One of the problems inherent in Long form serial narrative is that you have to hold the universe together. Your procedurals, most sitcoms, there’s an expectation that you won’t need to remember much of what happened last week. The premise is acted out each time, and there’s a comfort in that familiarity.
With a show like ‘Mr Robot’, and other programs that fit loosely into that ‘critically acclaimed drama’ bucket, the problems are two fold. First, if you make a storytelling decision that doesn’t work you can’t just reset the next episode, and forget deciding something was a dream- Owl Creek bridge was like a century ago. A willing audience will accept a course correction, but it all has to matter, or you’re wasting people’s time. Second, as your show’s history starts to pile up it starts to narrow future choices- and for every long running show there’s going to be a few ‘what in god’s name were they thinking’ moments. So they kill people off, jump ahead in time, change locations. ‘Mr Robot’ is the only show I can think of that’s so committed to its inescapable failure.
What separates our hero from the pantheon of cable drama men is that Elliot is genuine in his desire to do the right thing. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey- they all say they’re doing illegal things for their family but we know it’s ego driven deep down. Those men were given opportunity after opportunity to avoid self-destruction, but chose to refuse it each time. Elliot’s drive to change the world runs against his self-preservation, to the point where he segmented a part of himself in order to function. The most optimistic takeaway from this episode is that Elliot has found the material benefit in keeping Mr Robot around, and his presence allows him to survive trauma that would otherwise destroy him.
Angela, not so much. While she does her best to avoid getting sucked in by Dom’s accusatory joviality, her mere presence in the building invites suspicion. Continuing on from last week’s assessment, it’s not so much that she’s a bad liar, just that she’s not as good at hiding her emotions as she thinks. Her outfit choices often reflect her state of mind, this week she blends into the office to the point of invisibility. She figures out Darlene and Elliot were involved in the 5/9 attacks, but the knowledge brings her no joy. Whatever Whiterose and Price have planned for her, it’s unlikely to be a task she’ll take on willingly. Joanna continues to attempt genuine human connection, and given what we learn this week about Tyrell, her timing may be less than ideal.
If you don’t watch the show the moment it comes out each week, you may have seen articles pop up on social media about this episode’s big twist, and the relative merits of this kind of storytelling. In a lot of them the argument is based around the merit of reveal-based story telling, where plot points are left ambiguous and the desire to learn more helps drive the story. JJ Abrams infamously branded this ‘Mystery Box‘ storytelling. That’s a much bigger concept than there’s really space to explore here, but one of the points that’s been raised against it is that with so many online communities dedicated to solving these mysteries, they act as a kind of server farm that will eventually generate the right answer in advance, rendering the tension in that mystery completely moot.
Thing is, I don’t think that’s what Sam Esmail and co. are trying to do. There’s a sense of self-awareness that came with the last big reveal, and they acknowledged the similarities to Fight Club right away. The key difference, of course, is that ‘Mr Robot’ can’t just throw in a plot twist and end the movie- whatever you do has to be dealt with. The second season so far has done exactly that, to tease out the mechanics of how somebody with a self-imposed imaginary friend might function. What’s also important to note is that Tyler Durden and Mr Robot were created for very different reasons. Once Durden’s goal is complete he’s killed off, he no longer serves a function in the Brave New World where the buildings fall. Where Durden was a weapon, Mr Robot is a shield, allowing Elliot to function as the hero while Mr Robot protects him.
The reveal that Elliot has been in prison offers a similar reference point- Brazil, which in a move not unlike last year chose to incorporate some of that film’s soundtrack as an acknowledgement to the savvy viewer. In that film, Sam Lowry’s dream state becomes total as his failure, caused in part by his own weakness, wounds him so deeply he escapes into a reality where true heroism becomes possible. The film ends with Lowry totally removed from reality, seemingly happy with the results of his mental breakdown. And again, ‘Mr Robot’ subverts that concept by inventing the reality we’ve been watching the last few weeks. He invented the stay at his mother’s house for the same reason he invented Mr Robot- to process. Elliot wanted him gone, so the Red Wheelbarrow journal was part of a mental isolation to get rid of him. Mr Robot’s early attempts to fill him full of cement can be read retroactively as an attempt to reject the project, knowing that Elliot’s only true option was to integrate him back into his life. Now that that’s occured, and he appears to be on his way out of prison, the illusion was no longer necessary.
What ‘Mr Robot’ also shares with ‘Brazil’ is a deep sense of pessimism, which is perhaps the most troubling. Lowry is trapped in an inescapable system, and FSociety may fall to a similar fate. We now know that Whiterose had somebody protect Elliot while he’s in prison, that she’s collaborated with Price to set up Angela for *something*, that she assisted FSociety’s hack in the first place. There’s very little they’ve done that didn’t involve her in some way, and when your benefactor doubles as a senior member of the Chinese government they’re not easy to defy. Elliot will find out soon enough that everything he’s done so far has been in service of someone else’s agenda. The real test of his newfound strength will be what he does with that information.