Media, Mental Illness, and MR. ROBOT
There is perhaps no show on earth (save perhaps the UK’s BLACK MIRROR) that offers more insight into our modern world than MR. ROBOT. It takes on hacking, debt, and corporate oligarchy with a zeal that borders on insanity. But, ironically enough, it is precisely insanity that makes this show one of the most important pieces of media on air today. So for now, we’ll leave the complexities of Evil Corp and the show’s breathtaking cinematography at the door, and focus on MR. ROBOT’s honest, in-depth look at mental illness. Be warned, here thar be SPOILERS.
The hoodie manifests his inner turmoil
Mental illness is made one of the show’s focal points right from the opening sequence. Our very first interaction with the show’s protagonist, Elliot Alderson, is of him talking over a black screen to an “imaginary friend,” the imaginary friend being us. Following this is a scene on the train where black-suited figures follow Elliot at a distance. After that, in a coffee shop, Elliot hacks a child pornographer IRL in order to, as he puts it, “work on his social anxiety.” And thus, in the span of about two and a half minutes, we’re introduced to at least three of Elliot’s mental health conditions before the main storyline even unfolds.
He’s seen footage
Aside from his social anxiety, Elliot possesses a veritable cocktail of mental health issues, including but not limited to: an addictive personality, depression, schizophrenia, and (MAJOR SPOILER) disassociative identity disorder. It’s only in the last few episodes that Elliot’s DID is revealed as a major plot point, when the mysterious Mr. Robot is shown to actually be a split personality of Elliot’s, taking the physical form of his father. Dealing with all of these illnesses is a central point of Elliot’s character arc, as they are all connected to his need for closure concerning his father’s death. Over the course of the season, these interconnected afflictions get progressively worse, leading up to the bombastic hallucinogenic hyper-trip that serves as the finale’s climax.
Who woulda thunk you’d still be seeing Christian Slater in 2015???
Far too often, modern media either stigmatizes or romanticizes mental illness. Mr. Robot does neither, treating Elliot’s conditions with finesse and nuance throughout the show. We see the parts of mental illness that are often uncomfortable to talk about. The first and most obvious is Elliot’s self-destructive behavior. While some of it can be contributed to his delusions, such as when he pushes himself out of a window thinking he sees his father, not all of it can. Elliot deliberately sabotages himself at almost every turn. He self-medicates with morphine and suboxone, convincing himself he has his life under control. As a result, the relationships closest to him dissolve as he conceals the severity of his issues. His therapist Christa is the first to go, followed by his childhood friend Angela, and even his sister Darlene to some extent. The loneliness Elliot feels from losing these relationships causes him to give in fully to his delusions in the finale, seeing them as his only friends…even if they aren’t real.
S A D B O Y
Yet, despite these challenges, Elliot is shown to be both capable and multi-dimensional. By shattering harmful stereotypes for the mentally ill, we get to know Elliot as a person, rather than the sum of his dysfunctional parts. Elliot has his own apartment, takes good care of a pet, and excels in his respective career field. He has a steady job, and puts enough money on the table to live a comfortable life. He’s not just “Elliot the Socially Awkward-Depressive-Schizophrenic-Morphine-Junkie;” he’s Elliot Alderson, cyber-security analyst, son, best friend, boyfriend, and leader of a revolutionary hacker group. Not since A BEAUTIFUL MIND has a cinematic piece taken this refreshing approach. And on television? It’s practically singular.
When we get depressed, we can barely do our laundry; Elliot took down a multinational conglomerate
MR. ROBOT is nothing if not timely. It covers everything from the Ashley Madison hack, to a broken stock market built on lies, to student loan debt, to the ironic disconnectedness of our social-media infused modern world. The show also comes at a point in our history where mental illness rates, and usage of the medications that treat them, are at an all-time high. Approximately 43.7 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year (according to the National Institute for Mental Health). That’s about one in five. We can no longer be expected to ignore an issue that now affects almost twenty percent of our population.
Is it appropriate to reference Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”?
It’s rare enough to see a multifaceted, mentally ill character on television. It’s almost unheard of to see it in a protagonist. But this is a very different cable landscape than it was ten years ago. The children of the 90s, original beta testers of Adderall and Lexapro, ball-bearers of a broken healthcare system and economy, have all grown up now. And we’re pissed. We’re looking for media that resonates with us as opposed to sedating us. This is why Mr. Robot has become such a cultural phenomenon. A hero who is accessible leads this revolution, rather than the Adonis-like superheroes pushed out by the mainstream. Elliot Alderson, in all his social awkwardness and computer savvy, is this generation’s Tyler Durden. He speaks in a language that we understand, promoting ideas that we can all relate to. Even though he may be crazy, we all just happen to be crazy enough to go along for the ride.
MR. ROBOT just finished its first season on USA Network.