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“Mr. Robot” Returns: Where Is God?

September 30, 2019


“Mr. Robot has become my god,” says Elliot Alderson, the brilliant, disturbed main character in the USA Network’s Mr. Robot, whose fourth and final season begins October 6. Elliot is played by Emmy and Academy Award winner Rami Malek, and the high-tech cohort he represents onscreen is the ascendant and oft-discussed millennial generation. Elliot and almost everyone in his New York City milieu are religious “nones.” Nevertheless, the question of divine presence or absence is all-important. God dominates Mr. Robot, even though religion is almost never mentioned at all.

Elliot is an anonymous engineer by day and a drug-addicted vigilante hacker by night. He and every other character in the show are socially alienated—an obvious irony in an overarching storyline about technological connection. Elliot is part of a collective enterprise called “f-society,” whose goal is to kill the gods of consumerism and the free market. But Elliot is literally delusional about what he is doing. He takes morphine and later Adderall to suppress his “ever present silent observer,” a projection rooted in a mixture of truth and falsehood from his broken home of origin. The potentially humanitarian impulses of Elliot and f-society result in evil outcomes, and the bad guys find a way to capitalize. Mr. Robot is extremely dark and contains language, violence, sex, and various themes that some Christians will find highly disturbing. But many people—myself included—appreciate the excellent acting and innovative storytelling, and are eager to see where the show lands. Most of all, I am eager to point fans of the show to the unnamed and unknown God, who alone makes sense of the world the show depicts. Our world.

In 2017 Mr. Robot’s creator Sam Esmail told The Guardian: “The world has become unreliable, unknowable. Facts are vulnerable and things you have come to rely on are no longer there.” Elliot Alderson, a “thinly-veiled version” of Esmail, echoes, “The world itself’s just one big hoax.” This is the dilemma of the ardent atheist and casually nonreligious person alike. Without the knowledge of God who made, redeems, and sustains the cosmos, who’s to say what’s real? Mr. Robot often looks and feels like The Matrix and Fight Club, forerunners in exploring the same postmodern desperation for truth. Elliot and his hacker gang half-heartedly embrace a Leninist view, hoping everything will finally become clear after the chaotic redistribution of economic power. They want to wipe out all consumer debt with the stroke of a few keys. But for what? As the show proves time and again, without a divine ground of being, even the most noble conquests either descend into nihilism or get hijacked by powerful opportunists, or both. Elliot battles mightily with his past, his parents, and his psyche. It’s not really about society or wealth at all. Rather, he longs to understand himself. Elliot’s computer crimes, drug addiction, and justice crusading are all of a piece: searching for the God in whom every individual is created to live, move, and have his being. The character of Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater, is a destructive alternative.

In one instance in the second season, God is a stand-in for a host of enemies in Elliot’s drug-addled brain. In an outburst at a group therapy session, he targets God in a vulgar, blasphemous monologue. In one of the milder parts he says, “All religions are just metastasizing mindworms, meant to divide us so it’s easier to rule us by the charlatans that wanna run us. All we are to them are paying fanboys of their poorly written sci-fi franchise.” In a world where what remains of religious practice is often a variation of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it is no surprise that a nonreligious person like Elliot would simply invert the caricature. If corporate and government overlords are pulling our strings, then God is the ultimate unwanted puppeteer. Evangelists take heed: the god our world rejects is usually nothing like the God who has adopted us as his sons and daughters in Christ. And if there was ever a character in recent fiction that needed a divinely good and loving dad, it’s Elliot Alderson. He thinks his core problem is the persistent illusion of his dad in his head; but he really needs the love of a merciful heavenly Father in his heart. Elliot almost realizes what he is lacking in an episode from season three. He resolves to kill himself, but ends up unexpectedly playing a temporary father-figure to his dead friend’s younger brother, who takes him to a mosque. They then go to the movies, where Elliot and his father regularly communed over popcorn and candy years earlier. It is just the tip of a spiritual iceberg that Elliot and many others like him in our world keep forcibly below the surface.

Esmail’s direction has been true artistry throughout, with lighting and camera angles that evoke the dual nature of alienation: darkness and distance. The cast is stellar, with Malek brilliant as Elliot and Slater outstanding alongside him. Carly Chaikin is the brash, vulnerable Darlene, and B.D. Wong lurks in the shadows in a truly twenty-first century dual identity as Minister Zhang and White Rose. Whether Wong’s character ends up the big baddie he appears to be may depend on social pressure on Esmail and the network. You’ll see what I mean. Mr. Robot is a complex crime drama and international espionage thriller, which featured a supernatural twist in the last moment of season three. Many questions remain to be answered in season four about the Dark Army, Evil Corp, the FBI, and the Chinese government. Oh, and whether and how people can come back from the dead. (More God stuff!)

Mr. Robot is among the most important shows for our time. For Christians, it encourages us to examine our own idols and double down on the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone sets us free, puts us in communion with others, and can fill the void that Mr. Robot has shown us so far. “I wanted to save the world,” Elliot laments. And there’s the ultimate god delusion.