BY ALEX MCCOWN
“What is the talent of the actor? It is the art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character other than his own, of appearing different than he is, of becoming passionate in cold blood, of saying what he does not think as naturally as if he really did think it, and, finally, of forgetting his own place by dint of taking another’s.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics And The Arts: Letter To M. D’Alembert On The Theatre, p. 79.
All Elliot wanted to do was celebrate. In 43 hours, their rootkit is set to take down EvilCorp. Thanks to the tip from White Rose, Elliot learned about the honeypot, and was able to arrange for Darlene’s distraction video at AllSafe headquarters, keeping Gideon busy for the 90 seconds he needed to gain access, thereby sending a message to expose the servers and bring about the downfall of the world’s worst company. Darlene took his hands and smiled. “I love you, so much,” she says, and after a few seconds of trying to intuit the proper social cues, Elliot leans in and kisses her. System failure.
Admittedly, we had been prepped for a big reveal at the end of “wh1ter0se.m4v.” Almost from the very first, this episode was teasing us, Elliot’s invented companion, with things we knew nothing about. The moment, just prior to the opening credits, in which Darlene—after having robbed the man she’s sleeping with of the gun in his safe—shows up at ballet class, and Angela greets her with the easy intimacy of an old friend, scatters our preconceived notions. Yes, they admit, it’s true; Elliot has had a bad month. And they both worry about him so! When the instructor tells them to take first position, he might as well be talking to us. This is our first real position of insight, of what has been kept from us until now.
And from there, the moments gradually swell, like the climax of a symphonic movement, as friends and foes alike are caught up in the vortex, spun out of their carefully laid plans into circumstances not just beyond their control, but beyond their realization. Wellick’s wife may have been the most tripped up by the events of the other night, but she also demonstrates again why she’s the most calculating, and the most willing to do what needs to be done in order to maintain her sense of control. In this case, that means inducing labor via horrifying self-surgery to break her water. If her husband is unable to control his homicidal impulses, she will show him what control really looks like.
And Wellick is one-half of the other big move to keep us off-balance: With little fanfare, we find ourselves inside the back of an SUV, watching Mr. Robot and Tyrell converse like old frenemies. At first, it seems as though Robot is the one who’s on the defensive, as Wellick threatens him: “Aren’t you forgetting I know your dirty little secret?”, he teases, right before Robot calmly reminds him that the only rational thing to do... is nothing. Interestingly, Mr. Robot doesn’t yet know Wellick’s dirty little secret, the one Mrs. Wellick is willing to risk her child to prevent from coming back to harm them. But then again, the entire purpose of this episode is to drive home just how profoundly none of us know what we think we know.
Elliot’s not wrong when he confronts Angela—this is about him. The realization that Darlene is his sister triggers an entire series of identity crises. She asked him, “Did you forget who I am?” Really, that’s the wrong question. He forgot whohe is, and that forgetting pushed the knowledge of his sibling far away from his conscious mind. Once she breaks the dam, however, it all comes flooding back. Their childhood, his repressed memories, everything Elliot had somehow managed to block, it all returned, and in so doing, made our protagonist question every other identity in his life. Starting with us: He faces the camera, and with a frantic and pained, “Were you in on this the whole time?”, the voiceover drops, and he yells directly at us. “Were you?!?!” It’s a fair question, because frankly, we were. Maybe we didn’t know about Darlene, but we knew something about Elliot. About the other people in his life, and whether or not they all really existed. We’re culpable in this, because we truly were living in his paranoia. We did know that, Elliot, you’re right.
And the final scene, as Elliot smashes the mirror, and hacks himself, isn’t quite how this kind of “reveal” would play on other shows, because the reveal isn’t just a tacit admission that Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot’s imagination, or a split personality of his own fractured mind. No, here the reveal scrambles our bearings at the same time it confirms some of our long-held suspicions. Elliot looks in the mirror, and doesn’t just flicker between his own face and that of Mr. Robot. We also see glimpses of the FSociety mask, the one Elliot took from Mr. Robot during his fevered detox hallucinations. But then, the face-shifting continues. We see Angela. Worryingly, we see Tyrell Wellick. And we catch an ever-so-brief glimpse of another girl. At first, I assumed it must be Darlene, but after pausing the screen at just the right moment, I don’t think it is. I don’t knowwho it is. Does Elliot?
And this brings me to the key aspect of this show, something that finally clicked into place for me as I watched “wh1ter0se.m4v.” During the past couple episodes, I’ve heard complaints the show was falling into standard sexist tropes of television drama. The criticism went something like this: For two straight episodes, women were killed, all so that men could better “define” themselves. And while it seemed like an obvious (and fair) critique, something about it didn’t quite sit right. This is a show, after all, that has brilliantly and incisively analyzed American masculinity, and specifically, the failings of American masculinity. Rather than some generic bemoaning of the idea that our fathers and grandfathers once had some idea of how to be a man, and we’ve lost that in today’s society, Mr. Robot flipped the script: Contemporary men learned all too well from those who came before how they are supposed to be men, and now, as progress moves inexorably forward, we are choking on that retrograde lesson.
The show is playing the long game with its viewers. We, too, have exploits—and they are the standard sexist tropes of narrative television. The point, I suspect, of Sam Esmail exploiting those generic tropes of killing women to define men, is precisely to capitalize on our exploit, our weakness; we see the storylines, and we assume we know what they mean, for better or worse. But tonight’s episode suggested that these narratives, these ready-made constructs that felt understandable to us because we have seen some version of them before, are a sop meant to fool us into thinking we were being pacified, or talked down to. Elliot’s narratives were made to fit his understanding of what it means to be a good person. (Note the one man Elliot identifies as genuinely good—Gideon—can do nothing but gesture toward honesty, as those without conscience or a firm grip on reality rip down the world around him.) Similarly, we have told ourselves a story; in part, because Elliot is our way into this world, but also because we see what he doesn’t, and we think that gives us the larger picture. It doesn’t. Even Elliot teases our ignorance, albeit unwittingly: “You know more than me? That wouldn’t be fair.”
Everyone on this show is performing, but only the women are doing it with any kind of success. Angela and Darlene are clear-eyed, even if they don’t always make the right choices. They acknowledge what they’re getting themselves into, and they play their roles, wear their masks, with equal parts resignation and determination. Elliot and his mirror-image Wellick are coming loose at the seams. They keep trying to bend the story, mold the narrative, to shape their own goals and beliefs, but the world keeps upending their tales. When Darlene and Elliot sat on the park bench, rejoicing in their victory, I made a note: “This is the definition of counting your chickens before they hatch.” At this point, we’re not even sure who’s story we’re in. I think it might be Angela’s, the young woman who is single-handedly making a deal with the devil in order to prevent further devils from ruining more lives. Or maybe it’s Darlene’s, the loving sister who joins her mentally unstable brother in changing the world, if only to maybe—just maybe—see him smile.
Or maybe (and here’s where the speculation corner really goes off the rails) it’s our story. We’re the ones who have only existed for a short time, in this universe. We’re the ones who want to change the world. And we’re the ones who keep trying to shove story beats into the boxes we know, and think we dominate through that knowing. But Mr. Robot (the character) has told us before: He’s crazy, and we don’t know what we think we know. Which is, perhaps, the driving force of Mr. Robot (the series). There may be two episodes to go, but even when we get there, our vision is faulty. And, more importantly, that’s the wrong perspective. As Elliot says to us, “It would be easier to only pay attention when needed. To... arrive at the conclusion. Is that what you do?”
- Wellick’s admission to his wife is one of my favorite moments, because in his eyes, it’s a confession, yet to her, it’s nonsense. (And to us, it may be a key to everything.) He comes back from his meeting with Mr. Robot claiming they’ve been looking at the wrong people—down, when they should be looking up. “At who?” “God.”
- Elliot’s freaked-out fears at the end of the episode could fill this entire review. “No identity. I’m a ghost.” “Did I erase myself?”
- The notion that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s father has been a popular one, and it makes sense; but I saw much less musing about Darlene, and so the reveal of their relationship was a smart way to push Elliot into realizing his parentage.
- I didn’t even get to the wonderful meeting with White Rose around which the whole episode pivots. It was as smart, and as thrilling, as I’d hoped. Also, some very funny lines. “This meeting has started.” “She’s trolling me.”
- Darlene’s show-opening dialogue with her rich fuck-buddy also kept picking at the well-defined conceptions of class that drive the MacGuffin of this season. Of course the rich guy thinks there’s lots of people in the middle, “survivors.” But Darlene knows better. “There’s no middle ground any more.” Survivors have to pick a side, or one will be chosen for them. Carly Chaikin, you absolutely nailed it tonight. All is forgiven with your character.
- Please note the sign behind Rami Malek in the header image.