‘The Death of the Real’ and the Rise of Mr. Robot

In 1981 the postmodern philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard produced his treatise “Simulacra and Simulation,” in which he asserts that “simulacra”—the constant stream of television, advertisements, and visual media that models real people and objects—have replaced our perception of reality, resulting in what he calls “the death of the real.” Proclaiming as well the “death of the social” and the “death of sex,” Baudrillard would repeat his urgent messages about the consequences of passive spectation for the contemporary moment throughout his career. He warned that soon these images would no longer correspond to the real world; in “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities” (1982), he describes a future “hyperreality” where “what had been society has imploded into a hyper-conformist body obsessed so much with spectacle that it would rather watch TV than take political action.”

USA’s “Mr. Robot,” wrapping up its second season this week with the second installment of its two-part finale, invites us into this hyperreal, imploded world of which Baudrillard forewarned us all. The show centers on a group of hackers known as FSociety attempting to overthrow the conglomerate E Corp, which has a stronghold on nearly every industry and, because of a virtual currency akin to BitCoin, the world’s economy. The hackers’ path to setting off a financial meltdown greater than any our world has ever seen begins when the show’s protagonist, Elliot (played by Rami Malek, who won the Emmy this past Sunday for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama), meets an enigmatic man known only as Mr. Robot (executive producer Christian Slater). The real battle in society, the show maintains, now takes place in the virtual. Hackers versus oppressive digital overlords; it is a worn path, certainly. Continuing in a long tradition established by films like “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner,” “Mr. Robot” brings familiar elements of the cyberpunk genre to the small screen, but the creative ways in which it uses those elements establishes it as an original piece of television.

Meet the newest iteration of the cyberpunk, Elliot Alderson: young, skulking, suffering from social anxiety and Asperger’s, and adept at hacking both his friends and the corporations that Allsafe, the company he works for, is hired to protect. As Mr. Robot guides him through the landscape of digital warfare, Elliot acts as our guide to understanding this new reality that looks so much like our own world. His meditations on the perils of our image-saturated society, related via his sardonic and near-constant internal monologue, seem to echo Baudrillard. As he says in a recent episode, “Control can sometimes be an illusion. But sometimes, you need illusion to gain control. Fantasy’s an easy way to give meaning to the world, to cloak our harsh realities in escapist comfort. After all, isn’t that why we surround ourselves with so many screens? So we can avoid seeing? So we can avoid each other. So we can avoid truth.”

Often, these monologues reveal more about the way Elliot thinks than what showrunner Sam Esmail is attempting to convey. Elliot remains just as guilty of avoiding the truth as those he criticizes. He often hallucinates the E in E Corp to stand for Evil, but that is just the beginning. As the show has progressed, we learn that his hallucinations are also our own. He has proven himself in two significant instances as an unreliable narrator. As he often speaks directly to the viewer, it becomes clear that Elliot is not a trustworthy guide of the “simulation” Baudrillard described 35 years ago. On multiple levels, the show calls attention to the prison that visual images have become in the death of the real.

Elliot’s habit of acknowledging the viewer and breaking the fourth wall is just one of the many elements in the show of the postmodern, which has always focused on reinterpreting previous works of art. “Mr. Robot” betrays a near-pathological habit for referencing other visual works including homages to “Fight Club” and “American Psycho,” cinematography that would fit seamlessly in any David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick film. This technique works best when the art has substance as well as style, and “Mr. Robot” attempts to maintain its impressive visuals and, at the same time, say something new. In its second season, the winner of the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Television Series for Drama has grown darker, slower, more mystical. It has lost viewership, but it has certainly not grown complacent in its goal of mirroring our dark world. There is an irony to sitting down every week to watch a show so skeptical of spectacle, but I promise it is a show worth seeing.

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