“It’s no secret our world is in darkness tonight.” I heard those U2 lyrics for the first time in late 1991, Bono singing them in a static monotone over driving bass, howling guitar, and a frenetic beat. We had ample reason to believe him. The first Gulf War ended a few months before, the Soviet Union crumbled from within, and LA police officers beat Rodney King for the world to see. IRA bombs exploded in downtown London, and a lunatic with a grudge and two handguns killed 23 people at a Texas diner. I’d just finished college and was teaching fifth graders about medieval England, struggling to pay my bills, wondering where I’d find the cash to buy a ring and convince my girlfriend to marry me. Things felt precarious and unsettled, aided in no small way by the first airing of Barney and Friends in early ’92, a sure sign of societal chaos.
Twenty five years later, things are no less precarious. The news is a steady swirl of war, upheaval, financial meltdowns and Caillou reruns. We careen from one disaster to another, often from our own hands. Our institutions and leaders struggle to feed our fix for immediate answers, and we’ve lost the collective patience to trust anyone who doesn’t watch our Snapchat stories within the hour. Spend enough time watching TV or pecking at your phone, and you’d think the darkness Bono sang about over two decades ago is deeper, inkier and scarier than we’d feared.
Then along comes an artistic expression to capture this mood and reflect it back like a funhouse mirror of our collective neuroses. Mr. Robot, a TV show like no other, hits our basic cable screens next week with its second season. Season One was a ten-episode force of nature, taking a slice of that darkness and dissecting it through the eyes of Elliot Anderson, a troubled, drug-addicted IT worker in Manhattan who spends days working on cybersecurity and nights hacking into people’s lives in a twisted effort to make sense of his own. He knows more about his therapist than she does and keeps secret tabs on his childhood friend and co-worker, knowing her boyfriend’s a lout, and a gullible one at that, well before she draws the same conclusion. (Note to self – always cover up your laptop camera . . .)
Elliot, played by Rami Malek (with the most expressive cinematic eyes since Marty Feldman), stumbles into a hacker collective, hidden away in an abandoned arcade in Coney Island, whose mission is to bring down the mega-bank E Corp, a symbol of all that is amiss in corporate America. Led by an anarchistic enigma in the titular role, Mr. Robot, (played by Christian Slater, in an award-winning effort) pushes Elliot to open his eyes to the mess all around him, soliloquizing about the miserable state of society as he munches on free popcorn, manipulating his hackers into halting the gears of American finance by pulling an intricate series of intertwining, morally ambiguous levers.
As Elliot begins questioning his grasp on reality, his newfound mentor thrusts the doubt back in his face, saying, “Is any of it real? I mean, look at this. Look at it! A world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the form of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertising. Mind-altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media. Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. . . You have to dig pretty deep before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bulls**t. A kingdom you've lived in for far too long.” The show is filled with poetic ruminations on the world around us, and as Elliot slips deeper into the darkness, I found myself hanging on every moment of each episode as they crescendoed into a riveting ending.
Elliot’s world is in darkness, and he doesn’t embrace it as much as he seeks survival, fighting his own monsters along with the corporate demons of greed, ambition and soulless profit. Mr. Robot is not a whimsical, laugh-track wild ride about crazy nerds and their kooky lives – it gives us one man’s desire to make sense by taking action to bring about change, regardless of the consequences.
That song from 1991 – U2’s “The Fly,” ends with the line, “There's a lot of things if I could, I'd rearrange.” In Mr. Robot, Elliot’s fitful, tortured desire to rearrange society into a different reality is not complete at the end of Season One, leaving him and us demanding a torch to cut through the darkness. Season Two holds that promise, and I cannot wait to see how bright the torch burns.