Christian Slater as Mr. Robot.
Photo: Peter Kramer/USA Network
Mr. Robot follows up its compelling pilot with a disappointingly inert second episode, revealing more flaws within the framework of a promising series. Shapeless, unfocused, and shrill, “eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg” is a wheel-spinner that stalls the action just when it needs revving up. Instead of moving forward, Mr. Robot paces in circles: Though it introduces new characters and narrative strands that will certainly come into play later, it clumsily retreads thematic material from the pilot. For all of showrunner Sam Esmail’s cinematic aspirations, this episode feels like clichéd cable TV storytelling at its dullest.
The plot picks up right where we left off: Tyrell Wellick, now Evil Corp’s interim CTO after Terry Colby was falsely arrested, has brought Elliot in for a mysterious meeting at a literal roundtable. Though the scene seemed menacing at the end of the pilot, Esmail reveals it to be mundane. Wellick simply wants to offer Elliot a secret position as the head of the cyber-security division, promising to make him a multimillionaire in five years. Elliot turns down the offer, but it only serves to spike his paranoia and heighten his drug abuse just as he learns more about FSociety’s larger plans, which include blowing up a gas pipeline.
One could charitably describe “eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg” as a character episode. It’s meant to shade in Elliot’s psyche by demonstrating his contradictory behavioral impulses: his ambition for greatness versus his desire to hide away from the world, his need for utter control versus his willingness to cede that control to morphine, his revolutionary id versus his practical superego. Malek’s performance conveys these contradictions wonderfully, embodying a tortured personality on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately, Esmail relies too heavily on Malek to sell otherwise shoddy writing, forcing his actor to hold the episode’s center while a bunch of table setting happens around him. So far, Malek is the only consistently great thing about Mr. Robot. Esmail isn’t exactly wrong to coast on his acting, but it points to a general aimless that can easily wound a young show like this.
The episode’s other major problem is simply that nothing happens. Esmail just ties up loose ends from the pilot, reintroduces some characters, and awkwardly opens up new narrative threads. Elliot’s boss Gideon (Michel Gill) congratulates him for saving the company and offers him a raise, but not before showing him that FSociety had released a video taking responsibility for the attack. (The utterly goofy video features a man in an aristocratic outfit and a plastic mask threatening to hack again unless Evil Corp gives in to their demands, with Mr. Robot’s modulated voice over blaring over images of global chaos.) After pledging to cut all ties to FSociety, Elliot finds the obnoxious Darlene in his apartment taking a shower. She takes him back to Coney Island, where Mr. Robot reveals their next step: Blow up a gas plant that sits next to an off-site data storage facility for Evil Corp. Elliot wants nothing to do with murdering innocents, but Mr. Robot informs him that they’re at war, and in war, people die.
If there’s a saving grace to the episode, it’s that Esmail attempts to deepen Elliot relationship with Mr. Robot, baking in the obligatory father-son dynamic that nevertheless works well because of Malek and Slater. Robot tries to push Elliot to achieve greater things, to become the man he always dreamed himself to be, except that man happens to be a financial terrorist who kills civilians in service of an ideology. He speaks in tech lingo about being a “one” or a “zero” — a groan inducing, on-the-nose metaphor if there ever was one — and how the world is divided into those who say yes and those who say no. Elliot is caught between the comforts of the old world, where he can maintain a sense of superiority towards those who can’t see the truth, and a new world that offers change at a steep cost. It’s an interesting push-pull dynamic, even when it’s expressed through rank clichés. Rather than focus on that relationship, though, Esmail spends his time setting other narrative puzzle pieces. Perhaps he should first deal with the one right in front of him.
Elliot chooses to walk away from Robot, seeing the danger of such a myopic worldview. But he’s pulled back into the fray after seeing how capitalism forces his neighbor and drug dealer, Shayla (Frankie Shaw), to be indebted to her violent rapist supplier, Fernando (Elliot Villar). Elliot wonders if Robot was right all along, as our need for money often pushes us into unhealthy relationships with unequal power dynamics, whether people or institutions. Against Shayla’s explicit instructions, Elliot decides to bust Fernando and give up his regular supply of Suboxone, a withdrawal medication. But when he attempts to return to FSociety, Robot only wants to talk about Elliot’s father. Elliot explains that his dad was the best computer engineer at Evil Corp, but they fired him shortly before he was diagnosed with leukemia. Though his father trusted eight-year-old Elliot not to tell his mother about the cancer, he did anyway, and his dad pushed him away, literally shoving him out of a window in a fall that broke his arm. It’s a heartbreaking story, but Robot’s takeaway is that Elliot’s father was right to push him because Elliot broke their trust. To prove this, Robot pushes him off the Coney Island boardwalk onto the rocky beach below.
It’s a strange ending that opens up more mysteries about Elliot and Robot, rather than get to the heart of their respective characters. Granted, it’s only the second episode, but with its slick aesthetic and insider attitude, Mr. Robot expresses a borderline-arrogant self-satisfaction, especially its connection with the zeitgeist. This read as confidence in the pilot, but in this lackluster episode, it just reads as naïve. Esmail strides over well-worn territory with the swagger of a trailblazer, which certainly has its charms, but it sometimes comes across as an ill-fitting choice.
“eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg” uses hip nods to capitalism’s inherent flaws and distrust of establishment to mask the narrative familiarity and straightforward visual homages. There’s nothing wrong with playing an old tune well, as Esmail demonstrated in the pilot, but it raises the question of where Mr. Robot will go. Esmail has constructed a very watchable pulp thriller that looks and feels singular, but if it wants to have staying power, he’ll need to dig deeper. As countless shows before Mr. Robot have already proven, “cool” runs out quicker than substance.
Ones and Zeroes:
- Esmail introduces another narrative thread involving Ollie and a Chinese hacker group named the Dark Army. Ollie foolishly accepts a mixtape from a stranger on the street (“I’ll tweet, but only if I like it, alright?” he tells the street artist in a pitch-perfect douchebag tone) only for the CD not to play on his computer. Instead, it gives the Dark Army complete access to his information and webcam as they spy Angela showering. Yuck.
- Elliot’s “illusion of choice” rant to his therapist is almost identical to his “fuck society” rant from the pilot.
- This episode features some remarkably poor dialogue, with everything from Elliot’s “insightful” observation that minds and screens are interchangeable, and Robot’s outright racist comment that Trenton, FSociety’s only Muslim employee, may look innocent but has some “Allahu Akbar in her.”
- Tyrell Wellick returns for a few minutes to be vaguely creepy again. How much longer until Esmail brings him closer to the center?