Christian Slater and Rami Malek in Mr. Robot.
The year was 1994, and a beacon of the upcoming technological revolution had just begun to shine brightly on a sleepy South New Jersey town. That fall, Edward Alderson, a man in his mid-40s but full of entrepreneurial zeal, opened the first computer store in the area. Called Mr. Robot, the shop promised “computer repair with a smile” and featured the most advanced products of the period.
One day, a man visited the store and accused Edward’s young son, who sometimes helped with the day-to-day operations, of stealing $20. Edward tried to reason with the man, who at first just wanted his money back and an apology but then threatened to call the cops. He berated Edward, “You’re just teaching him how to steal.”
The man left the store without money or an apology, and after Edward’s son handed over the neatly folded Jackson, he asked his dad why he wasn’t mad at him. “Even though what you did was wrong, you’re still a good kid. And that guy was a prick. Sometimes that matters more,” Edward said.
That boy would grow up to be Elliot Alderson, Allsafe employee by day, FSociety mastermind by night; and this week’s Mr. Robot episode, mimicking tropes well worn by comic books and science-fiction fantasies, takes us back in time to highlight Elliot’s origin story and how it influenced his future.
He may steal, but at the end of the day, the greater good always prevails, and what is better for all of humanity than creating a world free of financial inequality? His father first helped define his moral compass that day in the shop, and now, three months into planning the world’s most complex hack, his father is again guiding Elliot, spurring him to action.
Season one’s penultimate episode is all about parallels. Several of the characters, from Darlene and Angela to Angela and Elliot and Elliot and Tyrell, are on paths that seem to mirror each other (the episode’s title is “Mirroring”).
Elliot’s origin story follows his shock to learn that Darlene is his sister and Mr. Robot is his father, a past he tried to hide from himself by hacking his own background and burying it among the CDs of all his other hacks. It’s unclear at this point whether Mr. Robot is indeed Elliot’s father — he comments on the cleanliness of the apartment and is worried about Elliot’s mental state, saying, “I was beginning to wonder how long it was going to take before you recognized me. The fact that you stopped recognizing Darlene, too, I’ve gotta be honest, that’s a little disconcerting.”
Is Mr. Robot real? This line continues to blur that notion. If Mr. Robot is questioning Elliot’s sanity, he might just be a daemon (a possibility we’ve known all along), a specter seen only through Elliot’s eyes while the rest of the world sees Elliot.
Clearly distraught at the prospect that his father, a person we’ve been told died 20 years ago, might have been alive all this time, Elliot needs answers now — he yells, he flips his kitchen table over, and he repeatedly asks his father what is happening. Mr. Robot plays to Elliot’s current mental state, one fueled by paranoia, and says he’ll explain, but not in his apartment — “they” might be listening: “You don’t remember me, you don’t remember your goddamn sister. See that shrink. Pop those pills. They intentionally put you in this haze, fog up whatever brain matter you have left in there, so you forget what they want you to forget … they’ve been trying to control you all along.”
While Elliot takes a nostalgic trip with Mr. Robot, the episode’s first parallel path, Gideon continues to deal with the fallout from the Dark Army’s hack of Allsafe. He is noticeably (and understandably) stressed, frantically getting dressed for work, and he nearly has to be forced to eat the breakfast in bed his partner, Harry, prepared for him.
As Tyrell predicted back at Steel Mountain, Gideon sees the end is near for Allsafe — “Normally a company can get through this, but we’re a cybersecurity company. Can you appreciate how bad that is?” — and unlike most of the characters on Mr. Robot, he’s simply caught in FSociety’s maelstrom. “We’re hanging on by our fingernails, who knows, maybe we’ve already fallen off a cliff and I’m still to grasp on to something,” he says.
In a recent interview, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail mentioned developing characters who fit “in the middle” of the show. Using Ollie as an example, Esmail notes that for a show whose plot has grand stakes, “… it’s also interesting to remember the people … who are honestly just trying to go to work everyday and go home everyday [sic] and take their vacations and live their life.” Gideon is one of those people, and as Elliot reminded us during episode eight, he is “a good, honest man … I am no good for him or this place.”
Since their early morning ballet class, Angela and Darlene have been paired together, the episode’s second parallel. Using color schemes to depict the parallel — white for Angela, black for Darlene (which does give off a slight Black Swan vibe) — the two are on a quest to find Elliot. Darlene tells Angela that Elliot has “gone legit psycho,” and her help is vital. After all, she was “the one who found him last time he was like this.”
This is the episode’s first reference signaling that Mr. Robot is merely a figment of Elliot’s mental state. He’s imaginary, a projection of Elliot’s dead father that only Elliot can see, and this dampens the potential plot twist that he’s been hiding for the past two decades. We’ve referenced this potential psychotic break as being the reason Krista treated Elliot, and since there was a prior incident, it’s clear that Elliot’s point of view, which we’ve depended upon all season, is warped.
Angela and Darlene check the museum where Elliot would often go to hide out, but he isn’t there. It’s at this moment where the show raises a subplot I hope is explored in later episodes — why did Darlene suddenly appear? “He’s been doing just fine until you moved back to the city. Why are you even here?” says Angela.
Other than the fact that she is Elliot’s sister whose Dark Army boyfriend proposed to her, we really know nothing about Darlene. Her backstory is a complete mystery. It’s clear she was a part of FSociety from the beginning, and her hacking skills rival Elliot’s, but why she decided to come back to New York City (later in this episode, Angela’s father says he can’t recall the last time he saw Darlene) is unknown.
Her presence, and the juxtaposition between her dark color scheme and the white worn by Angela, also indicates Elliot’s emotional state. Since Darlene arrived, Elliot has slowly deteriorated — when Angela was his constant companion, his life was becoming more normal, which he welcomed. Darlene’s emergence deepened Elliot’s attention shift to FSociety, which took a deleterious toll on his health.
Even Mr. Robot tries to keep Elliot away from Darlene (which he also attempted in episode eight, instructing Elliot to delete her phone number): “We can’t see Darlene right now, it’s too risky.”
Just as Elliot’s origin story starts and frames the episode as a whole, his trip with Mr. Robot further illustrates the classic comic-book protagonist rediscovering his roots. He breaks the fourth wall: “Calm down. I’ll figure this out. I know you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t either.” And then:
“But I am telling you, I am remembering more and more now as time goes on. That’s a plus. It’s all starting to come back. And once we get all the answers, I’ll be back to normal. Except for the fact my dead father isn’t really dead and is sitting across from me.”
This scene’s cinematography is perfect, blending fantasy and reality. The camera cut between his father, whom we still aren’t sure is real or an imaginary projection, on the train, a man with a newspaper whom Elliot suspects is following them, and then different stickers of FSociety in each frame.
Mr. Robot introduces a third parallel: Tyrell and Elliot. This one has existed since the season began, but this episode only strengthened the ties between the ex-hacker turned corporate exec and FSociety ringleader. Joanna has just given birth to a baby boy, and she reveals to Tyrell that this isn’t her first child. When she was 15 she gave birth to a daughter, but put her up for adoption.
Tyrell is shocked — he had no clue, which is alarming considering they are married. “I didn’t tell anyone who didn’t need to know,” says Joanna, which is a subtle dig. She cares about the family, and about Tyrell’s rise up Evil Corp’s corporate ladder, but he is much less a soul mate and more a means to a stable life. At the moment Tyrell needs much more of the former, and his expressions signal that he is surprised (and possibly hurt) not to know about Joanna’s daughter.
He reaches out to hold Joanna’s hand, and she recoils. It’s the fist time all season where the two have had a moment resembling a normal partner exchange, but it is brief. “Don’t touch me. I no longer want you,” she tells Tyrell. “If you want to remain in this family, you’ll fix this.”
That won’t be easy — Tyrell returns to Evil Corp to find Phillip Price, the company’s CEO, waiting for him. The police believe Tyrell to be a person of interest in Sharon Knowles’s death, and because Scott, the new CTO, also believes Tyrell killed his wife, there is no place in the company for them both. Scott remains, while Tyrell is fired.
As Tyrell’s emotions range from puzzlement to anger to finally pleading, Price, played by the fantastic Michael Cristofer, delivers a cutting monologue. On a show known for its writing, Cristofer’s speech is especially brilliant:
“You know, I can’t deny picturing your reaction. I seldom have time for such imaginings. For you, I was curious. It could have gone any number of ways, and I found all the different versions quite interesting, I admit. But now, confronted with the reality, I have to say I’m disappointed … There was a moment, Tyrell, a point in your recent past, a mistake, compulsion, decision, something that led you to this point right now. My only advice to you is find that moment, understand it. That’s the only way to reconcile this failure with yourself.”
The speech harkens back to the scene in Steel Mountain’s bathroom, when Tyrell tells Elliot that although he believes him to be brilliant, his reason for destroying Evil Corp — avenging his father’s death — is so boring, basic, and, essentially, human. That moment has caught up with Tyrell, and Price’s speech paints a picture of a man suddenly realizing his failings and his own humanity.
The camera presses close to Tyrell’s face as he understands that despite being “on a track,” he is a commodity to Evil Corp, one that can be disposed of as well as elevated and praised. His hair slips down on his forehead, and the intense close-up belies Tyrell’s unraveling. He reaches out to grasp Price’s hand, which follows Tyrell attempting to touch Joanna. He keeps reaching out to make contact, to feel flesh on his flesh, because his balance is teetering further and further off-balance.
Elliot’s other parallel is also spinning out of control. Mr. Robot takes Elliot to his childhood home and they visit Elliot’s bedroom, the scene where his father pushed him out a window. When Elliot attempts to do the same to Mr. Robot, he reveals that he never threw Elliot — it was all Elliot’s own doing. “You felt guilty about this your whole life,” Mr. Robot says. “This anger was never at me, it was at you. You don’t have to be angry at yourself anymore.”
Elliot still shoves him out the window, missing Darlene and Angela by a few moments as they search the house, thinking Elliot might be hiding there (though, as it is made clear throughout the episode, Elliot’s home life was far from ideal, even when his father was alive).
Elliot helps carry Mr. Robot to a nearby cemetery, and the twist introduced last week begins to unravel. The two stop in front of a tombstone, and as Elliot spots Angela and Darlene on the horizon, Mr. Robot says:
“It won’t be long now. I’ve tried to protect you, son, but they caught up to us. Trust me, son, I wanted to tell you sooner. Things got too accelerated at the end. Whatever anyone tries to do, I will never leave you. I will always be right here. They are never going to break us apart again. They are going to try to get rid of me again, and I need you to not let them. I will never leave you alone again.”
The twist is finally revealed: “This is happening, isn’t it? You knew all along, didn’t you? You’re going to make me say it … I am Mr. Robot.” The question is finally answered. Elliot is Mr. Robot, and since he was our narrator, Mr. Robot was presented as a real person. But he was imaginary, a daemon that appeared whenever Elliot faded into the background. All those scenes with Mr. Robot were, in fact, with Elliot.
Although the twist is clearly inspired by Fight Club, it feels so much less like a cop-out. We’ve known all season that Elliot’s mental state means his point of view is unreliable. And Esmail has toyed with the prospect of a Mr. Robot–is–Tyler Durden plot reveal from the onset. The reveal could have totally been cliché, but since there have been so many “is he real?” and “is he fake?” moments, the result is ultimately satisfying.
The quality of Rami Malek’s acting also helps sell the scene. He displays a potent combination of emotional panic and raw anger. You can feel Elliot’s confidence melt. This is much more than forgetting Darlene is his sister. This is him mistrusting his entire life, not knowing what he made up and what is real, and Malek flawlessly toes that line throughout the scene and the entire episode. When he says, “I want to know,” to Darlene and Angela, he undergoes the same emotional gamut as Tyrell, and you can sense the figurative ground underneath Elliot shifting.
Elliot also doesn’t remember starting FSociety and launching their Evil Corp takedown, and he is understandably unsure whether he can continue with the plan. Darlene tries to convince him: “The reasons we all wanted to do this are real. Maybe you don’t realize this, but this was your idea. You came up with this. There is a part of you deep down inside that knows this is the right thing to do.”
She leaves his apartment to fill his prescriptions, and in slips Tyrell. He is using Elliot both to get back at Evil Corp and to rejoin his family (the scene recalls the one in which Tyrell confesses to Joanna about meeting a tech no one “would suspect”). Tyrell needs to know about FSociety’s plans … or else (donning the same blue gloves he wore when he beat up the homeless man). It feels like an interrogation, and Tyrell clearly wants to intimidate Elliot into letting him into his “club.”
Elliot takes him to Coney Island and shows him FSociety’s setup. But he purposefully lies to Tyrell, informing him that the group is his and his alone. For what feels like the first time, Elliot seems to be thinking clearly, and he distrusts Tyrell. Better to keep Darlene and the rest of the group in the dark. “Well, now it is you and me,” says Tyrell. “I always told you we’d end up working together.”
The episode ends with a return to Elliot’s origin story. Tyrell asks, “What did you hope to accomplish by doing all of this?” “I don’t know,” Elliot says. “I wanted to save the world.” His moral compass is directed by the axiom taught long ago that a large wrong outweighs a smaller one, and even though he is stealing from Evil Corp, his actions will benefit humanity.
- The movie references in this episode were fantastic, from going to see Pulp Fiction with his dad in 1994 and then telling Darlene later, “I am pretty fucking far from okay,” to an instrumental of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” scoring the final scene between Tyrell and Elliot (a hat tip to Fight Club).
- The parallel between Angela and Elliot centers around justice. When Terry Colby offers her a job at Evil Corp, she has the power to change the system and right wrongs from the inside. “Because this,” says Colby, gesturing to her father’s house, “is what happens from the outside.” Elliot similarly tried to exact revenge from the inside, using his position at Allsafe to gain critical access, and could use Tyrell to further exploit Evil Corp.
- When Gideon is searching through his email history for the order Elliot (via Gideon’s account) sent canceling the honeypot, some of the email subject lines added some levity to the episode, such as, “Who keeps eating all the doughnuts?” and “Who wants a cookie?”