Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea: Mr. Robot

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A thing we will inevitably have to address is what it looks like for Doctor Who to respond to Trump. Or, in the UK context, Brexit, but let’s go ahead and just use Trump as a metonym for the catastrophic politics that form the backdrop of the Moffat-Chibnall handover. This is, of course, something it is not fair to ask Class to do. It’s not fair to ask most of Series 10 to do it either—Trump’s election happened late in the block where they shot Oxygen and The Eaters of Light, which was in time to work the “too orange” gag into The Pyramid at the End of the World (although more on Trump and that episode when the time comes) but nowhere near early enough for anything in this season to be conceptualized as an intentional response to his Presidency. (His campaign is a different matter.) Even with Brexit, the vote took place four days after filming started—enough to have some impact (we know that Gatiss was considering an explicitly Brexit-themed script), but still fundamentally after the series was well underway. On the whole, Series 10 emerged from the midst of 2016’s turmoil; it is the Chibnall era that exists wholly and cleanly as a post-Trump work.

But of course, cultural response has never been as simple as mere causality. Production dates don’t matter to how something is received in context. As soon as Trump was elected or the Brexit vote was called, popular culture began existing in their wake without any regard for intentionality. And if you want further proof that intentionality is not the be-all and end-all of this, just consider the show we’re looking at today, which immediately seized the crown of the most essental post-Trump television show despite the fact that it’s not until late 2017 that it finally gets around to airing any post-election episodes.

Indeed, it’s worth flashing back to how we began the Capaldi era—with Moffat hemmed in on all sides, his best tricks routinely being incorporated into the larger popular culture. As we’ve discussed, Moffat rose to the occasion, honing himself a late style that wedded his gifts at flash and glitter to a new sense of substance and weight. But no gambit lasts forever. In 2015 you could claim Doctor Who as the best show on television with a reasonably straight face, although Hannibal’s swansong season offered ferocious competition. Still, the high point of Moffat’s career could plausibly fight off any given comer. 

In 2016, however, with Doctor Who off the air, a new king was able to emerge. Mr. Robot had been a fresh-faced debut in 2015, but for all its clever trickery it was ultimately bogged down trying to sell a stolen from Fight Club twist in which Mr. Robot, eponymous the revolutionary leader, turns out to be a hallucination on the part of Elliot, the main character. This still led to the most gobsmackingly audacious moment of television that year, when at the end of the episode in which this is revealed (the big twist having been burnt off in a cut to commercial) the show uses a chintzy piano version of The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” as its exit music. Great television shows steal plot twists; brilliant ones take the musical cues with them.

But it’s in 2016, with its second season, that Mr. Robot really comes into its own. Fittingly, it does this with many of the same techniques by which Moffat evolved his style in the Capaldi era: laying off the hyper-kinetic storytelling, going deeper into character pieces, and foregrounding the women. In its first season, for instance, Mr. Robot was constantly eager to show off, freely scattering bombastic anticapitalist monologues and flights of narratological trickery, often with a sense of ostentation that was broadly comparable to Moffat’s. But the second season develops a whole host of new tricks. It is still prone to fits of ostentation—its mid-season reveal that Elliot has been in prison the whole season alienated a fair few critics, although for my money it was done with enough grinning “fool you twice, shame on you” charm to get away with it. And of course there’s the absolutely astonishing appearance of ALF.  But its bread and butter shifts to long, methodical scenes that linger and play with mood and tone. The second part of the two hour season premiere, for instance, opens with a six minute scene of a corporate executive bringing a cash ransom to the middle of Central Park and then discovering that what he’s supposed to do with it once he gets there is set it on fire. All to a slowly crescendoing backing of Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home.” It’s almost Brechtian in its casual discomfort, and utterly, captivatingly brilliant.

Its second season also makes repeated and deft use of the standard (but always delightful) television trick of generating drama by putting unexpected pairs of characters on screen together. It did this deftly on two occasions in its first season, first through a casual reveal that Elliot’s hacker friend Darlene knows his childhood friend Angela (this being setup for a later reveal that Darlene is Elliot’s sister, which he’s forgotten in his delusions), then in a post-credits scene on the finale where it turns out that the CEO of the show’s massive conglomerate, E Corp (the outrageously entertainingly named Philip price), is acquainted with the head of the Chinese hacker group that assisted Elliot and company in staging a massive hack of the company (Whiterose, who I should be annoyed at for being a queer coded villain but who is instead my favorite trans character in anything). 

But in Season Two this becomes the show’s default mode of being. Early on it gets delightful dividends by having Whiterose meet Dominique Dipierro, an FBI agent investigating the hack that marked the climax of Season One. Later, and more significantly, Whiterose goes to extraordinary lengths to meet with Angela, with her entrance into the room Angela is sitting in serving as the exquisitely well-earned payoff to a lengthy and giddily surreal sequence in which Angela is interrogated by a young girl (brilliantly, the same actress they use to play young Angela the next season) who asks her questions like “have you ever cried during sex” and “are you a giraffe or a seagull” as a fish tank slowly drains of water in the background. And when Whiterose, who has been established as being deeply obsessed with time, to the point of allocating a fixed number of minutes for every conversation she has, calmly announces that she’s allocated a staggering twenty-eight minutes for talking to Angela, it ends up being wildly more thrilling and exciting than any declaration that someone has allocated a precise amount of time for a conversation has any right to be.

The other big thing that the show gradually starts doing, as mentioned, is focusing on its female characters. Its title dynamic remains the relationship between Elliot (played by Rami Malek, in what’s blatantly his career-making role) and the hallucinatory Mr. Robot (played by Christian Slater, who’s equally blatantly doing a greatest hits reel), and this unsurprisingly occupies the bulk of its first season. But early in the season we have an episode where, with Elliot tied up in an extended hallucination sequence, the rest of the episode is left to pair off female characters and let us spend time with them, a decision that immediately proves satisfying. Come Season Two, with Elliot sidelined from the plot for the first 2/3 of the story, this instinct is expanded wonderfully, with Angela and Darlene carrying the bulk of the dramatic weight. Both are genuinely fantastic characters—Darlene is a fatalistic and brash hacker riddled with anxiety, while Angela is a go-getter whose hyper-competence goes largely unrecognized. Both are reliably extraordinary, and their respective arcs in Season Two, with Angela going from a position of weakness and vulnerability to unexpected and in some ways unfathomable strength as Darlene goes from a position of strength to one of considerable peril an vulnerability, is immensely satisfying.

As I said, many of these tricks are things Moffat was already doing. Series 8 and 9 dramatically slowed down the pace and allowed for lingering in quieter moments. And Moffat’s entire career has been a steady transition towards foregrounding women, a process that accelerates gamely in the Capaldi era with a star who’s willing to take a backseat and a pair of exquisitely well-developed companions. But other elements are more unique to Mr. Robot. With its extremely small core cast, Doctor Who simply doesn’t have the means to attempt the “holy shit these two characters are talking” trick. And Mr. Robot’s room for formal trickery is vastly greater, with Elliot’s delusions providing a huge number of opportunities for the outright mindbending. There are, of course, things that are unique to Doctor Who. Mr. Robot cannot do the ridiculous juxtapositions and genre hopping of Doctor Who, for instance—it’s tragically unlikely that the moon is an egg. Then again, ALF.

But in the context of 2016 and Trump, what really announces itself as distinctive about Mr. Robot is simply the depth of its conviction. Moffat’s Doctor Who is willing to play at certain types of radicalism, as we’re going to see in “Oxygen,” but this is nothing compared to Mr. Robot’s bald-faced willingness to take revolutionary anti-capitalism seriously. It is not quite fair to say that the show is decisive on this front—it’s ultimately extremely skeptical of the unintended consequences of revolution. But it’s still a show that treats “burn it all down” as a self-evidently sympathetic motivation. 

This isn’t something Doctor Who doesn’t do, per se, but at the end of the day, as we’ve seen repeatedly and across the entire range of the series, the gravity of more or less status quo contemporary liberalism is inescapable. Mr. Robot may be skeptical that a massive hack that kneecaps the global financial system would help, and to be fair both I and any remotely mature system of leftist political thought would agree, but the show does not even rise to dubiousness with regards to the status quo. Also, there’s two trans characters who exist as more than a punchline, which is… wait, let me do the math here… infinity times as many as have appeared on Doctor Who. (Even if Hot Carla is only fleshed out in a tie-in book, she’s still fucking delightful.)

The last time we talked about the ways Moffat found himself outshone by the larger culture the story was one of him battling back. That is not the story we are about to tell. Series Ten is not some disaster that Doctor Who needs to atone in the wake of. But it’s still Moffat after the point where he can lay claim to some vital current of the culture. It’s inessential in a way Doctor Who is never supposed to be. 

The solution is not simply to be more like Mr. Robot. Doctor Who, with its jack of all trades but master of none quality, doesn’t thrive by looking to outdo what’s already in the culture. Its best move has always been to swerve unexpectedly, and to move onto new ground. Nor is this the place to discuss how its eventual move forward from Moffat goes, although we know that the answer is “fucking disastrously.” 

Nevertheless, Mr. Robot, in a weird way, represents an endpoint to many of the lines of thought that have been thriving in Doctor Who over the last seven years. It shows its best instincts honed and perfected, and many of its worst instincts toned down and averted. This is not to say that it’s flawless—we are slightly lucky in our timing here that the largely misfiring Season Three is outside the scope of the argument, and slightly unlucky that we cannot yet say with any confidence whether this marked a weak step en route to an extraordinary finish or the beginning of a downturn that will leave Season Two as the show’s enduring peak. And there’s plenty in what we have to criticize—the show’s death toll falls disproportionately on the heads of its women, queer characters, and people of color, even if only one of its deaths can be called a fridging per se. But it is a show that does many of the things the Moffat era does while feeling like a decisive step forward. And so its existence represents a clear endpoint. We’re done with this. Time to be something new.

Comments

Jesse 6 months, 1 week ago

it’s ultimately extremely skeptical of the unintended consequences of revolution. But it’s still a show that treats “burn it all down” as a self-evidently sympathetic motivation.

Given how often I saw people defending their Trump votes with the phrase "burn it all down" or something like it, this may have some extra resonance in this era.

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Przemek 6 months, 1 week ago

I've always meant to watch this show but never got around to doing it (had I known it relies so heavily on plot twists, I would've skipped this essay, but alas). But it certainly sounds very interesting - indeed, like the Capaldi era freed from its shackles. I'm not usually in favor of burning everything down, mostly because historically doing so rarely had positive consequences, but perhaps DW could use to be more revolutionary these days. Well, no, scratch that. Looking at S11, it definitely should.

I'm interested to see how your narrative about S10 will unfold, especially since it's a season that felt very different while on air than it feels now, in the light of the disaster that is the Chibnall era. Dear God, and here we were thinking "inessential" was the worst thing Doctor Who could be...

I rewatched "Hell Bent" recently and what struck me was how much the Doctor's goodbye to Clara just before he loses his memory feels like a regeneration. Perhaps it should've been. In a parallel universe that's much better than ours, the amnesiac Twelfth Doctor, heavily influenced by Clara, regenerates into Jodie Whittaker and we get Season 10 with her and Bill. And a show that fully embraces the "magical space lesbians" aesthetic.

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AG 6 months, 1 week ago

Still bitter that Missy didn't get to give Clara the 3W welcome.

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Daru 6 months ago

Even though I still have season three to watch, Mr. Robot is still one of my absolute favourite shows (along with Hannibal) of the recent era. Course, even when it’s not great Doctor Who is always up there.

Mr. Robot for me underlines my issues with the Chibnall run in terms of rewatching, as currently I notice that I have had much less a desire to rewatch series 11 since it aired. On the other hand, I can very easily drop into any part of Mr. Robot I’ve seen so far.

See what happens with season 3, but for me it’s definitely been a high water mark so far.

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