Subjectivity in Storytelling: When It’s Okay To Lie To Your Audience


(The following contains spoilers for Mr. Robot and The Walking Dead)

I’ve been very critical about how The Walking Dead has treated its audience over the last season. First, when the Glenn fakeout debacle occurred, I wrote about how such trickery betrayed the trust that the show had established with the viewer and weakened the stakes of the series. Then, when the show decided not to tell the audience who died at the end of the season, I called them out for cheaply manipulating the audience in hopes of increased ratings. I still stand by both criticisms: The Walking Dead had an unfortunate habit of being dishonest with its audience last year, and it soured a lot of the more positive aspects of the season.

However, since writing those articles, I’ve caught up with another show that is somewhat notorious for lying to its audience. The first season of USA’s Mr. Robot structured itself around the fact that there was more to the story than we were being told. While the viewer likely realizes that something is amiss, and may be able to predict a particular twist (especially if they’re familiar with Fight Club), the full scope of the show’s withholding isn’t revealed until late in the season.

In theory, this act of withholding information from the audience isn’t too far removed from what The Walking Dead did with Negan. There are characters in the show who know more than the audience, and the decision to keep the audience in the dark is at least partially up to the creative minds behind the show. However, Mr. Robot’s season 1 reveal doesn’t feel like a cheat, because the narrative framework of the show has established that our window into Elliot’s world is subjective.

It’s amazing how much of this subjectivity is communicated solely through the visuals and construction of the series. Elliot’s narration is a major factor in setting us up to expect a subjective narrative, true, but creator Sam Esmail goes even further by working Elliot’s worldview into scenes in which he is not featured. Newsfeeds frequently refer to “Evil Corp,” Elliot’s nickname for the omnipresent E-Corp, just to hit home how much the story is being filtered through Elliot’s perspective. Characters refer to the company in the same way, regardless of whether Elliot is in the room. The show’s visual style is also meant to feel obfuscated and dreamlike, especially with the decision to frame characters in the bottom corner with the negative space behind their head. Esmail is indicating that we’re seeing a window into reality, but perhaps we’re not being shown all of the important pieces.

All of these stylistic flourishes work together to form a creative contract with the viewer. When the full scope of the show’s misdirection is revealed, we’re not angry about it because Elliot, our own entry point into the show’s world, is just as shocked. If anything we’re LESS surprised by the revelations than Elliot, who outright states that he’s angry we knew more than him. The show has been fair with us from the start, and we’ve always suspected that was amiss.

I could go on further about why this reveal is so brilliant: the way the show uses the most obvious twist as a smokescreen for something more, the way that the episode’s introduction just slightly tips its hand. But what Esmail pulls with Mr. Robot’s second season is perhaps even more impressive: he changes the game and resets the viewer’s expectations.

Right off the bat, Elliot tells us that he no longer trusts us. During a scene with his therapist, he cuts us off before he reveals something significant. While season 1 held secrets because Elliot held them from himself, here it is suggested that Elliot (and, by extension, the show) may be flat-out dishonest with us.

Sure enough, midway through the season, we discover that much of what we’ve seen has been a lie…sort of. Despite having viewed Elliot at his mother’s house, or walking outside, he has actually spent every scene inside of a prison. His clothing was a lie, his environment was a lie, and while the general events and character interactions were seemingly real, the context of such scenes is drastically different than when they were initially presented to us.

It would have been so easy to botch this reveal, because audiences don’t like being lied to. Most visual narratives (including The Walking Dead) operate under the assumption of a “lens of truth.” Characters may lie, and information may be misconstrued, but what we’re shown onscreen is accurate. This is why Glenn’s death, with its dishonest camera angle, felt cheap. The camera isn’t for the characters, it’s for us, so it hits us like a direct betrayal by the show’s creators.

But by establishing a new ruleset so early in the season. Mr. Robot sidesteps the issue. The reveal of Elliot’s true surroundings is not only exciting because of the shock of it, or even the re-contextualization of much of what has come before, but because it serves an actual purpose for the character. Elliot has had a breakthrough. He understands who he is, that Mr. Robot is a part of him, and that, by extension, so are we. Locking us out no longer serves a purpose. He’s embraced us, and we can expect him to be more forthcoming.

A new creative contract is born. For now.

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