After last week's intense closing sequence, Mr. Robot doesn't maintain the violent tension it so successfully mined in recent episodes. Instead, "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z" builds a different kind of pressure by slowing the action to a crawl, heightening the creepy paranoia, and isolating its subjects.
Elliot opens the episode by discussing how people can train themselves to lucidly dream if they repeat a mantra to themselves: "Mind awake. Body asleep." It's a fitting, if obvious, note to begin, since writer-director Sam Esmail throws the audience into an episode operated by dream logic, complete with eerie silences and strange, evocative imagery. Characters speak in circles, everyone is shrouded in darkness, and the boundary between reality and fantasy is crumbling. "You are at the intersection of all of it," Whiterose later says to Angela, a feeling that Esmail tries to capture in its totality, including the confusion, the fear, and yes, the excitement inherent to such a promising narrative claim.
Given that it's the first of a two-part finale, "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z" is relatively light on plot and heavy on feeling. In short, the Chinese government bailed out E Corp by giving them a $2 trillion, zero-interest loan. As such, the U.S. government doesn't want to negatively impact their relationship with China, so the FBI will have no luck taking on the Dark Army, a fact that greatly disheartens DiPierro. Meanwhile, Angela finds herself traveling to an unknown location in the back of a van. She's eventually taken to a suburban home and ushered into a room containing a fish tank, a desk, two chairs, and a Commodore home computer. There, a young girl runs her through a series of riddles and questions that take the form of a text-based adventure game called Land of Ecodelia. Finally, Elliot watches as Mr. Robot decodes a cryptic message and heads out to meet someone … who turns out to be Tyrell Wellick in the flesh.
Essentially, many things happen in the episode but Esmail holds any significance close to the chest, limiting the action to the multipart set piece about Angela's "test." It's the standout sequence, if only because it dominates the proceedings and largely gets by on tone more than content. Esmail relishes the use of silence and the pregnant pauses between questions and answers, creating the sense that something big is about to happen when really it's just more questions and answers, all of which largely mean nothing. When a little girl enters the room and inserts a disk into the Commodore, she begins a test that Angela knows nothing about. All she knows is that if she doesn't answer the questions, the fish in the tank will die and the little girl will be beaten again. (The former happens; the latter is an illusion.)
She soon learns that the entire scenario was set up by Whiterose to both test her resolve and convince her to drop any plans to expose E Corp and confess to the FBI hack. While their scene between B.D. Wong and Portia Doubleday gets by largely on the strength of the dual performances, it's almost too oblique to have any meaningful effect. Esmail favors terminally long dialogue that trafficks in exposition and background information, e.g. Price's conversation with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Sometimes those scenes work, but much of the time they seem to fall flat under the weight of the clichés, or the confusing structure of a monologue, or simply poor writing. Angela and Whiterose's scene doesn't fall apart, exactly, but it does coast on a semi-unearned sense of mystery. What are the Dark Army's plans for Angela? Why does she act like a pod person when she meets her lawyer? What will Whiterose do next? These are the questions that make the suspense, but it's nevertheless theoretical and enervating. At the end of the day, it's just two people talking in a room for vague reasons, so the audience can be kept at bay for another week.
The emotional high point of the episode doesn't involve Elliot or Angela, but rather DiPierro, who is forced to take some time off after the diner shooting. Grace Gummer's performance has been one of the few unequivocally great elements of this season, and it really peaks in her lonely conversation with Alexa, the Amazon Echo device, while she's lying in bed. Not only does it accurately capture people's co-dependent relationships with technology by literalizing the usually silent end of the relationship; it serves tremendous thematic purpose. DiPierro has been completely neutered and betrayed by her organization since they're forced to kowtow to the Chinese, and now she's wondering to herself if what she's doing is worth it. "Alexa, are you happy? Are you alone? Do you love me?" she asks, while the machine delivers preprogrammed responses. But notice how Esmail's camera lingers uncomfortably on her vacant expression. What's the point of fighting for good if nothing changes? What's the point if it just makes you unhappy?
These are also the questions that Elliot asks himself while he struggles with his dissociation with Mr. Robot. He "lucidly" wakes up and watches Mr. Robot decipher the message and head to Chelsea to get into a mysterious cab. He arrives, then suddenly Tyrell gets into the cab and gives the driver an address. Of course, Elliot thinks he's losing it so he has a total freak-out, demanding to know if the cab driver can see or hear Tyrell next to him. They eventually get out and Tyrell explains that the Dark Army said Stage Two is ready and that "they did it."
Again, Esmail keeps details close to the chest, so what Stage Two is and what "they" did is left up to speculation. All we know is that Tyrell is still alive, Elliot and Mr. Robot are working individually, Angela has been spooked to high heavens, and DiPierro is at a low, low point. While the tone of "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z" kept me on edge, and certain scenes had spark, it mostly felt like a Zen koan without any of the promised enlightenment. Here's hoping that Elliot and Tyrell's beautiful friendship leads somewhere in the finale.
- The episode's most prominent recurring motif is music from Back to the Future, like "Earth Angel" and "Night Train," both of which played at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in the film, and "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," played when Marty enters Lou's Café and asks for a Tab.
- Philip Price wants E Corp to create its own currency so as to combat Bitcoin and control the universe or something. It's all a bit vague, but I did enjoy his line about the Constitution.
- The first question the little girl asks Angela is if she's cried during sex. Not a great opener, if you ask me.