The anti-realistic wonder of Mr. Robot's single-take episode
What a joy to watch Mr. Robot this season! Creator Sam Esmail is directing every episode, and he’s turned his hacker noir into a thrilling sizzle reel. There was that opening montage in episode 2, Elliot’s return to normalcy set to “New Sensation” by INXS. That same episode had a gunfight shot with long-take extra-close-ups from a car interior, like if a mob hit from The Sopranos were filmed by Carl Theodore Dreyer. Esmail circa 2017 calls to mind the great young thirsty music video directors of yore, blasting pop music ammo through a double-barreled sawn-off shotgun of creativity, turning music-industry promotional devices into resumé-building thrill rides.
The mission statement with music videos was, to be specific, “whatever.” Make it funny, make it sexy, make it experimental, make it weird. In the late ’90s, a Swedish adverteur named Johan Camitz (sometimes credited as Jhoan) directed two music videos that presented single-take experiences. The video for “Save Tonight” follows Eagle-Eye Cherry around a single street corner in Stockholm, into a convenience store, onto the street outside. Realism is the anti-point. Cherry plays several roles: the store clerk, the burglar robbing the store clerk, the driver whose car crashes into the burglar because jaywalking is the real crime, the hobo on the street the car’s driving on, Himself playing guitar in the middle of the street because the ’90s are never gonna end. The song’s lyrics don’t remotely match the action, unless there’s some secret message I’m missing vis-à-vis saving tonight and/or fighting to break the dawn of tomorrow.
Camitz’s only other notable music video — he was cusping on a feature film career when he died tragically in a bizarre car crash in 2000 — is more famous and much better and much shaggier. It probably took more planning, but the “Wannabe” music video is one of those rare motion pictures where the point is how trainwreckishly it keeps falling apart before your eyes. It shows the Spice Girls racing throughout the ground floor of the Midland Grand Hotel in what appears to be one long, uncut Steadicam operation. The choreography is rambling, like stand-up seat-dancing. Ginger Spice looks one high-heeled step away from pratfalling. The lip-syncing sounds beamed in from another room in another country, like whenever Optimus Prime speaks in the Transformers movies. The label hated it. The Spice Girls said (paraphrasing), “WE LOVE IT!” Now the video feels like some essential turning point in ’90s pop music, the realest piece of synthetic pop plastic.
The narrative of the “Save Tonight” video is, “We are all one,” or maybe, “We are all Eagle-Eye Cherry.” The narrative of the “Wannabe” video is the Spice Girls crashing a fussy High British get-together and upsetting the social order with their insistence on being scarily sporty and baby-ishly posh and also ginger. (They’re just trying to have a good time, narc — don’t commit your hate crimes here!) Crisscross those two narratives and throw them in the world’s slowest elevator, and you have the fifth episode of Mr. Robot‘s third season, titled “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00,” one of the real TV events of the year.
It’s a real-time potboiler, set in a bland corporate cube-farm gone apocalyptic, shot in what looks like — but clearly isn’t! — a single take. (My colleague Kevin Sullivan has all the details on how the Mr. Robot crew made the episode here.) It begins with Elliot (Rami Malek) in an elevator, blinking, not quite sure what day it is; Friday, Monday? His friend and forever love interest, Angela (Portia Doubleday), is there, wondering why he’s acting so strange. He says goodbye to her and walks out of the elevator. He’s at work, missing memories, and for some reason he can’t log in to the server. We follow him through a slowly dawning realization: That long-promised attack by the Dark Army, which would explode a building downtown — a plan Elliot himself conceived, when the dark personality that looks like his father had the driver seat? That plan is going down today, and only Elliot can stop it, and to stop it he has to [insert hacking term I don’t understand] before [insert another hacking term I don’t understand that probably involves the word “mainframe”]. But there are security guards following him from floor to floor, and there are protestors outside surrounded by cops in riot gear, and his sister’s got some bad news, and he really needs to get to a computer.
Like Camitz, Esmail is not going for realism. The camera floats through a glass door, and lingers long enough on various computer screens that you can almost feel the invisible edits. At one point Elliot tries to take stock of his surroundings, and all his officemates start to move at half-speed, like he just input a slow-mo code into his Game Genie. Part of the episode’s fun is how Esmail (plus writers Kor Adana and Randolph Leon) stage every sequence as a playful tangent, as if Elliot is too stressed to even focus on his world-saving mission. “This is how they do it, isn’t it?” Elliot says, trying to fit in with his co-workers, who don’t have to try. “How they’re able to watch the world fall apart around them. Because to them, this is normal.”
The first half of the episode is normal, for most people. There’s peaceful order around Elliot, everyone walking and talking, like NPCs in a videogame about hiding in plain sight. Elliot is the darkening chaos, constantly walking into places where he doesn’t belong. At the comedy-thrill high point of this sequence, he hides from security by walking into a boardroom. He says hello, sits at the table, checks his BlackBerry. When the guy running the meeting, Sean, asks him what he’s doing there, Elliot plays the kind of dumb that gets you everywhere in a big corporation where nobody knows anyone. The camera keeps following his gaze outside the room, to the security guards questioning passersby: It really is like a stealth videogame, like someone finally figured out how to make the modern-day scenes in Assassin’s Creed not suck, Elliot’s gaze darting constantly from the crowd he’s hiding in to the bad guys he’s avoiding.
“Y’know, Sean,” Elliot says, “sometimes I get a lot like you. Where you have a lot of anxiety because of a deadline. Where you feel pressure because something has to get done, and then all of these damn little unknown variables keep popping up. When you find yourself at the center of one of those storms, you just gotta breathe. Just let go. Get it done.”
The effect of this speech is electric. Elliot’s ginning up his confidence, but his tone is both sincere and sarcastic. He’s on a race against time, but he seems self-aware about how ludicrous this race-against-time structure is. Part of the fun of this episode is how often plans immediately go wrong: Elliot races to the elevator, narrowly avoiding the security guards, and then gets automatically taken down to the lobby, where more security guards are waiting for him.
The flashiest part comes next. Elliot walks outside into a protest. There are people yelling, “This is what democracy looks like!” and there are vaguely affiliated anti-corporate groups — and there’s his sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who reveals that she’s been working with the FBI. “You’ve been trying to play me,” says Elliot, “this whole f—ing time.” The visuals are impressive — look beyond the crowd of people assembled and you can spot the Bank of America ATM across Lexington Avenue — but listen to the sound. When Darlene tells Elliot the truth, the backdrop fades away, so that brother and sister almost seem to be whispering to each other in a quiet confessional booth. There’s the persistent tone on the soundtrack too, electric fuzz that sounds like a computer glitching feedback, as if at any moment Elliot could buzz through a power socket into the David Bowie scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
Intermission: The camera swoops away, finds a reporter with an update on the protest at E Corp. Suddenly, we’re just watching a CNN update, complete with a chyron that appears and then disappears. There are news updates throughout the hour, often playing on the elevator screens, with regular updates on a U.N. vote. China wants to annex the Congo: This is important for plot reasons as obscure as the real-world reasons most U.N. votes are important. Soon enough we’re back in the elevator, following a group of invading protestors past crashing bottles and tear gas. They storm E Corp like it’s the Bastille. They get to the elevator and force a poor sap to use his security card to carry them upward. There’s a long pause where we’re looking at this group, the regular guy scared for his life, the invaders in gas masks. They arrive on a floor and begin their merry marauding, spray-painting and crushing and breaking. They’re like the Spice Girls in the Midland, more violent maybe, but maybe the Spice Girls would be more violent today too.
Act 2 begins: We find Angela, Elliot’s aforementioned crush who is also (Elliot doesn’t know this yet) his well-intentioned Judas. She’s been working with the Dark Army, and now she’s got her own mission: carry an envelope with [insert computer stuff] to the [computer that I think is actually a mainframe]. I don’t doubt that the techno-terminology is all accurate, but the fun of what Esmail’s doing with this episode is how he recodes the act of hacking (and counterhacking) with the most old-fashioned of thrill contrivances: a bomb soon to go off, a package that must be delivered, someone who must pretend to be something more than they are. Elliot was an agent of chaos wandering through order, dressed practically in black, his eyes ringed dark with cavernous, just-got-done-crying-forever circles. Angela is his inversion, ordered by her distant commander to find a specific goal amid the chaos, looking so porcelain-blonde that even the surgical gloves she wears to avoid fingerprint detection match her pale white shirt.
Again, listen to the sounds. At one point, Angela gets back in the elevator — and then on the next floor there’s a security guard, wondering what she’s doing away from her office when there’s a goddamn riot in progress! He looks at her, assuming she’s just another regular person. There’s an audible CRINKLING, and his eye darts down, following her hands as they try to hide the envelope from view.
The little atmospheric touches are important, and carry a bigger message. The whole idea of a “single take” seems to run counter to the trendiest ideas of digital cinema, the rapid-fire cross-cutting, the Cloud Atlas-y possibility of fitting worlds on a wire. The leisurely camera moves of this episode ground us — and they let us see how splintered the characters’ attention is. This is some key big idea in Mr. Robot, expressed in Esmail’s fluid internet-age storytelling (never has the movement of a cursor across the screen felt more momentous!) and in the show’s central big idea of a man split against himself, as if the bad, extreme, outraged version of yourself that lives on Twitter could invade your real life, Dark Half-style.
So Elliot’s phone buzzes, and the elevator screen gives him Congo updates, and he hunts for a computer screen like a junkie hunting for a fix. The events onscreen are wondrously hyper-detailed — a door locking just in time, an envelope crinkling, tap-tapping on a laptop keyboard. But Elliot and Angela’s life has become a second-screen experience, every minor event here in E Corp butterfly-winging global tectonics. And the visual storytelling of this episode keeps pulling them back to Earth, to stairs and hallways and doors that won’t open. They’re not racing against time; they’re racing against space, that annoying physicality that the computer age was supposed to free us from. (Isn’t Elliot such an amateur? Look what Julian Assange has done lately, and he hasn’t left his home in years.)
Compare this visual adventure to, like, the single-take scene from True Detective, also known as “the first and last time everyone unequivocally loved True Detective.” Cary Fukunaga’s staging of that scene is wonderfully showy, and it depends for its effect on wowie crazy stuff, gunshots and helicopters. (It also comes out of plot-nowhere and has barely any relation to the greater season, but True Detective was at its best when it made the least sense.) There are wild things happening in this Mr. Robot episode — the security guard bothering Angela goes down in a moment of shock-scare violence — but the camera’s attention lingers on tiny movements, the plugging-in of a USB cord. And though Esmail has a stylist’s instincts, his camera loves faces, keeps on framing Malek and Doubleday in portraits so tight you can see the sweat they’re trying not to sweat.
You could compare this episode to that fleet of single-location potboilers that popped up in ’90s, Die Hard in a Cubicle. More accurate, given the storytelling, to title it The Raid on a Laptop. Angela manages to get the plot thing to the plot thing, motivating more plot things that we’ll no doubt pick up next week. But then she has to sneak out past the protestors. One attacker has fallen, maced into unconsciousness. She takes off his mask — familiar to us as the insidious Monopoly Man-meets-Guy Fawkes face of fsociety. And she grabs his hoodie, covering her head so just her blonde hair is visible. Elliot’s signature look, of course, is his hoodie — and the mask is the signature look of his alter ego, the hacker-rebel Mr. Robot. And the actions Angela has taken in this half of the episode are actions meant for Elliot. She couldn’t find him, so she finished the job herself.
A key plot thread throughout this brilliant season of Mr. Robot is how Elliot’s grand plan has now exceeded even his own ambition — and inspired people he never really wanted to inspire. “Just because we lit the fuse doesn’t mean we control the explosion,” says the man feeding Angela commands via cellphone, and his words speak to the whole chaotic consummation of this episode. Elliot lit the fuse, but now Angela is making sure that there is an explosion.
That handoff is expressed in the bifurcated structure of this episode — from Elliot to Angela, from prevention to continuation. It climaxes, perfectly, at the end. Angela walks back to her office, eyes darkened. (She’s crying forced tears; when she put on the mask, there was still some pepper spray inside.) She turns a corner, and there’s one final lovely visual joke. Like a player character in an old Resident Evil trapped by obscure camera angles, she can’t see what’s in front of her own face. So she doesn’t notice Elliot standing in front of her until he’s onscreen.
They look at each other, shot in a dual profile (duel profile?), like opponents in the world’s most melancholy Street Fighter sequel. “Is there something you want to tell me?” Elliot asks. What she wants, Elliot — what she really, really wants — is to save tonight.