Last week’s episode of Mr. Robot teasingly floated the possibility of an impending leap into an alternate reality. But not even Whiterose, with all her powers of contemplation, could have imagined an act of transcendence and a world as bizarro as the sitcom version of Mr. Robot.
“m4ster-s1ave.aes” opened with an impressively sustained act of mad-hatter storytelling that took us through the looking-glass and into a topsy-turvy metaverse of self-commentary, allegory, and demented jabberwocky. It was shot in the style of a family sitcom from 1990 — on USA, of course (“America’s Favorite Cable Network”) — with phony sets and a laugh track and Full House credit font. It was presented as part of a programming block called “Word Up Wednesdays,” a riff on ABC’s “TGIF!” block of family sitcoms on Friday night from this period. The sequence cast adult versions of Elliot, Darlene, Edward Alderson, and Nameless Mom as themselves circa Elliot’s adolescence. They were on a road trip in a convertible, leaving New Jersey, destination unknown, in Mr. Robot’s take on a classic sitcom plot: the family vacation that goes to hell. The theme song was fascinating. Entitled (I think) “Imagine a World Gone Insane,” it included a verse that took aim at the trend to which Mr. Robot belongs, cable-network antihero shows. It used to be you could trust in the story/Vilify the villains and celebrate the heroes/You could believe in the guts and the glory ways/Those were the better days/Where did those times go? But the verse also could be read as a complaint about the postmodern condition, a broken society, or the deconstruction of religion, God, etc. This episode would touch on all those themes.
Dressed boyishly in sneakers, shorts and a blue, white and gray-green striped tee, Adult Elliot remained self-aware. He recognized he was in a fiction; as such, he was a portrait of meta-fiction as a young man. He could see the phoniness. He could hear it, too. The audience laughter and titters. The music. The censor bleeping out his expletives. His huge E.T. eyes were more buggy than ever, reflecting his What the hell is going on?! disorientation and reflecting back our own. His severe high-top fade was a symbol for his condition: Elliot was at risk for total mind erasure. Darlene was a disaffected teen with heavy blue eyeshadow and a pink hairband, busting her brother’s chops (and mental problems) and numbing her angst by losing herself in the virtual world of her Game Boy, a metaphor for this symbols-within-symbols sequence. On the screen: black-and-white images of “real world” Adult Elliot getting pummeled by Ray’s thugs. Her device, a viewer into another reality. I bet Whiterose would love one of those.
Angela was a blinged-out, gum-chomping, Jersey-accented quick-mart clerk. Gideon was a highway patrolman searching for a clan of outlaws and a kidnapped corporate exec. And then there was “The Man in the Trunk.” His eyes and mouth were covered with tape. He wore a suit. He was Tyrell, but the abstraction of his identity suggested he could have represented many other things, too: A Russian doll embedded with encrypted memories within more encrypted memories. The furry cherry on top of this surreal sundae was a cameo by the anti-E.T., irreverent puppet sitcom-star ALF. He shopped at Angela’s store, ran over Gideon with his car in a hit-and-run, and got a chance to say his catchphrase, “No problem!”
That should ring a bell. In the last episode, we saw the phrase “No Problemo!” on Mr. Sutherland’s hat when he trapped Kareem inside his unhappy head and made him bear self-aware witness to his murder. I was thisclose to making an ALF joke in my recap and even suggesting the show was referencing ALF. It was very real foreshadowing and more game-playing, but to what end? Freud’s theory of “the uncanny” theory says the perception of synchronicity is evidence of psychological disturbance — an aggravated psychic wound, a repressed memory being recalled, or my pet theory, repetition compulsion disorder. Others will see this as more proof that all of this season is Elliot’s dream, or a dream of a shared consciousness, facilitated by nanobot transmitters. Yeah, it’s probably that.
At first, I thought the Mr. Robot sitcom was a fancifully told flashback. When Edward said they were driving to “a place that makes everything better, a place that changes you,” I thought: Ah! Elliot spent time in a mental institution as a kid! We’re watching his family take him there.
Then I settled into the obvious but much more complex view that the sitcom was a fantastical representation of Elliot’s mind, where memory commingles, competes, and collides with fiction. His consciousness is a dangerous ride in a dubious place. It’s a top-down convertible; that means he’s exposed and vulnerable to external forces. The rearview mirror is missing (just like most TV cars), so he can’t see what’s behind him; his tools for retrospection and introspection have been tampered and disabled. The scenery is bogus, all sets or matte paintings. So is the horizon behind him; it’s a front or rear projection. Killer ALF represents alien ideas or alien presence, or perhaps he represents his alienation (Elliot, The Stranger), or just pure randomness.
You could also look at the road-trip story as an allegory for Elliot’s life story. It’s difficult to say for sure, because so much of his past remains untold, fuzzed or coded. Still, let’s take the journey and see how much of Elliot we recognize in the scenery along the way.
The Aldersons present as a typical dysfunctional family, albeit one with a troubled son. The early moments establish their defining problem, the one that will change all of their lives: Edward reveals his terminal illness. His family, particularly Darlene, is keenly aware he is going to die. She teases Elliot and Edward about Edward throwing Elliot out the window. The cheeky gallows humor is funny and disturbing. Dig Edward coughing into his hand and showing us the blood. Cue laugh track!
They stop at a gas station. This would be Elliot’s adolescent period, when Edward ran into money and health problems and started his Mr. Robot business, and Nameless Mom went really, really dark. Dad fills up the gas tank. He’s absorbed in his work and oblivious (or acting oblivious) to the disturbing violence playing out under his nose. Mom plays abusive parent to the hilt. Her primary target: Darlene. She extinguishes a cigarette on her daughter’s hand. She punches Darlene in the face, knocking her out. (This will happen several times on the trip.) Mom tells Elliot to “be useful” and go fetch her some cigarettes. He’s fine with that because, man, does he want to get out of that car and away from Mom. (But what about poor Darlene? He should stay and protect her!) (Not shaming Elliot. Just my way of saying that I suspect that failure — and guilt — weighs heavy on him.)
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Elliot is distracted from his errand by the sound of pounding. It’s The Man in the Trunk. He takes a peek and sees a bound, gagged, and blindfolded man — an image of bondage and abduction that recalls, for me, the image of the girl on Ray’s black-market website. (I mention this here because I am more convinced than ever that the Ray story line is also a repressed memory, one from Elliot’s childhood, one that he’s reliving in the present.) Edward slams the trunk shut. “Not so fast, kiddo,” he says. “Nothing but baggage, I’m sorry to say. We gotta get your peepers checked as soon as we get home.” Is Edward telling Elliot to forget what he saw or telling him he’s crazy for what he thinks he saw? I say the latter. Edward Alderson is gaslighting his son.
NEXT: No, he’s crazy for seeing ALF. Seriously. ALF.
Elliot does his errands. He immediately bumps into ALF. Elliot apologizes. ALF says “No problem, E-meister,” suggesting that ALF knows him. Again: Does ALF represent someone else from Elliot’s past who remains cloaked in his memory? Does he represent mental decline during adolescence? Does he represent the fuzzy dice of madly rolled chance and chaos? Does he represent higher powers that play with people like puppets? Does ALF = God? Evil Corp?
But then — and this is weird, just as weird as ALF — Edward and Nameless Mom rob the E Corp. gas station, suggesting the Aldersons as a family resorted to crime to make ends meet. (I forget the details at the moment, but remember Elliot’s first conversation with Mr. Robot back in the pilot? I want to say Mr. Robot told Elliot a story about his father, whom he portrayed as a criminal. I think we need to revisit that story now that we know Mr. Robot = Elliot.) Mom maces Angela. Edward intimates he’s unhappily married and something of a horndog, possibly an adulterer. (More and more, I wonder if Edward = Breaking Bad’s Walter White.)
Edward encourages Elliot to be like him. Then, after looking at his wife, he reconsiders and discourages Elliot from being anything like him. It’s a confusing mixed message that launches Elliot into the next stage of the trip. The car blows a tire — a breakdown. Edward stops to get a temp tire — a “donut” — to fix it. To get to it, he has to dig under The Man in the Trunk; Edward again refers to him as “his” (Edward’s) “baggage.” Elliot confronts his father again about The Man in the Trunk, and again Edward denies The Man in the Trunk’s existence, and again he gaslights Elliot with the charge that he’s being crazy. Elliot snaps. He swears. He’s censored, the audience gasps, and Elliot looks to camera — another jolt of “Hello, Friend” self-awareness. If Edward (and Mom?) caused Elliot to go insane, what was the catalyst? Was it when Dad threw him through the looking-glass, i.e. through the window, and his subsequent scapegoating of Elliot for his actions? It’s an accident! You did this! It’s your fault! Or is there much more to this story?
A police car approaches. It’s off camera. We don’t see it, we just see the lights and hear the sire. Elliot looks to the camera again with a look of panic on his face, and we cut to a series of commercials. I would like to propose this break in the narrative represents a culmination of the psychic/psychotic break described in the previous paragraph.
We first get a spot for “E Corp.’s Online,” an early ’90s dial-up service à la early AOL, Delphi, or Oracle. Next we get a Bud Light ad from 1990. (The one where dogs jump through flaming hoops. Classic.) Then we get a promo for USA’s “Up All Night” midnight movie, The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie (1984), a film that had a huge impact on Elliot and Darlene and their clique of rebel friends. It introduced them to the image of the Monopoly Man and inspired/codified their anti-society counter-culture ideology. The final ad in the pod is the most curious, because it’s not from the circa-1990 period of this sitcom. It’s a post-Nine/Five E Corp. spot, featuring the tagline “Still on your side.”
When we return to the sitcom story, Elliot sees the cop. It’s Gideon. Now, you could interpret this as an immediate continuation of the biographical allegory. The arrival of the police car prior to the commercial break = the moment when Elliot joined Allsafe. But the commercial break also could also represent a flash-forward. In this reading, everything that happened before the commercial break represents events that occurred well before Elliot joined Allsafe. The implication of this reading is the initial police drive-up represents a different event than Elliot meeting Gideon. If so, what was it? Did Edward get sent to jail for throwing Elliot out the window? Or did Edward and Elliot do something during Elliot’s childhood that got them in trouble with the authorities?
Anyway. Gideon! He’s a police officer! And he’s looking for a clan of fugitives and an abducted businessman. Before this can go any further, ALF runs him over and then drives away. Poor Gideon! Edward drives off. He treats the event as if it was something way in the past they should just forget. Elliot can’t believe his father could be so blasé, so indifferent to the horror of the world. It happened 12 seconds ago! Gideon’s death stands for the blood on Elliot’s hands. Shyla. The Five/Nine Hack. Gideon. The argument over Edward’s criminal indifference corresponds to the argument last week, when Elliot and Mr. Robot clashed over how to deal with what they found on Ray’s black-market website. So the allegory has moved into the present.
The car comes to a screeching halt as The Man in the Trunk kicks the door open, representing a repressed memory, or a very literal abducted person bursting out and causing chaos. He also represents another kind of psychotic break. During his brief escape, he runs into the back screen and falls into unconsciousness. The world is exposed as unreal, and Edward finally acknowledges he’s Mr. Robot, and he knows this reality is a delusion. In fact, Mr. Robot created it. But it could be real if you let it, he says. Here, in this moment, Elliot and Mr. Robot stand on either side of The Man in the Trunk. This “baggage” of the past has come between them, symbolic of their conflict regarding Tyrell, but again, it could represent other transgressions and conflicts they can’t or won’t remember.
Elliot teams with Mr. Robot to toss The Man in the Trunk back into the trunk. Mr. Robot appears to kill The Man in the Trunk with a tire iron. Elliot grieves the nihilism. He concludes it can mean Mr. Robot has won their season-long master-slave contest for control over their shared brain and has buried him alive, forever, in a world of delusion. Mr. Robot says no, he hasn’t “won” their contest, and while he did author this delusion, Elliot is mistaken about the forever part…
And with that, the layer of biographical allegory dropped away, and the show brought Elliot back to “reality,” whatever that means on this show.
NEXT: Is Elliot lying to himself about the value of lying to himself? (And other paradoxes.)
Mr. Robot explained that his fiction served a purpose: to help Elliot endure the agony of his beating at the hands of Ray’s henchmen. Nothing like a TV show to help us escape from painful realities! (ALF got in his head because the show was playing on his hospital room TV.) Mr. Robot argued that sometimes we need lies, self-deception, and other fiction — TV shows, perhaps — to help us shoulder the agony of living in the present. Mr. Robot’s actions and rationalizations are ironic given that back in the second episode of the season, Elliot lambasted religion as the fiction-making of people not strong enough to engage the harsh realities of the world. “I’m just trying to help you put it all in the rear view, as painlessly as possible,” he said. Elliot, it would seem, is rather double-minded when it comes to the value of lying to yourself.
Were we supposed to agree with his argument? Imagination is good. But your imagination can run away with you, like an out-of-control driver. And driving without a rearview mirror to see what’s behind you? Never a good idea. Elliot’s memory — his rearview mirror — remains fogged at best, completely disabled at worst. Mr. Robot is responsible for this. He’s still hiding memories and perhaps distorting others. His “Lies can be good!” argument has some truth to it, but it’s also self-serving. Which is trippy, because Mr. Robot is actually Elliot and vice versa.
As the sitcom hallucination ended, Mr. Robot hugged Elliot. Elliot wasn’t yet sure he wanted to receive it or return it, so he didn’t. Mr. Robot had brought Elliot to a hospital, and with that, Mr. Robot’s control over the mind ceased, and Elliot once again had possession of his mind. He immediately regretted it.
After the beating, Ray and Lone Star had taken Elliot to a hospital. Much like Nameless Mother’s Uncanny Halfway House for Recovering Schizoids, this house of healing was a shadowy, odd dream-place. His room was huge and sterile. A religious painting hung on the wall. In the premiere, Edward had Elliot taken to a hospital, too, after “accidentally” pushing him out the window. The examination room was also a chilly space with cold religious comforts (i.e., that “God’s Hand in Our Hardship” tract). Elliot injured by a familiar, then taken by that familiar to the hospital. More recurring motifs, more proofs of looping reality or repetition compulsion disorder.
Elliot was in excruciating pain. He wheezed and writhed. As his consciousness came fully online, he could tell he was not alone. There were Others, looking at him. Staring at him. Waiting on him to recognize their presence. He turned with great dread to ogle the pair of overlords responsible for his suffering and his painful resurrection. What he saw was Evil, Incorporated. (You see how this works?!?!) Ray sat in a chair. Lone Star stood behind him. Master and Servant: The theme, the fashion, the implicit depeche mode of this episode. If only Elliot could dispatch of them, but no; they were here to establish the new dialectic in their relationship with him.
Ray told a story about the death of Maxine, the dog who took a happy shine to Elliot, but began to take ill in events seen last episode, concurrent with Elliot’s betrayal of Ray and the collapse of their friendly union. (Symbolic!) Ray explained Maxine became infected with heartworm and lived her last two weeks in a base, a water heater her only constant company. Once, she was free, her own operator; she never realized she was owned, not until those last 14 days, as her organs and senses failed her, and as she became utterly dependent on her master’s hands for every scrap of food, every pill, every ray of “occasional light.” Ray suspected this dawning awareness destroyed her spirit as much as illness and hastened her fade. (Interesting: Maxine = Kareem, an unhappy consciousness whose final moments were filled with keen, crushing awareness that he was owned by a master, Joanna, and that she considered him a broken, useless pet that could no longer serve her or give her pleasure. His death wasn’t a murder to her; it was euthanasia.)
Ray finished this narrative while standing over Elliot. It was clear he was using the story to describe the new state of their relationship. Elliot would only breathe, would only eat, would only heal, would experience light, because he allowed it. “Anyway, I’ma quit yappin’ and let you rest. Big days ahead. Work to do.” Message: received. Elliot was now Maxine. He was Ray’s new bitch. Ray was his master.
Later, Ray has his goons throw Elliot into a proverbial dungeon — Maxine’s basement cellar. Elliot was still in extreme psychic and physical torment. In this present darkness, Mr. Robot came to him and stood before him, like a God appearing to his cowering creation in a moment of hardship. (Or, if you prefer some 2001: A Space Odyssey, like The Monolith appearing to a primitive man to goose his evolution.)
Elliot stood up to his fearsome holy ghost and lunged at him. Mr. Robot thought he was being attacked and started to defend himself. “I was just trying to take those punches for you,” he said, putting a finer point on his brief, sitcom psychic takeover. But Elliot wasn’t assaulting him. He was returning the hug, a thank-you for helping him — an act of devotion, worship, and submission.
Elliot wept. Mr. Robot was swallowed hard. He was God-father proud (This is my son! With whom I am well pleased!), moved or nervous about what was unfolding. As they embraced, we heard the beginnings of a lovely song: “Guiding Light” by the band Television. A genius selection for an episode that saw Mr. Robot give Elliot some guiding light in the form of a TV show. Also? An implied call-back to two episodes ago, when we got the flashback to the spirit of Mr. Robot entering Elliot when he put on the Monopoly Man mask, illuminating his head with madness. When Elliot took off the mask, Sam Esmail gave us the shot of the mask framed against a TV, the eye-holes lit up by the television’s light.
But to borrow from the Mr. Robot sitcom theme song: Can we trust the story? You could read the Elliot-Mr. Robot embrace as a reconciliation of equals and a recognition on Elliot’s part that Mr. Robot provides a valuable service for him, such as devising coping mechanisms for suffering or prodding him to action. But you could also read this scene as a facsimile of the one where Ray takes God-like possession of Elliot. Is Mr. Robot a hold spirit, here to build up Elliot? Or is he a demonic spirit, playing a long game of possession? You have to wonder if he’s been playing him all season like a drawn-out chess game, manipulating with various moves like withholding Tyrell’s memory — and perhaps, letting him recall Ray’s memory (if you agree with my theory that the Ray story line happened in the past) — as part of a long con to take permanent control of Elliot, to cement his status as the master consciousness, and to keep Elliot chained, forever, as the slave. The twist, of course, would be that Elliot wants this to happen, because Elliot = Mr. Robot.
NEXT: “Word Up” is the code word…for “Elliot is Jesus.”
Television’s “Guiding Light” bled into and played through the episode’s equally touching final scene. It was another road trip — a bookend to the road trip that opened the episode. This scene was a flashback played straight, with no high-concept filter. It took us to a moment before his great fall, when his dad pushed him out the window at age 11. His face was banged up, the result, perhaps, of a fight at school. Whatever the cause, Elliot didn’t tell his side of the story and decided to roll with the punches of his punishment. Edward only gave him grace. He tried to reach out, told him he could talk to him, tell him anything, his entreaty reminiscent of what Angela tried to do with Elliot in last week’s episode. Elliot resisted. So Edward tried another tact: he modeled vulnerability.
He told Elliot a secret. He had lost his job a few weeks earlier due to several days of missed work. “September 8, August 29, August 2, a few more…” If Edward wanted Elliot to accept this at face value, he was wrong. He started asking questions. What was the significance the dates? Doctor’s appointments. Why was he seeing a doctor? Blood work. Elliot’s interrogation finally forced him to spill another secret: He was sick. Cancer. Notice the motifs here. Secrets within secrets. A reverse-order recitation of dates with some rhetorical ellipses, secrets within secrets… How far back does it go? What else wasn’t/isn’t Edward/Mr. Robot telling his son?
Elliot was already badly beaten, but this was a more profoundly dispiriting blow. Edward made Elliot promise not to tell his Mom — a promise we know he won’t keep, a betrayal we know will lead to the Edward “accidentally” pushing Elliot out a window. (Assuming, of course, we trust as true everything we’ve seen so far.) But then he tried hard to dispel the doom and gloom. He told him not to worry. He was optimistic. She was charging into the future. Full steam ahead to a great, big beautiful tomorrow!
Edward said he had a new job, a new way to support the family. He was opening his own computer store. Elliot brightened. Could he work for him? Edward said yes, he could. Elliot transformed, warming to his father, wanting to trust in his hope and strength. If he could have hugged him, it would have hit the correlation to the Elliot-Mr. Robot reconciliation — and lord-bondsman forging — right on the head. But it was there.
Edward already has a very specific chore in mind for Elliot. He wanted his son to name the store. He told Elliot to look out the window, look at the storefront. Whatever came to mind, the very first thing, that’s what they’ll call it.
We didn’t see the storefront. We didn’t hear the words. But we saw Elliot’s face light up, and we heard a sound effect to the chime of a Mac starting, and we knew what inspiration had struck him.
With that, “Mr. Robot” was born. Spoken into being with a word, the way God created the world. Let there be Mr. Robot! (On “Word Up Wednesday,” no less!) Oh, lord, do I dare overthink this? Edward sired Elliot. Elliot created Mr. Robot. But Mr. Robot is/was/represents Elliot’s father. The ideal form of his father. An idol to love. An image god of worship, and more, to conform to, to become. Ergo: In creating Mr. Robot, Elliot “created” his dad and himself. He “created” God. He “created” an unholy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Paradox! Logic bomb!
Seriously, there’s something here. The allusion of The Father creating something through The Son through The Word is Biblical. It’s found in John 1:1-5, a passage in which The Son, a.k.a. The Word, is presented as a “light in the darkness” — a guiding light. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Remember: Mr. Robot does have God on the brain this season. We know Elliot has been journalizing about The Bible, describing the good book as a science-fiction story. We know Elliot has rejected God this season. We also heard Tyrell on the phone declaring that he and Elliot became gods on the night of Five/Nine. (Tyrell smacks of Nietzsche to me. The wannabe overman, trying to transcend religious-slave consciousness to become a Superman of reason, will, and power.) All of this reminds us of what Mr. Robot told Elliot last year. “I was only ever supposed to be your prophet. You were supposed to be my God!” What might this mean? Honestly, I don’t know…
But I know someone who might.
NEXT: Meet the real-life Mr. Robot.
Like Edward, he’s a hard-charging futurist who’s got his eyes on the road ahead of him. Like Elliot, he’s a man with a very complex relationship with a dead father. I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to hug his dad — even a replica of his dad — the way Elliot hugged Mr. Robot in this episode. In fact, he’s a man trying to create a god, built from the fusion of man and machine — Mr. Robot as overman, Superman, Transcendent Man, if you will.
His name is Ray Kurzweil. He’s an inventor, futurist, author of The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil is a transhumanist who believes man will fuse with sophisticated machines (nanotechnology, artificial intelligence) and become something meta-human. “So does God exist? I would say, not yet,” he says in the film about his life, The Transcendent Man. Kurzweil chases the dream of functional immortality. He also has a dream of functional resurrection via super-realistic A.I. replicas or computer avatars that look, sound, think, and behave like lost loved ones. Ray has a very specific project in mind: He wants to “bring back” his dead dad. In the future, we will all be Mr. Robots — and so might everyone else who has ever lived.
So take heart, Ray! You haven’t seen the last of your beloved Maxine yet. In the world of Mr. Robot, the Singularity might be near… if it hasn’t happened already.
What really happened on the night of Five/Nine?
Darlene and Angela. The title “m4ster-s1ave.aec” referred specifically to the hack attack fsociety executed with help from a pair of allies, Angela and Darlene’s ex-boyfriend (and Red Army agent) Cisco. “master-slave” is computer-network jargon for a device capable of controlling other devices with and without their permission or knowing. “aes” is Advanced Encryption Standard, the code the government uses to protect data. It was time for fsociety to make the FBI its bitch.
But fsociety didn’t have much time. The FBI was exiting E Corp. The operation was contingent on Angela learning how to script code in, like, a day. Darlene ordered Mobley to make like Mr. Miyagi and mentor their Karate Kid with wax on/wax off instructional brilliance. Mobley whined. Darlene told him to deal. By the way, I totally want Mobley’s octopus-attacking-the-Golden Gate Bridge T-shirt, an homage to the 1955 film It Came from Beneath the Sea — a title that evokes the resurfacing of memory. Heed the omens! The Singularity is Near! Tyrell is coming! Tyrell is coming…
Complicating Angela’s learning curve was the very thing that helped it: Angela’s troubled slave consciousness. The paradox of her self-affirmation tapes is that now more than ever, she’s still dependent on recognition and direction from external sources to feel a sense of self-worth. She wants to be someone’s asset. She wants to be someone’s friend. To borrow from a Prince song from his album Emancipation — the first after his “Slave” protest against Warner Bros. — Angela really wants to be somebody’s somebody. Can anyone find her someone to love? Can someone find her a God to worship?
Angela’s internal dialectic worked to fsociety’s advantage. Little Miss People Pleaser pushed herself to learn to code, she pushed herself to overcome fears in executing the mission. She pushed herself to ignore her resentment of Cisco, the Dark Army agent that subverted her agency and made her a veritable slave this season, setting in motion the wobbly, destabilizing motion of her life.* Still, the pressure she puts on herself to please, combined with the pressure she felt from Darlene and fsociety to learn quickly and execute perfectly, threatened to undermine her work. “My success is assured,” she said, repeating her affirmations as she struggled through her homework, “my success is assured…”
*Now Cisco knows how it feels. He dared to question why the Dark Army wanted to examine and approve a crucial piece of tech he had acquired for “m4ster-s1ave.aes” hack. He suspected they had done something to it. He wanted to know what, as he wanted to protect his friends. His Dark Army contact made it clear there was only one entity he should be concerned about honoring. He had Cisco restrained as he implanted a high-tech splinter — a tracking device? a poison capsule? — into his finger. Chained. Branded. Bonded. The relationship, clarified: Cisco was “a foot soldier.” His responsibility was to follow orders. This was not a rapport of equals. Dark Army was the master. Cisco was the slave.
The attention that’s been paid to Angela’s psyche enhanced the suspenseful, layered sequence tracking the execution of Operation: Master-Slave. It began with Darlene taking position at a swanky hotel near E Corp. to guide Darlene through the operation, a scene set to the song “Gwan” by The Suffers. She enjoyed herself as she worked her grift, exuding a self-generated confidence Angela could only dream to possess. This point was underscored by Darlene’s disguise. She wore a platinum-blonde wig, cream-white suit, and dark glasses — she was a super-glam Doppelganger of Angela, Angela’s ideal self, manifest, her transcendent woman. This idea was hammered home by a drop-the-music smash cut to Angela inside E Corp., dressed in a darker dress, looking anxious. She received a call from Darlene.* It was time to hack.
*Actually, Darlene showed up as “Marble Cake” on Angela’s phone. I’ll let you look up the Urban Dictionary definition, but the concept speaks to the, uh, backdoor-penetration action they were perpetrating. It also speaks to Angela’s negative feelings about Darlene and her self-loathing over this whole sh-t sandwich life.
Angela took a deep breath, exited an elevator, and began her part of the operation. The initial images of downcast, nervous Angela mirrored Darlene’s “Dream Angela” entrance, the echo reinforced by a resumption of “Gwan.” Stop suffering, Angela! G’wan with your ideal bad self! Let the transfiguration begin.
And you know what? It did! This week’s other showy act of impressive filmmaking was a single, unbroken, slightly shaky hand-held camera shot tracking Angela’s subversion, the slight quivers evoking her jitters. Darlene and Mobley talked her through the work, the figurative “master device” directing the figurative “slave device.”
Angela’s heroic journey ran afoul with a major threshold guardian that pushed her buttons for recognition and affirmation: FBI agent Ross Thomas, who was smitten with her, or maybe just wanted to “own” her for a night, if you know what I mean. She tried to brush off his aggressive advances, but Ross, like Darlene, was self-confidence incarnate, or maybe just unfamiliar with rejection. “I won’t take no for an answer,” he said, even after Angela lied and said she was seeing someone. Ross peppered her with questions that sounded like the interrogations of a suspicious mind — what are you doing up here, anyway? — but I think were meant to express his arrogance and entitlement. You came up here to see me, aren’t you?
NEXT: Angela, transcendent. Maybe.
Angela had Darlene and Mobley in her ear telling her to lose the guy, or mocking his pick-up lines, or chronicling their efforts to find an exploit they could hack. Ross talked a lot with his mother, according to his phone records. Maybe a call from mom would shake him off? Nope. I loved how thriller-suspense matched with psychological conflict. Their voices in Angela’s ears represented Angela’s noisy psyche, full of the external narrators she’s internalized, telling her what to think, what to feel, what to do, how to relate to herself and Others and the world. Were they doing her any good? She seemed paralyzed, a fragile dear caught in the headlights of Ross’ penetrating gaze…
Enter an idea from Hegelian master-slave dialectic to save the day. The theory says that the slave consciousness, prodded (by fear of failure or death) by the master, produces the innovations that master and slave need to survive. (Also see: Elliot, goaded by fear and death to innovate by embracing Mr. Robot, and all that means.) Frazzled by terror yet also prodded by it, Angela got an idea. She screwed on some cool and said something rather ironic, that she was simply playing hard to get, that she wanted Ross to work harder at possessing her. As she turned the tables and worked him, the voices quieted. Angela offered to meet him for coffee in 30 minutes; played, and impressed by her play, Ross agreed.
The scene was playing out like a triumph of personal realization for Angela. The long shot finally cut after minutes, upon successful installation of the master device. She accomplished what had been asked of her and even proved she could master her own domain in the process. Oh, happy consciousness! Hero’s Journey: complete. Angela, transcendent. Right?
Wrong. The master-slave dialectic never ends. It’s a constant loop. Problems don’t resolve; they just evolve into new versions of old problems, bringing you back to a new version of square one. And so, seconds after her victory, the Wi-Fi went out. Darlene told Angela she had more work to do. Angela told her to go ‘Marble Rye’ herself, but Darlene kept cool in the face of Angela’s worker’s rebellion and calmly explained the stakes: If Angela didn’t comply with her command, all her great work would be for not, because, ironically, Darlene needed Wi-Fi to hack the security cameras and erase all the evidence of all her great work. Angela obeyed. She tried to focus, she tried to innovate, but she was lagging, spacing out. She was trying to rally when a bigger threat than an imposing male FBI agent disrupted her service: an imposing female FBI agent. Dom DiPerro. She wanted a moment of Angela’s time. “Go ahead, I can wait for you to finish,” said Dom. Cliffhanger!
Phillip Price vs. the Universe. A few episodes ago, the E Corp. CEO declared himself “a master of the universe.” But in “m4ster-s1ave.aes,” he certainly didn’t feel like one. Congress was still balking at giving him his bailout. They had good reason. The money was going to come from a loan from China. But in the aftermath of the attack on Dom DiPerro and her fellow FBI agents in Beijing, the American public wasn’t feeling all warm and fuzzy toward China. They wanted revenge. Hence, the bailout was politically risky.
When “John,” the Speaker of the House — a sound-alike for John Boehner (remember, this is summer of 2015; Boehner is not yet retired) — made it clear there would be no vote, Price hung up on him. He needed to get Minister Zhang (a.k.a. Whiterose) to help him out, but she wasn’t taking his calls. This pissed him off. His irritation escalated when he was informed that his driver was having trouble getting into the parking garage due to the massive, noisy protest encampment outside E Corp. HQ. The universe, it seemed, was conspiring against its so-called “master.” Pity poor Phillip Price, a prisoner in his own castle, the poles and the proles and those he thought he owned — that he regarded as tools, as extensions of himself — revolting against his will. We left the frustrated overman in his moonbase office atop his monolithic ivory tower looking down on creation, waiting on the police to come to his rescue. But does he still own them, too? If masters rule by fear or reward, then what will he have to do reassert control over his unruly, unhappy slaves?
Dom. The FBI agent survived the shootout in China last week. The gunman who had her pinned down and was blazing away at her stopped and turned the gun on himself. We didn’t see this. Dom recapped for us during a meeting in which her supervisor notified her she was placed on leave for four weeks pending psychological assessment. The FBI worried she may have suffered trauma. Dom suspected a Dark Army conspiracy was at work and was continuing to unfold, perhaps now on American soil. Her boss said there was no proof of her theory. “What you saw doesn’t mean anything,” he said, evoking the moments during in the sitcom opener when Edward tried to convince Elliot he couldn’t trust his senses when it came to The Man in the Trunk. The subtext of this whole sequence: Go home and get your peepers checked, Dom. The official FBI narrative: Dom and company were attacked by Uighur separatists. The Dark Army are just hackers, not terrorists. Official narrative wins. For now.
Dom’s forced leave of absence made her a warrior servant without a master — a ronin. In this way, she was like Ahmed, her fave bodega guy, maker of “the best damn turkey sandwiches in the tristate.” His business was dying on the vine as a result of the reduced government allowance putting a squeeze on consumers. Without customers, he couldn’t attract customers, because he needed their cash to restock his depleted shelves. He was the opposite-equal to Phillip Price, a servant abandoned by his masters, but obviously much worse off than Price, yet far more gracious toward those failing him. Moved by his situation, and perhaps recognizing her own in him — and oh, probably hungry, too — Dom bought one more turkey on wheat from him. He served her one more time, the most sad-happy bodega sandwich maker the universe has ever seen.
And Now For Something Completely Different: A Small Essay On How The Mr. Robot Sitcom Is A “Guiding Light” Response To Television’s Dark Antihero Age.
Watching the Mr. Robot sitcom, I thought about Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone’s movie also depicts the personal mythology of one of its characters, Mallory (Juliette Lewis), in the form of a grotesque parody of a family sitcom. (Instead of an abusive Mom, she had a sexually abusive father, played by Rodney Dangerfield. She and her partner-in-crime boyfriend, played by Woody Harrelson, kill him.) Mr. Robot’s sitcom parody satirized traditional sitcom clichés (see: Edward making fun of Elliot and Angela’s will they?/won’t they? ‘ship), but it also commented on the fallout of postmodern deconstructionism, and more specifically, modern antihero TV’s deconstruction of conventions and archetypes. Elliot’s troubled reaction to his reality blur doubles as response to the subversions around him. So does the theme song. The first verse: It used to be you could trust in the story/Vilify the villains and celebrate the heroes/You could believe in the guts and the glory ways/Those were the better days/Where did those times go? The refrain: Imagine a world gone insane…
The pining for a pre-antihero TV world — or rather, a world that moves us beyond the antihero moment — is interesting in a season that has fixated on Seinfeld, the season’s chief TV fixation, a pop phenom and game-changer that upended sitcom norms (“no hugging, no lessons learned”) and satirized selfishness at the risk of celebrating it. In the show’s finale, described by Leon a few weeks ago, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer watch a man get carjacked and mugged and don’t do anything about it. They laugh. They’re arrested for “criminal indifference,” tried, convicted, and jailed. I saw some of that in “m4ster-s1ave.aes,” in the moment ALF runs over Gideon, then speeds away. There’s laughter in this scene — the laugh track, representing the audience, representing us. Seinfeld laid the groundwork for 21st-century antihero TV and our enjoyment of it. So basically, Mr. Robot is saying Seinfeld has a lot to apologize for. (I’m kidding.)
Okay, I’m taking a vacation. See you in two weeks.