As Elliot is freed, every other character becomes imprisoned

By Jeff Jensen
September 11, 2016 at 05:29 PM EDT
Peter Kramer/USA Network
S2 E9
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For many felons, the release from prison is a difficult transition. It’s a movement from imposed regimen within a mediated environment to overwhelming choice and stimulation in a world of unstructured space and time. Little wonder that some fall back into patterns of behavior, repeating familiar narratives that lead to dead-ends and back to The Big House. But what the hell do I know? All I know about jail is what I’ve seen on TV, as well as that one time my police detective dad locked me and my brother in a holding tank when we visited him at work, and NO THAT DID NOT LEAVE A MARK WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT?

“init_5.fve” captured Elliot’s discombobulating and fatiguing first day out of the slammer. It also put him on a familiar path that could send him back to jail if he isn’t careful. He experienced disintegration. His new union with Mr. Robot? He would have moments in which he would be outside himself, looking at Mr. Robot interacting with others in his place; he became unstuck from himself. (The episode’s title evoked Slaughterhouse-Five for me. Elliot’s dilemma evoked the books’s famous line: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.) “init_5.fve” was also a story in which characters felt boxed in (imprisoned) by their circumstances, guilt, or conscience and chased risky strategies for escaping. It was a solid hour that continued the season’s recent trend toward well-honed paranoid thriller and set up several intrigues and conflicts for the season’s final act.

First, though, director Sam Esmail and his writers fclarified the hallucinatory haze of Elliot’s 86-day incarceration. Yep, that was the fuzz pounding on his door at the end of season 1. Yep, they were busting him for hacking Krista’s sleazy ex and swiping his dog. And yep, Ray was actually the (corrupt?) warden and Lone Star was actually a (corrupt?) guard and Hot Carla was actually a fellow inmate, burning books on a grate. The Ray and Lone Star clear-ups were handled with a minimum of detail. I’m going to assume their exploitation of Elliot happened in some fashion — that they really were running a deep web black market website — and that Elliot wasn’t projecting a subplot from The Shawshank Redemption on them or reliving an old memory (which had been my pet theory). More could be said about this story, but perhaps Esmail will let lingering ambiguities lie and allow us to interpret them as we wish. The Hot Carla reveal — she was burning Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by the way — came during the season’s latest single-take shot, a three-minute, intricately-blocked stunner in which Leon took Elliot into the yard, explained the ropes of inmate life, and offered to hook him up with anything he needed. Pills. Smokes. Porn. 

“Can you get me a notebook?” asked Elliot.

Leon gave him with that, and more, protection. We now know that Leon was secretly working for the Dark Army. Mission: keep asset Elliot safe during his impromptu vacation. Fun Fact! The prison library was stocked with “throwback DVDs.” Leon was making his way through a bin of ’90s pop. He’d just finished a Mad About You box set. (“You know, my man Paul Reiser, he just doesn’t get the credit he deserves. The man is spectacular.”) Next on his What To Watch list: Seinfeld. (Waitaminute. The Shawshank Redemption came out in 1994. So maybe Elliot was under its influence during his stay in the joint…)

One key detail: We learned that Elliot went against the advice of counsel and pled guilty. He wanted to go to prison. He could barely mask his happy relief at the idea of being locked up. He saw it as a chance to get his head straight and perhaps protect the world from his economy-crashing alter-ego, Mr. Robot. No Internet? Days of routine? Opportunities for silence and self-reflection? Bring it on! Not that he deserves any medals for pursuing self-mastery and modeling personal responsibility. It’s not like he used the opportunity to confess to shooting Tyrell (but did he?) and causing Five/Nine. So it was an act of cowardly running away, too. Still, you got the sense that Elliot thought prison would be healthy for him — and I wonder if it still might be. Yeah, Ray and Lone Star gave him plenty of reasons to escape. But as we recap Elliot’s re-entry into the world, consider this: Do you think it’s possible that there’s a part of Elliot that wants to get caught? Who believes prison life might be preferable — and better for everyone, really — than living at large, armed with a keyboard?

One person not thrilled with Elliot’s prison experiment: the other part of him, Mr. Robot. In one of the season’s funniest moments, Mr. Robot “interrupted” Elliot’s trial — in which he entered his plea from a holding cell via closed-circuit TV — by jumping in front of the camera and yelling: “What the f— are you doing?!” When the judge asked Elliot if he understood the consequences of his plea and if he was submitting to them with a “free” mind, Elliot eagerly said yes, and Mr. Robot went all kinds of ‘Hell No!’ Fortunately, Mr. Robot didn’t have to serve the entirety of the 18-month sentence. While it appears the Dark Army played a role in his release, budget cuts in the aftermath of Five/Nine greased the wheels. We learned the cash-strapped penal system was giving scores of non-violent offenders early outs. In a way, Elliot helped engineer his parole and short-changed his self-exile redemption project. “You got lucky,” said a guard. “Don’t squander it.”

Unfortunately, Monsieur Self-Sabotage might be wired to do nothing but.

NEXT: A visit with mother.

The scenes of Elliot’s accelerated trial, his identity-stripping intake (set to the Public Image Ltd. song “The Order of Death,” with the refrain “This is what you want, this what you get” on a loop) and the single-take lay-of-the-land sequence represented an expression of orientation. (The final beats, deconstructing the delusion of his bedroom/prison cell, were set to Depeche Mode’s “Walking in My Shoes.”) It was essential to setting up the remainder of Elliot’s arc, a slow spiral into disorientation. Upon his release — Darlene greeted him with a bag of fries and a hug, a touching moment — his story became a version of the felon’s relapse, his effort to find and feel “normalcy” leading him to familiar, risky narratives. He reconnected with his criminal family and criminal cronies, and he returned to the criminal behavior that got him sent upriver: hacking.* As Elliot tempted danger, he started to glitch and lose the rehabilitation he earned in prison — his tenuous, dubious reconciliation and reintegration with Mr. Robot. His sense of self and self-image would slip and switch, requiring periodic correction. Sometimes he was in control. Sometimes he was outside himself, watching Mr. Robot run the show. Mr. Robot was also surprised by Elliot’s malfunction — or at least acted the part. Now that Elliot is back in the wild, Mr. Robot, that cunning operator, icould be double-crossing his vehicle and hacking him, making a move to possess all of Elliot once and for all.

*Before Elliot did anything, though, he did what many newly sprung felons do: he visited his mother. We found her at a retirement home or assisted living facility, sitting in a chair looking out the window, non-responsive and perhaps mentally vacant — the real-world counterpoint to Elliot’s delusional representation of his mother, which had her parked in a chair and watching TV all day. (Is she mentally ill, too? Or am I misreading her silence? She may not be broken. Mom may simply resent and hate Elliot that much.) Her room, ironically, was not dissimilar to Elliot’s hallucinatory bedroom, a soulless cell. Might he feel some guilt for keeping her here, exiled from the world? Could his prison delusion be understood as an empathetic imagining of her experience? He thanked her for providing inspiration during his prison drama and trauma — presumably, her model of resilience and discipline — and left her. The scene didn’t move me the way I wanted to be moved by it, and it left me more curious than ever to know more about Mom as a person and her relationship to her children. Curious detail: the clock on her wall was broken. Maybe Whiterose can loan her a spare. But you know who else has a broken clock in her room? Dom DiPierro. You don’t think the show is trying to intimate a connection between the two characters… do you?

It was clear by episode’s end that Elliot continues to practice self-deception, and that a part of him (presumably the Mr. Robot part) continues to withhold info from him. The second stage of the Dark Army’s plan? Elliot was the one who authored it. When? Why doesn’t he remember it? Why doesn’t he want to remember it? Just a few episodes ago, Elliot seemed ready to resume his role as fsociety major domo, finish the revolution and liberate us from the world prison of 1% oppression, exploitative systems and ‘king of bullshit’ control. But “init_5.fve” suggested that Elliot remains as conflicted as ever about his plan for saving civilization from its discontents.  

Elliot’s final movement in the episode was a summary metaphor for his post-prison backsliding. With his buggy mind, his weakening body and society on the fritz (the country has been suffering rolling brownouts since “Comet Electric” went on strike after Five/Nine), Elliot took a long walk back to the riskiest place he could possibly go: home. It was a full circle move: the episode began here, with a flashback to his arrest. But he never made it inside at the end. Waiting for him in a hearse-black SUV was fellow psychotic Joanna Wellick and her death-dealing “No Problemo!” goon, Mr. Sutherland. They had come to take him away, perhaps to greater danger and more disintegration. Does a date with Tyrell await? Would a rendezvous with the wannabe Rama bring enlightenment or more madness for Elliot? Both? We shall see.

Darlene’s storymirrored Elliot’s move from coherence to incoherence, strength to bugginess. At first, she seemed recovered from last week’s events — murdering Susan, melting down, and bashing Cisco with a baseball bat. (That was three weeks ago, per an argument.) In truth, she was just trying to keep it together by forging forward and forgetting — a kind of relentless, Dory-esque, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” (Allusions to dancing — constant motion — cluttered her story line, from the ballet company ads in the subway to Cisco’s “Regulators! Let’s Dance” poster.) When Darlene suddenly remembered that she had left proof of her guilt at Susan’s house — a videotape of Monopoly Man video outtakes — she really started to freak. Darlene wanted to fetch the tape and destroy it; Cisco, looking for some redemption, offered to do it for her. We left her in his apartment, lights dim or blinking from the rolling brownouts — an echo of the experience she inflicted upon Susan Jacobs in the premiere, when she hacked her “smart house” and made it turn against her. We heard a pounding on the door and we watched her open it with a face full of dread — an echo of Elliot’s season 1 cliffhanger. Had the cops found her? Had they come to arrest her for Susan’s murder? The scene was intercut with Cisco’s retrieval mission. We left him distracted by the sound of labored breathing. There was someone in the house — someone in distress, maybe dying. But who? The camera denied us the reveal. My very grim theory? Tyrell isn’t dead. And honestly, I’m thinking Elliot never shot him at all. What’s Tyrell been doing all season? How about shadowing fsociety and cleaning up messes or neutralizing loose ends. He murdered Romero. And I think he’s left someone to die at Susan’s house to take the fall for Susan’s death. It’s either Trenton or Mobley or both. I like this theory better than my other theory, which is that Mobley killed Romero and is also responsible for whatever Cisco has discovered at Susan’s house, most likely, a mortally wounded Trenton. I don’t want this to be true. I like Mobley!

NEXT: Seeing red — or not.

What I enjoyed most about Elliot’s story was how the filmmaking choices — particularly the use of color and the framing of shots — reflected his frazzle, his renewed struggle with Mr. Robot, and his continued practice of self-deception. According to Elliot, “init_5.fve” means “return to normal.” It’s the stage of a reboot that brings in “color and sound.” And yet, as Elliot exited the prison, he said he could only see and hear “gray and quiet.” Esmail’s palette wasn’t without color — more on this in a second — but there were a lot of blacks, whites, grays, dinge, and drab in this episode as a whole. You could see it as a representation of the dim-light browout culture taking hold in post-Five/Nine society. (You heard it here first: I predict sometime in the next few episodes — maybe the season finale — we’re going to get a nationwide blackout.) You could also see it as an attempt by Elliot to dull or numb his sensory experience, a way of coping with post-incarceration culture shock. He lost this battle by degrees. In one flight of paranoid panic, Elliot found himself locked in one subway car while Mr. Robot was colluding with Cisco in another. As Elliot pounded on the door, a homeless man with a keyboard played an incoherent tune, the mad cacophony itensifying until Elliot regained control of his head.

And there were bold splashes of color amid the bland and blah, too. Even the moment when Elliot makes his “gray and quiet” observation offers proof against it, as he fails to see or acknowledge the notable yellow framing of the prison release gate or Darlene’s purple backpack. When colors showed up, they were as conspicuous as red flags, because often, they were red flags, symbolically speaking. Red emergency EXIT signs in hallways. Red emergency LED displays on the subway. The red hat on Cisco’s head. Joanna’s blood-red lips. Some crazy-talk red graffiti around a doorframe — suggesting, to my religious eyes, the story of Passover, when the people of Israel marked their doors with blood to wave off the Angel of Death.

Doors were, in fact, a another recurring motif, and more, a subset of another: geometrical framing. A key scene had Elliot, Darlene, and Cisco discussing a risky plan to confront the Dark Army about “stage two,” an engagement that risked arrest or death or both. For the master shot, Esmail put his camera inside an adjacent room, Cisco’s bathroom, creating an image in which the left side of the picture was the bathroom wall and the right side of the picture was the bathroom’s open door. The three characters were framed within that door, against a window in the deep background. The visual, then, was a large box containing a smaller box containing a smaller box containing the characters.

What you get when you add up all of these motifs — doors, boxes within boxes, bold shots of red breaking up dull reality — is a callback to Elliot’s prison, a monolith containing a myriad of cells and one striking splash of color, a red door. Those same motifs also refer us to the other crime(s) troubling Elliot’s conscience: the possible murder of Tyrell on the night of the Five/Nine hack. Red is also the color that connects Elliot to Tyrell. See: the red phone in his hallucination of his mother’s house, which Elliot used to call Tyrell; or the red window curtains in the hallucination of his bedroom, evoking the first shot of the season, Tyrell inside the fsociety arcade, standing in a doorway hung with red curtains. That doorway also served as the backdrop for fosciety’s Monopoly Man videos. Red: the color of Elliot’s sins.

If we interpret the storytelling in Elliot’s arc as an expression of his consciousness, then what we got in “init_5.fve” is a portrait of a mind aglow with caution signs. They speak of the secrets he’s keeping from himself and the sins that still weigh on his conscience. They warn him of the dangers that’ll send him back to jail, or cause him to lose his mind or life. Can’t you see the flashing red? Here There Be Dragons! Do Not Enter! Go Further! Non Plus Ultra!

The episode’s other major story focused on the season’s other chaotic personality and divided mind. Angela has been toggling between vengeful E Corp. destroyer and ambitious E Corp. cog all season, becoming increasingly confused and compromised in the process. This week, we watched her try to liberate herself from this quagmire with a grand, heroic, quick-and-be-done-with-it gesture. She decided to play whistleblower and tip the feds to select E Corp. corruption, specifically, the Washington Township plant leak (a catastrophe the storytelling keeps linking — and likening? — to the Flint, Michigan water contamination scandal). It was a new version of a familiar narrative, Angela pursuing self-respect or win it back with the dubious, paradoxical strategy of placing her fate and self-worth in the hands of higher power. The ending was the same, and set her up for something she didn’t want, a deeper sink into quagmire.

The colors in Angela’s arc favored a black, white and silver, a monochrome reflecting her latest moral turn and slippery scheme. In the tense scene in which she copied computer files, Esmail placed her inside a glass office and shot her from outside the windows looking in, framing her within the panes, boxing her in. Like Elliot, Angela was chasing the future with blinders on, ignoring the colorful warnings around her. As Angela made like Karen Silkwood, we saw a piece of art on the wall, a yellow caution sign emblazoned with the words RISK AHEAD. It was positioned over her head, looming over her, mocking her enterprise, screaming: Hello? Clueless? Do you have any idea what you’re doing? What are you setting in motion?

Angela didn’t want to kill E Corp. She just wanted to cut out the cancers, wash her hands of them, and continue her boundless ascension within the largest, most powerful company in history with a clean conscience. Silly rabbit.

NEXT: Whiterose will piss on your grave!

Angela took her info to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She wanted them to act quickly on the scoop and keep her name out of it. The feds appreciated the dirt, but asked her to stick around. You know, just in case they had questions. They kept her cooling her heels for hours. Angela’s started to tweak. When a brownout zapped the lights, she got spooked, and even more so when Deputy Director Phelps appeared out of the darkness like some shifty daemon. She tried to appear friendly, but she reeked of creepy disingenuousness. She led Angela down a long hallway lined with surveillance cameras, ratcheting the paranoua. She wanted Angela to meet with her colleagues in a room at the shadowy end of the hall. There was a sign down there — EXIT, glowing red. Angela took the hint. She ran away before she could find herself railroaded into a deal with a devil.

Alas, Angela might be trapped, anyway. That night, another kind of genie appeared at her door, this one a true blue agent of justice: flame-haired FBI agent Dom DiPierro. She came with gifts of gyros, but Angela wasn’t hungry. Angela tried to keep Dom on the other side of her door, but the huffy puffy wolf wouldn’t be denied. She barged in, she started eating, and she told Angela the score. She’d been following her for months. She knew about her trip to the NRC. And she could see Angela was flailing and freaking out, because she reminded Dom of her own dreams of a good thing gone bad, of struggling and drowning. She positioned herself to Angela as her only hope. “I don’t know how all this ties together, but eventually, somebody will connect all the dots, and it’ll catch up to you,” she said. “Next person isn’t going to offer you food. They’re going to grab you off the street and throw you in a dark cell.” We left Angela in her skyrise apartment-cum-cell, a prisoner of her own blundering conscience. What will she do next?

Whiterose found herself feeling snared, too, victimized by her blinkered arrogance. She had two high-impact scenes. In the first, she visited the grave of former E Corp. CEO Lester Moore. It started sweet, but it turned salty whem Whiterose pulled down her drawers, squatted, and pissed on Moore’s headstone. Apparently, whatever plan Whiterose is trying to execute with Phillip Price — the implementation of digital currency; and, perhaps, something grander — she once tried to pull off with Moore 20 years earlier. But then he tried to shut down her project after the toxic spill scandal of 1993, so she engineered a plane crash to kill him. It was punishment for his betrayal and for threatening the thing most precious to her, time. She wasn’t there to pay him some respect to Moore, but remember how he had disrespected her. Ladies and gentlemen, you do NOT want to piss of Whiterose…

…Unless you’re Phillip Price.

In the second scene, the self-proclaimed master of the universe took a rainy day stroll with Whiterose, who was wearing his prisoner clothes, that is to say, his self-denying mask, the Minister Zhang identity. They walked with umbrellas across the beautiful grounds of a rolling estate toward a panoramic vista. All seemed well between these two powerful souls. But in one of the episode’s most memorable shots, Esmail took an overhead, God’s-eye view of Price and Zhang as they walked a path across the green. It was framed as a diagonal, with the two of them descending from the top of the screen to the bottom. It was a picture of Price leading Zhang down a road to a proverbial dead end.

At the viewpoint, Price sandbagged Whiterose and trapped her within his perspective of the world and their relationship. He told her than unless she could secure an interest-free bailout loan for E Corp. from China, he was going to surrender the Washington Township property to the government. Whiterose was most displeased with this blackmail. (That facility, it seems, is key to her master plan. She kept referring to this place as “my plant.” What, exactly, is she trying to accomplish at this top secret radioactive hotspot? Tear a hole in the fabric of reality and access an alternate universes? Duplicate The Philadelphia Experiment? Trick the planet into world peace by faking an alien invasion with a teleporting psychic squid? What if Mr. Robot actually takes place in the future of Stranger Things and Whiterose is trying to reach the Upside-Down world?)

Anyway, it was a new version of a familiar story — Whiterose getting hosed by an E Corp. CEO. She had to give him what he wanted — not doing so would be a waste of time, and she was already so far behind — but she sure didn’t like it, and her eyes blazed with an unspoken death threat. Price didn’t give a s—. Because he, too, was all boxed in. He, too, was a cornered cat, and he had no way out except to scratch, claw, and cheat. He also, quite clearly, hated Whiterose’s guts. He resented his dependency on her and being made to feel he existed on her time, not vice versa. He struck at her want for decorum and control. “Order will not protect you anymore, my friend,” said Phillip. “I will rain chaos — even if it hurts me. I would rather see you lose than win myself.”

In their conflict, I wondered if Esmail was presenting us a comment on Elliot and Mr. Robot — the former like Whiterose, desperate for mastery over all aspects of her reality, the latter like Mr. Robot, the fearless, hopeless, possibly self-destructive scrapper, now making a bold, reckless play for supremacy and endgame success.

Price left Whiterose fuming in the rain. Now, more than ever, she is a prisoner to circumstances and identities she yearned to transcend. Now, more than ever, she finds herself tethered to a bad man and dependent on his flourishing. Perhaps Elliot can relate to this, too.

What a pisser.  

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  • 06/24/15
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