Redefining Mental Illness in Mr. Robot S2 E4

Being a sucker for dark, well-made prestige TV, I’ve totally fallen for USA’s Mr. Robot. Two aspects the show is famous for accurately portraying is mental illness and hacking. Much as has already been written about these topics (Wired and Reddit cover the hacking aspect; a Youtuber Ryan Hollinger covers the depiction of vulnerability and mental illness), but s2 e4 (‘init_1.asec’) brilliantly explores main character Elliot Alderson’s struggle to fully accept his mental illness.

One could make an argument that Mr. Robot is just as much about mental illness as it is about computer hacking. Episode 4 stands as solid evidence of this, with the hacking tacking a back seat to a realistic and creative depiction of mental illness.

Some context about the show would be helpful here in order to better understand what brought Elliot (played by Rami Malek) to this place (Ridiculously huge but necessary spoilers to follow). Elliot begins s1 by working at a cyber security firm that services the huge E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp), but also works with friend Angela, sister Darlene, and deceased father Edward to hack into E Corp’s networks and cause a giant financial crisis. Along the way, the viewer discovers that Elliot is an unreliable narrator due to his mental illness, which includes blackout fugues and possible schizophrenia.

These issues keep Elliot from remembering that Angela is his sister and that Edward (also referred to as Mr. Robot) died from cancer years ago. Mr. Robot continues as a presence (or figment of Elliot’s imagination) in many scenes, pushing Elliot to continue hacking and to remember who he truly is.

In s2, the aftermath of the E Corp attack leaves people’s credit histories erased. The FBI investigates the hack, closing in on Darlene, Angela, and Elliot. Elliot has since moved in with his mother to isolate himself from the world and to use a daily routine to help him ignore the ever-present Mr. Robot. The show’s hero has sworn off hacking, and used Adderall to stay up for 4 straight days in an effort to cut Mr. Robot out of his life.

In e4, Elliot’s inactivity and disengagement with the world fails to fix his mental or legal problems. Elliot tries playing Mr. Robot in a game of chess in an attempt to beat him and gain control over this part of his mind. But each game ends in a draw, and Elliot can’t seem to cleanse himself of Mr. Robot. The metaphor of playing chess against yourself isn’t new, but it works beautifully here to bring Elliot to the realization that Mr. Robot is an integral part of himself that must be embraced. This revelation leads Elliot to fully accept his illness and begin hacking the FBI to save his sister, his friend, and himself.

I’m a sucker for existential crises in any story, whether it be in prestige TV, novels or non-fiction. I have trouble taking off my Kierkegaard goggles, which pushes me to interpret all sorts of crises in terms of Kierkegaard-ian existentialism. So much of this series explores so many existential ideas: working through one’s identity or identities, wrestling with society’s rules or standards, redefining who you are, embracing an individualistic identity that places you outside of the crowd; taking responsibility for your actions.

What truly moved me in e4 was Elliot’s redefinition of his mental illness from a liability to a necessary part of his identity. Throughout the series, Mr. Robot can be seen in two ways: as a provider of divine guidance and an advisor for Elliot’s future plans; or as a self-destructive force in Elliot’s life, given that Mr. Robot pushed Elliot to perform the E Corp hack. Elliot begins with Mr. Robot as the latter, but ends with him as the former in order to better help him save his sister Darlene.

This transformation reminded me of how so many people suffering from mental illnesses have learned to adjust to living with diseases like depression, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder. Counseling, medication, and lots of trial and error are how some people are able to properly deal with their issues and sometimes gain a degree of normalcy. Some of us are able to redefine our illnesses as just one more aspect of our who we are.

My own struggles with depression were luckily never too extreme, though it did take counseling, journaling, talking with friends, and recognizing my triggers and instigating situations. One of those situations is me feeling like I can’t truly express myself for whatever reason (hence one possible motivation for blogging).

Elliot’s redefinition/acceptance/utilization of his mental disease enables him to move past his seemingly futile fight against Mr. Robot. This embracing also seems to demonstrate some existential agency. Elliot’s earlier struggle with the results of the E Corp hack could be viewed as him being shocked by the consequences of the worldview that he created in s1 (specifically, that erasing credit histories and taking down ‘Evil’ Corp was a good thing).

I read his taking action and his reengaging with the world as Elliot accepting the consequences for his earlier actions. I also read the decision to utilize Mr. Robot to help save his friends as proactively taking steps to adjust to life with a mental illness.

Elliot’s journey through mental illness is fascinating and relatable in so many ways. I’ve still got a few episodes of s2 to go, and I’m excited to keep following this unreliable narrator wherever he goes, even in s3, which begins in October.

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