How does our thirst for revolution change when we see it on-screen? A journey into the theology of Mr. Robot.
The poet Gil Scott-Heron, an icon of the late ’60s and early ‘70s Black empowerment movement, turned a popular resistance slogan into an epic poem, and then later, a hit R&B anthem entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
This slogan caught fire because of its implicit critique of television as a tool to mollify and distract the masses, many of whom had adopted the nihilistic, passive stance popularized by 1960s counterculture icons Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan, who adopted the slogan “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
In many ways, Scott-Heron’s slogan was a precursor of the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, especially the concept of being “woke.” Since “the revolution will not be televised,” Scott-Heron implored those dedicated to the cause to remain vigilant and observant, because the path for social change would not be delivered in an easily digestible, consumer-friendly format.
However, the USA Network has done what seemed impossible:
Mr. Robot is the story of a digital security engineer named Elliot Alderson recruited by the titular character to join a shadowy network of activists called #FSociety. This group is bent on destroying the underpinnings of capitalism by hacking the largest multinational bank in existence and erasing its records.
And though the story is fictional, creator Sam Esmail and his writing staff have taken pains to ground the series in a thick layer of realism. Not only is the show known for having an incredibly realistic portrayal of hacks and hacker culture, but it references real events, movements, and politicians, including the Occupy Wall Street movement, the hacker collective Anonymous, and fictionalized versions of President Obama and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. It’s like watching a thrilling documentary in real-time of a plucky band of misfits trying to take down The Man.
And yet, that’s only half the story.
The other half is about Elliot (Emmy-winner Rami Malek) and his internal struggle with paranoia and mental instability, especially as it relates to the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who is revealed at the end of season 1 to be…
[SPOILER ALERT!] … a mental projection of Elliot’s deceased father, evidence of lingering dissociative identity disorder because of a combination of grief, loneliness, and a hunger for revenge. [SPOILER OVER.]
As things spin out of control for the members of FSociety and the shadowy web of enemies and co-conspirators that surround them, viewers can sense the major impact those events are having, not only on the news cycle, but on their very souls.
Thus, if Mr. Robot functions as a sort of leftist revolutionary wish-fulfillment for what it means to start a revolution, the implicit message from creator Sam Esmail might be, “Be careful what you wish for.”
If anything is immediately clear about Elliot, from the pilot episode all the way through the season 2 finale, it’s that Elliot has a problem trusting people. His default mechanism for getting to know someone is to hack their accounts and read up on all their personal details. He doesn’t trust people to tell the truth, especially not to his face. So much of Mr. Robot consists of Elliot having a conversation with another character, and simultaneously chatting with the audience, via voiceover, about whether the thing they said is true or not.
Which highlights a unique narrative format: whereas some shows break the fourth wall, Mr. Robot operates entirely without it. In Elliot’s mind, the audience is just another imaginary friend, a premise established in the pilot, entitled—as a filename—“eps1.0_hellofriend.mov.”
Elliot doesn’t trust his friends, but he doesn’t trust himself either. As he learns more and more about Mr. Robot and the extent to which their destinies are tied together, Elliot is less and less sure about what he is seeing and experiencing, especially since he intentionally uses drugs at various junctures in an attempt to manipulate his perception of reality.
And he’s especially distrustful of institutions, organized religion in particular. In an epic TV-MA-rated rant from early in season 2, he releases every bit of repressed, cynical rage he’s felt about the injustice in the world, squarely blaming God as being another fraudulent figment of mankind’s collective imagination, jeering at one point, “I don’t believe my own imaginary friend, why…should I believe yours?”
Two seasons in, Elliot can’t trust his friends, his job, any kind of authority, or even his own grip on reality. Living with that kind of burdensome distrust takes a toll, causing him to constantly second-guess the motives and decisions of everyone around him, including himself. After the conclusion of season 2, it’s fair to say Elliot’s #FSociety exploits have cost more than he wanted to pay and taken him further than he wanted to go.
Because Mr. Robot is fixated upon Elliot, it’s easy to imagine the show’s worldview echoes his own. But given his intentional unreliability as a narrator, I don’t quite think that’s true. I believe that since all truth comes from God, every piece of art containing truth can, to one extent or another, be traced back to biblical truth—and this show is no exception. Mr. Robot communicates some important truths about reality, society, and yes, about God, even if those truths weren’t intentional on the part of Sam Esmail.
Ironically, for a show called Mr. Robot, what sets it apart from the pack is its intense, unflinching humanity. Elliot Alderson is alternately endearing and alienating as he struggles to find himself and discover the truth behind the enigmatic “Mr. Robot” and the #FSociety activist mission. You might say that, with every new nugget of information or revelation, Elliot is at war, not only with outside factions, but with himself.
In this regard, Elliot reminds me of two major New Testament characters—Paul and Peter.
Elliot is like Paul in that, when we meet him, he’s about to reverse course in dramatic fashion. Our first biblical introduction to Paul is when he was known as Saul, a Jewish scholar who was known for persecuting followers of Jesus. Following an encounter with God, he is temporarily blinded, and led on a journey where, in time, he would repudiate everything he thought he knew about being Jewish and knowing God.
Similarly, when we first meet Elliot, he is working for the security firm Allsafe, which exists to protect the proprietary secrets of E Corp, an entity Elliot refers to as “Evil Corp.” But after meeting Mr. Robot, he is whisked into a conspiracy to take E Corp down, a mission decidedly at odds with his role as an official security consultant and coder.
As the show progresses, we can see Elliot continually at odds with himself as he tries to keep a grip on reality—almost as if he’s torn between his true identity. Initially, as an audience, you begin to see his identity in #FSociety as a mask he wears to cover up the secrecy of his intentions. But then, at a certain point, you begin to wonder… maybe this is the real Elliot, and the day-job version is the mask.
This mirrors some of Paul’s writing in Romans 7, where he draws a distinction between the divine urgings that lead him toward righteousness and the sinful nature that keeps trying to do its own thing.
Elliot also reminds me of Peter. What’s fascinating about Peter is the big difference between his appearances in the Gospel narratives and his letters as an apostle. In the former, we see him as a hothead, slicing off ears, misunderstanding what Jesus was doing, and putting his foot in his mouth. But after years of ministry and leadership, he’s matured. The same guy who was ready to fight authority as a young man, says this to exiled believers:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
This is a hard word to share with someone who has been laboring to overthrow the system!
But part of what I hear in the contrast between older, mature Peter and younger, passionate, they-won’t-take-me-alive Peter is his great care for justice and righteousness. The difference is he sees the danger in using evil to fight evil, particularly in the way it has the potential to discredit the good work you’re attempting to do.
First, because Peter was a disciple of Jesus, he knew Jesus came not to abolish the Old Testament laws and prophets, but to fulfill them. Peter knew one of the main refrains from the prophets was the lack of attention to justice for the poor. He also knew part of the system of Jewish law was a sort of Sabbath-of-sabbaths, where after seven cycles of seven years each, there would be a resetting of debt and land ownership in the nation of Israel, known as the year of Jubilee. At this point, all debts would be forgiven and all land ownership would be restored to a default configuration of everyone having their fair share.
So in a way, Peter understood the need for economic revolution. But I think Peter also understood the need for vigilantes to be tempered by a loving community, so the burden of justice wouldn’t rest on a few radical outsiders, but would instead be supported by a system of law and order accounting for the needs of the marginalized, the downtrodden, and the foreigner.
And more than that, I think Peter would’ve understood a part of what drove Elliot to assemble the #FSociety crew was as a way to alleviate the crushing sense of loneliness and betrayal building since his childhood. And again, Peter could relate—he had his own crushing sense of disillusionment that caused him to deny ever having been involved with Jesus, even when it was obvious he was lying.
In Mr. Robot, Elliot’s motivation for his activism is to become the person he’s always wanted to be, and to make up for the inadequacy he’s felt from his past relationships. Which means, from my vantage point, what Elliot needs most is to receive the gospel truth that God loves him exactly the way he is, and to be engaged in a community of people who worship God and, as an extension of that devotion, choose to organize and advocate on behalf of the oppressed.