“The only way to patch a vulnerability is by exposing it first . . . the flip side being that exposing the vulnerability leaves you open for an exploit.” —Elliot Alderson , Mr. Robot eps2.2_init1.asec
I have always written stories with dead fathers. I don’t live in a world where fathers exist as more than a cautionary tale, a tragedy, an example of fragile masculinity and wasted talent. Now, it’s not my daddy issues that initially attracted me to the television series Mr. Robot . I had already been intrigued by the premise of a financial revolution spurred on by hacker vigilante Elliot Alderson, played by the magnetic Rami Malek, who conveys a multitude of emotions with his wild eyes and cynical scowl, and his band of technologically savvy anarchists, known collectively as fsociety.
I was raised on a steady diet of rebellion and technology in pop culture like Hackers , The Matrix and Fight Club , all of which Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, borrows liberally from yet manages to create a fully realized universe all its own. Add Christian Slater, playing the mysterious Mr. Robot, and it was impossible for me to not tune in. But as the show’s first season went on, and fans began speculating that Mr. Robot himself was not only a figment of Elliot’s imagination but a manifestation of Elliot’s dead father, Edward Alderson, I began falling deeper and deeper into the show’s fandom, formulating theories and stacking the parallels between my own origin story and the foundation on which Mr. Robot is built.
By expanding upon a firm base of pop culture references and positioning the viewer as Elliot’s imaginary friend, essentially making me feel like a character in the show, Esmail gave me a new vehicle with which to understand my own pain, desire, and mental illness.
“Memories fucking suck sometimes. Like dreams, almost. You only get pieces. Never the whole.” —Elliot, from the Mr. Robot Virtual Reality Experience
My father was a Puerto Rican version of James Dean: a dead icon with matinee-idol looks. He had piercing blue eyes, a strong jaw, a voice that can rival that of Marc Anthony. Not that I can remember much of him; he was dead before I turned five.
Elliot’s father died from cancer due to negligence from his employer, the nefarious E Corp, or Evil Corp, as Elliot refers to them. My father’s death was much swifter than that of Edward Alderson’s: He was stabbed to death by his second wife, the woman he married not long after my parents divorced. Much like Elliot, however, my childhood memories are obscured by the static of trauma. Elliot and I both lose time, depth, and space to the men that left us to fix their fuck-ups. We make do by reconstructing our fathers over time using memory morsels and artifacts. Elliot relies on the memories of his father as a computer whiz to create a version of his father he wished existed, but Elliot is eventually overtaken by the beast of his own creation, or so it seems, as Mr. Robot always has another layer to unpeel, another element to unpack and assess. Trauma is complicated.
My dad stood proud and handsome with my mother in the huge wedding portrait that hung on our wall in a gilded frame. I also have a rare picture of my whole family together. Five of us for a brief period of time before the fracture, so brief that it feels strange for me to even write that our family ever consisted of five members. Then, there’s a clip of my father singing in Spanish. It is less than two minutes long. A ghost in the machine, a recording of a television playing a tape. A copy of a copy of something that I can barely remember being real. He looks so sad, but his voice is clear and melodic. He finishes singing and self-consciously scratches his face. “I hope it came out nice,” he says in his accented English. He is not the confident man I have heard so much about. Here, he is vulnerable, shy even. The video that is being recorded ends, but the family members watching and recording are seen in the reflection of the television screen for a moment before the video I am watching ends. They are ghosts of a different sort.
In addition to these artifacts, I have two memories of my dad.
One: drinking a Budweiser, slouched and relaxed on a couch that is not even his anymore, home for visitation. He always came to see us. We never went to his place. I cozy up to him and laugh.
Two: meeting the passengers on the bus he drove for people with disabilities. I am shy, like the shrinking violets adorning my dress, but I beam as he hugs me.
“How did he die?” people would ask, and I, not being privy to the whole stabbing thing, used these two memories as my foundation to craft the myth of my father’s death that felt suitably real. No one’s going to question a child when they tell you their father was shot at a liquor store robbery gone wrong or killed in a tragic bus accident. These things make sense. These things are seen on the news every day, which is where I probably got the stories from in the first place. I could not share in his life, so I created the narrative of his death. In this way, he was mine.
My mother and sisters, on the other hand, seem to have an almost endless resource of memories and, even more unfair, dreams. He bursts through the recesses of their subconscious minds, offering hugs, words of wisdom, light. I listen to these ghost stories, rapt and envious. Where is he? Did he not find me worthy? Did my mind not have the ability to let him in?
I should have known better than to wish for my visit. The dream comes when I’m in my early twenties, nursing heartbreak, not eating, barely living. I fall asleep and am in an operating room, or so it appears. A spindly figure is completely covered by a sheet. Doctors in blue caps and scrubs surround the table. I walk around the perimeter of the table, trying to peek over the shoulders of these giants in blue. Suddenly, he sits up, and I can see his face.
It is not a face at all but a skeleton. A voice emerges from a creaky jaw. It is hoarse, desperate: “Help me!” It sets its empty sockets on me. I have no doubt he can see me; the loss of his eyes did not remove his capacity to view his child.
He is terrified.
I wake, screaming, trapped in the prison of those sockets.
“Why is that always your go-to with me? I mean, trust me, in this day and age it’s sicker not having panic attacks. Since when did pretending everything’s okay suddenly become the almighty norm?” —Darlene Alderson, Mr. Robot eps2.2_init1.asec
At the beginning of season two, Elliot is willing the manifestation of his father away by crafting a meticulous routine. It is all too familiar to me, an anxiety sufferer trying to manage panic attacks that can become crippling if I don’t take control. The obsessive journal scrawling, the timed meals, the carefully planned extracurricular activities. I am desperate to regain my sanity, and routines are sometimes all I have. Mr. Robot is a show that is obsessed with hindsight, which I can relate to, as my mind primarily functions as a rumination machine. Thoughts cycle into thoughts fueling embarrassment and fear. Anxiety makes me caustic to the point that my body itself feels poisonous.
While Elliot plays out the desperation of defeating mental illness and regaining control and autonomy over one’s own mind, it is his younger sister, Darlene, who comes sharply into focus. She was only five when she witnessed the people responsible for her father’s death go free. Before we discover Darlene is an Alderson, she is simply an intelligent, sarcastic manic pixie dream brat with a seriously enviable cool-girl wardrobe who can appeal to both Mr. Robot’s and Elliot’s sensibilities.
We are gut-punched with the knowledge of the sibling relationship toward the end of season one when Elliot, ecstatic at following through with fsociety’s plot to bring down Evil Corp, kisses Darlene. Rather than the sweet moment he—and I—expected, this kiss only elicits horror, then grief, from Darlene. Click . His memory is jolted, and her behavior and rationale for wanting to perform this daring act becomes abundantly clear. She’s not merely an anarchist; she’s a girl who lost her father and will do whatever it takes to make that mean something.
“Do you remember the first command you ever taught me when my computer kept crashing? It was init1. That became our thing, and I am telling you right now, I’m fucking crashing, man, and so are you, and I need your help.” —Darlene , Mr. Robot eps2.2_init1.asec
Season two reveals Darlene’s severe panic attacks, and perhaps the most important episode of the series so far is “init1.asec” in which Elliot and Darlene discuss her anxiety. The episode opens with a look back at how Darlene and Elliot came to create fsociety. Darlene visits Elliot on Halloween, wearing a replica of the Mr. Monopoly-esque mask worn by the killer from the obscure slasher flick The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie . After a less-than-enthusiastic reception from Elliot, Darlene evokes init1, though, in true Mr. Robot fashion, we don’t find out the exact significance of this code until the end of the episode. The emotional impact, however, is instant, as this code causes Elliot to have a change of heart. They watch the film, which Darlene muses “is definitely the root of all of [their] psychological dysfunction.” (It is no surprise, then, that the mask the killer wears in the movie becomes the hallmark of fsociety.) Elliot says that he’s in therapy because of a violent episode he doesn’t remember, while Darlene mentions their father, saying, “I wish I remembered him better.”
It’s then that Elliot reveals that he has kept Edward Alderson’s jacket, outfitted with a small patch from the computer shop he owned: Mr. Robot. She giggles, almost childlike, and then implores him first to put on the jacket, then the mask. The shift from Elliot to Mr. Robot, fsociety leader, occurs as if by magic. The origin story for a group of anarchists looking to take over the world is a moment of nostalgic longing between two siblings missing their dead father. Nothing could make more sense to me. It becomes my favorite episode to watch, especially after I have a panic attack.
Tragedy taught me one thing: Bad shit happens, and it can happen to me and the people I love. No matter how farfetched the intrusive thought or chain of events could be, I think about my father, and the panic becomes very real, every worst-case scenario building to its crescendo in my mind, the terror rising, wails like ghosts in my ears. There are no safe spaces where the mind’s trauma can’t manifest. It’s the first time I’ve seen this play out on television in a way that feels authentic. Interwoven with Darlene and Elliot’s plans is the knowledge that tragedy has befallen them before. Trauma makes even the unreal tangible. So when Darlene argues in favor of panic being normal, it has a relaxing effect on me. Anxiety may not feel good, but this scene has finally given voice to the complicated mechanisms behind the terror I experience far too often.
“Annihilation is always the answer. We destroy parts of ourselves every day. We Photoshop our warts away. We edit the parts we hate about ourselves, modify the parts we think people hate. We curate our identity. Carve it. Distill it . . . Annihilation is all we are.” —Elliot , Mr. Robot eps2.2_init1.asec
I’m in my friend’s car on the thirty-first anniversary of my father’s death. We’ve spent the night at a casual dinner party feasting on tender octopus, olives, succulent braised lamb and a feta dip festooned with verdant flecks of spinach. The meal was capped off with a coconut cream pie that he and I made from scratch. The guests wore casual monochromatic ensembles: wrap dresses, crop tops with flowing bohemian skirts, T-shirts with leather trim. Henry Mancini and the Hamilton soundtrack took turns on the record player. The air was redolent with lavender, and my glass of wine was never empty. I was full of warmth and love, having already apologized in my head to my dad for not spending the day in mourning like I usually do, and I eased into this life of normalcy. All I ever wanted.
We head home on the highway, the night air slapping me. My stomach churns, and words begin to flow out of me, unbidden. “I’m not supposed to miss him.” I lean back and close my eyes, the lights of the city playing behind my closed lids. “You know he was going to take me? That’s what he told my mother when they were getting divorced.” My tone is weary, a wine-soaked, whiskey-tinged vocal fry. “I looked like his mother. He used to call me La Viejita because he called his mother La Vieja. She died right after I was born. We’re all fucked up in my family. Everyone wanting their dead parents back.” I feel the tears coming, and I rub my eyes, passing it off as alcohol-induced exhaustion. But once I start, I cannot stop talking about it. “He didn’t do it, he knew my mom was the better parent. But I wonder, you know, what if he did take me. His new wife hated all of us. She hated me. What if I was there when she killed him?” A flash, like the frame of a film reel spliced into my brain: a blood-soaked mass of a girl with black hair and brown eyes and her grandmother’s face. “I think about it all the time, you know? What if she did it? And I wouldn’t even be here.”
“But that didn’t happen.”
“I know, I just—I wish I could stop thinking about it. But I miss him.”
The walk back to his apartment, just bits and pieces of time, the frames of the film reel spliced out and taped back together slapdash. A corner. Crossing the street. Steps. The nubby old couch where I cover my eyes and will the world to stop spinning so chaotically until my friend goes to sleep. I creep to the bright guest bathroom, and my violet vomit splashes all over his white tile. I spend hours cleaning the mess and nursing a massive stomach ache before he wakes. I don’t want to be this. I want to be a good houseguest. A happy friend. A charming, strong woman. Not this mess.
“Shh, it’s okay. I’m still here,” I say to no one in particular.
They didn’t take me.
I’m still here.
I’m still here.
I’m still here.
“Dream. You gotta find out the future you’re fighting for. Sometimes, you gotta close your eyes and really envision that shit, bro. If you like it, then it’s beautiful. If you don’t, then you might as well fade the fuck out right now.” —Leon , Mr. Robot eps2.2_init1.asec
There is a third memory. I tend to bury it deeper than the others and sometimes manage to forget about it altogether, but that’s when it calls out, ringing clear through the clutter. It may have been the last time I saw him. My father is leaving after a visit. My cousin is there as well, and he casually says, “Bye, Uncle Carlos.” When my father goes to hug me, I parrot my cousin’s words, blissfully unaware that I have made an error. Everyone laughs, and my cheeks burn with shame. I can’t even look at him. The burden of that silly little mistake sits like bricks on my shoulders, crushing me. Maybe I hurt his feelings. Maybe he died with the knowledge that his daughter didn’t fully understand the concept of a father.
Toward the end of “init1.asec,” we see the push-and-pull between Elliot and Mr. Robot come to a head with a chess game that ends three times in a stalemate. The son and the manifestation of his father cannot be separated. They belong to each other. That’s how it works with reconstructions. You cannot simply destroy what you have created. You live with it, along with the truths of the person who actually existed before they died, and try to reconcile the myth with the man.
Just before Mr. Robot and Elliot face off, Elliot and his friend Leon have a conversation on the nature of dreams. That night, Elliot has a vision of what he wants his life to be. He apologizes to the man he hurt once when Mr. Robot took over his consciousness and forms genuine relationships with the people in his life. Everyone gathers at a table set in an alleyway. “You’d even be there,” he says, as an empty place setting shows up on the screen. This show offers just that to those of us who are deeply introspective and forever grieving: a place for us in a world that doesn’t often understand how it feels to live every day in the context of trauma.
I struggle with telling this story because once I let the creation born of my own pain out into the universe, I no longer control the narrative. I fear it will engulf me like the creation of Mr. Robot overtakes Elliot, but I press on because I must make this tragedy mean something, all the while striving for dinner parties and sweet dreams, successful relationships and a life free of the crawling terror that is anxiety. But in Elliot’s dream, a building collapses and everyone claps. It turns out that, even in Elliot’s utopia, Mr. Robot is lurking. Our fathers are never far behind.
Nevertheless, the vision pleases Elliot. “A world I’ve always wanted,” he declares in voiceover, snuggling into bed with a rare smile on his face. “And you know what? I would like very much to fight for it.” Me too, Elliot. Me too.