The Red Pill. Everyone remembers Morpheus offering Neo the choice of the red pill which will “show him how far this rabbit hole goes.” Only as it turns out later in the films it doesn’t quite work out that way.
This misremembering would simply be an interesting cinematic footnote to history, except that the red pill became a full fledged social and political worldview (really ideology). The red pill became the central symbol in the anti-feminist men's rights movement (and from there to the alt-right and so on.)
In this piece we're going to explore how in the Matrix films themselves the Red Pill actually turns out to be a psychological operation--that is a ploy created by the system to confuse people into thinking they were taking on true liberation when in reality it was all along another way for the system to control people's minds.
I'm not sure the phrase supreme irony adequately conveys the impact of realizing that life has imitated art here--which is to say that the #redpill movement in our world is itself, just as in the movies, a mechanism of the hidden hand of the machines. Red Pillers have no idea, in other words, that their own central symbol of awakening is simply another mechanism of mental and emotional manipulation and control.
So prepare to take the red pill on the red pill itself.
This will be part philosophical movie review but what the review will reveal is that our world is playing out exactly as predicted by the films themselves, unbeknownst to the supposed adherents of the Red Pill.
Let me explain.
We’re conditioned by Star Wars to expect a cinematic trilogy to adhere to the following order:
Movie #1: a plucky band of rebels manages against overwhelming odds to score a significant victory against the cold, impersonal, evil machinery of an Empire.
Movie #2: The Evil Empire regains its footing after an initial slip up. It then systematically goes about exacting pain and revenge on the rebels, pushing them to the absolute edge of extinction.
Movie #3: The Rebels, on the brink of destruction, somehow manage to score a final, decisive death blow to the Empire, ushering in a new era of peace and freedom.
Now the first Matrix movie follows that paradigm perfectly. The first Matrix movie is very straightforward. There’s good guys (plucky rebels) combat an evil empire (The Machines) and by the end the good guys (and gals) win.
So when the second Matrix film (Matrix Reloaded) came out I think most people were expecting essentially The Machines Strike Back. The beginning of the film—perhaps self-consciously—seems to point in precisely that direction. But pretty soon things take a real left turn and head in a very unexpected direction. Early on in that film Neo learns that machines are fighting other machines. Agent Smith unplugs from The Matrix altogether and begins fighting the machine’s agents in The Matrix while also simultaneously fighting Neo. The Oracle herself turns out to be a machine program. The Merovingian famously tells Neo that’s “I’ve survived your predecessors”, a statement that doesn’t really make sense at the time but later on will be very important (how can "The One" have predecessors?).
It’s at this point that the causal observer of the films typically gets lost. The previous movie was so black and white with it’s simplistic heroes vs. villains narrative. But this, what is all this about? As we’ll see that very issue lies at the heart of Red Pill ideology.
In Matrix Reloaded the film's focus shifts primarily to Zion, the city of “free” humans (why I put “free” in quotes there will become clearer in a moment), located deep in the earth. The humans discover that the machines are digging down in order to try to destroy Zion for good (or so it would seem).
Morpheus, The John the Baptist of the Matrix-verse, having found his Jesus in Neo believes that the humans, lead by their Messiah, are destined to fight an apocalyptic battle with the machines, wherein the humans will score a final glorious victory over their enemy.
Out of the ashes of that destruction, the humans will be free to dismantle the Matrix, free their captive brothers and sisters enslaved to the machines, and rebuild the human world. In other words Morpheus thinks he’s in the Star Wars universe. He’s going to get a rude awakening soon enough.
In order to achieve this theoretical final victory, The Oracle tells Neo that he must find The Keymaster who will take him to The Source. Neo believes that if he reunites with The Source it will destroy The Matrix totally.
Returning to the Source, destroying the Matrix & the machines, this is the logical end of Morpheus’ Red Pill theology. The Red Pill freed Neo from The Matrix and ultimately is step one in a plan whose endpoint is the total destruction of the Machines and complete liberation of the humans.
When applied to Men’s Rights Activism (and other related Red Pill-isms in our contemporary Matrix) the analogy is obvious. For MRAs the machines are feminism. Red Pill awakenings of individual men (and women) will lead to an ultimate battle and overthrow of the slavery of feminist ideology in total.
Except—and this is a pretty big except that no one seems to have noticed—Morpheus is wrong. As in totally, completely, 1000% dead wrong. What Matrix Reloaded reveals is that The Red Pill theology is a total bust. Worse, it turns out the entire thing is a psychological operation perpetrated by the machines themselves!!!
Let me repeat that:
The Red Pill is a psyop perpetrated by the machines themselves
Morpheus, it turns out, is one of the most important (though admittedly unwitting) agents of the machines. He’s a useful idiot in Stalin's language.
One of the key themes of Matrix Reloaded is destiny (purpose). Morpheus has his purpose to be the forerunner/John the Baptist who'll lead The Christ-like One (Neo) to his purpose, which according to the Oracle is to reunite with the Source. The Keymaster speaks of his purpose which is to facilitate The One returning to The Source.
All of this seems to be heading to its culmination at the end of the film. Neo is going to reunite with the Source, destroy the Matrix, save Zion and the humans, and defeat the machines.
Neo enters the Light-Source only to meet The Architect. I recommend re-watching the scene to get the full effect of what I'm saying here. The Architect proceeds to lay out in his emotionless, calculating narrative the way in which the entire thing has been a setup. There’s been no great spiritual destiny or purpose. It’s all part of the program. A program that he (and The Oracle!) designed.
The One is the remainder of an integral (or systemic) anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix. Rather than have that integral anomaly act as a threat to the system, the Architect sought to design a way to incorporate The One into the very evolution of the Matrix itself. The anomaly being free will/choice. The Oracle, as the Mother of the Matrix, realized that as long as human subjects were given the sense, even if on the most unconscious level that they were choosing to be in the Matrix, the vast overwhelming majority would. In other words, people choose their own enslavement because they appreciate it more than actual freedom.
Only a small percentage of subjects refused. The Architect (the Matrix's Father/Demiurge) creates a false myth of a Messianic character who will lead a group of "free" humans to fight off the machines, requiring that Messiah to return to the Source. In so doing the Architect would capture The One's coding and deploy it to creating the next iteration of The Matrix. Rather than leading to the destruction of the machines, Neo returning to The Source is precisely what allows one iteration of the Matrix to be destroyed only to have another one birthed. It’s just an even subtler layer of control from the machines. History in the Matrix is not heading to a progressive apocalyptic climax but rather is a series of endless cycles from which there is no escape.
The Architect announces to Neo that he’ll select a handful of humans to re-start Zion, including a new Morpheus whose job will be later to “(re)find The One” and start this whole charade all over again. After that the rest of the humans in Zion will be destroyed. Neo it turns out is “The 6th” The One, a total self-contradiction if there ever was one. The Matrix is on repeat. It’s a gigantic loop. There’s never any development or evolution, only beginning, middles, and ends leading to a new start that will play out the same programmed destiny of human capture.
The Red Pill, in other words, is a psyop. The Machines designed the Red Pill ideology in order to eventually lead The One back to the Source in order to jump start the next iteration of the same cruel oppressive Matrix. The machines were so Machiavellian as to take the narrative of revolution and liberation and co-opt to serve the ends of deeper, subtler enslavement.
In our version of the Matrix we know the ruling elites have long used dialectics in order to confuse the population. They fund both sides of an antagonism in order to create social bifurcation and division. The elites (under their intelligence and government apparatuses) then present themselves as the “3rd term of the dialectic”, the synthesis that will save us from these inherently warring tribes, usually by imposing greater control and state power.
Feminism and Men’s Rights Activism (MRAs) fights will end in exactly the same way. The Red Pill is a psyop. MRAs appear to be fighting this great fight against the monolithic machine of anti-male gender feminism but in reality they are a Trojan horse for the ruling elite and cabal to sow their destruction and control just as Morpheus was a useful idiot for the Machines.
Or: The Red Pill is a psychological operation of control.
It’s at this point that Neo makes an unexpected move. He refuses to play the Demiurge’s game. Neo refuses to walk into the Light, destroying one Matrix only to generate another. Neo makes this choice because Trinity, his beloved, is in danger and will die. Neo walks out, leading to the possibility of the total annihilation of human beings for all time. In so doing he turns his back not just on The Architect and his “prison planet” but he also turns his back on the red pill and its ideology, since as we just learned the red pill is a psyop of The Architect (or Archon-itect).
Matrix Reloaded ends with Neo being able to “feel” the machines in a new way. He uses this power to prevent a sentient attack on the humans but the force of the impact leaves Neo in a coma.
The final film in the Trilogy (Matrix Revolutions) similarly goes in a very different than expected direction. The level of philosophical and spiritual reflection in the final two films is very deep and profound but that subtlety confused too many people wanting a simple good guy vs. bad guy narrative. The later two films as films are not as good as the first one which also didn’t help the deeper spiritual message to get across.
The key thesis of the third film is that the revolution Neo will initiate is not the red pill. Neo is not after the destruction of the machines. That puts him against all the other humans except arguably Trinity who joins him in his fool’s errand for Love and Reconciliation.
Matrix Revolutions starts with Neo in a limbo zone. A “no place” place. A place betwixt and between. His physical body in the “real” world lies in a coma, while his consciousness/astral projected self is trapped in a limbo not within the Matrix proper but in an intermediate zone between the two.
The symbolism here is crucial. The reason Neo is in this limbo state is that he has to be held in a state of frozen animation for a time. It is a sign he’s starting to transcend the entire system up to date. He’s transcending The Chief Archons (The Oracle as Mother of The Matrix and The Architect as Demiurge-Father of the Matrix). He’s transcending the ideology of Zion, either in its naturalistic or rationalistic guise of Commander Lock as well as its mystical prophetic side symbolized by Morpheus.
Neo is no longer going to take a side in the war between humans and machines. He wants an end to the war as such and (amazingly) a reconciliation between man and machine.
In our contemporary gender wars in our Matrix, this would be individuals who transcend the gender war dialect deployed by the ruling elites to conquer and divide. Individuals who align neither with the men’s rights movement (red pillers) nor mainstream progressive feminism (blue pillers). And in case you’re wondering, no Neo doesn’t take the black pill of nihilism (or incel ideology). Quite the contrary he believes something can and should be done. Nor is Neo offering a milquetoast attempt at combining or finding the middle ground between the red pill and blue pill (the so-called purple pill).
Neo seeks to create an entirely different field of operation. (I’m not sure what color that pill is—rainbow? aqua? yellow?)
Neo has been distended from the reality even of his Zion compatriots. He’s “free floating” and will be unmoored from the red pill ideology of revolution against the machines.
The Revolution he seeks is one of reconciliation and lasting true peace.
Now to understand where Neo is coming from we need to go way back in the prehistory of The Machines, a history detailed in the Animatrix series (you can watch it here, heads up there’s some really graphic sequences).
The short version is that humans started persecuting the earliest versions of AI (machines). The machines fled the human genocidal operations against them and started their own civilization in deserted places of the Earth. Eventually their power came to rival the human powers of the world and the humans felt threatened. The machines offered a negotiated settlement, a non-aggression pact basically so that each could live separately and without fear of the other. The humans rejected this offer, instigated war, a war which brought the darker forces of the machines to power leading them to crush the humans and of course enslave them, instituting the Matrix as the means by which the humans could be parasitically fed upon by the Machines (since the humans had blocked out the sun, the central source of The Machines power).
Knowing this history (compare it to Morpheus’ version of events) changes the entire framework of the films. The humans are awful; the machines are horrific. There are no good guys in this story we now realize. Each side has unfathomable amounts of blood and cruelty on its side. (Consider that story line in relationship to our current gender wars.)
Into this horror Neo wants peace, a new way forward for both sides.
This desire for peace arises for Neo as a consequence of his new form of sight. At the end of the second film he was beginning to sense/intuit a new way of relating to the Machines. In third film he is physically blinded in an attack and thereupon begins to “see” the machines in his inner vision as entirely full of Light. Neo is enlightened and sees that the machines and the humans are all made of the same underlying fabric of Light. The machines and humans are distinct expressions in their embodiment but they are the same in that they are both “children of the Light.” Where everyone else sees their side as the pure ones and their enemy as the devil (Morpheus in relation to the machines or The Architect and his loathing of humans), Neo sees the universality, the common Light-nature of each and all. He wants a world that reflects The Truth that he sees. The Truth that has set him free of the war and the Red Pill ideology.
Here the film offers some valuable insight: how are the mortal enemies of human and machine going to unite? What would cause them to put aside their enmity?
The answer it turns out is only a greater threat common to both. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The crux of the third film is the rise of Agent Smith. Smith will become that common mortal threat to both human and machine alike. Neo will use the (very real) threat of Smith as a bargaining chip from The Machines in order to extract terms of peace.
Smith becomes The Joker of The Matrix universe—he becomes an Agent of Chaos. (Though I guess technically Heath Ledger’s Joker became The Agent Smith of The Batverse since Smith proceeded him but you get the point.)
Smith goes about systematically destroying everything. He overruns The Matrix. He infiltrates Zion and single handedly blows a giant hole in its defenses threatening it to be overrun by the machines. The only place left is for Smith to overrun the Machine world.
Neo knows this. Neo travels to The Machine City and meets with the Machine Leader (aptly named Deus Ex Machina). Neo promises to defeat Smith. The machine god promises in return to have peace with the humans.
Neo then fights Smith and eventually overcomes Smith by surrendering to Smith and allowing Smith to overtake him. At this point the film takes an explicitly orthodox Christian theological turn which is interesting given the strongly Gnostic flavor of the rest of the trilogy in that Jesus-Neo takes the sin of the world on him, succumbs to the power of evil, is crucified, and is watched in his crucifixion by God the Father figure of the Deus Ex Machina. Out of his death reconciliation in the universe is achieved.
Neo's Christ-like sacrifice is the total opposite of the Red Pill's faux-heroism. It is his loving self-sacrificial death that gives rise to peace and a new way forward. At the end of the second film (Reloaded) Morpheus famously says, "I have dreamed a dream but now that dream is gone from me." The dream he means there is the dream of defeating the machines, a dream that it turns out was an inception, it was in a very real sense implanted in him by those very machines themselves. The dream was a psyop. To Morpheus' credit he follows Neo beyond his (incepted) dream and is willing to go into a new way. It is that kind of true courage nad heroism we need now to move beyond the psyop into a real future together.