Mr. Robot Recap: People Always Make the Best Exploits

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson. Photo: USA Network
Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot
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Mr. Robot is all about our vulnerabilities. Whether it’s a daemon or a bug, everyone has a weakness to hide, and the only way to truly know — and potentially control — someone is to learn their quirks.

Even though episode five is titled “Exploits,” a nod to the caper Elliot and FSociety hope to pull off at Steel Mountain, the title’s secondary meaning revolves around exploiting those weaknesses to break down a person, akin to a hacker accessing a system or network and then exerting total dominance.

Fernando Vera wasn’t smart enough to hide his drug dealings and other crimes — “This isn’t the imitation game,” his lawyer tells him. “The code is not that complicated” — and for the sake of efficiency, he is now facing decades in prison (potentially at a super-max). Fernando likely would have preferred the old-fashioned way of dealing, keeping his name off social media and firmly in the streets, but his younger brother, along with Elliot’s anonymous tip, led to his downfall. “You know how much money we saved last year?” his brother asks Fernando. “Made our whole operation way more efficient.”

Fernando’s sense of the universe is full of checks and balances, making sure each action is satisfied with a countermeasure. He promises someone will get hurt — “That’s how we get square with the universe” — and it doesn’t take much pacing about his cell to figure out who lodged the tip. Shayla is the only real character who has accessed Elliot’s human side, and Fernando’s cosmic retribution doesn’t bode well for the budding couple.

In upstate New York, Fernando is far from Elliot’s mind — he’s about to orchestrate the breaking in and legendary hack of Steel Mountain, Evil Corp’s data-storage center. The facility’s tagline is “Impenetrable,” but as Elliot is quick to note, “Nothing is actually impenetrable. A place like this says it is, and it’s close, but people still built this place, and if you can hack the right person, all of a sudden you have a piece of powerful malware. People always make the best exploits.”

Elliot says he’s never had trouble hacking people, and his latest hack — Bill Harper, Steel Mountain’s level-one sales associate — never stood a chance. Elliot uses and abuses Bill in his quest to plant the raspberry pi and manipulate the facility’s temperature settings, analyzing Bill’s weaknesses (his need to be liked) to get Elliot the access he needs. “Think about it, Bill,” he says. “If you died, would anyone care? Would they really care? Maybe they’d cry for a day … but no one would give a shit. The few people that would feel obligated to go to your funeral would probably be annoyed and leave as early as possible. That’s who you are. That’s what you are. You’re nothing.”

One of the show’s hallmarks has been its use of camera angles. Sam Esmail and the other directors love to frame Elliot, and the other characters, off to the side or in the corner of the shot, and the wide angle creates a cinematic feeling. It’s also a bit unnerving — Elliot in this scene, or Fernando in the opening, are thrust into the viewer’s space — and the angles during Elliot’s vicious takedown, alternating between wide and long, are among the hallmark aspects of episode five.

Despite a few hiccups (the expected supervisor never materializes, so Romero and Mobley have to improvise), Elliot is free, a humanoid malware ready to infect Steel Mountain until Tyrell, visiting for the day, surprises him.

It’s still unclear whether Elliot himself doesn’t exist and is a version of Tyrell — a scenario some have suspected and the show has alluded to throughout the season (and even during the episode, when Elliot says, “I’m talking to you right now and you don’t exist) — and it’d be the sort of twist that would elevate the show into the pantheon of series debuts. There is some merit to the theory.

Elliot is a composite of those around him: Like Mobley and Romero, he is a glutton and control freak, and the tenets of FSociety appeal on some level to Elliot. Even the characters we know are real, like Angela or Gideon, have some connection to both Tyrell and Elliot, who might just be the interim CTO’s hacker persona — in the midst of puking in the bathroom, Elliot wonders if he is Tyrell’s malware — that needs to be reined in before he can take over the company. (Why else would Tyrell invite Elliot to join Evil Corp?)

“Seems like we both had the idea to work on-site for the day,” says Tyrell conveniently.

But what is clear is that Evil Corp is, well, legitimately evil: Before getting lunch, Tyrell hangs with his besties, a pair of financiers for Hezbollah and ISIS. During lunch, Tyrell shows a similar affinity for hacking people, intoning about the waiter, “I wonder what must he think of himself? His life’s potential, reached at $30,000 a year salary, an economy car he still owes money on … I couldn’t bear … the life of an ordinary cockroach whose biggest value is to serve me salad.”

Rami Malek’s facial expressions have been on point throughout the season, but they really are amplified this episode. When the security officials visit Tyrell and Elliot during lunch, Malek’s face undergoes a wide range of emotions — from “shitting his pants” nervous to “stay cool” calm — in just a few seconds, convincing me that there’s no other actor who could play Elliot, someone who could convey an emotional state without the crutch of music or script.

Elliot realizes his rendezvous with Tyrell has brought him to Steel Mountain’s level two, and he installs the raspberry pi before Tyrell interrupts him. Like a know-it-all (another trait he conveniently shares with Romero), Elliot has already listed his weaknesses — doesn’t like being outside and likes morphine too much — but perhaps Tyrell is just much better at hacking people, and he quickly highlights Elliot’s bug and monster, which we’ve known all along is his father.

“I know you framed Terry Colby,” says Tyrell. “Your father worked at Evil Corp before he died … I just wanted to know your weakness, and now I do. Revenge. How ordinary. It’s like our water. But even extraordinary people, and I believe you are, are driven by human banalities, and unfortunately we are all human. Except me, of course.”

Tyrell flies back to NYC in Evil Corp’s helicopter to meet with Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who appears set to displace Tyrell as CTO, and Sharon (Michele Hicks), his wife. It’s a classic blackmail tag-team, with both Tyrell and Joanna attempting to find an entry to exploit. The men talk business and the women talk interior design, but it’s rocky at first. He tries to pitch himself as Scott’s right hand, who is justifiably suspicious that Tyrell knows of his promotion at all: “I was beginning to wonder why you set this dinner. Four people in the world know about my conversations. Somehow, you’re No. 5.”

Once the group retires to the living room, the seduction — which becomes literal — goes more smoothly. Joanna pretends to be interested in Scott’s oenophilia, and Tyrell, after making an off comment to Sharon (“How do you not blow your brains out being married to him?”), guesses right: Sharon is bored, not to mention tired of her husband’s flirting. Tyrell follows her to the bathroom, and although no words are exchanged — she on the toilet, he standing in front of her — she falls for Tyrell’s play, who has now found how to exploit his rival, which, for someone as manipulative as Tyrell, could mark an early end for Scott’s CTO tenure.

All FSociety needs to bring down the worldwide conglomerate and right society’s inequalities is the Dark Army, a deal that Darlene is on the verge of completely destroying. Chatting with the "world’s most dangerous hacking crew" in an IRC, Darlene learns FSociety is on its own. The Dark Army has backed out, which Cisco tells her wasn’t a snap decision. “Face it, Darlene, it’s over,” he says. “Between us, they were out before you ever got to Steel Mountain. I know you had your heart set, but for real this time, let go.”

The notion that Darlene, more so than anyone else in FSociety, wants to bring down Evil Corp is one I wish the show would further elaborate. Why does Darlene care so much? It is understandable why Elliot and Angela harbor such ill will, so did Darlene similarly lose a parent? Did Evil Corp inflict some previous pain on her or her family? I hope there is some explanation in future episodes, because her gung-ho hacking attitude just doesn’t make sense without any background.

Elliot’s road-trip crew return to Coney Island, where Darlene delivers news of the Dark Army’s reversal. At this point in the season, most viewers, including myself, are convinced Mr. Robot isn’t real but instead a figment of Elliot’s imagination. But the goal of this episode is to convince us that Mr. Robot exists. He swipes a Steel Mountain security card; he coaches Elliot through the cavernous complex; he argues with Darlene and destroys equipment — the first time all season where there is definitive interaction with a character other than Elliot.

This episode forced me to alter my viewpoint, and I believe that since Elliot is our guide to this world, Mr. Robot is real when Elliot needs him to be. That is to say, there are scenes when Mr. Robot isn’t actually there: the hotel room during episode four’s detox, or even in the car giving Elliot pointers on how to break into Steel Mountain. Mr. Robot is always in the backseat of the car, out of view of the other characters, and he exists only in Elliot’s mind.

But then there are instances where Elliot fades from view and he transforms into Mr. Robot. These are the scenes, like at the end of this week’s episode, when he sparks interaction. At the arcade headquarters, Elliot is at the back of the room, letting Mr. Robot, his daemon take over. We see Mr. Robot, but Darlene and the others see Elliot (or at least that is how I think Esmail is proceeding). This is the first instance in which we’ve seen Elliot become Mr. Robot — it is still a bit Tyler Durden–esque, but with a twist.

Additional Thoughts

  • I am not a fan of the Shayla kidnapping plot thread. I think I understand why it was introduced — there needs to be a real threat facing Elliot — but I can’t imagine how it’ll be resolved. It feels forced.
  • A brief note on Angela and Ollie: She moved out and broke up with Ollie, who’ll likely be fired as the malware stemmed from his computer terminal; Angela visits her father and ends up staying with him; she finds evidence her father owes more than $25,000 to Evil Corp in insurance payments; she goes for a run and hits a fork, literally, in the road. What does the fork signify? Is it evidence she has to make a choice about those ulterior motives mentioned last week?
  • There were a few mentions of Obama in this week’s episode, from Shayla explaining why she quit “pharmaceutical sales” (Obamacare) to the portrait hanging over Tyrell and Elliot during lunch.
  • The show continuously breaks the fourth wall during its voice-overs, but Mr. Robot has also accomplished this by the commercials featured in the past two episodes. Last week had a commercial for Evil Corp, and this week had one for Steel Mountain.
  • I know I talked about camera angles already, but I have to note the angles used during the dinner party. The scene was framed beautifully, conveying the suspicion, boredom, dominance, and fawning happening throughout the scenes.