Of all the tricks Mr. Robot has ever pulled on its audience, “succ3ss0r.pr12” might have been the cruelest. Last week’s episode clarified the season’s defining mystery: Elliot has been in prison hallucinating his runaway freedom to cope with the ordeal. I, for one, was eagerly anticipating an immediate follow-up that filled in the blanks. Was Ray real? What crime did Elliot commit to get locked away? Had we reached the end of unreliable narrator storytelling? Was Mr. Robot finally about to play straight with us?
Nope. And… yes! Instead of giving us what we wanted most, trickster showrunner Sam Esmail veered away from Elliot and gave us an hour we kinda needed: a story that doted on Darlene and the sinking ship of fools that is fsociety, the summer’s other anti-hero suicide squad, and a more self-sabotaging one at that. It took me roughly half the episode to grieve what I wasn’t getting and appreciate what Esmail was supplying. It was a taut, suspenseful outing; a needed investment in secondary characters; a solid riff on themes of estrangement; and honestly, a welcome mental vacation from brain-hurty shenanigans. It was pure paranoid thriller, as narrowly focused and bloody sinister as the red-skinned Cyclops on Mobley’s latest sci-fi tee, and it recalled the more mission-oriented episodes of season 1, an expression of Mr. Robot that frankly I’ve been missing.
The title could be read different ways, but all the meanings were relevant to Darlene. “succ3ss0R” scans as “successor,” as in Darlene, Elliot’s successor as commander-in-mischief of fsociety. It also reads as “success or,” as in “success or fail,” a phrase suggesting the most extreme consequences. Darlene and fsociety certainly turned up the heat on themselves; it was a story of action provoking reaction, increasing the stakes to point-of-no-return levels.
First, fsociety hacked and cracked the secret of Operation: Berenstain. It was an illegal FBI surveillance initiative executed in conjunction with 22 brand name tech companies, plus Uber. Damn Uber! Compromised and violated: the privacy of 3 million Americans. Edward Snowden was not amused. (Wasn’t this the evil conspiracy in the new Jason Bourne movie, too?) They exposed the scheme to the world on the Fourth of July with a Monopoly Man video — a colossal humiliation for the Feds. This was no great victory for fsociety. The realization that the Feds might have eyes on them made them more eanxious and paranoid. (The ironically jaunty orchestral piece used during Darlene’s video shoot: “Danse Macabre,” according to my SoundHound app. Dance of Death. It was an allusion to the universality of mortality — that great equalizer, uniting rich and poor and people of every station — though here, it signaled the growing creep of dread and Darlene’s twirl into the dark side.)
Next came a catastrophic response to a chicken thst came home to roost. Susan Jacobs, ruthless E Corp. general counsel, who returned to reclaim the smart house that fsociety had swiped from her. Oops. Darlene thought they could control her by blackmailing her. But as she confronted the “Madame Executioner” who had laughed at her tragedy, the death of her father, Darlene snapped and zapped Jacobs and watched rapt as the lawyer — her pacemaker fried by Darlene’s stun gun — drowned in the pool she had worked oh, so very hard to earn. Didn’t Darlene see the emails describing Susan’s heart condition? Or did she just blot them from her memory?
Now, Darlene has one more thing in common with her brother: fosciety has turned them both into killers.
(Assuming, of course, Elliot really did kill Tyrell.)
Early in the hour, Darlene cracked a joke to Mobley and Trenton: “Relax, kids, this isn’t the stranger danger episode.” By episode’s end, though, Darlene had become a dangerous mystery to herself, and perhaps to her friends, too. We might have been missing our unreliable narrator in this episode, but in her own way, Darlene played the part for us. “I didn’t know I could do that,” Darlene later told Cisco. Also? She didn’t really feel bad about it, either. Or so she wanted to believe. In slaying the demon Susan, Darlene had become the “Madame Executioner” she abhorred. Darlene’s fall brought her back to the pet crematorium, where last year, she celebrated the anarchy she had set loose upon the world by freeing dozens of dogs scheduled for destruction. Now, she was there to burn the proof of her moral fail, the greatest of all unintended outcomes of her blinkered chaos-bringing. And so “succ3ss0r” / “success or…” had another meaning, too, the implicit missing word standing for all the things we fail to consider in our hyper-rational, narrowly-focused, Cyclops-eyed pursuit of pleasure, power, and success — the costs we deny, the consequences we refuse to contemplate, the push-backs we underestimate, the realities we create but do not anticipate in our scorched-earth campaigns for change and fulfillment.
Mobley made it plain. “If you had that much to lose, you shouldn’t have it in the first place,” Mobley told Trenton after she protested his exhortation to abandon her family, skip town, and go underground. “What we did was colossally stupid. We can’t afford to not recognize that anymore.” Mobley had been slowly ramping up to full-blown panic and regret over fsociety’s direction since the premiere, and he detonated in this episode. But being paranoid doesn’t mean you’re wrong. He was the only one with an eye to see the hazards their escalations were courting. His comrades initially tried to calm him, talk him down, minimize his concerns, shame his anxiety. But as the pressures mounted and Darlene succumbed to weakness, they realized they couldn’t deny the truth: fsociety was f—ed. Darlene, the fearless leader turned terrified of herself and suddenly unreliable to her cause and followers, told them to scatter and flee. It was every man for himself.
NEXT: fsociety is lost in space.
“succ3ss0r.pr12” was an effective sum-up of Mr. Robot’s view of the fsociety revolution. I was struck by the artwork on the walls of Susan’s house — images of the lunar surface, desolate and distant from Earth. They captured, for me, fsociety’s fading gung-ho spirit and right stuff pride. They’re lost in space, and in many ways, always have been. While all of them believed in jubilee and liberating the world of debt (Trenton, in particular wanted that for her cash-strapped, American dream-chasing immigrant parents), they each had different pirnary motivations — fame, revenge, insanity. This was never some movement with thought-out ideology and mapped-out plan but the reckless, pissed-off petulance of extremely talented arrested adolescents wounded by pains and betrayals they’ve never been able to get over. They represent an idealistic but fundamentally immature and dangerous view of justice and change, and they certainly had nothing to fill the void left by their fundamentalist havoc. These wannabe conquerors had no succession plan, so to speak. The psychology of fsociety heroism is comic book superhero psychology — Elliot and Darlene = web-slingers with a Batman origin story — which makes Mr. Robot’s take on the group not so much a satire of political revolutions but the philosophy of our culture’s hero fiction.
The episode was framed by a pair of American holidays. The opening sequence, a flashback to November 2014, was set at Thanksgiving. It concerned Darlene’s recruitment of Trenton and Mobley to fsociety on behalf of Elliot (his no-show at the meeting winking at Elliot’s no-show in general). It took place at Ron’s Coffee. It wasn’t the same 14th street establishment with the awesome WiFi and the secret kiddie porn site that Elliot took down in the pilot, but it was part of rotten Ron’s mini-empire of coffee shops. Mobley and Trenton, perfect strangers, had a counter-culture hipster-hacker meet-cute, with some joshing about whole milk creamers and Android vs. iPhone bantering. (She did run “the old malicious browser benchmark trick” on him, a playful bit of treachery that set up a possible darker reversal to come.) It was a reminder of headier, happier, more idealistic days, as well as Elliot’s well-meaning but dubious dark knight vigilante ethos. Thanksgiving — a feast of sharing, equality, and cooperation — sums up the optimism and naïveté of early fsociety.
The remainder of the episode, set in the present, occurred on Independence Day 2015, a celebration of revolution, solidarity, and freedom for these here United States. But not for fsociety. Their rebellion had stalled, their movement was collapsing, and while the episode left them all technically free, none of them felt that way, and they certainly weren’t united. Mobley was skipping town and moving underground. So was Trenton, although I think the uncertain final beat with her — which brought her back to Ron’s Coffee, a full circle movement — was meant to get us wondering if she’d been caught, or worse, someone — Mobley? — had betrayed her. (The jingle of the door + Trenton’s distressed look toward said door + cliffhanger = The Sopranos’ infamous Jersey diner ending? Debate.) (No? Wow. That was quick.)
Meanwhile, Darlene was dealing with certifiable treachery. She sneaked a peek at Cisco’s laptop and saw that her allegedly loyal ex-boyfriend was working angles for the Dark Army that involved keeping her contained. Her heart sunk. She couldn’t trust Cisco. She didn’t know who he was anymore. Darlene’s ironic “stranger danger” episode ended with the camera taking Cisco’s POV as she furiously whacked him — and us — over the head with a baseball bat.
NEXT: Everybody Wants To Rule the World
Angela’s got only a few beats in “succ3ss0r.pr12,” but her story paralleled and commented on Darlene’s spiral. Celebrating the Fourth of July in her fave season 2 habitat — a bar (wah-wah) — with a recent f-buddy pick-up (who was actually spying on her for the FBI), Angela was harassed by an old family friend, Steve. He came on friendly but turned nasty, slagging her as a whore for selling out to E Corp. and betraying her father. “Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?”
Angela let the words rattle her. Part of her believes them to be true. But then she snapped, and then snapped back. The part of her that doesn’t want to feel guilty for her mad pursuit of self-respect and teamed up with the part of her that hates being bullied and tore the asshole a new one. What was he? A plumber? Someone who cleans up someone else’s crap every day? That was the best he could do for himself during his 60 years on earth? Loser. Meanwhile, she was 27, making six figures at the biggest conglomerate in history. “And I’m just getting started,” she said. “That’s who I am.”
Steve looked stun-gun zapped and gutted. And Angela? Maybe she hated herself a little bit — or a lot — after that character assassination. She flagellated herself by performing some somber karaoke. Her song choice: a politically charged tune from the ’80s that indicted the ruthless turn in her that was sapping her soul, “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. It was the saddest Tears for Fears cover since Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” but 100 times more warbly. It wasn’t Justin Theroux-doing-“Homeward Bound”-karaoke-in-The Leftovers warbly good, but it was affecting. It struck me as a prayer of someone seeking guidance on how to use and redeem the blessings and pain that her hustling had gained her and cost her.
It’s my own desire/It’s my own remorse/Help me to decide/Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever/Everybody wants to rule the world.
(We recall that Karaoke Angela was set up a few eps ago, when we learned she used to Josh Groban karaoke with her ex-boyfriend. Did we know this earlier? I’m blanking on Angela’s history with karaoke.)
The sequence was intercut with another scene depicting another kind of quiet desperation, and a proof of the song’s perspective on the corrupting influence of power and control: fsociety’s mad scramble to dig up dirt on Susan Jacobs so they could contain her threat with enslaving blackmail.
We left Angela flirting with a man just her type. Older. Fatherly. Radiating accomplishment and success. Unobtainable. He told her she was probably younger than his daughter. She tried to make him feel better by suggesting she was probably older than his granddaughter. He said he had to go. She said he should stay and keep talking to her. We got the sense he probably agreed. The man was played by Mark Moses, best known to me for playing Duck Phillips on Mad Men. A recovering alcoholic who blew up with his family after a workplace affair, Duck’s most memorable stories included fooling around with younger woman — another ambitious up-and-comer type, Peggy Olsen. I could be wrong about this, but I thought I heard his voice in the phone conversation fsociety tapped and recorded and used to expose Operation: Berenstain. Might Angela’s new beau be yet another Fed?
While Elliot didn’t appear in this episode, the story had great bearing on him. When we left him last week, he was set to be released (I think?) and he had decided to resume his place at the head of the fsociety table. But the king couldn’t have picked a more worse time for a return. His organization is in disarray. The feds are hot on their trail. Since the Dark Army arranged his release, and since the group is about to launch stage two of its own master plan, we might wonder — worry — that they have dastardly, Ray-ish plans for Elliot. Might they involve manipulating him into hacking or coding for them by threatening Darlene? Is that why the Dark Army wanted Cisco to keep her close? Maybe we’ll find out next week…
Unless, of course, Sam Esmail decides to sideline Elliot again for, say, a very special Gideon Goddard flashback episode.
Which, by the way, I’d totally watch.