It’s safe to say that many people will love this episode. Broken up into two major set pieces — one a twisted parody, the other a heist — and with a touching final scene to boot, “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes” is designed to break from convention, cut up the monotony of Mr. Robot’s texture and rhythm, and illustrate the tricks showrunner Sam Esmail and his team have in their back pockets. It shifts between multiple modes and propels the action forward, all while luxuriating in the surreal. On paper, this kind of episode is a slam dunk because it demonstrates a creator’s willingness to go for broke. It demonstrates a desire to avoid predictable patterns and reach for something new. It demonstrates ambition.
And yet, I pretty much hated the first 20 minutes.
A forced shock to the system, Mr. Robot drops the audience into the cheesy world of a 1980s multi-camera sitcom. All the signifiers of such a world are present: the oppressive laugh track, the cheap backdrops, the bare-bones sets. Elliot and Darlene are in the car on an Alderson family road trip, with mom and dad sitting chipper in the front seat. Elliot freaks out while everyone cracks wise and hints at the scene we witnessed last week — Elliot is getting beaten to a pulp by Ray and his goons.
Of course, Elliot’s reality begins to seep into the sitcom world. Their mother burns Darlene’s arm and slugs her until she’s unconscious, a suggestion of the domestic abuse in the home. Elliot’s father coughs up blood and cheekily refers to the cancer that will soon kill him. Angela works at an E Corp convenience store and strives to rise through the ranks, illustrating the gulf in their friendship. Gideon shows up as a cop who gets run down by ALF (yes, you read that correctly); the camera lingers on his bloodied corpse to remind both the audience and Elliot of his unjust murder. And the kidnapped businessman stuffed into the trunk conjures the specter of Tyrell Wellick, whose absence hangs heavily over this season. Elliot keeps trying to break free while his father (or is it Mr. Robot?) keeps soothing him, determined to hold him in the fantasy for as long as possible.
We quickly learn that Mr. Robot threw Elliot into the comforts of a sitcom to protect him from the beating he received at the hands of thugs after he tried to do the decent thing. “When the truth is painful son, a lie is the only remedy. Too much truth, too much honesty, it’ll kill ya,” he says after Elliot realizes what he’s done. In short, it’s a dead father reaching out to his troubled son in a moment of terror. So far this season, Esmail has painted Mr. Robot as a terroristic monster trying to get Elliot back into a terminal to follow through on the revolution they started. But this time, he paints him as a sympathetic figure, a character devoted to saving Elliot from utter collapse.
While that thematic thread plays out beautifully in the rest of the episode, especially in the episode’s last scene, the sitcom parody feels like an aggressively forced attempt to inject weirdness into the series, a sub–Adult Swim dive into surreal pop culture. Though episode writer Adam Penn and Esmail admirably commit to the aesthetic, which includes an opening-credits sequence familiar to anyone well-versed in sitcom history or who has seen “Too Many Cooks,” it can’t save the sequence from being DOA based on its premise alone. Every time Penn/Esmail wink at the audience with purposefully stale punchlines (“On the plus side, I hear jumpsuits are in these days!”) or with the twisted truth of the real world, it reads as a desperate, unfunny attempt to throw off the audience while playing into their television knowledge. Visual schema aside, the scene plays out like the majority of the scenes between Elliot and Mr. Robot this season: a battle between two conjoined minds, even if this one ends in understanding rather than a stalemate. Mileage will definitely vary here, and I can imagine plenty of people will find the sequence’s dark humor to be a fresh change of pace, but it read to me as an example of the series’ worst kind of self-indulgence and faux-cleverness.
Fortunately, the rest of the episode works like gangbusters. The heist sequence that dominates the second half showcases Esmail’s slick direction, complete with an epic tracking shot that calls attention to itself a little too much (like when Esmail pushes the camera “through” the bottom of a cubicle instead of just making a cut à la Birdman) but ultimately still impresses. It begins with Darlene expertly breaking into a hotel room to coach Angela while she confidently walks onto the FBI’s floor to plant the bug. Penn adds some tension-building sequences that work well to throw off the scene, like an unexpected bathroom visitor and a conversation with an aggressively flirty FBI agent, but Angela wholly succeeds in her mission, even though both Mobley and Trenton had trouble teaching her how to hack just a day prior. That is, until the Wi-Fi cuts out and Darlene needs Angela to get onto a terminal and bring it back up. While she’s in the midst of pulling off another hack, Dom walks up to her desk and wants to talk. Penn and Esmail leave us on that moment of uncertainty, capping off an extended action sequence with a nicely timed cliffhanger.
Although the heist contains some great thrills, the emotional acuity of the episode’s final sequence stands out. After Elliot tearfully embraces Mr. Robot in the present, it flashes back to a scene from Elliot’s childhood when Elliot’s father brings him home from school, presumably after he was beaten up. Scored to Television’s phenomenal “Guiding Light,” Elliot’s dad comforts him and gently reveals that he was fired from his job because he missed time for cancer treatments. Christian Slater has rarely been better than in this scene, as he illustrates the tender side of Edward Alderson’s relationship with his son. “The world isn’t gonna get rid of me that easy,” he promises with a cheerful smile, tipping the metaphorical hat in the process, and showcasing how someone like Elliot could hold onto a memory for so long that it ends up dominating his head space. The episode ends with young Elliot coming up with the name for his father’s new computer store, smashing to black on the realization that will haunt him well into adulthood.
“eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes” showcases Mr. Robot at its worst and at its best. The series frequently frustrates with its lack of subtlety and its oft-excessive stylistic tics, but it’s still commendable that it tries. The best thing about it is its confidence, even when things threaten to go off the rails, and this episode demonstrates the pros and cons of that approach. Mr. Robot seeks not just to walk to the beat of its own drum, but to create the drum from scratch. There’s no better proof than this episode, which fails and succeeds just minutes apart.
- Ray shows up in Elliot’s hospital bed to monologue about his dead dog and the horror of accepting that everyone needs a master. It’s … okay.
- The source of the sitcom sequence might be the result of an ALF episode playing on the hospital TV, but this answer begs the question: What kind of hospital is playing ALF reruns in 2016?
- Cisco gets tortured by the Dark Army for asking questions, then later gets recognized by Angela. I’m sure this will play out down the line.
- The song that recurs during the heist is “Gwan” by the neo-soul group the Suffers. It grooves.
- Other elements in the sitcom sequence: a nod to the USA network and “Word Up Wednesday,” and an ’80s-era Evil Corp ad straight out of Reagan’s America.
- In honor of Esmail’s good soundtrack choices, listen to Marquee Moon tonight.