And then, I thought, hmmmm, Sam Esmail probably beat me to that punch better than I ever would have thrown it. And that’s why Whiterose’s machine in Mr. Robot seems to have worked. I’m going to SPOIL the finale, and everything prior, so fair warning.
Elliot famously kicks off Mr. Robot saying, “Hello, friend.” A friend is all he’s ever wanted. But who is his friend? It’s us, the audience, the world that’s watching. And a world is on the line in the finale. It’s a small step, and an unlikely coincidence given how much thought went into this show. Check out this snippet from Wikipedia, and then get ready to talk spoilers. But if you haven’t watched Mr. Robot, go pop some corn and get ready for a show on par with Breaking Bad for drama:
“Hello, World!” programs are often the first a student learns to write in a given language, and they can also be used as a sanity test to ensure computer software intended to compile or run source code is correctly installed, and that its operator understands how to use it.Wikipedia [emphasis mine]
Alright, it’s time for Mr. Robot spoilers:
It’s possible when we meet Elliot it’s the Mastermind’s first day out and about. Or he might have been, as Krista tells us, present since Elliot was a kid. It seems more likely he’s the very first personality, or maybe the second one, the Lucifer riding the coattails of Mr. Robot’s loving father figure. So okay, the program booting up in the pilot is…well this TV program. Hello, friend.
But who says those words? Is it Elliot or the Mastermind? The Mastermind is a wetware Turing test, interacting with the world and constantly trying to pass as human based on everything he can draw from poor, damaged Elliot. The Mastermind is living malware, a relentless hacker of all systems that will continue to pry the cracks and prowl the corners until he exposes them. The very first thing he tells the cafe owner is that he can never just accept the surface level of things, he always has to check them for flaws.
And sure, if you were hacker-Batman, you would say that too. But the entire series was written with the ending in mind, and that’s why I think Whiterose’s machine worked.
What is Whiterose’s machine?
Much discussion is made of the machine’s operation, though I think it’s clear early on what the purpose of that function will be: Whiterose wants to hack reality itself to rewrite its flawed settings. In her world, nobody loses important people in their lives, it won’t be necessary to fight and kill for a share of resources…everybody gets the space to be the best version of themselves. So, a pointless speculation, except I need to break down what it could be to argue why it did work.
Option 1: A time-travel device — or perhaps it’s better to say time-altering device. This is least likely, since we see Whiterose / Zhi Zhang as a cis woman, and then you’re leaving a lot in the air about how to affect an outcome in utero—i.e. there would be two miracle machines and we never hear any talk about a second one. So time travel is insufficient explanation. On the other hand, Angela meets her younger self, and Elliot gets a vision of things out of place from his life as well, so…
Option 2: A gateway to a parallel world. Effectively the same as the time machine but functionally very different. This one is like a quantum computer that selects only the world that fits the criteria for everyone to share a happy ending. Zhang is free to be her true self with her true love, Elliot has a happy childhood, etc. This also seems to line up with what few details we’re given.
Option 3: A wish machine. Everybody gets their own personal heaven, rather than transforming the world. We’re all quantum leap-launched into the world that makes us happiest.
Option 3.5: Same as above, but we’re in some Matrix situation. Nothing changes and nobody goes anywhere except in our minds. Not plugged into giant towers, we’re all just cast into an indistinguishable virtual world.
Option 4: It’s a lie. Of sorts.
Option 5: The whole thing. Time and space are just parallel worlds, different timelines, and Whiterose has dilated a gateway enough to bring people and things through if that’s how crucial it is to convince key figures. A quantum computer selects the world that gives you everything you want and overwrites you in it.
I think it’s option 4, or, maybe most deliciously to the idea of quantum vandalism: both a lie and the truth. Option 4 then 3. The very first thing Mastermind shares about himself—and remember, he knows we’re sitting in on his meet with the cafe owner—is that he doesn’t trust nice places not to hide awful secrets. The machine’s job is to ensure everyone can be happy. But as The Matrix points out, and it was a huge influence on this show, human beings aren’t wired to trust happiness. A certain number of people will wake up no matter what.
Did Whiterose’s machine actually work?
The show tells us the machine didn’t go into effect, Elliot was able to stop it and save the world. But keep that Matrix tidbit in mind: the imperfection is the selling point for hackers like Elliot. Let me explain:
So the first thing the machine had to do was give him an impossibly perfect world. One that seemingly had no cracks, so that he could find and expose the biggest security vulnerabilities possible: the entire world is unstable. All the security was a lie. Once he did that, the entire world fell apart and he woke up in the “real” world but he was finally himself again. His real self, not his lie. The Mastermind destroyed/abandoned control, something it could never have done without the growth of the previous few episodes. And in fact, it had to kill the happy Elliot to do so, before it could admit its presence was destructive and relinquish the reins.
You know who else had an obsession with solving for the minutiae and destroyed herself in order to gamble on becoming her true self? Whiterose. Neat! She was convinced the machine would work, and if it didn’t, there was nothing for her in this one. She had thrown it all on the line.
So look at the world Elliot wakes up in: Darlene and Dom are happily reunited immediately after splitting up, despite their completely clashing careers. Everyone in the world is rich, and the faceless suits no longer control everything. Even Psycho Irving finally published his book and is just enjoying life, no more axe murders. Everybody who was still with us when the machine switched on got a happy ending.
How long was Mastermind in existence?
We’re told Mastermind was an original actual protective identity from Elliot’s youth alongside Mr. Robot, but we’re told that by the Krista in the new reality. She also says he stuck the real Elliot in a fantasy loop a year ago. Was Mastermind always there, plotting? Or did the machine create the Mastermind as always having existed, a Last Thursdayist persona made by the machine to create a logical “eXit” for Elliot to be happy?
Now, the character we traveled with could have been Elliot all along, and the Mastermind persona was retconned into the story by the working machine to give Elliot an out. Or it could be we were with the Mastermind all along and the ultimate security breach was, in some way, the most fulfilling outcome for his purpose. Either way, Elliot does get a happy ending. He gets to engage with friends at last, he gets his sister back, Darlene gets true love after losing Dom initially, then saves the day, fsociety succeeds in its mission*, and everybody gets an insane amount of money stolen from the evil richies.
*It’s worth noting that in Python, fsociety wouldn’t mean “fuck society.” F-string literals are a means of formatting that would redefine society. Whiterose specifically calls out Elliot for this in their final showdown without realizing the group’s name has this second meaning. The hackers set out to assign new values to a system that funnels resources to dragons and pits the rest of us against one another for scraps. Somebody more knowledgeable than me could probably find some examples of functions in the show that key directly into making a functional society.
The important thing is, remember, The Mastermind was created for two things: to keep Elliot safe (some overlap with Mr. Robot there) and to be hacker-Batman. He went rogue and stashed Elliot away where nothing could hurt him. It’s only when the entire world is safe that it’s okay to let Elliot out, but the Mastermind has trouble doing this.
So what happens in the final few episodes? Well, either Whiterose saved the world or Mastermind did, and taking quite a bit of vengeance in the process. Condition A is satisfied. Condition B is satisfied. And inside Elliot’s mind, the fantasy world is no longer safe for him, because Mastermind needs something to attack. That personality can only root out the flaws and exploit them to crash systems. Remember the very first thing he told the cafe owner? He could never accept a perfectly happy world even if he achieved it. He needed to be given his own heaven first, and crash all reality, no matter how perfect it seems.
Only then is Mastermind ready to yield control back to Elliot, having fulfilled his function to the ultimate degree. As in the first Matrix, “designed to be a virtual paradise, where everyone was happy, and no one suffered. It was a disaster. People kept waking up, entire crops were lost.”
Or, y’know, very arguably, Elliot died.
Of course, there’s the other possibility that none of it was real until the end, all of it took place in Mastermind’s head, and Elliot finally broke out of the “first Matrix” scenario. Which might mean the E in E Corp was Elliot himself. And then there’s…
Did Whiterose’s machine fail and kill everybody? Did it succeed and kill everybody?
Option 6: Nothing. The machine is just going to create a chain-reaction that destroys the world, either nuclear disaster or black hole. This might have actually happened, which means the machine did work, but only in either afterlife or quantum survivor fashions. Maybe Elliot/Mastermind actually hacked his way out of heaven.
Honestly? Lots of ways to take this one. All of them enjoyable and mind-bending. I just can’t find a version of the machine not working that doesn’t end with war with China. Can you imagine if we learned the Chinese Minister of State Security had not only committed the worst cyber-attack in world history, but a coordinated explosive strike on the corporation that basically is America and is minting our e-currency? That she ordered a hit on FBI agents that were guests in her country? And then led another hit squad into a nuke plant to, by all appearances, irradiate the eastern seaboard? The only way we get a happy ending is if Whiterose is no longer revealed as the Dark Army leader…