quiet zone

Mr. Robot Goes Silent, and Joins an Elite TV Club

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/USA Network

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, how much words matter — until they go away, a fact that some great TV shows have chosen to actively embrace in recent years.

The examples abound, but the most recent is Sunday’s episode of Mr. Robot, in which there are exactly two lines of dialogue, something that viewers might not have realized right away, without advance warning. The episode begins with Darlene (Carly Chaikin) picking up brother Elliot (Rami Malek), who’s just finished torching a van — things are strained between them, but when he gets into the car, she tells him, “It’s cool, dude, we don’t have to talk.”

The episode tracks a very gloomy Christmas Day for the show’s characters, with, at its center, Darlene and Elliot completing a key step in their efforts to bring down the organization behind the literally named Evil Corp; not only do Darlene and Elliot execute a tech-driven heist over the course of the episode, but other characters grapple with ongoing conflicts without necessitating the use of a single spoken word: Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) sets up a fateful meeting with the financial organization pulling the strings behind the scenes, while Dominique (Grace Gummer) compromises her family celebration to satisfy some Dark Army obligations, and Krista (Gloria Reuben) plans her own low-key holiday night. People talk to each other, but it’s all emoji-ridden text communication. The most human moment, across the entire episode, is a simple touching of hands.

“405 Method Not Allowed” reminds us that, much like watching a film or a TV show with subtitles, going silent demands a new level of attention from viewers who might normally find themselves distracted by a second screen. In addition, the hacker drama benefits from the dialogue-free approach by showcasing one of the show’s subtler yet still vital pleasures — extreme competency porn. Watching Elliot and Darlene use code, clueless guards, a 3-D printer, and yet more code to perform the heist is deeply satisfying for those who have always admired the show’s attention to these sorts of details, and because creator Sam Esmail has no dialogue to rely upon, it’s some of the show’s sharpest visual storytelling to date.

What also ends up shining through in “405 Method Not Allowed” is the connection between Elliot and Darlene, despite their issues — the brother and sister have always been an effective team when it comes to what they do best, and watching them communicate wordlessly over the course of these 40 minutes hits some key emotional moments, including Elliot’s bold choice to shove his way out of the office, distracting the guards away from finding Darlene, followed by the ending moments, when Elliot, having been successfully rescued by his sister, slides his hand onto hers.

There’s really no reason for Darlene and Elliot not to speak to each other, at least when not in danger of being caught by security guards, but the fact that they don’t need to say anything … well, it says a lot.

On these granular levels, Mr. Robot’s decision to mute its characters stands out — especially because so much of the show’s writing happens to revolve around Elliot’s internal monologue, delivered in voice-over. But it also speaks to a television tradition that isn’t extremely common but always proves memorable, when someone takes that chance.

Several series have experimented with the format, going all the way back to “The Invaders,” a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands out as one of the first times when it was a really big deal. Famous for its witty dialogue, the series brought voice-stealing ghouls to Sunnydale for the 1999 episode “Hush,” leading to 27 minutes of dialogue-free screen time (an impressive feat, given the era), and the titular Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends struggling to connect for the next hour.

It was a choice creator Joss Whedon said was deliberate during the DVD commentary on the episode, as “the idea of doing an episode where everybody lost their voice presented itself as a great big challenge, because I knew that I would literally have to tell the story only visually. And that would mean that I couldn’t fall back on tricks.”

It’s definitely worth mentioning here that there are shows that do not feature spoken words but do not lack for dialogue — beyond foreign-language series, in recent years there are shows like Switched at Birth or Too Close, which feature characters using sign language. But when people communicate via sign language, they are still communicating — and that speaks to a theme brought to the surface by so many silent episodes.

One of the 21st century’s most striking pieces of animation remains the BoJack Horseman season-three episode “Fish Out of Water.” The show had never lacked for visual flair, but “Fish Out of Water” stands out for the deep sense of pathos it’s able to wring from the relatively simple narrative, aided by an all-time great soundtrack composed by Jesse Novak. The conceit for why there’s no dialogue is simply that BoJack travels to an underwater film festival that leads to a Lost in Translation-esque adventure through a world where he doesn’t know how to work his undersea helmet, and thus is completely disconnected from those around him.

Of course, because it’s BoJack, the reason for his ennui goes beyond simply not being able to communicate with those around him. Another aspect of these dialogue-free episodes is how they highlight the state of communication between the characters — something that The X-Files used to its advantage for arguably the best episode of the final season, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz.”

In the episode, one of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s last go-arounds as screen partners, Mulder and Scully, distracted by their phones, eat a silent dinner together at a robotic sushi restaurant. When Mulder refuses to tip the sushi robot, all of the technology they use ends up rebelling against them, and while watching the FBI agents fight their smart houses and GPS systems and drones is a bit silly, both actors prove why they’ve been an iconic screen couple for over two decades. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” ultimately proves to be a valuable reminder of what honestly was always one of the show’s very best aspects.

What going silent ends up meaning, for any show that tries it, is a new way to challenge every aspect of the production to do without one of narrative storytelling’s most important tools. It’s the boldest shows that try it, and the smartest shows that realize what advantages it offers, because sometimes, by stripping away such a key element to the narrative, the true strengths of the show come to the surface. Buffy without its dialogue, The X-Files without its conspiracy stories, Mr. Robot without Elliot’s internal dialogue — these are challenges to conquer, for sure. But for those who hunger for daring television, these feats are exactly what we crave.