As Mr. Robot enters the final stretch of its second season, Sam Esmail and company are putting their characters through the psychological ringer. Elliot set out to change the world by extracting society from the clutches of Evil Corp, but instead, he plunged the world into a hellish future. Evil Corp has only grown stronger. Life has devolved into calamity, constantly wracked with fear and uncertainty. No one is better off, especially the members of FSociety, and it's unclear if things will ever get better. "Is this the future I was fighting for?" Elliot asks as he watches a dark street, focusing on the blank faces of passersby. "Did we lose the fight? Maybe wars aren't meant to be won. Maybe they're meant to be continuous."
After the last two episodes ratcheted up the paranoia, "eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx" sends everyone over the edge. It's not just one of the best episodes of the series; it totally assumes the collective psychology of its main subjects. Elliot, Angela, Darlene, and Cisco are forced to grapple with their choices once and for all, as they lie in the wake of their crusades, forced to look over their shoulders as the federal government and the Dark Army hunt them down. Everyone is hanging by a thread, looking at the face of judgment and wondering if they've made a huge mistake. It's legitimately compelling stuff from a series that I erroneously believed to be plunging down a rabbit hole of gimmicks and cheap platitudes masked as insight. For the first time in a long while, Mr. Robot demonstrates pristine self-awareness.
In terms of plot, nothing much happens in "eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx" until the very end, but editor John Petaja keeps the action at such a tight clip that tense conversations feel thrilling all the same. Elliot is tasked by Joanna to find Tyrell, even though Elliot knows that Tyrell is already dead; Cisco brings a beaten and bloodied Vincent back to his place and forces Darlene to take him to the hospital; DiPierro clashes with her bosses and tries to get to Cisco before the Dark Army takes him out; and Angela decides to confess to her part of the hack to the FBI. In between, all of these characters struggle with their own insecurities and express skepticism about what has happened. "You wanna act like you're on top of things, but you're not! You're buried, way underneath!" Cisco shouts at Darlene. After months of denial, these characters finally understand that humbling fact.
When Elliot returns to his apartment with a new set of hardware to track the supposed number of Tyrell, his sense of self has all but eroded, even for him. Mr. Robot disappeared as soon as Joanna's phone rang. He's simply going through the motions of an NYPD hack to acquire the address. ("No one in the world uses a fax anymore except cops," he snarks to Joanna's handler, who's impressed by Elliot's moxie.) All the while, he wonders why Mr. Robot disappeared — even engaging us with a Where's Waldo?–type game around his apartment for clues — and what these urgent messages from "Claudia Kincaid" might mean. He slowly accepts that the plan he put in motion has left his friends in emotional tatters and serious physical danger. "I hid in a cage while everyone else took all the risk," he mutters to himself.
Meanwhile, Darlene and Cisco wait at the hospital, as she owns up to her utter lack of experience leading a revolution. "I'm not special," she says before diving into a long, disturbing story of how she was kidnapped as a child by an old woman at Coney Island. Instead of being afraid or screaming out for help, Darlene went along for the ride because she enjoyed the attention. She felt important. But in her heart, she knew that Elliot was the one with the brains and the know-how to become something greater than himself. It's a remarkable moment of self-diagnosis as Darlene finally examines her motivations. It was a desperate attempt to leave behind a legacy, a chance to prove that she was something all along. Contrast that with the episode's opening scene, in which Price calmly explains his motivation. Although Price's actions are uniformly nefarious and evil — the guy wants Terry Colby to help China seize control of the Congo! — he's really driven by a simple impulse. He craves power.
For everyone else on Mr. Robot, with the possible exception of DiPierro, motivation is much less clear. There's talk of change and capitalism and freedom, but Esmail has made a concerted effort to ground these characters in desperately personal struggles. Elliot wants to create a world in his own image, so he can find inner peace. Darlene wants a purpose and a legacy. Angela wants justice for her mother's murder. These might seem like simplistic goals, but they're potent at this late stage in the game. When you strip away all the hacker jargon and complex political machinations, you're left with a story about young people stuck in a mess, looking out at a world they no longer recognize.
The last ten minutes of the "eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx" cut between DiPierro desperately trying to find Cisco, Elliot and Angela's heartbreaking conversation on the subway, and Darlene and Cisco sharing a quiet, down-to-Earth moment over some food while they wait. It's an uncomfortably anxious sequence, coupled by Mac Qualye's pit-in-your-stomach score, but Angela and Elliot's commiseration over lost time stands out the most. "We can't beat them. Trust me, I've tried. No matter what we do, we will always lose to them," she says, choking back tears. As that horrible reality sinks into Elliot's head, Malek's eyes communicate every ounce of fear in his character. There's no turning back. This is it. This is it.
And just as DiPierro finds Darlene and Cisco at the diner, a masked gunman gets off a motorcycle and shoots up the place. DiPierro wounds him, but the gunman kills himself just as the police arrive. Esmail films the scene from afar. We don't know what DiPierro tells them. We don't know if Darlene and Cisco are alive or dead. We don't know much of anything.
Suffice to say, we're a long way from getting high and watching Back to the Future 2.
- Terry Colby returns for the pre-credits sequence as Price's inside man in the Obama administration. He wrote a book titled The Last Honest Man, and it's apparently trending higher than Donald Trump's book on Amazon. Colby's opinion of Trump? "Can you believe that cocksucker is actually running this time? I mean, if I wanted, the things I have on him … could put me on his ticket."
- For those who don't know, Claudia Kincaid is a character from E.L. Konigsburg's popular children's novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
- The song that plays over the credits sequence is by Bleach, a Japanese hard-core group.
- Just before Angela tries to do the right thing, two people out of frame approach her as Elliot exits the train.
- Did anyone find anything notable in the Where's Waldo? sequence?