Mr. Robot’s Most Daring Feature: A Chinese Villain

By | December 23, 2019

[Note about spoilers: There are only the vaguest possible spoilers for the series finale–and all season four spoilers are only in the first two paragraphs. This article isn’t about that.]

“Mr. Robot” is hands-down the most audacious Drama on television (sorry Damon Lindelof, I know you try). Any given episode can feature head trips, fake outs, surprise deaths, debates on society or the nature of reality, shocking violence, heartfelt emotions, series changing plot twists, or (like in the case of the series finale) all of the above.

This season alone featured a mesmerizing episode that was dialogue free, a WGA-nominated one that was nearly all dialogue (structured like a five act play with three main characters), and one where two major characters were literally lost in the woods. The season premiere featured the fake-out heroin overdose death of our hero, and the very real death of another major character. The climax of the entire series happened at the two thirds mark of the final season, when there were still four episodes left.

You get the idea: “Mr. Robot” is a series that revealed its title character was inside the head of our protagonist at the end of season 1, and then alienated most of its audience (the ratings never recovered) by spending two thirds of season 2 inside that same head. This series is bonkers. It will do anything it wants, and that is why fans love it so much.

And yet one of the most revolutionary aspects of the series is something that not a single article (to my knowledge) has ever been written about: the main villain, Whiterose or Chinese Minister of State Security Zhi Zhang (the MSS is the Chinese version of the CIA).

Whenever we see articles written about Zhang/Whiterose, they usually focus on how the series is villainizing transpeople. [Which is both unbelievable and completely believable in a twittersphere where people passively comb for things to be outraged about rather than actually offering real-world help, something you would think “Mr. Robot” had appropriately parodied.] The occasional mention of Zhang’s nationality (usually found on Quora, Twitter, or Reddit, things China can SPAM easily) will talk about how Hollywood is “once again” villainizing China.

All of that is well and good until you realize it’s complete bullshit. To my knowledge, there are no other TV shows currently on the air with a Chinese villain. And even if you can find one (there are over 500 scripted series after all–more than the number of movies getting a wide theatrical release), I’m willing to bet it is not an active bigwig in the Chinese government, but maybe a “rogue operator” like all those “renegade” generals or Colonels of Russia Hollywood likes. Hollywood generally is more predisposed to “stateless terrorists,” something that doesn’t actually exist (nearly all major terrorist groups receive some governmental assistance and the same is true for major hacking attacks), so as to stay on the good side of foreign nations.

In the rare contemporary case where they take a specific stand, people go nuts. Like in the case of “The Interview,” which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un found so disturbing, he put a group called “Guardians of Peace” up to hacking Sony Pictures and releasing so many controversial emails the head was eventually ousted. That Amy Pascal was the only female head of a major studio and that the emails were hacked by a terrorist group (“Guardians of Peace” threatened another 911 if theaters played “The Interview,” the irony of their moniker barely receiving a mention by the press) didn’t seem to make any difference in people judging Sony Pictures harshly.

Subsequently, a North Korean-set movie that was supposed to star Steve Carell was cancelled, and you’ll notice there’s been very few movies about North Korea released or green-lit since. Nor will you probably ever see a “Killing Putin” movie or even one where he’s negatively portrayed, as he was even airbrushed out of the film adaptation of “Red Sparrow.”

And, of course, North Korea was considered the “safe” country to go after in comparison to China. So much so that the 2012 “Red Dawn” remake digitally altered their villains from Chinese to North Korean, but the movie was still banned there anyway. Although the irony of a movie about standing up to overseas fascist oppression digitally changing their villains to get around Chinese censors is rich, you can’t totally blame struggling distributor MGM, since all their films were temporarily banned in China following the release of 1997’s “Red Corner.”

In fact, 1997 was a busy year for Chinese censors with the release of “Kundun” (which got Disney films banned for a few years…until China wanted to open Disneyland Shanghai and release the China-inspiring “Mulan”), “Red Corner” (Richard Gere movies are still banned there, so he can forget about playing in a major blockbuster like “Star Wars” which is why you don’t see him much anymore), and “Seven Years in Tibet,” which reportedly earned Brad Pitt a China-ban for several years since “World War Z” wasn’t released in China mostly because it starred him.

There has not been a major Hollywood movie with a Chinese villain since 1997. And since Disney, MGM, and Columbia Tri-Star (the distributor for “7 Years in Tibet”) all faced temporary business bans in China, you can easily see why. Plus, Gere’s ban there has meant he’s all but excluded from international blockbusters, and what actor would risk that?

No wonder the Bond, Bourne, and Mission Impossible films have all disappeared up their own ass with your stateless, Eurotrash arms dealer villains or–even worse–Western spies hell-bent on world domination. [Since China’s Ali-Baba has taken over financing the “Mission Impossible” movies, the villains have been a secret order of disgraced Western spies determined to attack China–like Henry Cavill’s Superman-esque CIA agent in “Fallout.”] Other anti-Western intelligence agency messages can be found in the CIA or state department villains of “XXX: Return of Xander Cage” and “Geostorm,” both funded by China.

And since AMC theaters (by far the nation’s largest theater chain) is owned by a Chinese company (or man with close ties to its government, a distinction without a difference), it’s not like movies with Chinese villains would even be able to get theatrical distribution even if they somehow found major stars willing to commit career suicide, and a film distributor who decided they were tired of making money in the Chinese marketplace. [Plus, the Chinese cash that is funding certain movies from “Bad Moms” to “Star Trek Beyond,” which almost no distributor would possibly want to alienate.]

Hollywood has gotten so spineless, that they’re now willing to edit scenes or outright remove them even for things that aren’t even directly related to China like nudity (countless movies, goodbye Kate Winslett’s topless scene in “Titanic”), homosexuality (“Cloud Atlas”), positive portrayals of American military competency (“Top Gun,” “Captain Phillips”), or even negative references to Russia (“Iron Man 2”), in perhaps the clearest sign yet that China will go to bat for North Korea or Russia too–making their villains less likely as well. [“Iron Man 3” tried so hard to suck up to China after the “miscommunications” of “Iron Man 2” that they shot additional minutes for the China-version featuring Iron Man flattering Chinese products.]

It is the height of hypocrisy that Hollywood is willing to move film or TV production out of North Carolina due to transgender ban (although probably just as likely because another Southern state was cheaper), but are totally cool with China editing homosexual content out of “Game of Thrones” episodes or outright banning “Brokeback Mountain” and “Call Me By Your Name.”

I have no delusions that Hollywood is as great a champion of social justice as it pretends to be, but willingly banning homosexual or sexual content to appeal to government censors in a country that is actively stifling civil rights and killing Muslims? I mean…this is the same Hollywood that has uniformly issued “We are Allies of Muslims” and LGBTQ statements during Trump’s Muslim Ban and various states LGBTQ-phobic bills. The reality is they’re far more scared of North Korea than North Carolina.

It seems like the ripe kind-of hypocrisy Mr. Robot (the character and the series) is ready to blow the doors off of. Maybe Sam Esmail just didn’t think it would be credible to do a series completely about hacking without mentioning the Chinese government, which (along with Russia) is responsible for almost every major data breach in U.S. history.

Of course, that wouldn’t have stopped a less principled creator from pretending China is not America’s chief geopolitical rival or cyberthreat, and burying their heads in the sand—I have no doubt in my mind, Swedish character Tyrell Wellick would’ve been the main bad-guy and string puller if this were a Hollywood movie.

But that’s not even remotely what’s actually happening in the world. And most of the nations America has hostile relations with (Iran, Venezuela, Syra, North Korea) couldn’t keep their lights on without huge financial and military support from China and Russia.

By delving into China’s industrial espionage and desire to shape the world to their whims (a major plot line on the series is China’s desire to spread chaos in the Western world while it slowly absorbs parts of Africa, something most political scientists think is barely even fictionalized), “Mr. Robot” is doing something much more important than featuring the umpteenth generically European or Muslim villain.

I know what I’m saying might sound like a thinly-veiled, quasi-conservative argument against “being PC” (whatever that means, people say it about everything from Marvel movies to Star Wars and I have no idea what they’re talking about). But it’s not that at all. It’s a desire to see the world accurately represented without pressure from fascistic foreign governments.

When Hollywood is completely terrified of China (and to an extent, North Korea and Russia), it cannot even begin to make movies about things actually going on in the world. And shows like “Mr. Robot” are helping ensure that at least some TV hasn’t fully gone the way of shameful American organizations like Marriott Hotels or even the NBA–which twisted itself into a pretzel of appeasement after someone merely tweeted support for Hong Kong.

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