Greetings, Mr. Robot. ...How About A Nice Game Of Chess?

WarGames, Green Day, and other allusions from a water-treading fourth episode.

It's already Episode 4, somehow -- and not four regulation-length episodes, either; four super-size chapters -- but it feels as though nothing has happened. Yet again, Mr. Robot thinks letting Leon shine a light on the shifting realities and trippily sluggish plotting is an adequate substitute for 1) picking a reality and 2) shoving its story forward ("if there's no who, then what's the what?"). Or doesn't think it's a substitute, but also doesn't care.

As much as I enjoy sorting through the visual and aural cues and matching up the references, it's past time for the collage of allusions to cohere and move. It's not impossible that Sam Esmail's grand design is to reflect the fundamental hollowness and reflected meaning of 21st-century narrative, that sequels and retweets have replaced authentic thought and action, or something. But I sat through this surface-is-depth pomo lecture 25 years ago in ENG 324, and I'm no more convinced today that the signifier is the significance than I was then. Entertaining, sure. Makes me feel smart and well-read. Doesn't make it consequential, any more than Angela's fake-it-'til-you-make-it power play means she's powerful.

But I'm damn proud of myself for pulling that Green Day song without Googling it, so let's look at the references from last night's Mr. Robot in ascending order of masturbatory irritation caused.

  1. White Rose's mask

    Our first glimpse of her in the ep is accompanied by a VO about masks and true faces. Fortunately, I'm glad enough to see BD Wong and the character again that I could forgive the hand-holding on the identity point. Her asking her attaché/boyf to pick an earring and his selecting "the right one" is too much, however.

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  3. Green Day's "Basket Case"

    It took me a few minutes to realize that I recognized the song playing during Elliot's connections-with-others fantasy sequence; the harp threw me off. I had to pause the episode and sing the one bar I could remember, and wait for the words to come, and that feeling of lost time and information juuuuust out of reach does make a cool parallel with Elliot's struggles to verify his own actions.

    It's awfully on the nose, lyrically -- "Sometimes I give myself the creeps / Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me / It all keeps adding up / I think I'm cracking up / Am I just paranoid? / Or am I just stoned?" Plus the shrink, "everything and nothing all at once," etc. and so on, and all the other references that branch out from Green Day -- American Idiot the album and the play, for one.

  4. Operation Berenstain

    I had never heard of the alternate-timeline "Berensta(e)in" theory until I Googled "berenstain" just now, figuring that the Wikipedia entry would tell me something that explained the use of that particular children's series for an FBI case name. Like the bulk of the references on Mr. Robot, it's about, and is, a mirage; instead of making a statement about parallel universes, or which events in the Robot-verse we can rely on as having actually happened, it settles for making the reference and letting us do the filling in.

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  6. The crossword

    That's a remarkable number of tech/computer-adjacent clues. It also looks like straight-up too many clues for that layout. And let's not forget the reference to Jack Torrance losing his mind in The Shining.

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  8. Place names

    Come on, man. Seconds later, Darlene's told to go to a pub called The Looking Glass. But she doesn't go through it, just has sex in the grotsky bathroom, so once again the allusion is, in the end, to nothing but itself.

    Not that that's the end of it in that scene, as a tender folk version of Neil Young's "Hey Hey My My" is cued up on the soundtrack. The so-called "Godfather of Grunge"'s lyrics, playing in a plaid-papered bar bathroom, were also quoted in Kurt Cobain's suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." The money couplet is probably "There's more to the picture / Than meets the eye."

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  10. The Careful/Discreet Massacre/Charm Of The Bourgeoisie

    The IMDb's description of Buñuel's classic begins, "A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people...." As I've said, tee-hee-ing about your own plotting intransigence doesn't excuse you from trying to come up with some kind of story.

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  12. WarGames

    That guy is named Jordan Gelber. If his casting has any broader interest, it's that he's played MEs and crime-scene techs in SVU and Elementary so often. I pulled the shot because of how much he looks like Maury Chaykin, late of WarGames (the obvious associations) and Turk 182! (Timothy Hutton as pre-internet graffiti "hacker"). Someone really needs to show up in one of those "Crystal Palace, home of the WOPR" shirts and prove that I'm not crazy.

    But the more overt connection between Mr. Robot and WarGames is of course the chess. The film used the inevitable stalemate that comes from playing oneself to underline the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war; here, it's about the "wherever you go, there you are (but you look like Christian Slater so that's weird?)" issue of self and identity Elliot confronts every second. The thing is, we get it. God, do we get it. Opposing forces of black and white: got it. Pawns: GOT IT. Got it, got it, got it. Stop transposing abstractions and dialectics onto hackneyed images that comment on what's happening and have something happen.

  13. The divinity in hearing voices

    Is the argument that Elliot is a prophet? The head of a cult? Both? Because Moses (led his people out of an occupation after he was abandoned as a child), Abraham (obliged to kill his son to show his loyalty to Yahweh), John (lesser-known product of an immaculate conception/virgin birth, later beheaded)...Jesus? That's the biggest of all possible referent game, people. Don't waste bullets firing over their heads, because it didn't go over mine.

For Star Trek Week we wonder:

If Mr. Robot were TNG, who would be its Q?

  • Elliot
  • Mr. Robot
  • Tyrell Wellick
  • Joanna Wellick
  • Darlene
  • White Rose
  • Elliot's mother
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