BY ALEX MCCOWN
“We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.”—Sigmund Freud, Civilization And Its Discontents
The most impressive moment in this episode of Mr. Robot doesn’t arrive until the very end. And no, it’s not the reveal (you could argue it’s a twist, but really, it’s just one of the very few possible outcomes) of Shayla, her lifeless body having been in the trunk of the car this entire time. That’s the gut punch, but it’s not what makes this episode arguably the best yet. No, it’s what comes after that reveal that counts. The part where the camera slowly moves from one side of Elliot to the other, and back again, and the entire time, it just holds. No cuts, no edits, it just...holds. This is what elevates the series from merely a good show into a very good show. It doesn’t force the moment, but it also doesn’t shy away from it.
Because we are the other character in this scene. We, the audience—Elliot’s unseen, imaginary friend/s, are forced to be in the moment with him. We share that grief. Shayla was the bright little light in this universe, and she was snuffed out. Worst of all, it didn’t matter what Elliot did. Had he never tried to spring Fernando Vera from prison, had he gone to the police as Mr. Robot suggested, the events would not have ended any less tragically. Mr. Robot was right: Elliot was playing a game he had already lost, and he refused to accept it. Robot is paraphrasing Plato, here, in the sense that true courage is indeed being honest with yourself, seeing things as they are. But, as Elliot would now perhaps be the first to concede, we can never see things as they are. To do so would be to consign ourselves to the tragedy of life.
Watching this episode over, it strikes me that the effectiveness of “br4ve-trave1er” lies in its two-fold nature. Like last episode, this one is largely structured as a nail-biting thriller, a “ticking clock” scenario in which Elliot must spring Vera from prison or else forfeit both Shayla’s life and his own. It involves exciting heroics, one-step-ahead thinking on Elliot’s part, and clever dialogue that turns conversations into dynamic and pulse-quickening forward momentum. But simultaneously, it also has the arc of Greek tragedy. Events were set in motion long before any possible chance of things turning out differently. For some viewers, this could potentially feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them. “What was the point?”, they may ask themselves. The show got us emotionally invested in the stakes, and then told us it was all for nothing.
Only that’s not exactly true. The stakes were for everything. They were for Elliot’s way of living in the world. Yes, it really is a zero-sum game, just as Mr. Robot tells Elliot on the stairs, shortly before Elliot rejiggers those words and uses them on the younger Vera brother, convincing him to let our troubled hacker live and carry out his plan. But, as Mr. Robot has stressed, over and over, the deck is always stacked against us, in life as in the smallest choices. We will all die in the end. People we love will always be hurt. Things will go badly. But it’s only our decision to ignore that fatalism, and fight on, which allows us to have lives at all. Elliot unwittingly reveals this very truth at the moment he thinks he’s lying, namely, when he tells Angela to trust herself, to do what she thinks is best. “Tell her what she wants to hear,” Elliot informs us—exactly what he does to himself.
The particulars of the plan are largely incidental, although the show’s commitment to verisimilitude remains undimmed. Whether it’s Elliot accusing Darlene of being a “Script Kiddie” because she lacked the time to write her own exploit, and instead just downloaded one, or his using the cellular connection from the laptop in the police car, the show does its best to maintain an authentic feel while carrying out its larger-than-life hacks. But these are ultimately secondary to the life hacks that comprise the show’s emotional beats, and that opening scene of Elliot and Shayla, nervously sitting in front of their uneaten meals, was a hell of a kickoff.
The other narratives this week take such a backseat to Elliot’s, in terms of emotional investment, that it would be easy to overlook just how good both of the B stories were. But let’s turn to Tyrell Wellick first, because he would want it that way. Rarely have I seen such a creepy and suggestive scene as last week’s Lynchian bathroom conquest so quickly turn on its engineer. When Scott, the presumptive CTO of Evil Corp, turns the tables on Wellick, it’s a smart and unexpected shock. “Did you think she wouldn’t tell me?”, he purrs, reveling in throwing this smarmy pretender to the throne off balance. Scott, it turns out, has got Wellick’s number: He knows his desires, senses his rage, and is aware of all of his machinations the second Wellick tries them. He chips away until he exposes the insecurity and weakness hiding behind Wellick’s veil of confidence. “There—that’s the look I was lookin’ for.” Scott exposed him, a power play that only the wife of Evil Corp’s darkest schemer saw coming.
Meanwhile, Angela’s actions are starting to come into relief, and better yet, into the realm of Elliot and Fsociety. Her plan seems clear to me—at least, I think it does: She wants to turn Terry Colby into her co-conspirator. She needs a “star witness,” as our day-drinking lawyer informs her, and Angela seems to be hoping the disgraced former head of Evil Corp will see things her way. It makes a kind of sense: he’s been exposed, and possibly thrown under the bus, by a company eager to distance itself from scandal. He just might be willing to play along, if only she could get the words out.
Yet, none of this is what I’m really thinking about right now. I saw it coming, but I can’t take any satisfaction in it: We lost Shayla this week, and it hurts. Frankie Shaw took what could have easily been a stock “understanding girlfriend” character and imbued her with such soul and vivacity that it genuinely made me sad to realize she wouldn’t be around any more. This episode was some of Malek’s finest work: Every decision, spontaneous or otherwise, is underlaid with an anxiety and grief that bubbled up from beneath his rigid exterior. The closing minutes took an erudite and intense hour of television and turned it into a meditation on the nature of struggle, and the crushing finality of loss. Mr. Robot could well turn in even stronger episodes than this in its back half, but I can’t imagine it delivering a more affecting one.
- Commenters, help me out: What is the painting that opens the episode? I did some remedial sleuthing, and despite the “Ortega” in the top right (or my efforts to Google image search the painting from a screenshot I uploaded), I got nothing. Sure, by tomorrow morning the internet will have given us the answer, but I think we can get there first.
- For as much as Fernando is an odious, loathsome character, Elliot Villar plays him beautifully. After hearing Elliot’s plan, he makes the previously effervescent “I’m gonna hug you” sound like a death sentence.
- The timing with which this show displays its opening credits is a thing of beauty. That initial phone call where Elliot learns what he has to do? The one that ends with Vera’s “Hey Elliot, I love you, bro”? Cut to: “Rami Malek” in white, in the lower right-hand corner. Flawless.
- Darlene telling Elliot she’s going to tell DJ and the younger Vera what’s up, only to be silenced by DJ’s reveal of his gun, was another nice character beat for her. Darlene’s bravado, getting immediately shot down once again.
- Hey, Tyrell, calm down, I bet those dishes cost good money.