By Lynne Peskoe-Yang
Mr. Robot is pretty depressing. Through its first two seasons, this U.S. series—mild spoiler alert—continues to drag its characters down into the abyss, letting their darkest fears plague and consume them as the techno-anarchy plot thunders in the foreground. Nobody here is happy. Nobody seems to trust any of the systems—corporate, medical, social, legal, and cultural—that shape every facet of their lives and hold the fates of their loved ones in the balance.
The arrhythmic heart of the show is Elliot Alderson, a tech security peon-cum-cyberterrorist with the best of intentions, played by a deliciously tortured Rami Malek. In addition to Elliot’s supporting cast of illegal coping mechanisms, the prodigal would-be loner is flanked by a ragtag group of hackers, iconoclasts, corporate drones, and a few genuinely upstanding citizens. This maudlin ensemble negotiates minefields of their own personal flaws as they seek justice, security, revenge, fame, respect, or—in our fearless hero’s case—a home. Overall, the show plays like an inverted rewrite of The Wizard of Oz where trust is unthinkable, morals are fluid, and the yellow brick road is an unfathomably complex network of dubious information that moves invisibly and in silence from its source to the highest bidder. The blue-washed cinematography is a mocking homage to the black-and-white Kansas. In Mr. Robot, we might be over the rainbow, but the new world of color just bums us out.
This clinical gloom is not radical. If anything, the show’s morose overtones conform neatly to the status quo for serial media over the past fifteen years. The fledgling genre of which Mr. Robot is a standout representative—dubbed “grimdark” by fans and critics—rose out of a broad rejection of Tolkien-ist high-fantasy moralism, favoring speculative fiction that’s treated with a realist’s cynicism. This category includes George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle and its televised progeny, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Black Mirror, any iteration of Palahniuk’s narratives, and countless other films, books, and series. While themes, settings, and cultural contexts vary widely, the works in this category share a decidedly pessimistic tone, eschewing hero-worship and the moral absolutism that were the hallmarks of their predecessors. Blue-washing, gore, and general depravity draw a hard line between these modern fairy tales and anything C.S. Lewis would recognize as fantasy.
But speculative fiction, by its nature, reflects its cultural milieu. Even the most inventive shows draw heavily on recognizable themes to connect with their audiences. And so the cruelty that these shows rely on for their gritty street cred follows patterns that are as familiar as their dragons and zombies are strange. The oppressive structures viewers endure (or ignore) in their actual lives become the plotlines that sell advertisements in their fictional landscapes of choice. True, even the most creative showrunners can’t reinvent personal tragedy; every anti-robot doomsday revolution needs to be anchored in a story of real human loss and conflict. But this reliance on existing oppressive structures in order to give writers easy access to viewers’ emotions is, at best, lazy and disappointing. At worst, it perpetuates and normalizes those structures, suggesting, for example, that even in a world of dragons, sexual violence against women is simply to be expected.
Enter Mr. Robot. Creator and head writer Sam Esmail, a relative newcomer in mainstream media, has publicly cited the prototypically grimdark Fight Club as a major inspiration, as well as equally dismal forerunners like Blade Runner. The show’s overall happiness quotient is as low as they come. Even the shadowy corporate bad guys experience disillusionment, humiliation, and violence. But despite its bleak outlook, Mr. Robot offers a glimmer of hope for writers who aspire to a more ethical sort of grit. In Mr. Robot, pain is not dealt out along existing avenues of injustice.
This is the praxis promised by the insult-comic, hate-everyone-equally type of embittered misanthropy; the slings and arrows suffered by these poor characters can’t be reliably predicted by the way one guesses each character would check off identity boxes on a census. For once, characters of all kinds of privilege and oppression share the same cheerless hole.
To be fair, standards for fictional justice in speculative fiction are low. Characters in A Song of Ice and Fire make fine examples of this tendency. Sometime protagonist and fan favorite Tyrion Lannister, a rare case of arguably positive representation for little people in fantasy, nonetheless suffers the same indignities weathered by his real-life counterparts, albeit against a backdrop of oracles and magical green fire. Both the graphic novel and TV productions of The Walking Dead suffer from racist tropes like the so-called “one black man at a time” rule, which is sadly progressive compared to the time-tested tradition of speculative fiction killing off its black characters first. And just about every show on earth uses forms of misogyny, from microaggression to sexual violence and honor killings, to texturize characters deemed too lucky to be believable. A quick scan of the list of fantasy titles produced in the past two decades indicates that writers and producers don’t see social progressivism as compatible with cynicism.
But for all its considerable flaws—a mostly-white cast, questionable treatment of a gender-nonconforming character, stereotyping Latinxs—Mr. Robot is so far ahead of its closest competitors in terms of fictional justice that it doesn’t even rank in the same league. The show tests the moral fiber of all characters, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality, with equal nuance.
To truly grasp what an achievement this kind of equity is in the context of its genre, consider the women of Mr. Robot compared with the current MVP of Team Grimdark, HBO’s Game of Thrones. In the latter, the female characters span the full spectrum of moral composition, from the unquestionably heroic Lady Brienne to the shamelessly sinister Queen Cersei. Despite this internal variation, there is a sameness to each character’s story. The vast majority of women characters from every social category in Westeros have either been sexually assaulted or have had the threat of assault used against them because of their gender. Indeed, the entire universe of A Song of Ice and Fire is plagued by a level of misogyny that is mind-boggling in its persistence and diversity of forms; some have argued that this amount of sexism is less believable than the use of magic.
The women of Mr. Robot are frequently miserable, too—but not because they’re women. Elliot’s childhood friend, good-hearted account executive Angela Moss (the formidable Portia Doubleday), faces a moral quandary that pits her desire for justice after the loss of her mother against her deeply human needs for safety and respect. She suffers the occasional insults of sexist microaggressions that are widely reported in the real-life corporate environs on which her life is based, but Angela navigates these challenges with believable self-confidence. Her journey parallels that of abrasive hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who is similarly torn between conflicting interests and desires—all of which are her own. Darlene negotiates the expectations of complex personal relationships with lovers, family, and revolutionary comrades. She exhibits a brand of leadership that is both impassioned and anxious, and pursues conflicting goals around her own safety and self-actualization.
It’s not that sexism doesn’t exist in the arguably dystopian landscape of Mr. Robot: Elliot’s psychiatrist (Gloria Reuben) weathers slut-shaming, and the vaguely menacing wife (Stephanie Corneliussen) of Elliot’s chief rival in Season One is plagued by a distinctly sexist set of marital expectations. It’s just that the viewer gets the distinct feeling that despite the opinions of the sleaziest of male characters, the women on the show have, at least, the full respect of the writers.
This is the crux of Mr. Robot’s unique appeal to viewers from diverse backgrounds. With every episode, Mr. Robot shows that neither physical violence nor psychological trauma need follow the lines of systemic power; justice is served when everyone has an equal potential for suffering. Thus, the audience is invited to see themselves in this dramatic alternate reality, not simply as love interests or tragedy-porn but as potential agents of good and evil on par with characters of all identities. The genius of Mr. Robot is to give each audience member full access to the moral pain depicted onscreen, without asking anyone to take for granted that a white man can be a proxy for everyone’s experience. By treating all characters with respect, if not kindness, the writers show an unprecedented level of respect for viewers’ diversities.
Despite this achievement, Mr. Robot still has enormous room for growth. The racially diverse ensemble fades into the background when the white main characters’ stories reach points of transition. The show’s depiction of mental illness is, by turns, respectfully nuanced and painfully stereotyped. But its treatment of characters outside the standard male hero—in particular, of women—proves that one need not sacrifice misery for justice. The show might yet become the type of dismal escapism that satisfies the craving that drives the grimdark media machine, while maintaining its status as an equal-opportunity tormentor. Cynicism and terror know no race or gender; in the world of Mr. Robot, everyone deserves injustice.
Lynne Peskoe-Yang (lynnepeskoeyang.com) is a freelance journalist based in sunny Boston, Massachusetts. She writes about science, science fiction, and popular culture, and has been published in Public Seminar, The Fem, and The Stray Branch.