My friend profoundly hates “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. She’s a wonderfully pragmatic person and something about the poem, endlessly interpreted in high schools across the US, rankles her. “I also hate his poem about plums and the refrigerator,” she told me when I texted her to reconfirm her hatred. All images: Michael Parmelee/USA Network
She can quote “The Red Wheelbarrow”. She understands every potential nuance of those 16 words. But the expectation of profundity of “The Red Wheelbarrow” irritates her.
Expectations can ruin even the cleverest of entertainment. Mr Robot, which quoted the entirety of “The Red Wheelbarrow” in its latest episode, has often buckled under similar expectations of profundity. Now, it has finally collapsed.
It feels a little cruel to hate on a show days after its star, Rami Malek, won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama. Malek is very good on Mr Robot. When the show’s desire to be clever gets out of the way, Malek brings the heat. He can force you to empathise with a mercurial sociopathic hacker — that’s not easy! He also does a damn fine Christian Slater impression without doing the eye or the voice thing. That isn’t easy either!
But man, much like Elliot himself, Malek has been just a tool used at the whims of Mr Robot. The main character of the show this year wasn’t Elliot, or Dom, or even the titular Mr Robot. It was the pursuit of being profound.
That’s a totally fine pursuit. I would never mock a kid learning to be a creative writer or some master of experimental cinema. Unless, of course, they earnestly quote a poem that kids are forced to memorise in high school. You cannot do that. Nor can you pursue profundity at the expense of character or plot — particularly when you’re an hour-long show. Viewers need more than “this is some deep mind-altering shit, man” from a show. No one wants to watch rote existential navel-gazing week in and week out.
Maybe hype was a little to blame for this major misstep of a second season. The first season was extraordinary, taut and thoughtful. It was a show that came out of nowhere from the network known for it’s “blue sky” dramas (pointedly mocked with a Burn Notice slight). We didn’t expect Mr Robot to be more than a frothy diversion, let alone one of the best dramas of 2015. Expectations were so high for the second season, and it had a lot to live up to. It also had to build on the first season thematically and creatively, and it had to also propel forward a plot that had felt startlingly final.
Instead Mr Robot pursued emotion. It turned abstractly poetic and a little indulgent. There was a whole episode devoted to the effects of self-medication. And another dragged straight from a Lynchian nightmare. With that kind of filmmaking, your audience has to buy into what you’re selling — they must be willing to look past the artifice of “artistry” and join you on a new, and hopefully profound journey.
I couldn’t buy in this season.
Joanna Wellick’s search for his husband wasn’t some pure emotional counterpoint to Elliot’s pursuit of personal truths. It was just a tedious side plot with moments of explosive what-the-hellery (like that time she talked about a fetus corpse to goad a man into nearly killing her).
Tyrell’s return wasn’t a cathartic end to a season-long question. His scenes with Elliot weren’t fuelled by simmering affection. His expression of love for Elliot in the second-to-last scene was an infuriating “screw you” to the audience, not a natural next step in their fraught relationship.
I mean. Jesus. I really, really, really wanted to be sold by that ending! The music. Angela’s assuredness. The pained panic in Tyrell’s voice. That sudden black out. That was some great stuff, but the show didn’t earn that cut to black or those dual admissions of love. Instead of being delightfully stunned I was infuriated, and even the meet-up directly afterwards, of the remnants of F Society and Elliot’s pal Leon, couldn’t assuage that fury.
Dom, a bright point this season as the swaggering moral centre of this screwed-up cyberpunk merry-go-round, couldn’t save things. Her exchanges with Darlene were a bright spot. She shifted from friend, to enemy, to finally that bone-weary investigator. But the show seemed to give a lot more importance to her ultimate reveal than maybe was warranted. After all, the Mr Robot audience is clever. You people figured out Elliot was in prison aeons ago. Last season you were sure Mr Robot was Elliot’s imaginary friend. You knew how much of the puzzle Dom had pieced together even if the show has been coy in showing it.
The moment was certainly shattering for Darlene, who was still clinging to some sense of militaristic loyalty — even as her boyfriend’s brains dried on the colour of her coat. But after more than a week away from Darlene the sequence didn’t pack the emotional punch it desperately wanted to.
Time after time last night music swelled, beats were nailed and climaxes were imminent, only to fizzle out. The bright side is that now any expectations for season three are diminished. Maybe, without the need to prove something, the show will sparkle again next season. Elliot won’t become a narrative drag but a centre point. Rami Malek deserves it. He has an Emmy now. Don’t you dare force him to listen to one more goddamn modernist poem.
- Joanna Wellick is one of those vaguely evil lady characters that give all vaguely evil lady characters a bad name. Especially when the show uses her to reinforce the idea that men can’t be entirely responsible for beating women and sometimes it really is the woman’s false. Gross.
- But that being said, respect for her dumb boyfriend’s Cocktail poster.
- How the text between me and the friend went: Me: “are you the one that hates the Red Wheelbarrow?” Her: “God yes. Suck it William Carlos Williams”
- Is it irony that a show notorious for its purposeful obfuscation in text would quote one of the Imagist’s movements best-known poets?
- Seriously. I could not take Tyrell serious after he recited that poem.
- Like, oh no, he might shoot Elliot, proving he exists and further warping Elliot’s already tenuous grasp on reality! Good. Then I can maybe be compelled to forget him quoting THE RED WHEELBARROW.
- It’s just a tiny step below quoting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, or fellow imagist Robert Frost. Don’t come at me with a cliché and expect me to treat it as fresh.
- I am so mad for the wonderful cast of this show. They deserve better.