only a jumping-off point. Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot’s creator and show runner, has asserted that the show was inspired by the Arab Spring[1]. It’s possible that Esmail is trying to use Mr. Robot to make a statement about revolutions in general.

Yet, the show is set within the United States, and the action primarily takes place within New York City. Despite a recent streak of loud and angry political movements, there is no revolution in America, yet; just plenty of discontent about technological dependence, income inequality and a widening generation gap. Mr. Robot undeniably taps into all of the above.

Depending on one’s own perspective, any of these subjects could be Mr. Robot’s main draw, and maybe that is the deeper point. After the season two premiere, it’s clear that every main character mentally struggles with all of these issues in completely differently ways. In every episode, they are overwhelmed by the world around them[2]. The characters’ constant grappling with how much they are willing to play along with society’s rules, especially the ones they find objectionable, is the impetus behind their every action. They all face the same compound question: What about the status quo are they willing to accept, and if the answer is nothing, then how far are they willing to go to change everything?

Elliot, as the main character and potential criminal mastermind/revolutionary leader behind the fsociety hackers, is clearly at the center of the struggle. On one hand, he has a deep-seated hatred of nearly every flaw in the modern world and has (semi-consciously) assembled others with a similar desire to eradicate the corruption. On the other hand, he sees the good in individual people and sees how his extreme actions may hurt them.

Elliot’s conscious mind has now come to the conclusion that maybe the world is safer if he is removed from it, both physically and digitally. It sees only the power that his reemergence could have on the revolution, and urges him to embrace the fsociety persona and finish the job. Ultimately, he has to choose the fsociety mask for the narrative to go on, but the mental tussling caused by his schizophrenia shows that he does not yet see his own Tyler Durden as a path to a better world, or even one he can finally cope with.

Darlene, Elliot’s sister, is the closest understudy of her brother’s unconscious persona. She’s the current fearless leader of the hackers, preaching war analogies and wearing the fsociety mask. She’s completely against the world and unwilling to compromise at all, even with fellow revolutionaries who are simply taking misguided selfies. She may not be at peace with the role she chose, even in private moments, but is with having burned the bridges between her and conformity.

Angela is the show’s most establishment-friendly character remaining. She is now employed by the cartoonishly evil antagonist, a corporation whose malfeasance caused her to lose her own mother. She decided to “just deal with it” because a) she definitely enjoys being a hyper-competent workplace badass, and b) money talks. Shown coaching herself through being a sell out with positive affirmations, Angela has to really work to be comfortable in her new corporate façade, and the relationship with her employer is still tenuous, but for now she’s definitely pro status quo and would be appalled if she knew her childhood friend Elliot was behind the hack.

Perhaps the one character who cares the least about the world-at-large is the currently MIA Tyrell, who is the show’s biggest wildcard. He is a slimy, power-hungry cipher with a screen presence so unsettling that it sucks the air out of every scene he appears in. After a harsh rejection from his corporate superiors, Tyrell switches sides and helps Elliot. Of course, he is not a true believer in any revolution, just a desperate opportunist determined to climb the social ladder. He will never need to work at hiding who he is in order to cope with society because no one can really read his face, but he will watch the world burn if he can sit atop the ashes.

The season one finale depicted an unknown character donning the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta fsociety mask in a viral video and declaring an end to the current world order, post hack. The audience could basically narrow the suspect down to two characters, and many probably thought that whoever was behind the mask was now in control[3], or at least now driving the fsociety portion of the plot. Early in the season two premiere, the person behind the mask is revealed via flashback, and the shocking reveal is that it no longer matters. The character who wore it even calls the disguise silly. What matters is that the character had to put on the mask at all.

[1] Mr. Esmail’s Egyptian heritage brings a refreshing perspective to a cable channel named USA, especially because the implications of a revolution hit far closer to home for him than they do for anyone who has only ever lived in the United States.

[2] The show’s visual language only underscores this point. The camera never perfectly centers a character in any shot. Instead it typically lets them appear small and helpless while the background setting draws attention away.

[3] Which is an illusion, by the way.

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