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Why Mr. Robot’s Karaoke Scene Was So Effective

Photo: USA

Last night’s Mr. Robot, the best episode so far in a second season that has often tested the limits of one’s patience, packed a lot of intensity and plot development into a single hour. It also did something I was not necessarily expecting Mr. Robot to do: make a deftly executed, memorable contribution to the pantheon of great TV karaoke sequences.

Over roughly the past decade, television has produced an abundance of illuminating scenes in which a character swallows her fear, opens her mouth, and unleashes her inner songbird in front of a captive, albeit not always enthusiastic, audience. (Movies have done this, too, but for the purposes of this conversation, we’ll focus on the TV examples.) Often such moments have been played for comedy, like when Leslie Knope and Jeremy Jamm did a gender-swapped version of “Summer Nights” on Parks and Recreation, or The Office’s Jim Halpert stepped up to join a left-hanging Michael Scott on a duet of “Islands in the Stream.” (That act of karaoke kindness occurred during the second season episode “Email Surveillance,” which easily could have served as the title of this week’s Mr. Robot installment.)

In TV dramas, the best karaoke scenes force a character’s latent feelings to the surface, often hint at subtext, and push the overall story forward, all to the tune of a perfectly chosen pop song performed in perhaps slightly pitchy fashion. Think of Lorelai Gilmore near the end of Gilmore Girls season seven, verklempt-belting “I Will Always Love You” just as Luke enters the room, or Megan on Mad Men engaging in an act of “Zou Bisou Bisou” seduction that both establishes her desire to be a performer and the degree to which that desire will drive a wedge between her and husband Don. (Okay, technically, that last scene doesn’t feature karaoke in the truest sense. But it does involve a character singing a song in a celebratory setting in front of a crowd.)

But the really, really exceptional TV karaoke scenes somehow manage to do all the things I mentioned at once: advance story, highlight a character’s journey, and touch on the major themes of the series as a whole. Last year, The Leftovers hit all those marks in its finale by forcing Kevin Garvey to karaoke his way out of purgatory with a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” The result was an appropriately shaky and moving performance by Justin Theroux that reflected the show’s focus on grief and the instinctive need for human connection. It also did what the song’s lyrics promised: It got Kevin back home to his family in Jarden, Texas.

The karaoke scene in last night’s Mr. Robot obviously unfolds in a different context, but matches that Leftovers sing-along in terms of effectiveness. The vocalist in this instance is Angela Moss, who rises during a live-band karaoke night to do her version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. The performance begins moments after Angela’s confrontation with Steve, a friend of her father’s who happens to be at the same bar and goes out of his way to remind Angela she’s a sell-out for working at E Corp, the same company responsible for her mother’s death. “I’m 27 and I’ve got a six-figure salary at the biggest conglomerate in history,” the semi-inebriated Angela responds. “And I’m just getting started. That’s who I am.” She doesn’t sound so sure that’s who she is, though, especially since she’s recently been using her ties to that conglomerate to help fsociety hack into the FBI’s servers.

That swirl of conflicting feelings — confusion, shame regarding her work both for and against E Corp, fear that she may get caught by the FBI, a desire to assert her dominance over Steve and every other man in her orbit — informs the way Portia Doubleday, as Angela, sings that song. Performed in extreme close-up while, at the same time, Darlene and the rest of fsociety scramble to dig into the emails of their head-wounded hostage, E Corp general counsel Susan Jacobs, it’s a knock-out moment for Doubleday, who persuasively projects both profound despair and total resignation. It’s a knock-out moment for the show, too.

Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot and director of all of its episodes this season, makes beautiful use of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a song about the desire for power and how destructive that desire can be. During every moment of this two-minute sequence, the lyrics serve as a commentary on what Angela is going through, the nervous activity back at fsociety, and the palpable sense that, in both situations, people are about to be exposed. (Question: Is this the best use of a Tears for Fears song since the Gary Jules version of “Mad World” in Donnie Darko? I am leaning toward yes.)

“Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back,” Angela softly croons in what sounds like an act of surrender, while images of Susan, tied up and forebodingly bloodied, flash across the screen. “Even while we sleep, we will find you,” she continues while the hackers start cracking open the laptops that belong to that still-unconscious woman. In a particularly wrenching turn of phrase considering the conversation with Steve that referenced her mom, Angela sings, “Turn your back on mother nature,” while Darlene & Co. do something completely disconnected from the natural world: They sift through someone else’s electronically transmitted messages.

As the karaoke performance ends, shortly after Angela unsteadily declares for the last time that everybody wants to rule the world, we see Trenton holding up the solution to the hackers’ problem: a Post-It note Susan had scrawled her Yahoo! username and password on. After watching these code gurus unsuccessfully try every password-hacking trick in the book, Esmail is showing us there’s still value in the analog world, an appropriate way to put a period on a sequence that indicts Angela, the panicked members of fsociety, and, really, all of us, for the ways in which we use our access to digital information to achieve unscrupulous ends. For a scene partially set in a karaoke bar, there is a hell of a lot to unpack here.

For those who, like me, have often been frustrated by the ponderous pacing in this season of Mr. Robot, this sequence also does something even more urgent: It helps, along with the rest of the episode, to reignite one’s commitment to this show. I’ve had moments when I’ve seriously considered bailing on this season (assuming I could do such a thing without losing my job). But for the first time since the premiere, I feel excited about Mr. Robot again.

Everything that’s happening with Angela and Darlene this season has been far more compelling than all the prison smoke and mirrors involving Elliot, and this week’s hour, which focuses exclusively on what’s happening in their respective worlds, officially confirms that. But the other thing that the karaoke sequence does is actually make the viewer care about these characters, particularly Angela.

Even at its best, I often find Mr. Robot to be a chilly show, one that makes me think and marvel at the composition of its beautifully composed shots, but that doesn’t often make me feel much of anything. But watching Angela on that stage — where she didn’t so much sing her heart out as sing until  her heart shut down — I genuinely ached for her.

Who knew that what Mr. Robot really needed wasn’t a shocking plot twist, but a profoundly great use of a Tears for Fears track?