Note: With several so-called “gimmick” episodes so far this season on Mr. Robot, including the silent episode two weeks ago and stage-play episode last night (they aren’t really gimmicks, per se, as you’ll see below), I thought I’d repost here something I’d originally written on July 22, 2016, on Medium and since taken down.
I don’t especially remember all that much in the way of theory either from growing up in the halls of a theater in upstate New York, from hanging out with actors in college, or from my one and only Dramatic Studies course, but Brecht’s conception of the “alienation effect” lingers.
(Wikipedia standardizes the term as “distancing effect” but notes that it’s also been variously called “defamiliarization effect”, “estrangement effect”, and “distantiation”.)
All I recall, really, is a general sense of the effect being one deliberately generated by a production with the intention of putting the audience at a kind of emotional arm’s length, allowing them to tackle the performances and themes before them from a more intellectual vantage point.
Brecht wanted to “distance” or to “alienate” his audience from the characters and the action and, by dint of that, render them observers who would not become involved in or to sympathize emotionally or to empathize by identifying individually with the characters psychologically; rather, he wanted the audience to understand intellectually the characters’ dilemmas and the wrongdoing producing these dilemmas exposed in his dramatic plots. By being thus “distanced” emotionally from the characters and the action on stage, the audience could be able to reach such an intellectual level of understanding (or intellectual empathy); in theory, while alienated emotionally from the action and the characters, they would be empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht’s social and political goal as a playwright and the driving force behind his dramaturgy.
I got to thinking about this at some point before the second season premiere of Mr. Robot, initially because of the degree to which the show at the end of its first season not only broke the fourth wall, but obliterates it entirely as Elliot not only addresses the audience directly but commits a physical assault upon the camera through which we are watching him.
Throughout the show’s first season, Elliot engages in monologue through voiceover, addressing his comments to an unseen and unidentified “you”. In and of itself, nothing all that especially different from such voiceovers elsewhere. Except as the season progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this isn’t some diary we’re hearing voiced aloud, or sessions of psychological or psychiatric counseling. Elliot not only is speaking to someone he’s convinced is real, he’s speaking specifically to us. He comes to believe that we actually know things that he does not, have seen things that he hasn’t. By season’s end, he’s so convinced that we are in league with the forces persecuting him he tries to attack us through the screen.
Breaking the fourth wall is one of the many methods Brecht uses to create his distancing effect, but it’s not necessarily used quite to the extent as it’s used in Mr. Robot (notwithstanding late seasons of Moonlighting where they were known to conduct chase sequences through the studio soundstage, or marvel at fake snow falling through the ceiling-less set). Here, the production doesn’t merely have the protagonist speak to the audience. Here, the protagonist comes to suspect the audience, and of course he isn’t wrong; we do in fact know things he doesn’t, have seen things he hasn’t, because that’s how being a viewer works. Mr. Robot’s use of breaking the fourth wall does everything it can to remind the viewer that they remain outside of Elliot’s experience. Outside, in fact, the experiences of every character on the show. The show constantly fights against the commonplace tide of entertainments meant merely to subsume us, by scolding us to remember that none of these people are real, that we are watching a story.
(This is, of course, Elliot’s own narrative struggle. How much of his life is real and how much isn’t. Who is he, and who are we. Mr. Robot himself just this week chided Elliot for trying to ask us for help on this point.)
In a great look at how the show’s directory of photography Tod Campbell bends, breaks, or inverts framing conventions (by placing characters at the bottom of the frame, flipping their usual “rule of thirds” placement within the frame, etc.), filmmaker Bea Cabrera describes how this deliberate approach emphasizes “isolation” and creates an “overall unease and tension”.
I’d argue that these techniques also do something else. By almost violently interfering with framing conventions, on top of playing up Elliot’s awareness of the viewer by acknowledging the lack of a fourth wall, the show constantly and as a matter of routine works to remind the viewer that they are watching a fictional episode of a television show, asking them not to get so sucked in that they lose sight of what the show is trying to say.
By disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and “fictive” qualities of the medium, the actors alienate the viewer from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the play as mere “entertainment”. Instead, the viewer is forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind that serves to disabuse him or her of the notion that what he is watching is necessarily an inviolable, self-contained narrative.
As the Wikipedia article suggests, Brecht wanted the audience to be “empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht’s social and political goal as a playwright and the driving force behind his dramaturgy”. Establishing its protagonist’s acute awareness of the viewer and framing its shots in ways the viewer can’t help but accept as an artifice, Mr. Robot underscores and highlights both its narrative argument over the degree to which our own lives might not be authentic, might in fact themselves be an artifice, and its desire to make us wonder just who out there might be responsible for constructing it.
By repeatedly establishing and re-establishing its own identity and existence as a fiction, Mr. Robot wants us to stop and think about just how much we simply take for granted that ours is not.