We create the world we live in every day anew. Usually it has a reassuring “sameness,” summed up best by that well-worn French phrase “plus ça change, plus c’est la mme chose” – coined in 1849 by French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr and meaning, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
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But once in a while – and the brief respites between one “while” and the next are getting ever shorter – there’s a distinct feeling that under the beguiling guise of that “sameness” lurks another layer of reality, this one masterminded by unknown and unlimited powers that be. We have tricked ourselves into believing that we are human beings, with wills, whims and wishes of our own, in order to escape the depressing notion that we are, in fact, merely “operating systems,” being worked remotely by a faceless corporation. This system, which controls all other systems, claims that it does so for our own good, while pursuing its own goal, which usually boils down to ensuring its own existence.
This is the world portrayed by “Mr. Robot,” a deeply depressing yet wickedly engrossing cyber-thriller that has just started its much-awaited second season on USA Network, and on HOT Plus and Cellcom TV in Israel (more on this duality later).
The hero of the series is not the eponymous Mr. Robot (played by the highly charged and menacing Christian Slater), but the mind and body from which it seems he was hatched, conceived and configured – Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek with his haunted eyes, the oblique windows into his tormented and twisted psyche). Our “hero” is a clinically depressed, morphine-snorting cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers, on top of it all, from a severe social anxiety disorder.
Elliot seems to be the ultimate personification of the future of “Homo sapiens,” which transferred – willingly and enthusiastically – its most essential human qualities (both thoughts and emotions alike) into a “virtual reality” (that doesn’t actually exist) in a digital, parallel universe. He has the illusion of control, which he strives to maintain even as he is confronted time and again with conclusive proof that he is being conned and conspired against by systems most sinister, embodied within the series by the omnipotent – God, or rather, Devil-like – E Corp.
The “E” in the corporation’s name doesn’t stand for “electronic” (as in email), but rather “Evil.” In the same vein, the series creator’s name – Sam Esmail – has nothing to do with this increasingly e-world of ours, but instead shows Esmail’s Egyptian roots. The Arab Spring that blossomed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 provided Esmail with the inspiration for an increasingly out of whack world, drifting in the ill-crosswinds that blow across the virtual networks through which we have learned to lead our social lives.
F stands for...
The first season had the ideally situated Elliot working for Allsafe, a firm that was supposed to provide cybersecurity for E Corp. He was recruited by the enigmatic Mr. Robot (possibly a figment of his own imagination and personality) to join the anarchistic “f.society” – and it is up to the viewer to guess what the non-capital “f” stands for. He helped them wipe out all personal debt by hacking into huge and all-encompassing databases, setting all debtors free (and who isn’t a debtor nowadays in this world sustained by credit?), to be their own masters, owned by no one and owing nothing to nobody.
The first season ended with Elliot doing as he was told/ordered by Mr. Robot, resulting in worldwide financial havoc. The second season has Elliot trying to disconnect from Mr. Robot and severing all digital ties to the world – just, for a moment, imagine yourself without a smartphone, laptop or credit card. He seeks solace in a spartan room in his mother’s home, and meets up with new friend Leon (Joey Bada$$), who watches “Seinfeld” and marvels incessantly about it being about “nothing” (as if to point out that “Mr. Robot” is about “something”), while wannabe buddy Ray (Craig Robinson) is full of the milk of human kindness and has a very friendly dog.
By this point, we – and Elliot – believe that Mr. Robot works on him from within, which means Elliot cannot kill him, only drive him further out of his mind. But “f.society” seems to be existing in the shadows of the real world, likewise E Corp.
In a highly revealing scene, E Corp head Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) goes to Washington in search of a desperately needed bailout from the government (this recalls the 2008 economic crisis – indeed, President Barack Obama is shown on TV screens trying to inspire confidence in the public while admitting to the severity of the situation). Price refuses to quit when treasury bigwigs demand his head, and delivers a scathing monologue about the whole system – the government and its various departments being run based on a false (or so it turns out) premise of “confidence” (based on the Latin “con” – with – and “fide” – trust), with all of it – our lives in the public and digital arena – being a huge con game and conspiracy (from the Latin “con” and “spirare” – breathing together), waged against us for somebody else’s financial gain (think an evil Big Brother-type).
“Mr. Robot” was not picked up by the established Israeli TV providers when it first premiered in the United States in mid-2015. Initially, its debut season was only available in Israel on the relatively new, internet-based Cellcom TV. Its American success – wide exposure, rave reviews, Emmy nominations and other awards – caught the eye of HOT, though. As a result, and just like “Mozart in the Jungle” (whose third season starts soon), it is available now on both HOT and Cellcom TV.
“Mr. Robot” is a black and bleak series, pitting a troubled individual, a dark knight, against an omnipotent entity. It is a flawed David’s fight against a very corrupt Goliath. Given the odds, David’s ability and skill to survive another round is a huge victory for humanity against the “system,” of analog versus digital, of man (or men) against any kind of deity and its never-ending con games, which are never to be taken on trust.
You can’t win, you can’t lose, so the only thing is to try and stay in the game. Which means watching yet another episode and yet another season. Watch it, it’s your life.