The first few notes are hard to place, but the song soon has the effect of a flashback. In the penultimate episode of “Mr. Robot” (USA), anti-corporate hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) brings disgruntled executive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) to the derelict arcade where the season’s climactic cyber attack takes shape. It’s the piano on the soundtrack, though, tapping out Maxence Cyrin’s languid, almost elegiac rendition of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?,” that marks the scene as one of the year’s best, casting its lot with another portrait of resistance to deranged values—David Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999). “What did you hope to accomplish?” Wellick asks, finally. “I don’t know,” Elliot replies, the camera closing in on his face as the song approaches its resolution. “I wanted to save the world.”
It may simply be that “Fight Club,” with its sinister, misanthropic bent, came into cult fashion at exactly the right moment for a self-styled teenage cinephile uncomfortable in his own skin, but the truth is I cannot shake the association. For me, born the year before the Pixies released the album, “Surfer Rosa,” on which “Where Is My Mind?” first appeared, the song is inextricable from the final moments of Fincher’s film (video below). With the image of the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) and his paramour, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), watching the skyline explode before them, Fincher transformed the lyrics’ expression of the disorientation that occurs in scuba diving into an apocalyptic anthem, and the idea stuck.
“Where Is My Mind?” has been re-appropriated so often, in TV commercials and “Sucker Punch” (2011), on “Californication” (Showtime) and “Criminal Minds” (CBS), that any accounting for its meaning is necessarily slippery, but its recent use in “Mr. Robot” and HBO’s strange, surprising “The Leftovers” is a potent reminder of the anxiety, and the anarchy, of influence. That two series so consumed by the collapse of the existing order should use the tune speaks to the long reach of Fincher’s reading, and each reflects a similar sense of the chaos bubbling up from beneath modernity’s sleek surface. “With your feet on the air / And your head on the ground,” the song begins, and indeed “Fight Club,” “Mr. Robot,” and “The Leftovers” all imagine what happens when the world turns upside-down.
Far removed from the adolescent angst that first sparked my interest in “Fight Club,” the film as a whole no longer seems quite as courageous as it once did, but Fincher’s treatment of “Where Is My Mind?” remains iconic, at least to me. That his version has established its own foothold in this way should be no surprise, really. The director cut his teeth on music videos for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” and the conclusion of “Fight Club” suggests his knack for finding a song’s most fitting cinematic vernacular.
In the film, after realizing that he and erstwhile revolutionary Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are split personalities inhabiting the same body, Norton’s insomniac, white-collar drone discovers Durden’s endgame. Under the aegis of an organization called Project Mayhem, he’s wired credit card companies’ buildings to implode, erasing the records of debt contained within, and “Where Is My Mind?” starts to play as the narrator, having shot himself in the mouth to get rid of Durden’s presence, finally accepts the endgame as his own. “Marla, look at me,” he says. “I’m really okay. Trust me. Everything’s gonna be fine.” Through a high rise’s wide windows, detonations light up the sky in rapid succession, and the camera gently moves in behind the pair as they witness these emblems of capitalism crumble.
“Mr. Robot,” created by Sam Esmail, also concerns displaced identities and debt slavery, but it wasn’t until the aforementioned tinkling of the piano that I came to see it as a sort of serialized homage to “Fight Club,” updated for the digital age. In the brilliant first season, Elliot, encouraged by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), joins a vigilante hacker collective known as fsociety in an effort to take down the world’s largest conglomerate, E Corp—canceling all the debt the company holds and tanking the global economy in the process. “Mr. Robot” is, as In These Times noted, “the most explicitly anti-capitalist work of mainstream pop culture since ‘Snowpiercer.'”
Indeed, buoyed by its painstaking, asymmetrical compositions and darkly electric narrative, the series surpasses the radicalism of “Fight Club,” tying fsociety’s cyber attack to a broader political program, one reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street. Re-purposing the garish, neon salesmanship of the arcade, the storefront, and the heart of Times Square as surely as it does the Pixies’ music, “Mr. Robot” turns out to be the first fictional work of art to offer a sustained focus on the financial crisis and the Great Recession as epochal events, rather than a singular moment of corporate excess (as in J.C. Chandor’s nonetheless stellar “Margin Call”). The series is a Molotov cocktail ignited from the inside of the culture’s most materialist medium, and its quieter approach to “Where Is My Mind?” thus singes capitalism’s cutting edge at least as much as a fireworks display of explosions.
In “The Leftovers,” as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum points out, the revolution at hand is more existential than ideological, but the series—in addition to being one of television’s finest examinations of belief, up there with “The Americans” (FX) and “Rectify” (SundanceTV)—exhibits a “wildness,” an anarchic streak, of a piece with “Fight Club” and “Mr. Robot.” Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta from the latter’s eponymous
novel, “The Leftovers” is set three years after the “Sudden Departure,”
a Rapture-like event in which two percent of the world’s population
vanishes without explanation. In the second season, its stricken rhythms
remain as bracing as ever.
If anything, as it follows former cop Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his girlfriend, Nora Durst (the exceptional Carrie Coon), and his teenage daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), to the town of Jarden, Texas, where not a single person “departed,” the series embraces its experimental construction even further: it opens with a flashback to the prehistoric, devotes the season premiere almost entirely to a quartet of new characters, the Murphy family (led by Kevin Carroll’s John and Regina King’s Erika), and approaches the first three episodes, of which the action in each covers roughly the same stretch of time, from three distinct points of view. With the conclusion of “Mad Men” (AMC) and the cancellation of “Hannibal” (NBC), “The Leftovers” might well be the most ambitious show on television.
Among the new season’s innumerable arresting moments, however, none struck me as forcefully as the use of “Where Is My Mind?”—twice. One, from the second episode, begins as Kevin surveys the burnt-out husks of the suburban cul-de-sac where Jill and his ex-wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), nearly perished, after the citizens of their hometown turned against a cult-like group known as the Guilty Remnant; the other, from the third episode, arrives as Laurie’s attempt to rebuild her life after leaving the Remnant collides with the recognition, as son Tom (Chris Zylka) comments later, that the secular has “nothing” to say on the subject of cataclysm.
If “Where Is My Mind?” is “in the zeitgeist” again, as Lindelof recently told HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, that’s because Fincher’s version fastened it there, in all its quasi-apocalyptic glory. While “The Leftovers” refuses to explain its central event, preferring an all-too-human profusion of possibilities—the Sudden Departure as fate, as punishment, as divine intervention—its tribute to the Pixies, “Fight Club,” and even “Mr. Robot” strengthens my suspicion that the series depicts an ongoing battle against meaninglessness itself.
The raw, unceasing grief to which “The Leftovers” is so powerfully attuned, universal and yet experienced in isolation, is not so very different from the end of the world, and Fincher’s film, like the two superlative series that allude to it, is in this sense a modern, alienated elaboration on a very old idea. In the etymology of “apocalypse,” or indeed the Bible itself, every ending is also a beginning, and though “Fight Club,” “Mr. Robot,” and “The Leftovers” approach the connection between revolution and revelation in distinct ways, all are, to varying degrees, alive to Elliot’s notion that you may have to destroy the world in order to save it, to turn it upside-down in order to set things right.
“Mr. Robot” is now available via Hulu and Amazon Prime. “The Leftovers” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.