In The Matrix, before he transforms into the Neo we know and love, a hacker named Thomas Anderson faces a critical choice: Will he return to the simulation that has imprisoned his mind, or will he awaken to the real world? The two options are notoriously presented in pharmaceutical form — the blue pill puts him back to sleep, while the red pill will show him, in the words of Neo’s mentor, Morpheus, “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” There is nothing outside of this binary.
Or is there?
Ever since that Matrix scene entered the cultural lexicon, we have continued to invent and catalogue new variations on the metaphor. Today, internet jargon reflects this with the common hyphenate adjective “[blank]-pilled,” where the first word can stand for anything you believe, support or find yourself obsessed with. There are now innumerable pills to mix and match, and so the conceit of getting cross-faded on a couple of different ones has emerged as a possibility. In the simplest scenario, the effect of downing the speedball combination of red and blue is pretty close to what you’d get from a potent drug cocktail. You’re just extremely turnt.
However, if you subscribe to the Manosphere’s definition of the red pill (the supposed hidden truth that women have ultimate power over men in contemporary society), then pairing it with a blue pill (the boilerplate liberal view on patriarchal gender inequality and the need to affirm women’s rights) could bring you to the subreddit r/PurplePillDebate, where users from either side can theoretically debate these issues and establish common ground. In practice, however, the forum is dominated by red-pilled men looking for feminists to bombard with their most predictable talking points. It’s a way for them to complain outside their own echo chamber.
Personally, I’m more interested in the philosophical question of what would happen in the world of The Matrix if you were to swallow the pills together. Back in 2009, on the occasion of the film’s 10th anniversary, Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic xkcd, imagined a Neo figure crushing them up and snorting the powder, which in turn led to a complete inversion of the natural order: Black is white, up is down, etc. More recently, that gag has been recombined with the “I Never Shoulda Smoke That Shit” meme, which imagines the speaker transported to unlikely places by potent cannabis, to suggest that taking the red and blue pills together will land you in a punishingly neutral zone, such as Reading, Pennsylvania, or Glendale, California.
Strangely, this result seems to match the outcome of taking neither pill: You remain suspended in ordinary life, though with a somehow external perspective of your predicament. The same condition is explored through a collective online interest in transitory or liminal spaces — hallways, stairways, airports, lobbies, gas stations and other locations that can give off an eerily generic aura, or destabilize our understanding of the material universe.
The internet itself, as a thing that’s at once everywhere and nowhere, makes us true citizens of liminality, always on the threshold between multiple realms. It’s as though we never get to decide on red versus blue at all, a fate repeatedly implied in the latest Matrix sequel, The Matrix Resurrections, which also explicitly rejects the trap of purely binary logic in favor of thrilling paradox. The truth may be that we naturally are — and want to be — the superimposition of opposites, or rival desires. We want to have sex with a cute anime girl, but at the same time, become the cute anime girl.
A YouTube comment on the original Matrix scene — circulated mainly to ridicule its pretension — attempts more seriously the thought experiment of a Neo who swallows the red and blue pills at once. “If he ate both pills,” this viewer speculates, “he would have been like us. Still a slave, doing his own thing, but with the everyday thinking that life is not like it seems to be.”
They conclude that this uncanny feeling is the “worst” a human can have, but I’d argue that it’s also the only one, and not quite so dire, as long as you can trust that we’re not actually living in a computer program and subjugated by machines. Instead, it’s the balance of skepticism and indifference, of knowing and not, that creates identity, along with the power to change and grow. Neo and his pals are destined to take the red pill whenever it’s offered, yet the artificial landscape of the Matrix remains real to them — real enough to inhabit, disrupt and reshape. We, too, confront the facts of existence while working within it. What other choice do we have?