Kirsten Provan explores the mental health of Amazon Prime's Mr Robot and how the series portrays dissociative identity disorder.
'The title of this piece translates as 'numb' in Irish. The artwork shows a sense of fragmentation of self that often comes with mental illness. I have depicted the fragmentation through imagery.'
Amazon Prime’s Mr Robot is many things. It’s a high-stakes hacker show that manages to be both incredibly cinematic and fundamentally indie. It’s a cult classic with a killer soundtrack and a diverse cast. It’s essentially Fight Club for the depressed, tech-obsessed, streaming generation. It’s gripping. It’s exciting. It leaves you completely breathless. In all four seasons, it never once drops the ball. But, as well as all that, it also offers the most accurate, sensitive portrayal of mental illness that I have seen on both the big and small screens in recent years.
Rami Malek, of Bohemian Rhapsody fame, stars as Elliot Alderson, an anxiety-and-depression-ridden, hacker-extraordinaire suffering with a severe dissociative identity disorder. Embroiled in a plot to outsmart and burn down capitalist society, it’s fair to say that Elliot is a bit of a mess, and he’s in way over his consistently-unreliable head.
It also offers the most accurate, sensitive portrayal of mental illness that I have seen on both the big and small screens in recent years.
Malek’s performance ranges from the stammering, bumbling, rom-com-era Hugh Grant-type; to badass hacker stepping into his place as the Chosen One, à la The Matrix’s Neo; to emotive, troubled young man struggling to survive in a corrupt world where both society and his mind seem pointedly against him. In the starring role, Malek is the whole package, and his navigation of Elliot’s mental health issues only gets better as the series goes on.
Mental illness, particularly dissociative identity disorder, has truly made a name for itself on the silver screen, utilised, more often than not, for horror or suspense purposes. With the popularity of films such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and even David Fincher’s Fight Club, such issues are consistently reduced to little more than a plot device, where protagonists are either something to be feared or are miraculously cured by the time the credits roll. Crucially, Mr Robot doesn’t do this. At no point is the audience scared of Elliot; at no point does he not feel human. The series creator Sam Esmail is careful never to exploit his central character for a cheap thrill.
Across the four seasons, we see Elliot muddle along with therapy, turn to drugs to cope, and suffer one breakdown after another. While the premise of the show may be a highly illegal, highly dangerous hack, the real story lies in one man’s quest for sanity. And he’s not alone. In this world governed by social pressures, social media, and the need to constantly be connected, it’s no surprise that every single character is falling apart at the seams. Across the board, poor mental health is used not for plot or drama or tear-jerking scenes, but to flesh out the characters, allowing them to grow into people that viewers can empathise with and struggle alongside. Esmail deftly navigates the fine line between important representation and voyeurism. The balance between heart-racing action and more quiet, emotional moments, is perfectly struck so that the instances in which characters are vulnerable never need to be overly dramatised. Throughout the series, Malek’s character is constantly speaking to us, the audience, referring to us as ‘friends’, creating an environment in which we feel secure. As such, Mr Robot simultaneously offers escapism through its intricate, adrenaline-inducing storylines, and acts as a safe space for those struggling with a bad brain day/week/month/year; it’s a place in which we can feel understood.
Esmail deftly navigates the fine line between important representation and voyeurism.
As someone who’s having a bad brain decade, I typically don’t love shows which go down the mental health route, and as we collectively become more aware of how widespread such issues are, this kind of television seems to crop up all the more. Seriously, I don’t think I can watch another bad depiction of PTSD, panic attacks, or a spot of depression that sticks around for a few episodes to create a bit of drama, only to never be mentioned again. For me, Mr Robot is not guilty of this. There is no magic cure for Elliot’s condition, there are peaks and troughs and there are times when he spirals out of control, but it never feels overdone. In our contemporary society, everyone is struggling with something, and Sam Esmail uses this to connect us with his characters, and in return, he offers up a sliver of hope. Despite our brokenness, despite the dark tunnels we fall down, we will always have these moments of pure, unabashed joy.
In our contemporary society, everyone is struggling with something, and Sam Esmail uses this to connect us with his characters, and in return, he offers up a sliver of hope.
And despite the heavy subject matter, we do get joy from Mr Robot. Every aspect of the show, from the supporting cast to the scripts, the cinematography to the soundtrack (which cheekily features Pixies in homage to Fincher’s classic), works in harmony to create an unmissable drama; truly the most accomplished piece of television I have seen in recent years. The portrayal of mental health is unapologetic and real; the questions raised about the state of contemporary society are poignant and ever-relevant. Whether its Sam Esmail himself stepping in front of the camera in the final series to say “goodbye, friend” to his protagonist, or Malek spending one episode running for almost an hour straight (from the police, he’s not doing Couch to 5K), this show has the potential to give you chills and leave you completely breathless all at the same time.
The portrayal of mental health is unapologetic and real; the questions raised about the state of contemporary society are poignant and ever-relevant.
Running for only four series and stopping whilst the programme still thrills, Mr Robot is a rare breed. Such a positive, sympathetic depiction of mental illness really highlights how far we’ve come since Edward Norton effectively punched himself in the ear. While we can’t talk about Fight Club lest we break both the first and second rules, Esmail makes it crystal clear that we should be talking about mental health. In amongst all the hacking and the cybercrime, we learn two very important things: we are not robots, and we all desperately need therapy.
Kirsten is a Creative Writing MSc student at the University of Edinburgh.