Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2016 by Corey Atad
“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.”
So begins one of the most important, influential video games ever made. Infocom’s Zork was birthed in an MIT lab in the late 1970s. It was released to the public as a series of text-based adventure games in the early ’80s, and went on to shape much of the structure present in modern adventure and exploration games. Its enigmatic opening remains, perhaps, the greatest beginning to a video game ever made. Poor grammar aside, Zork’s opening lines invite the player into a new universe built almost entirely by the player’s own imagination. Where modern games max out on polygons and rendering detail and atmospheric effects to present a cinematic vision for gamers, Zork stands as a testament to the power of simple text on a screen, as well as to the underlying structures that make games work. Give the play a place to explore; set boundaries; create obstacles; leverage frustration. As you progress and fail and progress some more in search of a path to the end, the biggest question the game leave you with is, “what am I not seeing?”
It’s fitting that Elliot asks himself the same thing near the end of “Python Part 1,” the penultimate episode of Mr. Robot’s similarly enigmatic, confounding, sometimes frustrating second season. Elliot—and not just Elliot—is searching through a dark, unknowable space, the boundaries of which keep expanding and expanding as the search carries on. At some point there might be an end, or an escape, or even just a door to some better place of the imagination. Our “hero” is caught in the second stages of an adventure. He’s left the field, entered the house, found the door to a mysterious cellar, venture down and discovered the Great Underground Empire.
But what are we not seeing?
If Mr. Robot’s first season taught us the rules—how to play the game—its second season has revealed the endless possibilities the game can provide. Or, rather, that the possibilities are endless. This is a series with great ambition, but also great scope. Wide scope. In a single episode we can encounter the devastatingly real, get lost in a fever dream, and immerse ourselves in the heights of paranoid absurdity.
With “Python Part 1” in particular, Sam Esmail and company taken a long leap into the caverns of that ambition. It’s as close to a mission statement as this show has ever given us, luxuriating in all those unseen possibilities, and telling us in the show’s trademark roundabout way that while the season’s major theme is “control,” that control exists in a context. In this case, that context is an ever expanding, open-ended, perhaps bottomless cave waiting to be explored. As an audience, we’re always at least partway in the dark. That’s just the way it’s going to be, but the meat is the process of discovery. Learning exactly what it is we are not seeing.
So let’s explore the cave some more, and as always BEWARE SPOILERS!
The Cavern of Solitude
Mr. Robot has been a show about loneliness from the beginning. Recall Elliot in the pilot, sitting alone in his apartment, crying by himself in the corner, overcome by a spell of deep depression. In a sense, all the characters are alone in the world. Even when they’ve got each other, their trials are intensely personal. Elliot and Angela both lost parents, but their lives are not the same, nor are their emotional balances. They deal with the world in different ways, with Elliot inventing fantasy characters, setting, and plans to save the world. Angela, on the other hand, has invented a sense of self. This gives her a strong exterior. She’s tough, but not on the inside. This leaves her with her own lonely battles.
Meanwhile, Dom is a more classically lonely figure. She lives alone with no real relationships to speak of. She goes to work, where she can banter with the best of ‘em, but can’t seem to form anything more than a superficial connection. She reaches out to the owner of her favorite convenience store, but it’s purely a one-way relationship. In the aftermath of last week’s attack on the Mexican restaurant—we still don’t know if Darlene or Cisco are alive, but there’s a reference to an upcoming interview that might just reveal whether they survived—Dom is in the hospital feeling utterly alone in her determination to go after the Dark Army and the Chinese government. Even her boss, Santiago, who clears the room in order to tell her that he believes her, ultimately leaves her alone in the struggle. They can’t do anything anyway. She should go home.
But what’s at home for her? Nothing. A shower and an empty bed. And Alexa, the Amazon personal assistant. Dom tries to engage Alexa in a conversation, asking whether the disembodied robot is her friend, and if she has a boyfriend, and if she’s happy. “Alexa, do you love me?” she asks. “That’s not the kind of thing I am capable of.” There’s a void. Something Dom cannot see, though she feels the absence. It’s not clear why Dom has come to be this way, but her grasping in the dark for someone to hold on to painfully real. It’s a mode Mr. Robot has explored before, but perhaps not in such a sustained, raw, unblemished way.