In its first season, Mr. Robot delivered one of the biggest, best-executed narrative twists in recent television history — the revelation of Mr. Robot’s true nature — with the foreknowledge that it would be able to reckon with that twist in its already confirmed (and already conceived) second season. Sam Esmail has made clear that the events of season one were more of a prelude than a first act, and that his vision for the show is a story about “a guy discovering in fact that he has dissociative-identity disorder, and we’re with him as he’s discovering that, and what do you do … as you realize your personality is starting to fragment away from you.”
In other words, the Mr. Robot twist wasn’t a twist, it was the show revealing its true nature. Which is all good and appropriately heady, but now that we’re a solid three hours into season two, having spent about half of those hours watching Elliot, mostly alone, battling a demon in his head, it’s starting to feel like Mr. Robot has developed an identity crisis.
At this point in the series, I’ve come to think of each Mr. Robot episode as comprising “the Elliot half” and “the everything-else half” — or the internal half and the external half, respectively. Elliot’s scenes are pure, distilled Mr. Robot, with Esmail, who’s directing every episode this season, piling stylistic flourishes on top of dorm-room philosophizing (religion is a drug, man) on top of more stylistic flourishes. This episode, which finds Elliot attempting to wrestle both his guilt and Mr. Robot into submission via copious consumption of Adderall, is showy even by Mr. Robot standards: multiple hard-driving monologues and narration, a stomach-churning drug-induced fake-out, and lots of VFX-assisted visualizations of Elliot’s altered state. It’s all in keeping with the show’s established tone and this episode’s theme — encroaching panic — but it also feels isolated from everything else. That’s arguably on purpose, as Elliot is himself isolated mentally and physically, but it does foster a sense that we’re breaking with the “real” story to spend time in Elliot’s head.
While Elliot’s scenes are reliably engaging on a visual level, and open themselves up to lots of mystery-box theorizing about what it all means, they’re also feeling a little stagnant in the narrative department, especially compared to everything outside of Elliot’s grey little corner of the universe. The world is coming apart at the seams thanks to the FSociety hack — and people keep dying, which we’ll get to in a moment — but we’re spending our time listening to this guy go on about religion and guilt? (Or, even worse, paw through a pile of his own vomit so he can swallow the pills again? I mean, seriously?) That may be what Esmail always wanted, but viewers who were drawn to the intrigue and suspense elements of Mr. Robot may be starting to feel like they’ve been sold a false bill of goods. There’s still a lot of good stuff happening in Elliot’s half of the show; it’s where the show’s stylistic ambition and audacity are most apparent. But I suspect I’m not alone in itching for Elliot to end this death match with Mr. Robot so he can get back to having an effect — good or bad — on the world again.
Thankfully, it looks like we may be headed in that direction. Ray gives Elliot the attitude readjustment he needs if he’s going to survive without the assistance of mind-altering chemicals. After this episode, I think it’s safe to conclude that Ray is a real person existing in the world, and not Elliot’s brain (which unfortunately punches a hole in Abraham Riesman’s intriguing theory), though what his role is, or what it will be, is still unclear. We know now that Ray’s been trying to tap Elliot to assist with some impossible hacker feat involving a website and Bitcoin, something the poor guy whom Ray visits hasn’t been able to do. Ray offers this guy some “positive reinforcement,” but his demeanor, combined with the fear and physical injury on the guy’s scarred face, reveal that he is not someone to cross. But, seemingly contrary to that, he’s also friends with the local chaplain, who gives him Elliot’s discarded notebook to return following that church-group outburst. And, most trenchantly, Ray also has some experience talking to people that aren’t there — in his case, his dead wife — something he uses to maneuver himself past the walls of Elliot’s mind.
“Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow,” Ray tells Elliot, who’s been trying without success to control the turmoil in his brain through drugs, journaling, and isolation. “You’re smart enough to know keeping this inside you isn’t going to last,” he says later, seemingly giving Elliot permission to let Mr. Robot take over. (Or at least have a seat at the table.) And right on cue, there’s Mr. Robot, hopefully ushering in the next chapter of this story, where Elliot “stumbles in the right direction” along with Mr. Robot, instead of trying to control him.
Of course, Ray’s endgame is still the big question mark hanging over this development. Presumably he was able to suss out Elliot’s condition by reading his journal, but he does seem to have an awfully keen grasp of the situation for someone who just appeared out of the blue one day. It’s still unclear whether Ray is ultimately friend or foe (and why he has such a large American flag on the wall in his office), but he does seem to understand Elliot, which may be all Elliot needs to move forward.
And understanding Elliot is no easy feat, as evidenced by the conversations the other members of FSociety have regarding their AWOL leader. When Romero turns up mysteriously dead at his mom’s house, it sends a shockwave of panic (theme alert!) through the erstwhile members of FSociety, Mobley in particular, who confronts Darlene about the situation. The back-to-back murders of Romero and Gideon (whose murderer, a “whack job” according to Darlene, turned himself in at the crime) have raised the question of whether Elliot and Darlene are taking care of the hack’s “loose ends” via the Dark Army. It’s a reasonable-enough theory — Mr. Robot loves itself some plausible paranoia — buttressed by Elliot’s erratic behavior after (and before) the hack. Based on what we know about Elliot’s state, it’s unlikely he’s in contact with the Dark Army, much less thinking about the members of FSociety who aren’t inside his own head.
But someone is thinking a lot about FSociety these days, so much so that it’s keeping her from enjoying late-night reality television and cybersex. Watching Dom stumble her way toward the FSociety arcade is the highlight of tonight’s episode, in part because Grace Gummer is such a compelling onscreen presence (and in part because Dom rolls a bomb-ass joint). Her journey toward the truth of the FSociety hack is what gives the episode most of its forward momentum, and keeps its messy narrative on the rails. The closing moment where the camera pans up as Dom looks at the arcade’s F__ SOCIETY sign is a thing of beauty, bringing full circle the cold-open sequence with Romero and Mobely discussing the arcade’s bloody history. It’s a sign that Mr. Robot has some good story left ahead of it — a story that Elliot will hopefully rejoin soon.
- Relegated to the overflow column this week: Angela’s plot, which finds her being invited on a date (i.e. mind game) by Price. So far this season, Angela’s story has been about her disassociation from emotion, but the smoking gun Price hands her — evidence against the “otherwise good” men who were in the room when the decision was made to poison her hometown — will likely undermine that in short order.
- Because of “the situation,” Price must pay for the dinner upfront. Seems a lot of people are pulling the dine-and-dash in the post-hack world.
- “Unless it collides with a very large rock, or a future technology goes very wrong indeed, Earth is most likely to be destroyed when the sun swells into a red giant in several billion years’ time.” Thanks, Alexa! You always know just what to say.
- Lots of funny stuff in Elliot’s Adderall spaz out, including but not limited to: “The ball goes into the hoop! Of course!” “Damn, these dishes look immaculate,” and “Classic George, am I right?”
- “What happened to the ‘U’ and the ‘N’?” “Oh that? That’s a story for another time.” R.I.P., Romero.