For a while, “Proxy Authentication Required” felt like an exercise in scenery chewing. It features many scenes of Rami Malek, Christian Slater, and Elliot Villar spewing Sam Esmail’s menacing dialogue, complete with snappy barbs and pop-culture references. Esmail, who wrote and directed “Proxy Authentication Required,” clearly leans into the wordiness because he wrote the episode as a play. There are five acts, delineated by title cards, which follow a traditional dramatic structure. It features two sets and a cast of five actors. There are numerous dramaturgical light cues and a stage-worthy sound design. It’s all very “theatrical,” and I was worried that it would amount to nothing more than an affectation, a form that Esmail can indulge in to provide extra weight to a story that doesn’t require it.
But as Esmail slowly pulls the rug out from under the audience, it’s clear that this was the only way to frame this particular episode, and it helps reveal and clarify a crucial piece of new information.
“Proxy Authentication Required” retroactively changes certain scenes, exchanges, and ideas that were previously presented in a different light, but specifically the incident when an 8-year-old Elliot fell out of a second-story window in his childhood home. At one point, it seemed like Edward, Elliot’s father, pushed him out the window out of anger because Elliot betrayed his trust after revealing his leukemia diagnosis to his mother. Then, in the third-season finale, Darlene told Elliot that he jumped out of the window after telling Darlene to hide in the closet before their father walked in the room. But Elliot has no recollection of that.
But Elliot jumping out of the window doesn’t quite explain the opening flashback of “Don’t Delete Me,” the episode when Elliot tried to kill himself. In the flashback, Edward brings Elliot to the movies to apologize for the window incident. But Elliot tells him that he isn’t sorry, he’s “just sick and [doesn’t] want to admit it.” Edward tells him that he wished he could have been a better father and asks that he forgive him. Elliot declines right before Edward collapses from the cancer. At the time, it seemed like they were talking about a brief lapse in judgment that resulted in unfortunate violence. It turns out to be a whole lot worse.
In “Proxy Authentication Required,” Elliot does his best to keep Krista alive by trying to cater to Vera’s desires, which amount to “taking over New York.” It’s a vague plan involving owning every corner and having everybody in his pocket, an attempt to rule the island like a drug lord. Though Elliot and Mr. Robot know it’s either a dumb or impossible plan, they tell him about the Deus Group heist and plan to fork over all the money so he can flex financial power, with the understanding that he’ll let Krista go. But when Elliot tries and fails to kill Vera in a sneak attack, he threatens to murder Krista in front him … until Elliot blurts out that he needs her. Suddenly, the episode shifts into a therapy session by gunpoint.
Despite the threat of violence and Vera’s deranged, meth-addled rambling, the episode’s first three acts feature a softer tone, illustrated by the warm lighting emanating from the windows and the Christmas lights. By act four, however, Elliot, Krista, Vera, and Mr. Robot are bathed in darkness as everyone embarks on a bleak journey to the center of Elliot’s mind. Vera forces Elliot and Krista to undergo a therapy session that gets to the root of Elliot’s “poison,” the thing that’s been weighing on his mind and soul. Elliot tries to keep the proceedings superficial, but when Vera reveals that Krista told him that he has a secret and the only way to unlock it is to discover the origin of Mr. Robot, he also wants to know the truth.
So, Krista slowly peels back the layers of Elliot’s memory of the window incident. Mr. Robot begs her to stop and implores Elliot to find a way to escape the situation, but he eventually gives up after it’s clear that his fortifications have been breached. “I can no longer protect you,” he forlornly tells Elliot and leaves the room. Krista asks Elliot why he hid Darlene in the closet. She asks him why he was afraid of his father, the man whom he described as a friend and confidant. Did he ask him to do something he didn’t want to do? Maybe Mr. Robot has been with Elliot since he was a kid because he was trying to defend him from the horrible reality: Elliot’s father molested him as a child.
Credit must go to Esmail and the actors for handling the ensuing ten minutes of weighty scenework. Both Christian Slater and Gloria Reuben credibly convey rank desperation, as Mr. Robot and Krista initially try to keep Elliot from the truth, believing that it will tear him apart. After dominating the episode’s first half, Villar stays in the background, but clearly pushes Elliot to the revelation, believing that it’s important for him to confront the past. But it’s Malek who does the heaviest lifting. He moves from anger and confusion to leveled devastation at an organic pace, his face fighting to keep from accepting what already lies inside him. Esmail’s best directing decision in a while is to simply stay on a close-up of Malek’s face as he keeps muttering, “No,” while Reuben, off-screen, coaxes the memory out of him. The series has earned this moment of bone-deep tragedy and it hits precisely because it makes emotional and logical sense. Something that traumatic would necessarily precipitate a long-term dissociative episode.
Esmail foregrounds the episode’s artificiality as a way to keep the emotionality front and center, but also to emphasize that Elliot wasn’t supposed to address such intense trauma in this type of arena. Krista tries to explain that she requires a controlled environment for her sessions, and it’s implied that she was working up to Elliot discovering this abuse for himself. But Vera has a gun and a plan, which forces her to speed up the therapy and puts Elliot in the position of dealing with the weight of his childhood all at once. Esmail doesn’t linger on this subtext, but it’s plain in Reuben’s face, which is riddled with guilt and sympathy. No one should have to find out about something like that in this way.
But Vera disagrees. He might be a violent, delusional blowhard, but in the aftermath of Elliot’s revelation, he becomes the person that acutely understands Elliot’s pain. The episode’s final act might tie slightly too big of a bow on the episode, but it’s forgivable because of the sheer empathetic display. A victim of sexual abuse himself, Vera explains to Elliot that not only is it okay to feel pain, but it’s surviving that pain that gives him unique power. “Once you’ve weathered a storm like yours, you become the storm. You hear me? You are the storm, and it’s the rest of the world that needs to run for cover.” Vera wants to direct that storm toward taking over New York, but Elliot has been directing it toward trying to save the powerless and downtrodden his whole life. He’s already followed through on Vera’s advice without even knowing it. But at least Elliot isn’t alone with his thoughts any longer.
That is, until Krista stabs him in the back and he collapses onto the ground. Despite the dead body on the ground, Elliot can no longer run from what he already knows. A shade has been pulled and light has entered the room, even as the stage lights flicker to black one after the other. It’s a terrifying new world and Elliot’s safety net might have finally frayed.
• I would suspect that Esmail has been holding onto this twist since the beginning of the series, but I’m mostly curious how that reframes other moments in Mr. Robot lore. Did Elliot actually tell his mother about the molestation instead of the cancer? Does Darlene know and has she kept feeding him versions of stories to protect him? How does this factor into “the other” Elliot introduced in the second episode of the season?
• This is the second week in a row Mr. Robot has included crisis resource information for people struggling with suicide or domestic violence. Seems very appropriate given the heavy nature of the material.
• Rapper Young M.A. plays Peanuts and says what everyone’s thinking: “Kind of name is Mr. Robot anyway? Some Nickelodeon bullshit, man.”