Mr. Robot Is Not Your Socialist Hero

Can any show with an extraordinary hero advance egalitarian politics?
By Noah Berlatsky,

Superheroes mostly fight for the status quo. They beat up bank robbers. They catch criminals. They fight side by side with United States security forces. They're billionaire playboys like Bruce Wayne or munitions developers like Tony Stark. They save Richard Nixon in X-Men: Days of Future Past or help the U.S. government discipline an escaped slave in Suicide Squad. Superheroes: They're the capitalist establishment, in long underwear.

Mr. Robot presents an exception. Sam Esmail's critically acclaimed show on USA, now in its third season, isn't usually thought of as being part of the superhero genre, but it fits the tropes nonetheless. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is a phenomenal super-hacker, a loner of extraordinary skill who sets out to save the world. That sounds like a superhero to me.

Elliot isn't fighting bank robbers, though. He's fighting banks. Elliot uses his super hacking powers to fight the evil corporation that gave his father cancer—a corporation he refers to, appropriately enough, as Evil Corp. Elliot often says he's working for the little people, trying to help those who have been stomped by corporate greed and manipulation; he doesn't invoke Karl Marx, but he's got broadly similar commitments. Mr. Robot shows that superheroes can fight the man—sort of. But the contradiction between superheroism and a loose anarcho-socialist anti-capitalism ultimately tears Elliot apart. It also, arguably, undermines the show, which, mired in the middle of its third season, has become increasingly irrelevant.

Socialist superheroes are rare, but they're not unheard of. In fact, the original Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was a New Deal liberal with communitarian socialist leanings, who punched out evil mine owners and fought for a more humane capitalism, before Superman settled into the more centrist, President Dwight Eisenhower-ish hero we know today. Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta comics series and the 2006 film adaptation also feature an anarcho-socialist hero overthrowing a fascist state. But V's extensive campaign of terrorist violence, including rape and murder, leaves him, at the end, teetering on the edge of super-villainy. In order to retain reader sympathy and superheroic status, V has to arrange for his own death; anarcho-socialists can be superheroes, it seems, as long as they are also corpses. Nonetheless, the V mask has become an anarchist icon. Mr. Robot's anti-capitalist demonstrators and hackers wear a thinly disguised version of it throughout the series.

Building on these precedents, the first season of Mr. Robot spun out a stylish but recognizable superhero adventure yarn. Elliot doesn't have a costume, but he does have an iconic haircut. Plus, he is the Most Important Person in the World, and it's up to him to take down Evil Corp. He plans to do this by hacking its computers and destroying its credit records. In doing so, he will free the population from consumer debt, student debt, and every other kind of debt, bringing the capitalist economy to its knees. Elliot is recruited into an organization called "fsociety" for this purpose. The mastermind behind fsociety is the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), a mischievous mentor and father figure who is half-ally, half-super-villain.

The plot of the series becomes increasingly labyrinthine, but the upshot is that Elliot succeeds. Evil Corp's records are destroyed; everyone's debt is erased. Socialism will surely follow! Hooray!

Or maybe not exactly "hooray." Elliot's hack works, but the corporation limps on anyway. In some ways, Evil Corp becomes even more powerful than before, as the world economy reels and the U.S. government starts to crumble. Capitalism staggers, violence spikes, and people are ever more immiserated.

Indeed, Elliot's anarcho-socialist dreams go so badly awry after the first season that you might briefly be tempted to read Mr. Robot as an anti-leftist parable. The most recent episodes even indulge in some fairly explicit antifa-bashing, with lots of images of violent, masked terrorist thugs rampaging through office buildings spreading graffiti and murder.

The show isn't critiquing left goals, though, so much as it's criticizing Elliot's methods. Specifically, Mr. Robot shows that relying on a lone, brilliant hero is not a good model for political change. Elliot wants to sweep away the bad guy using his awesome special powers. He assembles a team to help him, including his sister. But while the team is admirably integrated in terms of race and gender, it's not a socialist collective, much less an anarcho-socialist one. Elliot's vision is The Vision, and everyone else is along for the ride. His revolution has no widespread support—it's not even really a revolution. It's one guy and some friends deciding the fate of the world, and then being shocked when the aftermath isn't democratic.

Again, Mr. Robot's makers are aware of the gap between fsociety's dreams and its capabilities. Elliot is a deeply imperfect hero. He's anxious, shy, and introverted to the point of incapacity. He interacts with people mostly by hacking all their data. He's virtually a parody of the lone, silent vigilante. Like Rorschach from Watchmen before him, Elliot's so isolated and focused on his mission that he can barely function.

The big reveal of the first season is that Elliot has a secret identity. He and the dangerous Mr. Robot are actually the same person. Elliot has dissociative identity disorder, and Mr. Robot is a projection of his dead father. The socialist superhero is actually a solipsistic psychodrama. He's not fighting to transform society; he's just fighting himself.

Ironically, this split in Elliot's consciousness turns him into a more conventional hero. Mr. Robot is working to try to finish off Evil Corp; he's the anarcho-socialist revolutionary, and also, not coincidentally, the bad guy. Elliot, on the other hand, actually goes to work for Evil Corp to try to prevent Mr. Robot and his hacker allies from perpetrating further terrorist attacks. Elliot has literally split in two. One half of him is the superhero, trying to preserve the status quo and protect the bank. The other half is the socialist terrorist trying to bring down capitalism.

Mr. Robot delights in underscoring the futility and stupidity of the isolated super-savior. Most recently, Elliot spends an entire episode struggling to save a building full of people as his Mr. Robot self fights him from the inside, throwing him down stairs and bonking his head into walls. But in the end it's all for nothing. The internal conflict is meaningless; one person doesn't matter that much. In fact, the conviction that one person matters that much, the show suggests, may be the problem.

But while Mr. Robot can be insightful, it's still stuck inside a narrative in which Elliot's adventures, and his internal drama, are the focus. Elliot's approach to changing and saving the world is, the creators point out, ridiculous and pernicious. But the series is nonetheless obsessed with the ways in which Elliot might change, or fail to change, the world. As a result, the series feels increasingly unmoored, the plot revved up again and again to reiterate the message that the plot revving up doesn't matter. Mr. Robot keeps insisting that it's about the evils of capitalism and the grinding pain of injustice, but all it really shows you is Elliot Alderson scurrying from scheme to scheme, with increasingly unmotivated cameos from Slater.

Mr. Robot demonstrates, with some brilliance, that a (male) genius with a plan isn't going to sweep in, from the sky or the Internet, to defeat capitalism and provide us all with a better life. But the show's creators aren't able to imagine any other approach to change. The superhero mask doesn't fit well on socialism. Unfortunately, at the moment, the superhero is the only mask our storytellers seem able to make.

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