Data Overload: Mental Health in “Mr. Robot”

By Eashan Reddy Kotha

“Hello, friend, our democracy has been hacked,” states Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cybersecurity engineer that uses his hacking skills for vigilante justice on USA’s latest award-winning drama, “Mr. Robot.”

With that singular claim, Alderson invites viewers to dive into a world of corporate conspiracy, hacking and personal isolation in a society that closely mirrors our own. The show derives much from cinematic precedents like “The Matrix” and “Fight Club,” yet never fails to be distinct from its influences. Showrunner Sam Esmail uses Alderson’s relationship with technology to depict a realistic, strange and suspenseful account of mental illness through a first person account (spoilers follow).

There have been several discussions about the nature of Alderson’s mental state. Is he suffering from schizophrenia? PTSD? Childhood trauma? How severe is his disorder?

For much of the show’s first season, viewers are forced to see events play out from Elliot’s perspective. This is made evident in the off-kilter quadrant framing of scenes, in which action rarely occurs front and center. The camera positions interactions mostly in the corners of the visual field. As a result, viewers left with a partially empty screen have a sense of how isolated the characters are.

Due to his dependence on morphine and his unstable nature, the line between reality and illusion is nearly wiped out; Alderson’s hallucinations often blend seamlessly with truth.

When it is finally revealed that the primary subject of Alderson’s delusions, Mr. Robot, is a manifestation of his dead father, the fact becomes almost obvious on a second viewing. Previously, Alderson’s amnesia prevented him (and us) from recognizing that he was using his father’s likeness to create Mr. Robot. Only Alderson can see and physically interact with Mr. Robot, and the fact that Alderson is Mr. Robot is a lot to consider.

Many critics are incredulous of the realism of this condition; Tom Long from The Detroit News asked in his review: “There’s nobody out there like this, is there? Seriously, there isn’t, is there?”

Based on what has been revealed, Alderson seems to be suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID) rather than schizophrenia, because he has a split personality. Alderson has another personality he is detached from, yet uses “we” to suggest they are one and the same. While schizophrenia may be managed via medication, DID is thought to be better treated through behavior modification and talk therapy. In “Fight Club,” one of the influences for “Mr. Robot,” the narrator successfully kills his other persona, Tyler, and acquires closure. However, DID does not have a cure yet, and “Fight Club” is ultimately a dramatized account of mental illness.

Alderson can’t get rid of Mr. Robot despite his medication and self-inflicted sleep deprivation. There are accounts of DID when “passengers” (the other personalities) can appear to hurt the person, but not have any real physical impact. For example, when Mr. Robot holds Alderson at gunpoint and shoots him in the head, Elliot gets up unfazed, knowing Mr. Robot isn’t physically real.

While Alderson is dealing with Mr. Robot and his delusions, the viewer, too, is never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. Alderson’s strong connection with computers is ultimately what makes his character so compelling. As he is good with hacking and finding information, he knows how to actively hide facts and obscure events from us, the viewer, and himself unconsciously. When plot twists occur — like Alderson not recognizing his own sister — we are just as disoriented as he is. There is a “bug” in his system, causing his reality to glitch. As a result, his delusions involve distortions, random flashes of binary coding (like the blue screen for Windows users) and more. Alderson’s mind is reminiscent of a computer, frying its internal circuits.

The fact that few people understand Alderson’s condition contributes to the show’s sense of isolation. There are fewer than 200,000 diagnosed cases of DID in the U.S. per year, and those with the disorder are encouraged to keep their condition private. This is because they are more likely to get exploited or have “negative experiences,” as stated by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. As an audience forced to see what Alderson does through his own eyes, we notice how he manipulates himself and can’t rely on his own mind. While Alderson’s case may be a more extreme case of DID, the parallel still represents a divide between the mentally ill and the rest of society. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, but stigma causes many who need treatment to shy away from getting help.

To overcome stigma, normalizing mental health and informing people about conditions and treatment is important, and it is refreshing to see how “Mr. Robot” accurately portrays the perspective of a mentally ill person in contemporary society.