At the beginning of "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme," Elliot addresses the audience directly in voice-over. A handshake, he explains, symbolizes connection. It says, "Hello" and "I acknowledge your existence" and "Let's get to know who each other really are." Elliot admits that he understands this concept theoretically, but has trouble with the actual act. He struggles to develop relationships built on honesty and trust.
Sam Esmail and the Mr. Robot team have long elaborated on the reasons for Elliot's state — mental illness, social alienation, leftist ideology, etc. — and they ultimately manifest in Mr. Robot, his coping mechanism and curse, the most sustained relationship he's had since his actual father died. Our eyes into the world of Mr. Robot are filtered through Elliot, but as we witnessed in season one, that does not mean he offers the whole truth. Our knowledge of Mr. Robot's identity and Elliot's newly regimented lifestyle might encourage the benefit of the doubt, but the fact remains that Elliot remains an unreliable narrator. Last time he lied to us, it was because his mind was convinced that Mr. Robot was a real person. This time, he did it on purpose.
"eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme" accomplishes two things: It provides an explanation for Elliot's general isolation within the narrative, and it retroactively justifies his separation from the rest of the action. At the end of the episode, on the heels of bringing down Ray and his black market of evil, Elliot shares a letter he received with his psychotherapist Krista that promises good news. She congratulates him and asks him how his interactions with Mr. Robot are going. Elliot responds that they trust each other for the first time, and that he was wrong for trying to destroy him ever since he arrived at his mom's house. Krista pauses nervously and asks if he knows where he is. Moments later, we hear an alarm and the shoe drops. Krista and Elliot are talking in prison. Elliot is not "off the grid," but rather in a correctional facility. The walls that surround him dictate his disciplined lifestyle. The old neighborhood we saw was an illusion, a fantasy to provide meaning to the world he was forced into.
I go back and forth on the efficacy of this twist. On the one hand, Esmail has a unique ability to lull the audience into a false sense of security, then pull the rug out in a way that works even if the reveal itself is fairly obvious. (In fact, Vulture's Abraham Riesman predicted a version of this development after the season premiere.) I personally didn't see the turn coming, which ultimately means that Esmail deserves credit for the choice, and the way he draws back the curtain is one of the highlights of the season. (My favorite shot is Elliot looking up at the florescent lights of the "diner," only for the camera to pan down and reveal that it's a drab prison cafeteria.) Yet, I'm not sure it justifies isolating Elliot from the main action.
One of the major problems with Mr. Robot this season is that it feels like Esmail is writing three separate shows, if you don't include Joanna's struggles sans Tyrell: Elliot's battle with his mind, FSociety's next move in the revolution, and Angela's corporate intrigue with Evil Corp. These three stories are tied together by the events of last season, but the narrative often scans as a disparate collection of events rather than a coherent episode. Though stellar performances keep the ship afloat, it's nevertheless been a frustrating watch, especially in light of the first season's tight rigor. (Save, of course, for Tyrell's story line.) Esmail's twist that Elliot has been imprisoned this whole time is legitimate justification, but that knowledge doesn't somehow make the past six episodes any more or less coherent. There's just a reason for it now.
With that said, the twist decidedly works within the best thematic thread in the series: Elliot's struggle to connect with himself and with society. In many ways, Mr. Robot is the story of a man who feels so tortured and lonely that he chooses to sow chaos in order to create a community, in order to build another society that makes sense to him. Malek excels at communicating Elliot's rank loneliness and fear, as well as his malleable sense of ethics. When Elliot keeps badgering about Tyrell's whereabouts, Mr. Robot finally blows up and asks him why he cares, and Elliot responds in his trademark monotone voice: He just wants to accept what he did and move on. Elliot acts as both himself and Mr. Robot, so he's constantly conflicted by his actions, uncertain about whether he's really in control. Well, the choice to throw blinders over our eyes was his (and Esmail's, of course). As he says, it's sometimes better to live the lie and "cloak the harsh reality in escapist comfort."
Though the quick reveal-ending answers some easy questions — like how Leon is actually another inmate who knows about Whiterose, and how his "mother" is actually a prison guard — it also opens up some more complex questions about this season. Elliot tells us in voice-over that "all of this really happened," so it's reasonable to assume that his involvement with Ray and the black market is legitimate, though the logistics are still uncertain. Plus, it's still unclear why he's in prison. It might be because he shot Tyrell — an act that was finally confirmed by Mr. Robot — although it's not clear if the shooting was fatal. Despite some retroactive frustration, the twist shines a compelling light on previous events, and makes me curious to see how Esmail will unwrap the mystery box.
It may seem like overkill to focus on a single reveal, especially in an episode that's so jam-packed with plot development. DiPierro interrogates Angela after spotting her on the FBI floor, but fails to suss out any information. Once it becomes clear the FBI has been hacked, she orders her subordinates to search Angela's computer, intuiting that she was behind it. Meanwhile, FSociety drops the balls of the Wall Street Bull through the skylight of the House chamber; Angela works to settle the class-action lawsuit against Evil Corp and the toxic leak that killed her mother, then later moves into risk management to force change from the inside; and Joanna offers her new beau a birthday present — her divorce papers — suggesting she's prepared to move on from Tyrell. Oh yeah, and Leon murders a group of rapists who wanted revenge on Elliot for drying up their black-market connect.
But sometimes, one creative decision hangs over an entire episode, and frankly, this is one of those times. Esmail's confidence in his own ambition remains one of Mr. Robot's prime selling points; when he swings and misses, he swings hard enough that it's compelling. Even when he moves into groan-inducing territory — like Ray slowly knocking over his king during the chess match — the vision still feels singular. The final, slightly off-center shot of Elliot staring vacuously into the camera and asking if he and the audience can "shake" on a new trust is entirely Esmail, and that still means something. Like Elliot, Esmail has too much courage, which can lead to errors in judgment. But, by God, the courage is something to watch.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- Though the writing wasn't always there from him, Craig Robinson gave a pretty great performance as Ray. He works wonders with Esmail's wordy monologues.
- Grace Gummer has been the season's biggest surprise. I loved when DiPierro casually told her co-worker that she had to find a shitty barbecue for the Fourth of July.
- Angela takes Darlene down a peg by pointing out the obviousness of this whole FSociety thing. It's nice to see her dish it out a little bit.
- The banner that hangs in the prison church reads: "You are not alone. We are all different. We are all equal." It's an obvious touch, and it works for me.
- At one point, Elliot quotes World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker: "When you see a good move, look for a better one." Same thing can be said about Esmail's direction.
- Finally, props to this soundtrack cue: "Garbageman" by the Cramps, which plays when DiPierro leaves the office and when Angela takes a car home.