In this concluding post on Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, a critical evaluation of the series’ final scenes as well as its wider cultural, political and ideological importance will be provided. In accordance with previous posts, this analysis will draw from the work of Todd McGowan in order to provide a final precis on the significance of the gaze as used in the series. Towards the end of this discussion, attention will be given to expanding upon the series’ conclusions in light of similar narrative formats, such as, Todd Phillips’s, Joker (2019).
As a preface to this analysis, two scenes from the final episode of season 4 (‘Hello Elliot’) are under consideration: 1) a scene between Elliot and his therapist, Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben); and, 2) the series’ final scene.
‘I think it’s time’
In episode 12 (‘whoami’), we follow Elliot as he suddenly awakens in an abandoned lot, following the destruction of Whiterose’s ‘machine’. The abandoned lot is situated in Elliot’s hometown, from where we soon realise that Elliot has been transported to some form of alternative universe. In this universe, we learn that an alternate Elliot (played by Rami Malek) is set to marry his childhood friend, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday). Angela was previously killed at the start of season 4. Episode 12 culminates in Elliot accidentally killing his alternate double.
At the start of Episode 13, ‘our’ Elliot travels to Coney Island where he intends to marry Angela (thus, taking the place of the ‘alternate Elliot’). However, upon arriving at Coney Island he is confronted by Mr. Robot, who informs him that he remains trapped in a fantasy created by himself. Upon hearing this, Elliot wakes up in the office of his therapist, Krista. Remaining within the fantasy created by Elliot, it is at this point that the above scene begins.
As we learn from Krista, it becomes clear that Elliot has created ‘five’ personas. The first, is ‘The Father’, aka Mr. Robot; the second, ‘The Mother’; and, the third, Elliot’s ‘younger self’. Yet, it is the second two which prove significant.
Upon hearing of the first three, Elliot looks straight at the camera and states: ‘I guess she doesn’t know about you’ (here, the ‘you’ directly reference ‘us’, the audience who has followed Elliot’s internal diegetic throughout the past four seasons). The shot cuts to Krista, who looks at the camera, before stating: ‘I know all about them too’. She continues, with a wry smile: ‘…the voyeurs who think they aren’t a part of this, despite being here for all of it’. As she says these lines, we are shown various clips of Elliot’s misdemeanors and subtle glances at the camera, each emphasizing our ‘voyeurism’ over the past four seasons. And, there’s more.
Krista explains that there’s a fifth persona. Despite Elliot’s refusal to listen, Krista states: ‘The truth about who you are? I think it’s time’. Again, Krista looks directly at the camera, acknowledging ‘us’: ‘Even they agree with me’. We are informed that the fifth persona is ‘The Mastermind’; a persona grounded in Elliot’s anger and, as we realise, the Elliot we have been watching for the past four seasons. We learn that it is The Mastermind who has kept the ‘real’ Elliot trapped (referred to as ‘the other one’).
What remains significant in this scene is the way in which it allows us to approach the gaze. As previously noted:
In Lacan’s conception of desire, the gaze is not the vehicle through which the subject masters the object but a point in the Other that resists the mastery of vision. It is a blank spot in the subject’s look, a blank spot that threatens the subject’s sense of mastery in looking because the subject cannot see it directly or successfully integrate it into the rest of its visual field. … The gaze of the object includes the subject in what the subject sees, but this gaze is not present in the field of the visible (McGowan, 2007: 11).
It is clear from episodes 12 and 13 that the fantasy created by The Mastermind is one in which all of Elliot’s problems are resolved. He has a loving family; a good job; he has a social life; and, more importantly, he intends to marry Angela. Crucially, it is in the fantasy created by The Mastermind that ‘we’ – the spectators – experience the gaze. We are, just like The Mastermind, implicated in the fantasy; we are, in effect, located in the same position as The Mastermind, with the gaze exposing our own involvement: our role as the ‘voyeurs’ who have been following The Mastermind over the course of each season. As a result, ‘when we encounter the gaze while caught up in a filmic fantasy, we find ourselves fully exposed on the screen, materialized in the form of the gaze’ (McGowan, 2007: 199). Here, the distance between ‘us’ and the text dissolves and, as per Krista’s acknowledgment, our implication becomes ‘fully exposed’ in the text itself. In effect, this exposure reveals the duality of our position; as both spectator(s) and character (i.e. ‘The Friend’ persona).
Though not obviously part of the Mr. Robot universe, the encounter with the gaze is one that bears witness to the fact that our ‘real’ experiences of ‘reality’ are always shaped through the distortion of the gaze, which itself remains invisible, or, at least, taken for granted. While we have been subject to The Mastermind’s internal diegetic throughout each season, and, though other personas were able to acknowledge ‘us’, this is the first time that the series has, within its narrative content, explicitly acknowledged ‘us’ in its formal narrative structure (see ‘Part Two’). ‘We’ are one of the personas that Elliot has created and, thus, our position as spectators is radically relocated in the text’s formal construction. In this scene, such in-visibility is dramatically brought to bear, with Krista’s ‘voyeurs’ reference bestowing a reflection on our own role as spectators who have literally watched Elliot/The Mastermind for the past four seasons. Here, the series’ final scene helps to underscore this significance.
‘…this would be a black void’
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As The Mastermind refuses to let Elliot go, the destruction of the fantasy dissolves and we are left with an ‘Elliot’ laying in a hospital bed. After the explosion at the Power Plant in episode 12, Elliot was subsequently found and taken to hospital. Darlene is in the room with Elliot and, thankfully, we learn that the past four seasons have not been a ‘dream’. Darlene explains to Elliot that everything that happened, happened. In addition, she explains that she has always known that there is a different side to him – the one we now know as The Mastermind. It is during this discussion that we realise that Darlene and ‘us’ are still with The Mastermind persona (notably, we are still watching ‘Rami Malek’). Darlene leaves the room and The Mastermind enters some form of fantasy-space. This is where the above scene begins.
The relative uniqueness of this scene is one grounded in The Mastermind’s internal diegetic; a narrativization which remains directed at ‘us’ – ‘The Friend’. Yet, in view of the previous scene with Krista, it is clear that this voice has never been Elliot’s, but, rather, The Mastermind’s. Before The Mastermind confronts us directly, he speaks to Mr. Robot: ‘You told me once that this would be a black void, absolute nothingness. Is that true?’ The significance of this line is that it bears reference to the void which has remained implicit within the formal structure of the series. As noted in Part Two, the formal significance of Mr. Robot, as both a theoretical and dramatic piece, can be observed in those moments where its ‘content’ is dialectically rendered in its ‘form’ (Žižek, 1989). Through its use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound; its breaking of the fourth wall; and, its direct inclusion of ‘us’ in the narrative content, we are provided an insight into the significance of this void, which the show now reveals.
As the camera pans round to face The Mastermind directly, the internal diegetic provides the following:
What if changing the world was just about being here? … Even though we’ll be gone, it’s like Mr. Robot said. We’ll always be a part of Elliot Alderson. And we’ll be the best part, because we’re the part that always showed up. We’re the part that stayed.
There is, perhaps, another subtle instance of our inclusion in these lines, one that may be coming from Esmail himself. ‘The part that showed up’, indeed, ‘the part that stayed’ – it seems like Esmail is, in a way, thanking his audience. The narrative significance of this, however, is that it constitutes the scene’s formal logic. As The Mastermind comes to terms with the fact that he must ‘leave’ Elliot, it is our own implication in the series’ which means that we too are leaving Elliot. In other words, our own relation to the conclusion of the series is one that is accounted for in the formal structure of the scene itself.
The relinquishing of our ‘involvement’ in the series is effectively rendered via the ‘void’ it creates, not just in the fact that, after the end of this scene, we reach the literal end of the series, but that this ‘void’ proves integral to Elliot’s own subjectivity. This is achieved via the use of the camera as it enters the cinema’s projector, whereupon we are hit with the bright light from the projector’s bulb; a light which reveals the visibility of our spectatorship. As we watch images of Elliot’s life flash-by, we are eventually left with a tracking shot which backs away from Elliot’s eye. The shot bears a notable resemblance to McGowan’s (2007) analysis of Andrei Tarkovksy’s Solaris (1972) and Nostalghia (1983). Indeed, McGowan (2007) notes how Tarkovksy’s films reveal ‘the distinctiveness of the experiences of desire and fantasy’ (2007: 184). In much the same way that Elliot’s ‘fantasy scenario’ serves to reveal his desire, McGowan (2007) highlights how:
[The …] idea of progress – hope for a different future – represents a fantasmatic seduction that the subject rarely escapes. By helping the subject to disentangle itself from this fantasy, Tarkovksy’s cinema confronts the subject with the inescapability of its object, and it offers the subject the possibility of identifying with this object and thereby accepting its own mode of enjoyment rather than imagining that the ultimate enjoyment is elsewhere. This is an existential recognition that the unique structure of the cinema of intersection renders possible. (McGowan, 2007: 184).
This ‘existential recognition’ is brought to light by our own unique place in this scene. No longer in the role of ‘The Friend’, our ‘leaving’ of Elliot is transposed via our travel through the projector, where we are left with an extreme close-up of Elliot’s eye, before cutting to a shot of Darlene, presented from Elliot’s POV. In doing so, we are left occupying the void – ‘an existential recognition’ – which The Mastermind previously noted (‘You told me once that this would be a black void’). We are, in effect, left with no peaceful co-existence, but, in the emergence of Elliot’s subjectivity, formally expelled from any further relation (Hook and Neill, 2010). By coming to terms with his various personas, and, as evident in our own expulsion to the void, Elliot is subsequently ‘free’ from subjectivization. Here, ‘the subject is correlative to its own limit, to the element which cannot be subjectivized, it is the name of the void which cannot be filled out with subjectivization’ (Žižek, 2006: 242).
It is here that ‘the subject’ – in this case, ‘Elliot’ – ‘emerges at the very moment when the individual loses its support in the network of tradition’ (Žižek, 2003: 42, italics removed). Indeed, we have never seen the ‘real’ Elliot, who has, at the mercy of The Mastermind, been kept hidden, trapped by his anger. Much like Elliot, it is this ignorance which bears witness to his own emergence as a subject; a subject that can now emerge in accordance with the abandonment of his subjectivization (his various personas – including ‘us’).
Ultimately, we have always been the void in the formal structure of Mr. Robot; acknowledged by The Mastermind, but never directly incorporated into the content of the series… until now. To finish this realization, we can observe some notable differences between the conclusion of Mr. Robot and Joker.
Mr. Robot and Joker; Desire and Drive
If we return to McGowan’s (2007) use of the gaze in film analysis, then the following must be remembered:
The gaze is a blank point – a point that disrupts the flow and the sense of the experience – within the aesthetic structure of the film, and it is the point at which the spectator is obliquely included in the film. This conception of the gaze entails a different conception of desire than the one that has predominated in early Lacanian film theory. As the indication of the spectator’s dissolution, the gaze cannot offer the spectator anything resembling mastery. (McGowan, 2007: 8)
First, our own inclusion in the Mr. Robot narrative is one rendered explicitly via our formal inclusion in the text’s content: we are a persona that can only be recognised through the text’s form – its breaking of the fourth wall. As the impossible object, our gaze can never be fully included into the series, as evident by the obvious fact that we remain spectators, but also, more importantly, by the sense that our ‘included-exclusion’ is one predicated on Elliot’s own subjectivity. In other words, in order for Elliot to be ‘free’, we must exclude ourselves from the series; an exclusion that is rendered explicit in its literal conclusion and the end of our voyeurism. Second, we, in a rather unique way, achieve no mastery at the conclusion of the series. We never knew, nor did we ever watch the ‘real’ Elliot. Moreover, we remain exempted from this realization of the ‘real’ Elliot via the use of the POV at the scene’s end. As argued above, our lack of mastery renders clear Elliot’s own freedom from subjectivization.
To this end, the conclusion to Mr. Robot bears a certain resemblance to the conclusion that is provided at the end of Joker; yet, it is a conclusion which is reached via a different path. To help explain this difference, we can draw upon Lacan’s distinction between desire and drive and how, in the work of both Žižek (1992, 2003) and McGowan (2007, 2011), these terms are effectively revealed in film and television. With regard to drive in Joker, Žižek (2019) notes:
Drive is compulsively-repetitive; in it, we are caught in the loop of turning again and again around the same point, while desire enacts a cut, opening up a new dimension. Joker remains a being of drive: at the film’s end, he is powerless, and his violent outbursts are just impotent explosions of rage, actings-out of his basic powerlessness. (2019)
According to Žižek (2019), it is Joker’s reflection of drive which endows Phillip’s film an important significance. Joker is not the leader of some clearly delineated desire, supported by a clearly organised political movement, heralding a new society grounded in equality – but, rather, the first step: the destruction of the current socio-symbolic order itself, which is enacted in his powerless violent outbursts. Yet, Žižek (2019) asks, ‘is there also an immanent political necessity in the self-destructive stance embodied by Joker?’ (2019). He concludes:
one has to go through the self-destructive zero-level for which Joker stands. Not actually, but one has to experience it as a threat, as a possibility. Only in this way can one break out of the coordinates of the existing system and envisage something really new. Joker’s stance is a blind alley, a total deadlock, superfluous and non-productive, but the paradox is that one has to go through it to perceive its superfluous character. There is no direct way from the existing misery to its constructive overcoming. (Žižek, 2019).
If we consider Žižek’s (2019) conclusion to Joker in accordance with our own relation to/with the gaze in Mr. Robot; then, our ‘included-exclusion’ reveals a certain level of ‘self-destructive’ freedom for both Elliot and ‘us’, the audience. Indeed, as McGowan (2007) asserts:
Our ability to contest an ideological structure depends on our ability to recognize the real point at which it breaks down, the point at which the void that ideology conceals manifests itself. Every authentic political act has its origins in an encounter with the real. This is not to say that the encounter with the traumatic real is magical. It simply opens up the possibility of freedom for the subject, which the subject must constantly work to sustain. (McGowan, 2007: 17, italics added)
Contrasting with Joker’s drive, Mr. Robot reveals a transference to desire through the object of desire – an inherent absence, which can never be achieved. It is this absence which proves integral to both Elliot and ourselves. Much like the ‘absence’ of Elliot at the end of the series, we too are left with the absence of the show itself. While refraining from the self-destructiveness of Joker, Elliot’s own self-destruction is one that is echoed in the formal destruction of ‘us’, as both spectators and as the persona, ‘The Friend’. Accordingly, whereas for Žižek (2019) ‘the elegance of Joker resides in how the crucial move from a self-destructive drive to a “new desire” … for an emancipatory political project is absent from the film’s storyline: we, the spectators, are asked to fill in this absence’ (Žižek, 2019); in Mr. Robot, we are this absence: an absence marked by the far more frightening and far more difficult freedom in ‘being’ (‘…just about being here’). Despite the failures of the second season; despite never knowing what exactly constituted Whiterose’s machine; and, in spite of us never really knowing the ‘real’ Elliot, Mr. Robot succeeds in laying bare the absence at the heart of the subject – one that remains free to pursue its own revolution.
Jack Black is a Senior Lecturer examining the interrelationships between sociology, media and communications and cultural studies. Drawing upon ‘traditional’ media forms (newspaper analysis) as well as television and film studies, Jack has examined a range of topics including nationalism/national identity; multiculturalism; and, collective memory. With particular attention afforded to the relationship between philosophy and critical social theory, this research expands upon the effects of ideology and power on culture and media representations.
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