Back in John Isidore’s apartment, Pris and John are watching TV. Buster Friendly is about to make an announcement. Roy Baty watches as well. As John prepares for the announcement, he thinks to himself that his life has gotten much better since befriending Roy and the others—he has real friends, now.
John could be the only “good” character in the novel. Unlike nearly everyone else, he seems unconcerned with consumerism, defining humanity, etc. His mind is simple, but he has what seems to be a genuine sensitivity to other people.
Buster Friendly begins his announcement. As John watches, he notices a spider crawling on the floor of the apartment. He picks up the spider and shows it to the android. Pris takes the spider and cuts off one of its legs, very calmly, despite John’s pleas that she not “mutilate” the animal.
John, a Mercerist, believes in the inherent value of all life, whether human or not. (As we can see, he seems to believe in the value of android life, too.) Ironically, Pris, an android, seems to have little respect for other lives, whether they’re human or animal.
On TV, Buster Friendly shows the audience photographs of Mercer, the founder of Mercerism. The photographs of Mercer prove that he uses fake backgrounds for his performances and speeches, designed by Hollywood special effects artists. Mercer himself, Friendly suggests, is just a “bit player” walking around in a sound studio. As Pris watches, she continues to remove the spider’s legs. Friendly concludes that Mercer is a fraud: he’s just an actor in a costume, not—as he’s always claimed—an “archetypal superior entity.”
This scene is important as much for what Buster Friendly doesn’t say as what he does say. Friendly focuses on the logistical side of Mercerism—he shows that Mercer is played by an actor, that his backgrounds are fake, etc. Friendly doesn’t criticize the ideology of Mercerism in any way—this suggests that Friendly isn’t really that different from Mercer at all; he’s just another TV personality jockeying for control of the masses. The question for the rest of us is, can a religion be valuable even if it’s not literally true?
Buster Friendly goes on to attack the principles of Mercerism. As he speaks, Irmgard—who, it’s now revealed, is Roy’s husband—points out that empathy is the quintessential human emotion. As such, it’s very important for humans to prove to themselves that they’re capable of empathy, and in doing so, they remind themselves of their superiority to androids. She also notes that the empathy box makes it very easy for humans to be controlled by a “would-be Hitler.”
Irmgard’s words in this scene are some of the wisest in the whole book. She recognizes that the point of the empathy box isn’t to find actual empathy; it’s to distinguish Mercerists from other people and—crucially—from androids. She also intuitively grasps the relationship between Mercerism and consumerism—when people are taught to think together, it’s easy for them to be manipulated into doing (and buying) the same things.
Pris has now removed four of the spider’s legs. She puts the spider on the ground and watches as it tries to move. She points out that Buster Friendly’s exposé won’t spell the end of Mercerism by any means—people will continue to believe in the ideas of Mercerism for a long time. She also says, “Buster is one of us—an android.”
Just as with the fake police station, in this scene we again see just how deep the simulation goes in this society. The man “outing” Mercer as being “fake” is himself an android—and yet, ironically, also someone millions of humans relate to.
John Isidore, who’s been listening to Buster Friendly and the androids, feels sick. He sees the spider, now dead, and listens as Roy reminds him, “Maybe this was the last living spider.” Stubbornly, John tells Roy that Mercerism isn’t dead yet. John stands up and starts to hallucinate, breaking dishes and furniture in the apartment seemingly against his own will.
John becomes brave and even heroic in this scene. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he maintains that Mercerism is alive and well. This is a profound point, actually—even after people cease to believe that religion is literally true, they continue to subscribe to it because of their respect for the religion’s values. In the same way, John continues to celebrate the value of all life, whether a spider or a human.
In his delirious depression, John has a vision in which he sees animals—donkeys, spiders, etc. He cries out for Mercer, and Mercer appears before him. He demands of Mercer, “Is the sky painted?” Mercer smiles and admits that he’s a fraud—a “bit player” named Al Jarry. Nevertheless, Mercer gives John a “gift”—the spider that Pris killed, with its legs restored. Suddenly, the alarm sounds. Roy shouts that there’s a bounty hunter in the building.
It’s not clear what’s going on here—if John’s vision comes from the empathy box or not (we find out in the next chapter that it does). But for the time being, the scene’s ambiguity is the whole point. Even if Mercer isn’t literally there, he continues to influence John’s life, and even performs a minor miracle by resurrecting the spider. John’s perception of the world is his only reality, and this means that Mercer is, in a narrow sense, “real” to him.