Fiske’s Model of Social Codes in Mr. Robot

In the book Television Culture (1987), Fiske suggests that television programs convey reality through constructed symbols and that semiotic analysis can reveal the ideologies of the dominant class. Fiske puts forth a simplified, three-level model of social codes for deconstruction, where ‘reality’, ‘representation’ and ‘ideology’ are combined to produce a socially accepted and believable text. In this essay, I discuss how the distribution of the Mr. Robot television series effects its narrative, demonstrate how a character’s appearance, behaviour and environment creates ‘reality’ and how technical methods transmit conflict, action and dialogue. Additionally, I discuss the show’s central theme of capitalism vs. anti-capitalism and how non-traditional representation of race and gender supports this ideology.

Produced by American cable provider USA Network, Mr. Robot is a weekly television series designed for the current era of computer-television convergence. On 13 July 2016, the first two episodes of season two (‘unm4sk-pt1.tc’ and ‘unm4sk-pt2.tc’) premiered back-to-back on cable television and then made available immediately afterwards as a pay-per-episode offering on the Amazon Prime website. This model allows USA Network to first sell advertising on linear television and then re-sell episodes through third parties. The distribution and format does not influence the show’s visual presentation as much as it inspires an action-packed plot: unlike a traditional TV series, the availability of the show after it is aired allows for so-called ‘binge watching’ where viewers can watch episodes end-on-end at their convenience and thus a dynamic storyline is essential to encourage this behaviour.

Bridging the genres of modern psychological thriller and detective drama, Mr. Robot draws on our fears of globalization, unstable financial markets and our increasing dependency on technology to create tension. The main character, Elliot Alderson, is a cybersecurity engineer and vigilante hacker who suffers from social anxiety and violent hallucinations of a character called Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot’s agenda is social revolution: by convincing Elliot to co-operate with the hacktivist group fsociety, the computer networks of the global financial institution E Corp (or Evil Corp as Elliot refers to it) can be infiltrated to erase worldwide debt and redistribute wealth. Elliot is a social outsider who is positioned to challenge the system (Creeber, p. 21), while his phantasmagoria and resulting opiate abuse has viewers questioning if he is avenging crime or assisting it. As a hybrid detective drama, the plot favours meticulous details over special effects, with producers employing a career hacker to ensure that technology and Elliot’s character is represented in a believable way (Zetter, 2016).

MR. ROBOT -- "hellofriend.mov" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot -- (Photo by: Sarah Shatz/USA Network)
MR. ROBOT — “hellofriend.mov” Episode 101 — Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot — (Photo by: Sarah Shatz/USA Network)

To begin applying Fiske’s first level of social codes, we analyse how ‘reality’ is constructed through a character’s appearance, dress and makeup. Elliot is a computer hacker and his all-black wardrobe authentically represents this lifestyle. In a scene from season one, Elliot is surrounded by colleagues in office attire while he wears a hooded sweatshirt, unzipped over a dark collared business shirt. This obvious and unsuccessful attempt to blend in is standard for Elliot’s socially rogue character. The hooded sweatshirt represents a lack of interest in material possessions and is used to conceal himself when anxious or trying to escape. As a recovering drug user, Elliot’s complexion is extremely pale, and the dark hood often frames and accentuates his conflicted face. Elliot’s hacker uniform is the only constant throughout the series.

Behaviour, speech and expression are level one social codes that create ‘reality’ by exposing Elliot’s unraveling mental state. To weaken the Mr. Robot visions, Elliot abstains from technology and maintains a strict regime of cleaning, meeting people, diary keeping and sleep. As season two begins, we are re-introduced to Elliot’s odd social behaviour when he meets his new friend Leon for breakfast. In contrasting ways, both characters are consumed with dissecting the human condition: evaluating the comedic television series Seinfeld, Leon laments how ‘a show about nothing’ is a mirror of our lives, while Elliot, true to the detective drama construct, deciphers the rules that govern society to reveal truth (Creeber, p. 21). Sitting opposite Leon, Elliot is a paradox of calm and conflicted, alternating between direct eye contact and blankly staring at the table while absorbing Leon’s words. The friendship is ideal for Elliot as it supports his routine and provides companionship without interaction. When Elliot does talk, it is limited to short, awkward answers but when he is thinking, it is in longer, poetic and dark sentences. It is largely through Elliot’s diarizing that viewers witness his desperation to regain control, with frenzied handwriting revealing his inner battle. Elliot’s behaviour, speech and expression portray a conflicted individual who attempts to quiet his inner voices by busying himself with the mundane.

Environment additionally establishes ‘reality’ by reinforcing the capitalist and materialistic values of the wealthy, as well as foreshadowing character development. In the series, the wealthy enjoy vast spaces while the working-class inhabit smaller dwellings. Set in New York, many luxurious homes and offices overlook the city, literally looking down on the population below. In contrast, Elliot lives in a barely furnished, dark and rundown house that is purposely void of technology. Viewer’s learn to be vigilant of such settings: Elliot’s house is unusually large and a payphone on the wall hints that this ‘home’ could be an institution of some kind. Similarly, when a character appears in lavish setting that conflicts with fsociety’s anti-capitalist ideals, they are positioned to be a villain. In a key scene, the General Council of E Corp returns to her extravagant smarthome to discover its technology is running amok. Alarms sound and a control panel indicates a system failure. A giant television broadcasts a news bulletin warning of the economic crisis but she is unaffected as she attempts to live in her spectacular but uncontrollable home. Classical music is blasted at unenjoyable levels while she swims in her private pool and finally the thermostat on her shower adjusts itself to scorch her. Viewers understand that she has been hacked due to the number of devices affected, while the materialistic setting suggests she deserves to be hacked without viewers knowing anything about her character. Unable to fix the technical failure herself, she calls technical support and a driver picks her up so she can leave for her second residence. The fsociety hackers immediately move in, taking control and establishing themselves as technological gatekeepers. The home’s automation is a believable use of technology that echoes the blind trust we place in the internet, networks and financial systems.

Fiske’s second level of codes is concerned with the technical methods employed to transmit ‘representation’, and is evident in Mr. Robot in the way that camera, editing and sound techniques create a continuous pull-push tension. When Elliot is talking to a ‘real’ person, alternating mid-shots focus on the person speaking to pull the viewer directly into the conversation, as opposed to a two-shot that pushes the viewer out of discussions when Elliot is arguing with Mr. Robot, casting viewers as voyeurs. The switch to the non-intimate two-shot distances the viewer, prompting us to question how real Mr. Robot actually is. The confusion escalates when hallucinatory dialogues becomes physical: when Mr. Robot shoots Elliot in the head at close range, Elliot unrealistically survives and simply wraps a bandage around his skull, suggesting that the damage is emotional rather than physical. Furthermore, the viewer is often positioned inside Elliot’s mind through close-ups that focus on Elliot’s head. While walking home from his psychiatrist’s office, Elliot directly addresses viewers: “hello again, yes, I’m talking to you this time.” First viewers see the back of Elliot’s hooded head, reinforcing his insecurity, and then a closeup of his emotionless face as he addresses viewers:

“You kept things from me… and I don’t know if I can tell you secrets like before. Friends are s’pose to be honest with each other and you weren’t. It’s gonna take a while to build this relation.” (Mr. Robot, Ep. 1, S. 2)

Elliot holds his gaze as if making direct eye contact with the viewer. The soliloquy directly places the viewer into the story and explains that Elliot hears multiple voices, suffers from trust issues and is going to hold back information. Through camera, editing and sound techniques, the viewer is zig-zagged through dialogues and conflicts that force constant revision of what is real or imaginary.

‘Ideology’ occupies Fiske’s third level, in particular how social norms reinforce and shape a viewer’s interpretation of a text. Following a familiar Robin Hood narrative, capitalism and anti-capitalism are diametrically opposed, with fsociety vigilantes stealing from E Corp to give to the poor. This narrative positions us to favour fsociety, despite the group’s illegal activities. To condone fsociety’s lawbreaking, the story affords multiple mentions of E Corp murdering individuals who stood in the way of their global ambitions. These acts are not shown but do not need to be seen to be believed – ‘Evil Corp’ is always guilty. To further bolster fsociety’s position of representing moral good, they are a racially diverse group, typifying the general public of the United States. In a non-traditional role for American television, a female fsociety hacker named Trenton wears a hijab. Iranian-American and seeking revolution to counter her own parents consumerism, Trenton promotes the anti-capitalist movement as socially uniting. The departure from an Islamic character having a negative religious agenda is refreshing and realistic, whilst focusing the viewer on E Corp as the single enemy. A byproduct of race inclusion is that the story is not required to go into detail explaining what inequality is – it is silently represented on screen.

MR. ROBOT — Carly Chaikin as Darlene — (Photo: USA Network)
MR. ROBOT — Carly Chaikin as Darlene — (Photo: USA Network)

As a traditional financial institution, patriarchy monopolizes E Corp and this is sharply contrasted with dominant and empowered female characters on both sides of the capitalism war. Elliot’s sister Darlene controls fsociety and after taking over the smarthome, we see Darlene on the floor sobbing, before delicately applying lipstick and gathering strength to deliver a motivational speech to her fellow members. With her back to us, Darlene addresses fsociety from a mezzanine balcony, with the camera slowly tracking past to focus on her willing subjects below. This camera shot was previously used to show E Corp’s patriarch chief addressing an elite group of citizens and exemplifies the power of Darlene’s leadership. The soft and feminine acts of sobbing and applying lipstick display vulnerability, before she switches to a traditionally male role of giving orders and technical instructions as a military-style commander. Throughout the series, female characters are highly skilled and authoritative, actively dismissing old societal perceptions of long-established, male dominated roles.

The Mr. Robot series challenges society’s capitalist framework and reliance on technology through the creation of realism and defying racial and gender stereotypes, whilst staying true to audience expectations of detective dramas. To construct ‘reality’, Fiske’s first level of social codes is evident in Elliot’s appearance, dress and makeup, which authentically portrays him as a hacker, while his unusual behaviour, speech and expression draw us into his believable but tortured existence of controlling delusions. The show’s detailed environments construct ‘reality’ by communicating social status, while positioning a character as morally good or as materialistic villains. For level two, camera, editing and sound techniques are technical methods that transmit or ‘represent’ conflict, action and dialogue, namely when mediating the distance at which a viewer is positioned in the story. After building a believable world through ‘reality and ‘representation’ codes, the series then utilizes our mistrust of technology as a vehicle to establish anti-capitalism as the overarching ideology. Consequently, viewers are asked to forgo other morals and accept any wrongdoing by fsociety vigilantes in order to create a fairer world. The series is highly critical of inequality and therefore condemning of patriarchy. As an alternative, female characters are given strong and influential roles where they demonstrate leadership and technical skills that exceed their male counterpart’s. The inclusion of minority races, and in particular a female American-Iranian, further bolsters this feminist narrative. An accurate critique of society and technology, the series is a realistic perspective on future events if capitalism is not addressed, making it a direct response to changing technological possibilities and fulfilling audience expectations of television drama. The series’ on-demand availability ironically echoes the theme of consumerism in the show itself, whilst allowing dedicated fans to re-watch and analyze a modern detective drama at their leisure.


References

Creeber, G., Miller, T., & Tulloch, J. (2001). The television genre book
(3rd ed.). London: British Film Institute.

Fiske, J. (1987). Some television, some topics, and some terminology. Television culture. London: Routledge, pp. 1-20.

Zetter, K. (2016, August 7). How the real hackers behind Mr. Robot get it so right. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2016/07/real-hackers-behind-mr-robot-get-right/

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