Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mr. Robot: Did Elliot Wipe His Memory to Forget Mr. Robot?

Yesterday, I posted the theory that Elliot's father brainwashed him, programming the boy to be a weapon that would avenge dad's death by bringing down Evil Corp. If I'm right, this makes Mr. Robot -- not Evil Corp. or even Tyrell Wellick -- the true antagonist on the show.

And that raises an interesting possibility. What if Elliot wiped his memory to forget Mr. Robot?

The hints are all there:

The fact Dream Angela says he was born only a month ago....

The fact Darlene asks him if he forgot again...

The fact Elliot finds the pictures of his father among the trophies he places in the CD case after every wipe...

Maybe Mr. Robot is a malicious hack that Elliot just can't fix no matter how many wipes he performs.

Like Teddy in Memento, another film about a protagonist with memory loss... don't believe his lies.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mr. Robot: Was Elliot Brainwashed?

If you haven’t watched "eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v" of Mr. Robot, stop reading now because there will be SPOILERS. And trust me... you don’t want to spoiled for this one.

The most recent episode dropped several bombshell revelations so big I haven’t been that stunned since LOST. It’s fitting, therefore, that one of my favorite LOST theories may just explain not only what’s happening on the show, but why it’s titled Mr. Robot in the first place.

To recap briefly, we learned that Darlene is Elliot’s sister and Mr. Robot was their dad. We also learned that Elliot periodically forgets they're family.

Many take this as confirmation of the theory that Elliot has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and that Mr. Robot is one of his alternate identities. When Mr. Robot interacts with other people, in other words, it’s actually always Elliot.

The problem with this explanation is that Elliot and Mr. Robot have conversations with each other. Alternate identities don’t typically interact in people with DID. This has led some to suggest Elliot has schizophrenia and that Mr. Robot is his hallucination. Yet this explanation has the same problem in reverse. Contrary to what you see in movies and television, schizophrenics don’t have multiple personalities.

But what if Elliot has both schizophrenia and DID -- or even some hybrid condition such that he has other personalities and can interact with them?

I want to stress that what follows is pseudo-science. Real psychology says that DID and schizophrenia are two completely different disorders with no relationship whatsoever. 

Still, it’s interesting pseudo-science. The kind that blows your mind as a college undergraduate and sticks with you when you become a writer like Sam Esmail. It also fits perfectly with the conspiracy theories I could see informing the show’s paranoid outlook.

Basically, as the title of this post suggests, I think Elliot was brainwashed by someone Manchurian Candidate style, resulting in his current fractured and psychotic mental state. I'll get to who did the brainwashing and why in a bit. But first, some background.

The Bicameral Mind
In the 1970s, a psychologist named Julian Jaynes wrote a popular but controversial book, titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).

In it, Jaynes argued that ancient humans were not conscious in the way we are now. Until roughly 1000 BC, human minds were instead characterized by a “bicameral” or divided state he likens to modern schizophrenia. As a result of this split between right and left brains, people literally heard voices that would later evolve into internal dialogues in “unicameral” minds like ours.

As with modern schizophrenics, moreover, these voices were irresistible to pre-conscious humans, quite literally the source of their will:
[E]ach person had a part of his nervous system that was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were what we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy.
Jaynes even speculates that such hallucinations were the origin of religion. People heard the voice of their king after he died, and continued to worship and obey him as if he were alive. Eventually, this dynamic created full-fledged gods, whom regular people heard and obeyed like slaves. As proof, he provides close readings of the Iliad and the oldest parts of the Old Testament and Epic of Gilgamesh.

Jaynes claims that all this came to an abrupt end around 1000 BC, when religious texts from around the globe lament, in eerie unison, the departure of the gods. He argues this was when modern consciousness really began. The divine "departure" was not metaphorical -- people literally stopped hearing the voices of their "gods" as unicameral consciousness emerged.

Pretty crazy, eh? Keep reading, because it only gets crazier...

Starting in the 1950s, and continuing through the 1970s, the CIA conducted an illegal program of experiments on human subjects to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in mind control. The program was code named “Project MKULTRA,” and it’s actually recorded history. You can look it up.

The MKULTRA revelation spawned numerous conspiracy theories, including that the CIA successfully created a powerful mind-control technique known as “MONARCH.” Interestingly, the goal of Monarch programming is to induce a bicameral mental state that results in DID:
ALPHA. Regarded as “general” or regular programming within the base control personality; characterized by extremely pronounced memory retention, along with substantially increased physical strength and visual acuity. Alpha programming is accomplished through deliberately subdividing the victims personality which, in essence, causes a left brain-right brain division, allowing for a programmed union of L and R through neuron pathway stimulation. 
* * *
Due to the severe trauma induced through ECT, sexual abuse and other methods, the mind splits off into alternate personalities from the core. Formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder, it is presently recognized as Dissociative Identity Disorder and is the basis for MONARCH programming. Further conditioning of the victim’s mind is enhanced through hypnotism, double-bind coercion, pleasure-pain reversals, food, water, sleep and sensory deprivation, along with various drugs which alter certain cerebral functions.
Still with me? Good, because there is a pay-off. But be forewarned, it’s dark. Really, really dark...

Mr. Robot
Here’s how all of this ties into Mr. Robot. I think Elliot’s father really did die from cancer caused by Evil Corp. Before dying, however, he created a weapon to some day avenge his death. That weapon was Elliot.

Elliot’s dad brainwashed him using MKULTRA/MONARCH mind control techniques to induce a split in the boy’s mind. As a result of this programming, Elliot became a brilliant hacker bent on bringing down Evil Corp. But he also developed a kind of "dissociative schizophrenia" that causes him to hallucinate conversations with, and sometimes adopt the identity of, his dead dad.

Here’s the kicker. If you’re like me, you’ve wondered what the hell the title “Mr. Robot” has to do with the show. Yes, it’s the name of Christian Slater’s character, but there has to be some deeper significance. Right?

There is. As Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright reminded us repeatedly in The World’s End, the word “robot” is derived from “robotnik,” the Czech word for “slave.” Robots are so named because they’re slaves to their programming. And that’s essentially what Elliot is now. A slave to his father’s programming.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire: Critics vs. Viewers

Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s excellent drama about the rise of personal computing, recently completed its second season. If the declining ratings are any indication, there won’t be a third. 

Even as the show’s prospects seem dim, however, a surprising critical consensus has emerged in favor of renewal. HACF underwent something of a reboot between S1 and S2, and many critics who weren’t fans of S1  -- e.g., Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker and Andy Greenwald of Grantland -- are now singing the show’s praises.

What’s surprising about these critical raves is that many fans of the show, myself included, were disappointed by S2. On the imdb message boards, for example, the viewer preference for S1 has been every bit as strong as the critical consensus favoring S2.

So, what’s the source of this disconnect between critics vs. regular viewers?

Some have suggested it’s all just critical spin, and there's probably some truth to that. But spin is usually self interested, and I have to wonder, what are the critics getting out of this? I’m skeptical respected writers like Nussbaum and Greenwald are getting paid off.

My theory is the critical preference for S2 has more to do with all the television that critics are forced to watch. Seriously. Bear with me for a moment. 

When HACF premiered, the story revolved around Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a talented but tortured male anti-hero with a mysterious past. In S2, however, the focus shifted away from Joe toward Cameron Howe, a talented but tortured female programmer.

One of the biggest complaints you hear from TV critics is how tired they are of the male anti-hero protagonist. So many recent shows have featured this element that it's become a kind of cliche. And who has to watch all those cliched shows? Critics. 

I think being force fed all those male anti-heroes has made TV critics reflexively hostile to them. So, when HACF premiered, they were primed to dislike Joe. And when HACF shifted away from Joe, critics lauded the change. Here's how Greenwald puts it:
The highlight of Halt’s first season was Mackenzie Davis’s performance as Cameron Howe, a punky mantis who looked like a John Hughes heroine and coded like a David Fincher villain. The only programmer capable (and crazy) enough to bring the Giant to life, Cameron should have been the lead. Yet Davis spent the majority of the season struggling to fit in, spinning like an asteroid between two lesser moons: Pace’s Joe, an ethically questionable Jobsian dreamer (with whom she was briefly paired off in a catastrophically wrongheaded relationship), and McNairy’s Gordon, a mercurial, Woz-zy engineer. It was a tired triangle that smacked of risk-averse industry groupthink, exactly the sort of 8-bit thinking the Giant was meant to upend.
You can see echoes of the same criticism in Nussbaum's appraisal, though she (wisely, in my opinion) prefers the character of Donna Clark, who also is a focus of S2:
The pilot felt like a wishful mashup, using elements scavenged from reruns. There was a Don Draper-ish salesman, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who had a tormented family history, a closet full of Armani suits, and a gift for gassy monologues.  
Season 2 jumps forward fourteen months, wrenching the ensemble into a new hierarchy. Joe is no longer the main character; he’s been sidelined and humbled, and the focus is now on Cameron and Donna, a former engineer herself, who have teamed up to run a small company called Mutiny, which starts out in gaming but evolves into a developer of chat rooms and discussion boards, with echoes of Compuserve and Prodigy. 
Unlike critics, viewers are free pick and choose what we watch. Although we're all tired of the anti-hero cliche, too, it doesn't elicit the same knee-jerk response. As a result, regular viewers were able to see the merits of Joe's character -- and S1 generally -- more clearly than critics. 

When the focus of the story shifted away from Joe in S2, viewers were predictably disappointed. Therein lies a big source of the disparity.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Real Humans: Viewing Diary

One of my favorite additions to the summer TV schedule has been Humans, a science fiction program that’s a joint production of Channel 4 in the UK and AMC in the US. I’ve really enjoyed Humans’ exploration of technological singularity, a subject that fascinates me. The writing and characterization are solid, and some of the performances -- particularly William Hurt as Dr. George Millican and Gemma Chan as Mia/Anita -- have moved me to tears. Humans is actually a remake of an acclaimed Swedish show called Äkta Människor (i.e., “Real Humans”). I was already curious to see Real Humans, but my curiosity was piqued further by reports it was vastly superior to the remake. So, I decided to give the original a watch. What follow are my thoughts, which I’ll try to update after each episode. Hopefully, this will negate one possible source of bias that could affect the appraisal of those who see both: i.e., the fact there have been only 8 episodes of Humans compared to 20 of Real Humans. Episode 1.1
Right off the bat, based solely on the pilot, there’s one big thing I like better about Real Humans, and several small things I prefer about Humans. The big thing I like better about the original is the overt political allegory. The eponymous “Real Humans” are members of an anti-robot political movement that’s meant to mirror anti-immigrant groups that have arisen in Nordic countries in response to the influx of cheap labor from abroad. By contrast, Humans is a more straightforward exploration of the moral issues surrounding artificial intelligence. So far, the remake is an extended riff on one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek:TNG, “The Measure of a Man,” where Commander Data has to prove he’s conscious. Which is fine -- as I say, it’s one of my favorite episodes. And I stress “so far” because I wouldn’t be surprised if Humans goes there more in S2. With only eight episodes to work with (compared to 10 in S1 of the original) the remake’s writers no doubt had to prioritize. For now, however, the immigrant/labor angle gives Real Humans a depth and edge that Humans lacks. By that same token, there were several small things that Humans has done better (or that Real Humans did worse) probably due in part because the remake’s writers have the benefit of hindsight. For starters, I didn’t like how Mimi (Mia) was taken by the black marketeers. Why didn’t one of the other hubots just carry her inside? And did no one see or hear the truck drive up with its headlights blazing and engine roaring? Maybe I missed something, but it seemed implausible. Humans wisely leaves the specifics of the hubots’ capture to the imagination. All we get is a scene of Leo and Max returning to an empty camp. Far more effective, in my opinion. Another weak point of the Real Humans pilot was the introduction of the Engman (Hawkins) family, which I found rushed and corny. When was the last time any teen you know asked their dad for help with homework over breakfast? It reminded me of a scene from a Mentos commercial. This arithmetic has me stumped, son, but here... have a freshmaker! Perhaps the weakest point of the original was the way Mimi ends up with the Engmans. They go to the hubot store to buy a caretaker model for Grandpa Engman (Dr. Millican) and the salesman just throws in Mimi for free. The show presents the Hubots as expensive household items. When was the last time you bought a refrigerator or car and got one free? And then there’s Vera (Vera), the aforementioned caretaker hubot. She’s great in the original -- a creepy cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Nurse Ratched. But I don’t completely buy Grandpas willingness to live according to her dictates. In the remake, by contrast, Vera is an agent of the National Health Service, giving her an even more sinister edge. (The same would be true if she were required by a private insurance company.) It’s clearer why Dr. Millican can’t just say no.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Men: Matt Weiner Doesn’t Get to Tell You What the Ending Means

Matt Weiner recently clarified his interpretation of the ending to Mad Men. Here’s a good summary of the relevant comments courtesy of Vulture:
The series finale of Mad Men ended with Don Draper achieving a moment of peace he had been searching for this whole time, and then using it to come up with perhaps one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time, Coca-Cola's 1971 "Hilltop" commercial. Many viewed this ending with cynicism — that a man who has gone through everything Don has experienced in life would finally find enlightenment, only to result in him using it to sell some soda. This wasn’t Weiner’s intention. "I'm not saying that advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something," Weiner said. "I felt like that ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don't think it's as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is."  
For the record, my reading is pretty much the same as Weiner’s. I say this not to pat myself on the back (well, maybe a little...) but rather to establish my credibility when I caution people to think twice before treating Weiner’s word on the subject as authoritative.

Statements of his intent aside, the ending of Mad Men is quintessentially ambiguous. Yes, there are hints and clues that point in certain directions. But because we never actually see Don pitch the Coke ad, there’s nothing in the text that says definitively he did. The current diversity of interpretations is indication of this textual ambiguity.

And that’s a good thing! Some people seem to think any work that doesn’t spoon feed you all the answers is somehow deficient. But lot of the best art leaves room for those experiencing it to decide for themselves what happened and what it all means. Debate over these questions keeps art alive and vibrant, allowing it to stand the test of time.

That’s why a part of me wishes Weiner had just kept his big mouth shut. Privileging his answers threatens to strangle what has actually been a fascinating debate over how to interpret Don’s literal and figurative moment of Zen. In so doing, it undermines the whole purpose for leaving the ending ambiguous in the first place.

Then there’s the whole question of author reliability. The simple fact is artists have been known to lie about what their creations mean -- for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s by necessity. (Anyone really believe Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds had nothing whatsoever to do with LSD? Me neither.). Sometimes they’re just having fun.

Even where creators don’t lie consciously, moreover, they can still be unaware of all the meanings they embed in their works subconsciously. Freud may have been wrong about most of psychoanalysis. But he was clearly correct subconscious desires drive a lot of what we do. Artists are no exception -- quite the contrary.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Weiner’s being deceptive, whether consciously or subconsciously. My point is just that he doesn’t get to say authoritatively what the ending to Mad Men means. For reasons both lofty and practical, the artist’s interpretation is simply one of many.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men: They Stuck the Ending

It's been a while since I updated this blog. I've been too busy writing my own stories to comment on the work of others. But I couldn't allow the brilliant finale of Mad Men pass without comment. Weiner and Co. stuck the ending like an Olympic gymnast winning gold. For a couple of reasons.

First, the ending was incredibly economical. Think about how much information was communicated in those final few seconds. The obvious implication is Don creates the famous Coke commercial for McCann. But that also means Don goes back to New York. Back to the agency. Back to Betty. Back to his kids.

Efficiency isn’t typically the hallmark of great art, but in this case, it was crucial. As a friend of mine pointed out, Weiner could have shown us all that. But it would have taken a lengthy parade of maudlin and melodramatic scenes. The kind of stuff we’ve already seen so many times before, not just on Mad Men but elsewhere.

Second, the ending crystallized the themes of the show perfectly. There were lots of hints in these final episodes that you can’t go back. One of the clearest was Don’s attempt to “fix” Stephanie’s problems. Ironically, even his speech about “going forward” was a throwback to the past when he delivered a similar speech to Peggy. Classic Don Draper.

That Don died at Esalen and was reborn. The old Don would never have spontaneously hugged that crying man in the workshop. Old Don wouldn’t have done meditation in the morning sun -- at least, not voluntarily.  And he probably wouldn’t have come up with a commercial that captured the changing times so perfectly.

In the end, Don didn’t just go back, he went back a changed man. And that change makes all the difference.