Mr. Robot season 2 premiere recap: eps2.0unm4sk-pt1.tc
Where is Elliot's mind?
Prologue: Parable of the Madman
In which three consecutive psychotic breaks in three unbroken shots form the origin story of Elliot Alderson.
Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) stands in the arcade wearing the face of the Monopoly Man. He is looking through the mask’s eyeholes; he is looking at us. He removes the plastic thing and gets the first line of the season. It plays like a knowing, self-effacing joke, the show cracking wise about itself. “Why this mask? It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?” He either doesn’t get irony or never played board games as a kid. The sick Swede was probably too busy studying American Psycho for fashion cues and assimilation tips.
Tyrell isn’t talking to us. He’s talking to his mirror twin in dangerous psychological incoherency, a moon-faced, wide-eyed radical who’s about to push a button that’ll cripple an institution he believes to be the root(kit) of all evil in a money-worshipping, debt-enslaving bank: E Corp., a Bernie Sanders nightmare, a ubiquitous corporate entity so intrinsic to the global economy that to f— it up would mean f—ing up all of society something good. But hey: F— society, anyway. Bunch of Big Mac-gobbling, Facebook-fake sell-out sleepwalkers. We deserve to get rudely woke with apocalyptic salvation…
Or so this cracked wannabe world-saver likes to think, right here, right now, hopped up on some serious Jesus Jones. The camera takes its time getting to this crazy person, a deliberate, unbroken glide that cultivates dread but also reflects what’s going on for the characters in this room — an experience of stretched time, heightened awareness, clarity of purpose. The camera pulls away from Tyrell, closed red curtains behind him, illuminated lamp above him, an enlightened madman motif. It makes a sweeping pan, capturing other interesting details, too, like a videogame called Deception. It stands out like boldfaced text, a red flag in the matrix. Here be dragons of unreliable narration.
We push in on Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the schizoid anti-hero with a thousand hoodies, and two different, competing faces: Elliot, alienated yet sensitive misfit loner, flooded by the anxieties of the world; and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the burn-it-all-down anarchist who acts on those anxieties. Elliot has constructed this persona in the image of his late father, Edward, an alleged victim of Evil Corp.’s indifference to humanity. Which face is the authentic Elliot? Both? Neither? This is surely the defining question of the series. Today, the story is about control. Which one gets to push the buttons and pull the gears of the bluesy-woozy Elliot avatar.
Here, in what is basically a missing scene from the final act of season 1, Elliot could be Mr. Robot, or he could be himself, or he could be an integration of both. Sitting at Mr. Robot’s computer console in fsociety’s secret HQ (an abandoned amusement park arcade: the kind of place The Joker would use for a hideout), Elliot is dialoguing with fsociety’s partners in China, the Dark Army. He’s asking them to accelerate the timetable on detonating their debt-destroying bomb. “The winds of the heavens shift suddenly but so does human fate,” the Dark Army responds, quoting a Chinese proverb. “Spirit away, spirit away, the ninth of May.”
We watch this scene knowing something Elliot does not. Whiterose (B.D. Wong), the leader of the Dark Army, is in league with Evil Corp.’s CEO, Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer). “It’s happening,” says Elliot, inputting the final lines of code. The revolution is on. But who’s controlling it? Is it really even a revolution? Or is it a version of that Matrix Reloaded idea, where the “invisible hand” guiding the world allows for heroic rebellion (followed by immediate reboot) to keep us suckers hopeful and happy?
Elliot gives up his seat to his Evil Corp. conspirator — his inside man — though we really don’t know how long he and Tyrell have been collaborating or the true nature of their relationship. Tyrell examines the code. The beauty of what Elliot has writ and wrought floors him. “It’s almost as if something’s come alive.”
Elliot also looks awestruck. There’s even a flutter of a smile. But then he looks back at Tyrell and moves to the popcorn machine. And we all know what Darlene put in the popcorn machine.
Something is happening inside his volatile mind, but we don’t know what. Perhaps the first stir of Oh my god what have I done?! panic that we know will trigger a fugue that’ll make him forget the thing that happens next. A choice is made, and he reaches into the pile of golden kernels. Is the gun still there? If so, does he shoot Tyrell? Or does he shoot —
There’s the sound of breaking glass, and Elliot plummets to the ground. There’s a wound near his right temple and blood is pooling behind his head. But we’re not in the arcade anymore, and this is not the adult Elliot of the present. We’ve cut to his childhood, to the day Elliot, age 8, tried to hug his father after betraying the secret of his dad’s leukemia to his mother, and Edward Alderson responded with a more profound betrayal by pushing him away… and out the window of their second story window of their house. That’ll leave a mark. From a God’s-eye, overhead view of Elliot, the camera pulls back, beginning another long, continuous shot that further ratchets our dread and says something about Elliot.
NEXT: Snow Crash
We see Elliot crashed on the snow. His eyes closed and his arms are outstretched — a crucified pose for a crossroads event. We hear his parents approach and attend to him. Dad, panicky, says he’s sorry, that it was “an accident,” and commands his son “Wake up!” Mom, pissed, gets Biblical. “God says there are no accidents!” she rages. “God have mercy on him!” she prays. Their beseeching and bickering intensifies as the camera continues to rise, floating upward like an untethered soul. It somersaults toward the house and spins through the darkened window, a dizzying spiral, and pushes into the darkness as we hear Edward scream for an ambulance…
Spiking lines of a bleating blood pressure monitor move across the screen. In yet one more single, unbroken shot, the camera pulls back and scans the hospital room, again making sure we catch a glimpse of a detail: a pamphlet titled “God’s Hand In Our Hardship.” Subtitle: “An Interfaith Guide To Spiritual Care.” We see a hand from heaven reaching down to a hand from Earth reaching up. It’s one more conspicuous reference to the sovereignty of a father God. There will be more.
The camera stops to linger on Elliot. He sits on an examination table. His broken arm is in a sling. The wound on his temple is bandaged. He shows no emotion as the doctor talks and his parents continue to squabble. “As you can tell by the images, everything appears to be normal,” the doctor says. Which is funny. So it didn’t leave a mark! But in Mr. Robot, we know images lie and narrators deceive. These opening scenes form a compressed origin story for Elliot — the roots of his detachment and practice of masking, his resentful distrust of authority and intimacy and deep yearning for both, his streaks of fundamentalism and heroism and his fear of them — and an elegant re-orientation to the show’s showy, sly, super-dense storytelling.
Mom rips into his father anew, this time about the hospital bill. Edward, recently unemployed, can’t afford it, but he tells her not to sweat it. “There won’t be any hospital bills,” he says. (Why?) He tries to comfort her. She recoils. “Don’t touch me.”
Meanwhile, Elliot is staring at something off camera. Maybe he’s listening to his parents. Maybe he’s trying not to. The good doctor — perhaps sensitive to their affect on Elliot — shoos them out of the room. How worthless the boy must feel. First, his dad pushes him out a window. Now, he’s a costly expense the family can’t afford. What kind of worldview develops from such violence and violation?
One answer is suggested by that pamphlet. The title comes from a 2013 tract by Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian evangelist and activist for the disabled. (You can purchase it — and read it in its entirety — at Amazon.com.) When she was 17, she became paralyzed from the shoulders down after diving into shallow water. After a period of depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubt, she began to regain hope and purpose through art and writing. “Affliction itself is like a fire, having a potential for good and bad,” she writes. “While in one person, suffering can mold a Christlike character, in another, it has a tendency to breed self-centeredness and anger. The fruit that suffering yields in our lives depends on perspective and attitude that must be shaped by God.” Judging from what we’ve seen so far on Mr. Robot, Elliot broke toward “self-centeredness and anger,” and possibly even worse.
“Elliot, I want you to know you’re going to be just fine,” the doctor says. “That was quite a spill you took today. But I promise, you’re going to have a long and healthy life ahead of you. Now, Elliot, there’s just a few questions I need to ask you…”
Those questions probably pertained to the circumstances of that spill, the doctor executing some required interrogation regarding the violence done to Elliot. Does Elliot tell the truth? Does he inform on his father and risk the consequences that could result from that? What really happened to Edward Alderson and his family after this changing, shaping moment?
But we don’t hear the doctor’s questions, nor do we hear Elliot’s responses. The storytelling denies us this information — a trick writer/director Sam Esmail will pull again later in the episode, in a very similar situation. The doctor’s voice becomes warped, like we’re listening to him from underwater. He fades completely as the medical monitors grow louder, accompanied by other sounds, like a low thrum of grinding machinery. The camera pulls away from Elliot and his forlorn gaze and then turns to find the object that holds his attention: It’s an MRI of his allegedly normal brain, posted on a light board.
A crackle of a phonograph fills the soundtrack. Violins play as we zoom toward the picture of stressed-out Elliot’s lit-up gray matter, a Rorschach of mystery. The orchestrations build to a crescendo, to a breaking point, and then we hear the word “Daydream!” sung in a scene that breaks into a different time, a different place, a different state of mind, a reality as blurry with illusion and scary monsters as “Pokemon Go!”
Daydream! I fell asleep amid the flowers, for a couple of hours, on a beautiful day…
Did we just witness the first time Elliot Alderson lost his mind?
*I Monster’s “Daydream in Blue” (2002) is a techno adaptation of a song by the Belgian group Wallace Collection, with melodies swiped from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and String Quartet No. 1. I Monster takes its name from the 1971 British horror flick I, Monster, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. We hear the tune throughout the sequence to come: It’s time to learn how Elliot’s been coping since discovering the truth about his most recent psychotic break — or some of it — and his own monstrous alter-ego, Mr. Robot.
NEXT: Into the Cuckoo’s Nest
Season 1 of Mr. Robot ended with someone banging on Elliot’s apartment door. Would he open it and submit to whoever or whatever had come for him? The season 2 premiere leaves the identity of Elliot’s pounding visitor a mystery. (Ditto: the whereabouts of MIA, maybe-dead Tyrell.) If you’re the kind of Mr. Robot watcher who likes nothing-is-what-it-seems theories, here’s one: Elliot was captured, and he’s currently in prison, and the feds are trying to get him to give up his fsociety friends. But he’s psychically retreated into an elaborate fantasy world for any number of reasons, including a desire to resist their interrogations. His daydream reality is constructed from memories and pop culture, but it also appropriates the people in his enviornment — agents, guards, other inmates, visitors — recast in different roles. For example, at the end, he could actually be with meeting with Tyrell, but they’re talking on the phone because they’re separated by glass. Some visitors, like Elliot’s shrink, could be here to help the matter at hand: Elliot is trapped in his delusion and he can’t get out. The season is about Elliot slowly freeing himself from his mind palace-turned-labyrinth prison, with guiding or goading assistance from Mr. Robot. He’s not trying to take him over. He wants Elliot to re-engage the world and further the fsociety revolution, or maybe just get helathy. How fatherly! Later in the recap, we’ll explore correlations with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. If you accept that they are intentional, they can be seen as more clues to the nature of Elliot’s reality. [Update at 7:17 AM: I’m reading different versions of this idea all over the place this morning Abraham Riesman at Vulture makes a really smart, well-argued case that Elliot is in a mental hospital, placed there by Tyrell.]
Or, we can just take the series at face value.
There’s another idea I want to throw in your hopper. A few hundred words ago or so, I dropped a reference to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. One of his inspirations was psychologist Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It explores the possibility that ancient people didn’t think as we do today, with reflective and reasoning consciousness, because their brains worked differently. They functioned largely out of habit — autopilot — but when they were confronted with new circumstances or some kind of acute stress, their brains would do a peculiar thing. The right side would tell the left side what to do, and that people would experience in the form of an auditory hallucination, as an imaginary friend (or not) commanding them to action. To modern eyes, it could look like schizophrenia. This theory suggests that people are wired to be led and need to be led. It would also explain religious experience and the belief in gods and their current vestiges. (I’m reminded of the season 1 finale, when we finally saw what the Elliot-Mr. Robot relationship looks like to the outside world, a man talking to/fighting with himself; and what Mr. Robot said to Elliot: “You’re losing it, kiddo. I’m only supposed to be your prophet. You’re supposed to be my God.”)
Did Elliot’s fall at age 8 bonk his brain back 4,000 years?
Just one more nutty thought to think about as we make like our new friend Leon and ridiculously overanalyze a few hours of TV.
Master of his Domain
In which there is a contest, an intermission, and Phil Collins.
I’d think, That ain’t me, that ain’t my face. It wasn’t even me when I was trying to be that face. I wasn’t even really me then; I was just being the way I looked, the way people wanted. It don’t seem like I ever have been me. —One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
We meet Elliot anew 30 days after Five/Nine, trying to elude the fuzz hounding him, Mr. Robot. His choice of safe house is a dubious one: He’s living with his mother. Here, Elliot, self-exiled from society and fsociety, fights to tame his unruly mind and find the satisfaction of total self-mastery, like some monastic hermit retreating from the world to find re-orientation in the desert. The premiere is “The Summer Man” episode of Mad Men, Mr. Robot-syle. (Seriously, in Elliot, we do see reflected religious anxieties about the influence of culture and the proper philosophy of engaging it. This episode models the old school practice of separation and isolation.)
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His bedroom is drab, clean, and ordered, like a cell or a soldier’s quarters. His spare room is especially conspicuous for the absence of an accessory once intrinsic to his identity: a computer. He doesn’t trust himself with one. He doesn’t even own a cell phone anymore. Unplugged and disarmed, Elliot’s gone “analog.” His media, old school. On a desk, we see, neatly arranged, a journal (more on this later), a pen, and a yellowed book: Leo Tolstoy’s final novel. I’m not familiar with it, but Wikipedia describes it as “an exposition of man-made laws and the hypocrisy of the institutionalized church,” a critique of social oppression that goes unseen by privileged classes, and a defense of an economic philosophy called Georgism. So… it’s a fat Elliot rant in Russian? The plot concerns the protagonist’s attempt to atone for a sin that doomed a woman to a downward spiral. Elliot knows that shame. See: Shayla. He might have other guilt he’s denying or forgetting, too. Where the hell is Tyrell? Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he —
Elliot is in bed, blue covers up to his collarbone. He’s all head and shoulders, a disembodied mind floating with pillowy clouds in a blue sky. (Daydream!) He resides in the center of the screen — a corrective variation on Mr. Robot’s trademark image, the kind that shoves people to the sides or far corners of the frame, sometimes cut off at the head. Last season, these shots were clues to the mystery staring us in the face, that Mr. Robot wasn’t there, that he was all negative space. But first and foremost, they expressed the experience of lost-in-space people dominated and marginalized by their world and alienated from it. Here, the image speaks to Elliot’s confidence in his current orientation. But it also puts the conflict of the season squarely in front of us, the battle for Elliot’s mind, and, perhaps, fixes the setting of the season, if you hold to the theory that all of this is taking place in Elliot’s imagination.
NEXT: Elliot’s strategy for breaking up with Mr. Robot: ghosting
The blinds behind him are red. The illuminated curtain and pillow are white. Combined with the blue comforter, we get a color scheme that paints Elliot with American everyman symbolism. But the curtains caught my eye first. They evoked the image that opened the episode: Tyrell, framed by red curtains and illuminated. (The color red will connect Elliot and Tyrell in one other significant way later in the episode, a crimson phone.)
Pulling from the modern playbook of passive-aggressive break-ups, Elliot’s strategy for exorcizing the spirit of Mr. Robot is pure ghosting — denying his entreaties, ignoring him into non-existence. We get a day-in-the-life sequence, scored to “Daydream in Blue,” that presents a highly structured, aggressively mundane existence that he repeats day after day. Elliot narrates this tour of “my beautifully constructed loop.” But he’s not speaking to us, his “friend.” Not yet. Right now, as we’ll soon learn, he’s trying to ghost us, too.
Roused by his mother, his drill sergeant/nurse/orderly/guard, Elliot starts his “program” by dressing and making his bed. The folds are military precise. He takes meals at 8, 12, and 6 at the Eastern Junction Diner in the company of his new friend, Leon (Joey Badass), who talks constantly about a sitcom he’s bingeing, that great American comedy about narcissistic being and nothingness, Seinfeld. (“It’s really f—ing with him,” notes Elliot.) Leon wrestles with aesthetics and meanings of the show like an obsessive TV recapper. Entire episodes set in a Chinese restaurant? In a parking garage? “It just makes no sense!” Leon says. And Kramer just bugs him. “I’d knock his ass out.” By dinnertime in this montage, Leon has reached a place of intellectual surrender, as if he’s passed through a “5 Stages of TV Grief” process. “Maybe I need to make peace with it,” says Leon. “Like, maybe that’s the point… that shit is just pointless, life, love and the meanings therein. Word.” He shakes his head. “I tell ya, the human condition is a straight up tragedy. Word.” Someone get the young man a Joni Eareckson Tada pamphlet.
Elliot enjoys Leon’s blathering the way many people enjoy TV. Their engagement is non-interactive, demands nothing of him, allows him to rest his mind and zone out; in Seinfeld language, Leon enables his effort to be “master of his domain.” (Wait ‘til Leon gets to that episode.) “It’s perfect for me,” Elliot muses. “I don’t have to say anything. I can just listen.”
When Leon’s not filling his ears with yadda yadda yadda, Elliot does chores, attends church group classes (he doesn’t get the rules, he says, but it’s a way to keep socializing), or watches basketball at the nearby park. The big nerd can’t connect with the passions that sports inspires in others, but there’s something about the spectacle of ruled energy — “the invisible code of chaos hiding behind menacing face of order” — ministers to his own tumultuous mind. Also haunting the park is a “Hot Carla, the local pyro,” a young woman who’s become his “personal totem.” Is this Elliot’s way of saying he has the hots for her? (I immediately thought/worried: Oh, no, she’s the new Shayla.) Or maybe this is a nod to another famous anti-social hacktivist in pop culture, Lisbeth Salander, a.k.a. The Girl Who Played With Fire. We see her torch Waiting for Godot in a kid’s red wagon. Samuel Beckett’s darkly comic philosophical play is a more traditional existential text than Seinfeld, an allegorical “Wherefore Art Thou, God?” complaint. What’s next on Hot Carla’s burn list — Fahrenheit 451?
Elliot’s other major daily activity is journaling. He’s Dostoevsky’s note-jotting Underground Man, spliced with some Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, guilt-wracked and on the run. His journal is the frontline in the war for his consciousness, the bulwark against backsliding into retrograde modes of being. By keeping a diary of his day, by keeping track of his thoughts, Elliot reinforces his mind and guards against the influence of Mr. Robot. He’s doing a version of what he used to do in his old cyber-security job, writing code, watching for viruses, debugging. He’s making sure his brain is Allsafe.
There’s also an ideas of neuroplasticity at play here, too, the idea that repetition of ideas and behavior can physically wire or re-map the brain — a concept that’s key to Snow Crash, and surely a comfort to Elliot as he tries to wash a certain man right out his wiggy head. The college-ruled notebook is actually the first thing we see after we cut from young Elliot to the present. The cover design, a pattern of black abstract shapes, resembles the Rorschach of Elliot’s MRI; the notebook, like the MRI, is a scan of his brain. Note the manufacturer. “Confictura Industries.” Confictura is a derivation of the Latin conficturas, “to fabricate, invent, pretend.” The word speaks to plasticity, and yes, darker possibilities, as well. Can we trust the notebook? Can Elliot?
The journal also recalls the discs Elliot used to record each of his vigilante hacker adventures, labeled with titles appropriated from pop songs. He’s become one of his own dark knight cases. Elliot has scribbled a title on the line offered for one: “Red Wheel Barrow.” This could be a reference to the poem by “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Pulling from Williams could represent a subconscious nod or elliptical homage to the doctor who treated him when his father threw him from the window; Williams was both a poet and a pediatrician. Regardless, the poem is apt for a show in which so much depends on a deliberate choice and flow of words, structure, and imagery.
Put another way: Elliot has quit cybersecurity to become… a Mr. Robot recapper.
NEXT: Less poetry analysis.
Elliot’s only stress in this particular day-in-the-life summary comes when he’s inadvertently exposed to the anxieties of the world as well as his own guilt and responsibility. Bounding down the stairs for a date with Leon, he finds his mom watching news coverage of the Five/Nine attack, a.k.a. “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” In a well-executed bit of reality manipulation, we see and hear President Obama addressing the show’s fiction, declaring Tyrell Wellick and fsociety responsible for the hack on Evil Corp. and the subsequent global economic meltdown. The president’s words stops him cold. Esmail’s framing of Elliot quietly freaking is designed to capture a detail: the red phone mounted on the wall. It’s foreshadowing for another arresting moment involving Elliot and Wellick at episode’s end.
Elliot ends his day with sleep, “ordinary, analog sleep,” tucked tight and safe in his inmate’s bed. Such is the looping, blue daydream existence of Being Elliot Alderson, a Charlie Kaufmanesque dangerous mind chasing eternal sunshine and spotlessness by adapting to a life of disciplined thinking and non-offending banality. Eat, Sleep, Behave, Recap, Eat, Sleep, Recap, Repeat. A philosophical zombie, a life indistinguishable from an undead one. “You might not think it’s a way to live, but why not?” he says. “Repeating the same tasks each day, without ever having to think about them.” What that sounds like, to me, is the autopilot, habit-oriented, zero consciousness life of Jaynes’ bicameral mind, but with the schizophrenic-hallucinatory voices thing disengaged. But as we’ll soon learn, Elliot hasn’t been all that successful at that.
Elliot would like to think that the new way in which he’s living his life makes him… well, normal. “Isn’t that what everybody does?” he tells his psychiatrist, Krista (Gloria Reuben). “Keep things on repeat? To go along with their NCISes and Lexapro? Isn’t that where it’s comfortable? In the sameness?” (Take heart, NCIS: You’re in good company on Elliot’s list of Things That Are Amusing Ourselves To Death. Maroon 5, Josh Groban, The Hunger Games, Marvel movies…)
Sessions with Krista are also part of Elliot’s beautiful loop. But Elliot makes Krista nervous. Last season, he hacked her and blew up the terrible lie of her love life and just plain freaked her out by his boundary-crossing violations. She hasn’t forgotten or forgiven. She’s agreed to see him out of concern and on the condition that he tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him Godot. No more running away; no more masks. I wonder if something else drives her, too. Curiosity. Suspicion. Vengeance? Does she wonder if Elliot is fsociety? Is she trying to get her shady patient, her geek underworld Tony Soprano, to confess? What would Dr. Melfi do?
Krista gets all “tell me about your mother” with Elliot. Why seek safe harbor with her? “She’s the strictest person I know.” His program needs a rigid Nurse Ratched to help administer it, and his rules-y mother is perfect for the role. When Krista challenges his odd answer by noting that he’s attributed much of his childhood trauma to her, Elliot cuts her off: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Elliot’s Mom really hasn’t come off all that well in Mr. Robot so far, in his recollections or in her weirdly brief appearance in this episode, which makes me wonder if we’re headed to some revelation that he’s wrongly remembering/perceiving her. Is Mr. Robot tampering with his regard for her? (Call this twist the Magnolia twist, and the misogynist Tom Cruise character who wrongly idolizes his dad and blames his mom when it should be reversed.)
Krista lets the cryptic “devil you know” comment sink in, then moves on. Does he feel alone? “Darlene comes back sometimes,” he says. (In memory? Physically? Unclear.) Does he miss anything about his old life? Elliot’s response — “would it matter if I did?” — causes Krista to lean in; she’s really interested in this. “Because I can’t trust myself back there.” Krista presses him to elaborate. He tries to dodge. She pushes harder, with attitude. You promised me you’d be more open. Elliot takes a chance. “It’s not that I don’t trust me,” he says. “I don’t trust him.”
There’s more to their session, but we don’t see it. Acknowledging us, his imaginary friend, for the first time (“Hello, friend. Yes, I’m talking to you…”), Elliot blames us for his recent travails. “I’m not ready to trust you yet. Not after what you did. You kept things from me. I don’t know if I can tell you secrets like I did before.” This gambit makes me question Krista even more. The show clearly wants us wondering what he’s telling her in their sessions and what she might do with the information. But it’s also similar to the scene in the beginning of the episode, when the storytelling denied us access to the “real talk” convo between young Elliot and his doctor. Does this repeated motif have significance?
Up until this point, Elliot’s narration would seem to suggest that he’s been unmolested by Mr. Robot. But a fleeting image reveals that this is not true. Earlier, when we got our first look at Elliot’s dairy, there’s an entry that his narration doesn’t acknowledge. You have to freeze the frame to read it, and of course, I did. The crux of the entry is about his view of The Bible, but it’s interesting for revealing Elliot’s attitudes on a few things more, not all of them admirable, as well as some insight about his psychology. Note the business about “betrayal.”
The bible’s kinda good. I mean, for a sci-fi book. There’s some mad vengeance God takes out on people. Dude doesn’t like to get betrayed and I’m down with that. The plagues and the locust shit and that heathen woman Lot’s wife turning to salt — pretty f—ing funny. Can’t deny he’s got a sense of humor. And a real flare for drama. Gonna go to sleep.
Right under this entry, we see more words — a bizarre message, written in different handwriting, with a darker line:
sleep tight while you get your lesson of the day from yours truly: How to draw a cat!
NEXT: The Contest
So Elliot is getting hacked at night by Mr. Robot. And Elliot knows it. While you can’t make out the entries on the following pages, the visible phrases make it clear. “Well, he’s back…” “Cut lunch short… Mr. Robot being… lose my appetite…”
Arriving back at the cuckoo’s nest while still shaming us for our betrayal, Elliot finds his subversive doppelgänger waiting for him. “Talking to your ‘friend’ again,” says Mr. Robot, shutting down Elliot’s internal monologue. He’s lying on the bed like he owns it, the master of the domain. He’s reading the “Cyberpet” issue of Penthouse. On the cover, a model in lingerie is wearing a Monopoly Man mask. It’s a measure of how quickly and how deeply the fsociety has, uh, penetrated the culture. He throws it at Elliot, encourages him to enjoy the “friends” he might find in there. Instead, Elliot picks up his pencil and writes. Their contest has begun.
It suddenly hits me that Mr. Robot is the most high concept allegory about masturbation guilt in television history.
Mr. Robot berates Elliot for his lack of balls. “We can’t stay here. There’s more work to be done. Our revolution needs a leader, and what are we doing instead? Journaling! Che Guevara is throwing up in his grave right now.” Making like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Mr. Robot tells Elliot that he will not be ignored. “You think this is going to get rid of me? I am not to be gotten rid of!” He tosses the notebook across the room. “This zombie act, it don’t work on us. This control you think you have? It’s an illusion!”
Mr. Robot pulls a gun and holds to Elliot’s head. Esmail frames Slater in such a way that those red curtains are behind him. Impending Tyrell reference in 3, 2, 1… “You want my attention?” asks Elliot, keeping cool. “Tell me what I want to know?” He means Tyrell. What happened to Tyrell? Mr. Robot tells him he can’t. Elliot tells him to go f— himself. Mr. Robot pulls the trigger. The bullet goes into the center-left side of the head — the part of the brain that would receive commands from the right, expressed as hallucinations; so the Elliot side of the brain — and his bloody noggin goes SPLAT against the wall. But after a seemingly lifeless beat, Elliot rises up, a revenant resurrection. “You want my attention? “You done?” Mr. Robot stands down.
Advantage: Zombie Elliot.
Apparently, this isn’t the first time they’ve played this chicken contest. “He shot me in the head again,” Elliot writes in Red Wheel Barrow. “I didn’t panic like last time. I stayed calm.” Elliot, too, can say he is a master of his domain. But the wound is still there on his forehead. Something about this encounter has gotten under his skin, into his head. “He also said control is an illusion,” he writes, and he underlines that nettlesome last phrase. Control is an illusion. Blood drips on the paper, the dollop like a wax seal.
Theory time — a widely held one, probably. Call it the “You want the truth about Tyrell? You can’t handle the truth about Tyrell!” postulation. To wit: Elliot shot Tyrell in the head with the popcorn gun after launching the Five/Nine hack, just like Mr. Robot shot Elliot in the head (their ritual, a reenactment of this mortal sin); and if Elliot faced up to what he did, the guilt would crush him, and by extension, Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot, then, could be seen as Elliot’s denial mechanism in action. (Shades of two movies about characters trying to escape guilt or blot out painful truth, both directed by David Lynch: Lost Highway, a surreal portrait of psychotic break and schizoid madness with a jazzy, circuitous narrative; and Mulholland Drive, a neo-noir fantasia about a woman locked up in her grief, trying to avoid heartbreaking realities. Also, Lynch, like Esmail, is a big fan of red curtains and corded phones.)
With Elliot’s head now punctured, the story makes a move like a prison break, finally taking us beyond the yards of Elliot’s volatile mind and warped perception. We get two scenes that gild the theme of control, both of them concerning the activities of fsociety. First, they take a trophy symbolizing their Five/Nine victory by cutting the bronze nuts off the “Charging Bull,” the famed sculpture by Arturo Di Modica located in Manhattan’s financial district. A piece of guerilla street art, “Charging Bull” was Lemonade before Lemonade, a surprise album drop. Di Modica installed the uncommissioned, uninvited work on the night of December 15, 1989, almost two months after Black Friday, a stock market crash triggered by the collapse of the junk bonds market. Presented as a kind of Christmas gift, “Charging Bull” was meant to express “the strength and power of the American people,” according to Di Modica. It has come to be seen as a romantic glorification of Wall Street. fsociety is clearly attacking the veneration of capitalism. But you could see their middle-of-the-night guerilla action as upholding the original creative spirit and populist meaning of the work. What fsociety has also done — unintentionally — is create a metaphor for the current state of Mr. Robot, their volatile, bullying leader, now rendered temporarily impotent thanks to Elliot’s psychic neutering.
The second major endeavor undertaken by fsociety in this episode is securing a new base of operations. This, too, becomes a symbolic act, as the location they target is the home of Evil Corp.’s general counsel, Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt), dubbed “Madame Executioner” by fsociety for her ability to kill lawsuits, and by extension, destroy the lives of those crushed by Evil Corp. Susan’s house* is no ordinary house — it’s a fully automated, high-tech “smart house.” Which means it can be hacked. In a sequence alternately spooky and absurdly funny, we watch Susan suffer her robotic abode as it goes Demon Seed haywire on her. The water runs scalding hot. The air turns freezing cold. The lights flicker. The McIntosh stereo blares. The big screen TV remains stuck on a cable news talk show called “Let’s Be Frank,” the professional provocateur i.e. “frank” host named Frank Cody going on and on about Five/Nine and the future of democracy and how America is at risk of becoming the crumbling Weimar Republic in the days before Hitler, just like that alarmist Facebook friend of yours that you want to unfollow but can’t because man, so negative, and yet maybe so right! Susan tries to quiet her rioting house by entering the “Foundation” code — 22381 (probably her birthday) — but it doesn’t work. Ultimately, she makes like Elliot and retreats from a life she can no longer control. She moves out, and fsociety — led in Elliot/Mr. Robot’s absence by Darlene (Carly Chaikin) — moves in.
Susan’s fight with her A.I. and her battle to retake control of her house = Elliot’s fight with his A.I., his battle to retake control of his life. (In fact, all the different stories in this episode echo into each other in various ways.) Does her failure foreshadow Elliot’s?
*Mr. Robot is going to end up the fantasy of a broken, pop-saturated brain, trying to make sense of his or her f’d up life, I just know it. Basically: The Singing Detective meets SuckerPunch and maybe Jacob’s Ladder, depending if said brain is dying and/or a war veteran. Susan does happen to be the name of Julie Christie’s lead character in Demon Seed, a queasy thriller about A.I. gone rapaciously amuck. Foundation is the title of a classic sci-fi novel by Isaac Asimov about a crumbling empire and the efforts of “psychohistorians” to preserve its history and mitigate the duration of the damaging dark age destined to come. “Susan’s House” is the name of a song by the Eels, from their first album, Beautiful Freak, which featured the hit “Novocain for the Soul,’ which, c’mon, is totally Elliot. Seriously, the Eels could be this show’s house band. Other featured songs would include “My Descent Into Madness,” “Selective Memory,” “Souljacker,” and “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor,” which is about a woman having a breakdown in her bathroom, like Darlene in this episode. We’ll get to her. Eventually.
NEXT: The Golden Spiral
Back to Elliot. He’s at Mom’s house, receiving a visitor, his old Allsafe boss, Gideon Goddard (Michel Gill). How did Gideon know where Elliot was hiding out? The storytelling doesn’t say. Poor Gideon. He tells Elliot that Allsafe has gone dormant since the Five/Nine attacks; he’s had to furlough almost every employee. He says he’s being hacked, probably the feds; they suspect him of participating in the Five/Nine attacks. He himself suspects something of Elliot, given his fishy behavior late in season 1. Gideon wants Elliot to come out of the cold and say something to clear his name.
Elliot is having a difficult time focusing on his guest. Mr. Robot is lurking in the shadows, using a knife to peel an apple, that ancient, Biblical symbol of forbidden knowledge. He encourages Elliot to believe that he’s been screwing with Gideon during his nighttime control of Elliot, part of a play to force Elliot to re-engage with the world. “Could you live with yourself knowing that you framed Gideon?” This ploy, this manipulation of his conscience, has an impact on Elliot. The bullet wound on his head has returned. He’s bleeding. He’s losing control. “Tell him!” Mr. Robot says. “Tells him you’re slowly descending into madness!”
But Elliot resists telling Gideon anything, except to say he won’t help him. Mr. Robot can’t believe it. “You’re really going to let him take the fall for this?!” Gideon can’t hear the phantom, but he agrees. He threatens to tell the feds everything he knows or suspects about Elliot. Mr. Robot now feigns a turnabout, faux concerned about Gideon exposing them. What he really wants to do is show Elliot that he’s the real boss, that he’s capable of doing seriously naughty things during his nocturnal missions in Elliot’s body. Like, say, slicing Gideon’s throat, which he does here, by means of demonstration. Blood splashes on the camera lens (groan; enough of this device, TV). It’s an illusion, of course, but it has a real effect on Elliot, and he flees the room, leaving Gideon baffled.
Advantage: Mr. Robot.
We kick out of this scene with a shot of Mr. Robot’s sliced apple peel curled on the kitchen floor. You could see it as a metaphor for his frustration with Elliot, their “infinite loop of insanity.” I saw it as a symbol of a solution for Elliot’s existential dilemma. It looks like a golden spiral, a symbol of synchronicity, of perfect proportion and perspective, of an ideal, harmonious middle between extremes.
That’s a faraway hope for now. Back in his bedroom, Elliot furiously journals. I am in control, I am in control, over and over, followed by I am not an illusion. He also wraps a bandage around his head, as if treating his phantom gunshot wound, as if trying try to keep his head from falling apart. He goes to the diner and tries to lose himself in Leon’s latest rant about Seinfeld. “You know, not that it’s just pointless, but, maybe it just means nothing. Like Costanza says, a cold, random universe.”
Maybe all of Leon’s blather about nothingness and meaninglessness — about an out-of-control world — is messing with Elliot, too, agitating that part of him desperate for control, itching that part of him that actually needs something like a commanding, guiding father-prophet-God, because whoomp, there he is, Mr. Robot, materializing in the diner, an unholy ghost seated at the left hand of Leon. “Gideon’s going to rat you out. He probably already has,” he says. “You can’t ignore them. They have eyes on you. This is how they work you.” Elliot holds firm on sticking to the regimen. Mr. Robot pounds the table. He’s not a tumor to be excised — he’s the organ vital to his existence. He huffs and puffs and threatens to go next level if Elliot keeps it up, but this round of their contest is a draw.
Elliot muses. Facebook’s involved, so you know it’s bleak. “How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask, when it’s such a part of me as I am? We keep fighting, like the world we unmask, we will find out true selves again, maybe after wiping away the thick, grimy film of Facebook friend requests and Vine stars, we can all see the light of day. I know we haven’t talked for a while. Maybe you only trust me as much as I trust you right now. But I am going to ask you to have hope for me, anyway. Just please. Have hope.”
It might sound like he’s back to addressing us, his friend. He might be. But we hear this narration over images of the action over at Susan’s House, where the cocky members of fsociety are having a These Nutz! Ball. They’re drinking and laughing and taking selfies with the “Charging Bull’s” severed testes. It’s like a rager at Phi Beta Berniebros.
Meanwhile, up in the bathroom, the revolution’s reluctant substitute leader is feeling like a Queen song, the one about being under pressure and all that. It’s here that we here Elliot say “I know we haven’t talked in a while,” speak of restoring trust, and ask for hope. Darlene is on the floor, half-dressed and breathing hard and weeping. The contents of her purse are dumped on the tile next to her. Is drug stuff in the mess? Hard to glean. The score mixes maudlin piano with what sounds like a gentle, tuneful version of an air raid siren. fsociety, your brand is in crisis.
NEXT: Will fsociety go the way of Animal Farm?
Darlene takes action. She puts on the cropped navy jacket and power red lipstick and resolves to play the commander-in-chief the people need. We get an image that mirrors the one from the season finale, when Evil Corp. CEO Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) on high, overlooking his employees and rallying them with a speech. Darlene perches herself on a balcony in Susan’s House draped with the new fsociety flag, a modified version of the American flag, the Monopoly Mask printed over the red and white stripes and the numerals 5 and 9 overlapping where the stars should be. She asks for the dick pic-taking phone and smashes it with the heel of her boot and screams. It’s time for fsociety to stop f—ing around and get back to being revolting. “We have been on our knees for too long,” she says, “and it’s time for us to stand up!” It’s a rousing speech. It certainly proves Mr. Robot right: His revolution needs a leader. But the combo of fsociety party animal spectacle + Little Napoleon Darlene making like Phillip Price + her line about oppressed creatures on their knees standing up = an allusion to the chilly end of George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm, in which the revolutionary pigs become the new establishment, much like the old establishment. Wither fsociety in season 2?
Nurturing the idea more explicitly, comrade Mobley (Ahzar Khan) tells Darlene in the following scene that she came off sounding like George Bush. Why so serious? Why the frantic need to keep pushing? Didn’t they accomplish something by slaying the Evil Corp. dragon? This rankles Darlene more than the “low” comparison to George Bush. “Then why does it feel like they’re still winning?” she says, adding that as she sees it, Five/Nine only made everything worse. Dystopia. Confusion. Economic suffering. And worse of all, denial. In the absence of something to replace the system fsociety crashed, everyone seems to be reverting back to — borrowing from Elliot — the devil they know. Leading the way: Evil Corp., which, as depicted in a later scene, is basically driving the national recovery, orchestrating a cultural program of “Keep and Carry On” while bullying/blackmailing government officials into swallowing its own insidious, self-serving agenda, which, it seems, includes a possible bailout. Post Five/Nine America is basically Zombie Elliot, but whipped to such by Mr. Robot’s Evil Corp.
“We didn’t finish them off,” says Darlene. The people need to know fsociety hasn’t given up, she says. They need more war. Spectacle. They need more of their dark-of-the-night Joker shock and awe.
And that’s what we get: a sequence knowingly swiped from a Joker gag in The Dark Knight, when the performance art psycho-anarchist burned the mob’s money and took full control of Gotham’s underworld, replacing the old guard thugs with “a better class of criminal.” First, fsociety freezes Evil Corp.’s entire computerized banking system. (Dig the joker-jester heads that appeared on every screen.) Then, they sent a ransom note to their top execs: $5.9 million by 9 p.m., or else they would brick the system for good. One caveat: “You have to send one of your chiefs.” fsociety doesn’t just want the money. They want to publicly humiliate their leadership. They want the optics. After all, the revolution must be televised.
Evil Corp. decides to comply. Their chief technology officer, Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell), volunteers to be the mule. (Darlene was probably hoping for Susan “Madame Executioner” Jacobs. Maybe next time.) The slow building, slightly too long, but still gripping scene that follows, set in Battery Park, is shown so that One World Trade Center is almost always visible in the background, although the sequence ends with a close-up of its top floors. We are reminded of the 9/11 attacks. But we are also reminded of how we’ve moved on and built up from 9/11. For better? For worse? Part of the murky provocation, I think.
Knowles brings the money. A courier, hired by fsociety, delivers him a satchel. Inside is a Monopoly Man mask, lighter fluid, and matches. His phone rings. A robo-voice commands him to execute the instructions scribbled on the back of the mask or else Evil Corp. will be bricked. Knowles looks around, anxiously scanning for the phantoms — the invisible hand — messing with him. They could be everywhere. Put a bandage on his head and he could be threatened, paranoid Elliot. Fueling this idea are Esmail’s shots of Knowles. He uses the show’s visual trademark against Knowles, jamming him in the corner of the frame, shoving him to the bottom of the screen, cutting him off at the head. So far, the sequence is about fsociety turning the tables on Evil Corp., making Evil Corp. feel what they felt when the company had them on their knees, marginalized, overwhelmed, lost.
Knowles puts on the masks, dumps the money on the ground, applies the lighter fluid, and tosses a match. Then, he takes off the mask and tosses it into the flames. As the fireworks attract a crowd, many of them record the stunt with their phones. (In footage not seen, Hot Carla catches the coverage on the news and burns with envy.)
Darlene cruises by ground zero to clock her handiwork, then struts off. The misfits control the asylum, at least for one more night. Through this entire sequence, we’ve heard a Phil Collins song in almost its entirety: “Take Me Home.” It’s an anthem of an alienated, damaged outsider, paranoid about a monolithic “they” that control him and society, torn between resignation and revolt, yearning — praying — for deliverance he can’t muster himself. But there’s more.
At face value, “Take Me Home” fits the themes of Mr. Robot. But like a Russian nesting doll, the song contains another reference relevant to Mr. Robot, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which Collins has said was his inspiration for “Take Me Home.” It’s a story about insanity, nonconformity, and social control set inside a psychiatric prison. In one chapter, the rebel antihero, con man, and faux madman Randle Patrick McMurphy, plays Monopoly with his fellow inmates, but in a total anarchic way, making a hash out of it.
But Kesey’s novel is really about someone else, its unreliable narrator, a man named… Chief. A key element in Chief’s backstory, his madness, and his own “F— society” attitude: the humiliation of his father, chief of a Native American tribe, by society, represented by the government and his white wife. (Beloved father. Emasculating mother. Sound like someone we know?) Chief — the narrator, not his father — is virulently anti-technology, a result of many formative experiences. They inform a paranoid worldview, a belief in an all-pervasive conspiracy of mechanized, institutional control he calls “The Combine.” It’s his “invisible hand,” his Evil Corp. He can always hear its ominous, degrading gears churning and churning. My guess is that Chief would have delighted in watching Evil Corp.’s chief technology office get humiliated and humbled, the way he delighted in the fall of that wicked Nurse Ratched, an agent of The Combine, a woman so inhuman he took her to be a robot.
Of course, an embodiment of technology manipulating, terrorizing, trying to takeover a fragile mind is also Elliot’s story, too. In fact, traces of Cuckoo’s Nest can be seen in Elliot’s two major scenes in the premiere’s second hour, both set at the basketball court. Basketball was important to Chief’s development in the novel, and even more so in the Oscar-winning movie adaptation directed by Milos Forman. Coaxed by his new friend R. P. McMurphy, Chief moves off the sidelines and plays a game against the institution’s orderlies. At one point in the film, he uses one of his great natural gifts, his height, to cheat for his team, reaching up to cinch the net shut and punch the ball out of the hoop, negating a score for the orderlies. Elliot would call this a hack.
At the basketball courts of Mr. Robot, which, like the courts of the mental institution in Cuckoo’s Nest, are enclosed by a fence, like a prison yard, Elliot meets a new character, Ray, played by The Office’s Craig Robinson, and his dog, Maxine. Ray appears to be a respected and possibly feared person in the community, although he only ever radiates a friendly, engaging disposition, which just makes him more suspicious. Or is that cynical? It’ll be interesting to see if such assumptions are part of the point of his character.
Ray is weirdly eager to be Elliot’s friend, much in the same way McMurphy immediately targeted and tried to make an ally out of Chief. In their first scene, Ray tries to engage Elliot with chitchat about dogs and by waxing philosophical about the players in the game, using them to ruminate on big ideas, like the difference between how a person wants to be perceived and interpreted and other people actually perceive and interpret said person. “Which is the truth? Maybe all of them. Maybe none of them. Maybe ‘truth’ don’t even exist. Maybe what we think is all we got,” he says. “Which is why I’m a little jealous of Maxine over here because all she cares about is eating and sleeping.”
Elliot actively ignores him, though you wonder if some of Ray’s ideas are pushing some buttons. The fog of truth? That’s something he’s been trying to clear and keep away. Eat, Sleep, Behave, Repeat? Pretty much how he’s been living life. Like a creature of habit; like a dog. Is that enough? (Interesting in their two encounters, Ray claims and emphasizes that Maxine likes Elliot.) Ray keeps talking. “I can talk all the time. But I guess you picked up on that. It’s cool, though. Communication? T’s good for my line of work. Takes a lot of it to run a good business. But unlike you, when it comes to computers, I get them about as much as Maxine here gets e.e. Cummings. So when I heard — “
Elliot — clearly unnerved to know that Ray knows something of his old life (but how?) — shuts him down. “Whatever you heard, it’s not true, I don’t do that anymore.” But Mr. Robot, sitting behind him on a higher bleacher, exhorts him to get in the game. “Tell him you’ll help. Try it once. Let that old feeling come back.” It’s like Ray and Mr. Robot are McMurphy-esque tag-team, trying to activate their withdrawn, dormant Chief. Try it. You’ll like it. It’ll be good for you! But Elliot sticks with his non-engagement policy. Ray says that at breakfast, his wife predicted he’d make a friend today. He wants to think he found one. “Okay, we continue talking?” Elliot: “No thanks.” Ray pretends to be stung. “Damn, man! That’s some cold, brutal s— there. I’m going to have to go and listen to some Adele on repeat when I get home.”
This is a joke. Elliot doesn’t laugh. Ray surrenders. Mr. Robot fumes. Like a pissy entitled fan in the stands, he taunts Elliot and heckles him for riding the pines of life. “How long are you going to keep us in this analog nightmare?”
As long as it takes, Elliot muses as he walks home. He coaches himself up. Without a computer, Mr. Robot is unplugged, powerless. As long as Elliot sticks with the regimen, Mr. Robot can’t take control, “no matter how much of an illusion he thinks this is.” As this reflection ends and Elliot off frame, the camera stops and allows environmental details to grab our notice, another religious reference. It’s a storefront church with awnings emblazoned with evangelism. One message is all fire and brimstone. “Hell is real. Repent and believe in the gospel.” A flick at Elliot’s Tyrell guilt? Or maybe, per the theory that Elliot is in jail and imagining all this, “repent” is how he’s proecessing and rendering the pressures to confess his guilt and secrets. There’s also a Bible verse, Isaiah 41:10. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” But Elliot can’t trust benevolent spirits. He’s done that before, and look where it’s got him. The dismaying truth is that he’s all alone.
NEXT: The Red Phone
By the time we get Elliot’s second scene with Ray, something has changed between them — a shared experience, an intimacy — but we don’t know what it is, and neither does Elliot. Once again, Ray engages, and once again, Elliot resists. Ray tells Elliot he told his wife that they were friends, even though they weren’t, “because it would be too embarrassing otherwise.” (What does that mean?) When Elliot keeps giving him the cold shoulder, Ray jokes that his wife and Elliot would get along: “She likes to ignore me, too.” Finally, Elliot speaks. “Hey, man, I don’t mean to be an asshole, but like I said before, I’m all good.” We laugh (you are far from good, my friend), and so does Ray, though he acknowledges it’s a fake laugh, the laugh of someone who doesn’t really know what to say. “Really? I’m confused. I thought we were on the same page.” About what, Elliot asks, semi-friendly. “When we spoke last night,” says Ray. Elliot says he doesn’t know what Ray’s talking about, that he didn’t see him last night. The long pause and great look Robinson puts on Ray’s face speaks volumes. Oh yes you did see me, and boy, are you one seriously messed up individual. “You really don’t remember,” he says matter-of-factly.
Things start happening in Elliot’s head. He seems to go paler than usual — and he’s super pale in this scene. The black hoodie and white bandage only accentuate it.
“You okay, Chief?” asks Ray.
No, our “Chief” is not okay. He blasts off as if shot from a canon. He sprints to his mother’s house and flips through the journal. There’s no entry for the previous night – a gap in his consciousness he can’t account for.
Advantage: Mr. Robot.
And that’s how I’m different. Sometimes, my mask takes over.
His alter ego materializes to put a finer, scarier point on it. When people see Elliot coming, says Mr. Robot, “they see me.”
Elliot turns away from his walking, talking other face and starts to laugh. But it’s like the laugh that Ray laughed at the basketball court, a fake laugh, and a bad one, strained and increasingly pained. It almost turns into sobbing, but Elliot reels it in and performs a series of cackles — a harsh, barky “HA!”; a Dracula-esque “mmmwahahaha!” — and in the process, works himself back into a cool, defiant posture. Mr. Robot points the gun at Elliot’s head. “Tell me where Tyrell is,” Elliot responds, moving his face forward into the barrel, “or shoot me again.” Mr. Robot lowers the gun, defeated.
Elliot grabs his journal. “I’m late for my church group,” he tells Mr. Robot, and then, with casual cockiness: “Peace.”
Victory? We’ll see. But he certainly does seem to get a reward for his achievement. It comes in an epilogue/cliffhanger, set to the song “Till We Meet Again,” an old tune about dating back to WWI about lovers parting ways as men go off to battle. We see Elliot at his church group, listening to the chaplain read from Revelations 21: 6-7. “And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” It’s unclear if The Word is ministering to Elliot’s soul, but it’s certainly putting him to sleep. Those heavy, hooded eyelids can’t resist the tug, and he nods off, just as the chaplain finishes off the lesson: “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.”
The next thing he knows, Elliot’s back at Mom’s house. The bandage that had been around his head all episode long — including the last scene — is missing. He’s standing with the red phone to his ear. He’s ringing someone. He doesn’t know whom. “Hello?” he asks.
The voice recognizes Elliot from his greeting. “Is it really you?”
“Who is this?”
A heh-heh-heh chuckle. “Bonsoir, Elliot.”
It’s Tyrell Wellick. This could be the beginning of the revelation Elliot’s been seeking. But knowing the whole truth could be the end of him, too. Is that really Tyrell on the phone? Or is Tyrell now just one more voice inside Elliot’s head, one more mask competing for his face?
NEXT: In other news…
The Mr. Robot premiere was compelling when it dealt with Elliot, slightly less so when it dealt with other characters and subplots. I’m not sure I like the idea of keeping Elliot and Darlene and Elliot and Angela separated from each other for too long. Without them in relationship, the show loses emotional resonance and requisite grounding.
A brief rundown on the other developments:
Part Two of the premiere introduced another character, an FBI agent named Dominique DiPierro (Grace Gummer) investigating the Five/Nine attack. She likes sandwiches and lollipops and has a very suspicious mind.
Tyrell’s wife, Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), continues to be a cut-up. The S&M-lovin’ single mom seems to be doing fine without Tyrell, raising her baby and looking fabulous and getting sliced with a cold knife and slapped around by her young, disposable buck. In truth, she dominates him. (And he might not have the guts or heart for their games, either. He was insecure about his performance and chased compliments. He so wanted to watch Vanderpump Rules with her and connect with her emotionally, but she was like, no, you’re ruining it, go away, bye.) She received a mysterious gift of a ballerina music box and burner phone. She missed a call while she was tending to her child. Tyrell?
We also visited with Elliot’s former Allsafe colleague and childhood best friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday). She’s remains an up-and-coming PR exec at Evil Corp. We saw her negotiate an exclusive with Bloomberg News, leaning into hardball tactics and winning with them, even though they clearly go against her nature. She likes her work, the money, the energy, the status, and the affirmation. She’s supposed to be working on the inside for the lawyer pursuing the class action suit against Evil Corp., Antara Nayar (Sakina Jaffrey), but Angela broke off with her. She’s become a homer for Evil Corp., and she likes how the company makes her feel like a valued asset, something she never felt from Antara. Antara stole her drink, told her a story that basically amounted to calling Angela a whore, and walked out on her. That rattled her. She let a hunky guy at a bar hit on her, took him home, humped him. Like Elliot, she, too, is trying to program her head with self-improving code. Like Elliot, we worry it’s leading her to a spiritual dead end. We left her in the dark of her living room, doing exercises from a self-help video kit, “Positive Affirmations Volume 3: Success and Money,” designed to “form new neural pathways” that will rewire her brain for self-esteem. I am confident. My confidence is powerful. I recognize myself as exceptional. I will follow my dreams, no matter what…
Finally, we got one more scene with Gideon. We found him drowning his troubles with a drink at a bar. A guy comes up, makes conversation. Gideon doesn’t want his attention, tries to scare him off by flashing his wedding ring. The guy sees through him — for example, he knows his husband left him after Five/Nine — but mostly because he knows a lot about him from the news. “I can’t believe I’m a tabloid sensation,” says Gideon, his statement sounding like a humblebrag. “I’m more of a die hard fan,” says the guy. He’s a walking red flag, but Gideon can’t see it. In truth, his “fan” is a psycho conspiracy theorist who believes Gideon is a “crisis actor” in an elaborate cover-up by the true perpetrators of the Five/Nine attack. When the conversation leads Gideon to confess that “it sure does feel like there’s something bigger than me in control,” the guys takes this as confirmation of all his sick theories. “Thank you,” he says. “Tomorrow, I’m going to be a hero.”
Then he pulls a gun and shoots Gideon in the neck. If Mr. Robot framed Gideon and set him up for this assault, how will Elliot respond when he hears of it? Will guilt inspire him to retreat further into his analog loop or inspire him to re-connect with the world and redeem himself?
Your thoughts and theories?
RELATED: In the latest episode of EW’s Entertainment Geekly podcast, Darren Franich and Jeff Jensen discuss the “What’s real?/What’s not?” tension of Mr. Robot.