The USA network’s critically acclaimed Mr. Robot begins its second season tonight. The show follows the disjointed story of Elliot, a delusional hacker trying to take down the world’s largest corporate conglomerate. As the viewer follows the twists and turns down his disinformation superhighway, the most surprising revelation goes well beyond the screen. By showcasing the truly cynical life, Mr. Robot exposes the emptiness of cynicism.
“Hello, friend.” The very first words of the first episode put the viewer of Mr. Robot on edge. Is Elliot breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience or are we merely privy to the conversations he’s having with the “imaginary friend” in his mind?
When viewers see the world through his eyes, which is most of the show, they have no idea what parts are real or trustworthy. But neither does Elliot. At one point he even pleads with the audience, “Please, tell me you’re seeing this, too.”
But you can’t be sure what you’re seeing. Elliot is an antisocial employee at a cyber security firm by day and a vigilante hacker by night. While that sounds like a boilerplate CBS primetime drama, Mr. Robot subverts all of audience expectations. Original (and sometimes disconcerting) framing of characters and action on screen matches Elliot’s personal confusion and disoriented perspective.
Early on, we discover Elliot has psychological issues and a drug habit, both of which contribute to his unreliability as a narrator. Nothing he says, does, or even sees can be taken at face value. Viewers are not alone is their distrust. We share that with Elliot.
Elliot does not trust big businesses like E Corp, a tech giant modeled after companies like Google and Microsoft. Due to their ruthless business practices and his own personal loss, Elliot “hacks” his brain to only hear and see “Evil Corp” in place of the actual name.
But Elliot doesn’t trust anyone: Not his psychiatrist, whom he likes, or friends he has known since childhood. Instead of opening up or listening to them, he hacks their online information. He, rightly, doesn’t even trust himself.
If X-Files captured Generation X’s cynical attitude toward government, Mr. Robot delves into Millennials’ cynical mindset about virtually everything. According to a study from Pew Research, this skepticism is especially true about institutions.
Millennials aren’t part of a political institution (50% are politically independent). They are increasingly disassociated from religious institution (29% are religiously unaffiliated). They aren’t as celebratory toward their country (only 49% say they are patriotic). They are even delaying or avoiding the institution of marriage (only 26% of them are married).
In fact, much like Elliot, Millennials don’t really trust anyone. Only 19% say that generally speaking, people can be trusted—the lowest of any generation.
On the surface, it may seem as if Mr. Robot merely reinforced the generational cynicism and distrust. The cynicism seems to only get stronger in the upcoming second season. Looking closer, however, the show actually reveals the emptiness of complete skepticism by taking the worldview to its logical conclusion in Elliot’s life. He literally cannot believe the things he is seeing or thinking. His skepticism is paralyzing.
At the end of the first season, despite accomplishing much of what he set out to do with a group of hackers known as fsociety, Elliot is confronted with his own faulty memory, his inability to recognize family members, hallucinations, voices in his head, and large swaths of missing time. This is not a life to envy.
Influential Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer developed an evangelistic method which he described as “taking the roof off” someone’s worldview. Through questioning and conversing, he would expose the contradictions and eventual despair of an individual’s perspective. In The God Who Is There, he writes, “When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is.”
As his mind reels from all that takes place, Elliot’s roof has been removed, along the roof of any viewer who thought a complete cynical outlook on life would lead to a life of meaning and significance. We realize we need something, someone to ground us. And that’s the response those behind the show are seeking.
When asked if he wanted the audience to “question everything,” Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail said no, he didn’t want viewers to have that type of experience. “That could get really frustrating,” he said. “I want us to be tethered. For me, it’s about the authentic experience of what Elliot is going through.”
Esmail recognizes that even in a fictional world cynicism is untenable. “For me, if I were an audience member, and I couldn’t buy into anything or hold onto anything, that would get extremely frustrating,” he said. “You wouldn’t be able to connect or relate or engage with any of the characters if that were really indeed true.” Cynicism may be a momentarily attractively worldview, but it is permanently unlivable.
At its core, cynicism is a coping mechanism. Because some prove untrustworthy, we view everyone and everything with skepticism to avoid being hurt. In the process, however, our avoidance of emotional risk closes us off to emotional connections. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. … The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”
As Mr. Robot begins season two, regardless of whether Elliot is successful in his quest to bring down Evil Corp, evil itself will still exist. That is a task his cynicism is wholly incapable of accomplishing. But that’s true for almost anything in life. The cynic can tear down, but what about when we need to build up? That’s the question of season 2, can Elliot be a part of constructing something new in the aftermath of last season’s collapse. Possibly, but only if he abandons his cynicism.