Essays · TV

Mr. Robot, Mental Illness, and Battling Detachment

By  · Published on November 11th, 2016

A video dissects what makes the unique series so special.

I think Mr. Robot is a fascinating show, but maybe not for the reason you immediately assume. Yes, the story is a shocking and captivating parable warning contemporary society about the perils of living life entirely online, the new (non)privacy, and mysteries of identity; and yes, it takes as its medium for telling this story the intriguing and insidious world of anarchist computer hackers. But I and several others find the show’s most fascinating and therefore most admirable aspect to be its frank, unfiltered and honest approach to depicting mental illness.

Elliott suffers from severe clinical depression, social anxiety disorder, and dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder). But unlike most other media depictions of these conditions, Elliott is no one thing: he is not always sad, he’s not always awkward, and he’s not always someone else. Typically when mental illness is tackled in television or movies, the lowest common denominator of whatever the condition is becomes its face. Depressives are always crying and ready to kill themselves, those who suffer from social anxiety disorder perpetually stay holed up in their homes, and DID sufferers oscillate wildly from persona to persona on a moment’s notice. While in extreme instances all of these things can be true, for most people mental illness is something that flares and recedes, it is always with you, certainly, but there are peak times and level times, there are manageable moments and moments that can get away from you. Mr. Robot and its creator Sam Esmail understand this, and choose to tell their story from Elliott and his conditions’ perspectives not to sensationalize as so many have before, but to humanize, to take mental illness out of the realm of the stereotypical and show those who don’t suffer or know someone who does what it is like to function on a day-to-day basis and not just at the most vulnerable times. The series reflects the detachment this can cause people to feel even at the best of times, how their illnesses can cause them to think of themselves as outside “normal” society and how this can fall back on them and augment their symptoms, but also how it can bolster them and strengthen their sense of individuality. This is why, though it is fascinating for its narrative, I find Mr. Robot more fascinating for what it reflects about the detached individual in society, not those who don’t want to fit in, but those who can’t, who fundamentally don’t belong to the status quo that we like to believe encompasses us all.

Film analyst Ryan Hollinger thinks along similar lines, and in his latest video he examines what he thinks makes Mr. Robot special, delving into its depiction of mental illness as well as the metaphors employed by the series to deliver this depiction, and how it frames our society from the outsider-in.

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