The halfway point of Mr. Robot season 3 is a total gimmick, but it's a fun one

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BY ALEX MCLEVY

“For the observation that prison fails to eliminate crime, one should perhaps substitute the hypothesis that prison has succeeded extremely well in producing delinquency, a specific type, a politically or economically less dangerous—and, on occasion, usable—form of illegality; in producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal, but in fact centrally supervised milieu; in producing the delinquent as a pathologized subject.”—Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish

“That’s our distraction.” With these three words, Irving lets Angela know that once again, everything that’s happening has been approved in advance. The riot that engulfs ECorp headquarters in chaos is a useful form of illegality. The Dark Army needed a way to keep everyone occupied while they manually bypassed the patch that Elliot put in place to prevent them from blowing up the recovery facility, so it sparked open rebellion in the protesters crying out against the private and conspiratorial manipulation of the world by shadowy organizations. The criminal wrongdoing of ECorp was exploited (there’s that word again) to pave the way for the criminal wrongdoing of a potentially far more deadly organization. Once more, it’s hard to see where grassroots activism ends and elite-controlled “astroturf” activism begins. Either way, such a violent eruption couldn’t be controlled: “Just ’cause we lit the fuse, doesn’t mean we control the explosion,” Irving says. Cold comfort when you’re sucking down lungfuls of pepper spray.

The visual trickery that runs the entire length of “runtime-error.r00" is a bit of a “look at me” stunt, but it’s an apropos one for the story being told. Divided cleanly into two halves, the episode’s first part follows Elliot as he tries to figure out how to stop Stage 2 while being chased through the building, while the latter section accompanies Angela as she’s stuck carrying out the Dark Army’s orders to override Elliot’s protection of the recovery facility and blow up the building. And the whole thing takes place via a single continuous tracking shot—or at least the artfully assembled illusion of one—unfolding over the course of 45 minutes. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, there are some cleverly disguised cuts meant to hide the appearance of an unbroken take, and while such an ambitious ruse feels unnecessary, it’s an enjoyable tactic that succeeds in ratcheting up tension and creating an atmosphere of instability and unease. Sure, it also practically begs for a game of “spot the edit,” but there’s nothing wrong with gimmicks if they’re artfully deployed.

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One of the things that makes the premise of Mr. Robot so entertaining is how it preys upon our desire for order and our suspicion of authority. Like The X-Files before it, there’s always a conspiracy behind every act. Someone is pulling the strings, nothing happens by chance, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Even when it beggars belief (as in the other week’s Trump explanation) the show remains firmly bound in the everything-is-connected plotting that makes these kinds of stories so appealing from a narrative perspective. A show where something momentous happened every week and all the characters threw up their hands and said, “Man, random coincidence—what are you gonna do?” wouldn’t be engaging for very long.

The mental acrobatics Elliot performs in this hour are almost more exciting than the manhunt focused on him, as he finally catches up to where we, his silent friend, have been for most of the season. He learns that Darlene has been working with the FBI since Cisco’s death, lying to him for weeks on end as part of her plea deal to keep her brother and herself out of prison. He discovers the Dark Army has learned of his efforts to halt the data gathering, and are well on their way to destroying the recovery facility. And he finds out Angela is working with Mr. Robot and Tyrell Wellick, in tandem with the Dark Army, to try and complete stage two. These were overdue realizations, so getting our protagonist back up to speed should also help the show recover some momentum and restore a sense of smarts and urgency that was somewhat lacking when Elliot seemed so far behind everyone around him. Our hero hacker is the brilliant mastermind of Fsociety; watching him flail around in the background was dispiriting.

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Corrupted memory: That’s the realization that pushes Elliot into action, snapping him out of the routine in which he finds himself. The “data error” is glitching his consciousness throughout the episode, as staticky sounds and scratches pop in and out of the audio, letting him and us know that all is not right. It’s unclear whether his failings affect our perception, because the nature of our relationship is still ambiguous. He’s right—it would be fascinating to see our character through his eyes, because there’s still something essential about our presence, silent and incorporeal though it is, that makes Elliot see us as a key player in all this. “Do not leave me. Stay focused,” he commands, shooting us a quick glance before making a break for it. As subsequent events help to reinforce his in-the-moment wiles—sitting down in that meeting like he was in charge of it, forcing the random employee out of his desk to gain computer access one more time—we see him at his best, even as he ultimately turns to a false projection of Robot to help him puzzle out the next move.

Angela, by contrast, is becoming increasingly resourceful, albeit no better of a liar than she was before. (She’s lucky the security guy didn’t end up detaining her right there in the elevator.) She knows from the moment Irving instructs her to deliver the tech to Elliot that it’s not going to happen, that she’s going to have to be the one to get it done, but she tersely bluffs her way through the conversation, guaranteeing the manual access of the hardware security module. And she delivers (as far as we know), by making her way to the secure room, carrying out the instructions, and even disguising herself as a member of Fsociety to get back to her office, and a waiting Elliot.

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USA Network

But this show never takes a mask lightly. At this point, is it even a disguise? Angela is working for Whiterose, bringing about the plan that Elliot set into motion long ago. She’s more a member of Fsociety than he is. She’s placing all her faith in the idea that Whiterose’s grand scheme will set things right, and that Elliot was correct in the first place, working to bring down Evil Corp and lay waste to the forces that destroyed their families. All of the unsettling degradation of her personality that seemed to define season two, where she eventually backed down from her plan to take on Price and the company, got rescrambled from her encounter with the head of the Dark Army. Her moral code may still be worryingly unstable—she’s willing to betray her best friend, after all—but she now believes she’s standing in the light. If only she felt as confident about Irving and the rest of her new allies.

If nothing else, there’s a good chance Elliot managed to get the recovery facility evacuated before the Dark Army blows it up. “That’s already been done,” Irving tells Angela when she asks whether the people are safely out of the building, and for once, it’s possible he’s being blunt, having been informed that Elliot’s call triggered an evacuation. True, maybe it didn’t work out. Maybe all of the anxiety of intensity that took place over the course of 45 minutes wasn’t enough to get those people somewhere secure. But the riot shows that loss of life has never been the Dark Army’s concern. They’re willing to hurt everyone around Angela, so the idea they would busy themselves with other anonymous folks’ safety seem naive. They’re going to kill Lydia Riley just for noticing Angela in the secure room. Elliot’s longtime friend doesn’t know it yet, but there are bigger power plays at work than her mission. An entire African nation was just annexed by China. Angela, by contrast, got a sandwich bag after her mission was complete. These aren’t equivalent cares for anyone but us. Ms. Moss is right to have that nagging sense of suspicion.

Stray observations:

  • Noteworthy music cue of the week: The elevator song playing at the beginning when Elliot goes down, and later, when the activists go up: “Knee 1,” from Einstein On The Beach, by the Phillip Glass Ensemble.
  • Not one, but two mini-monolgues from Elliot tonight that aren’t directed at us, instead cutting through the social interactions of the moment. First he accidentally tells his blustering coworker out loud the guy’s either insecure or full of shame; then, he lets the head of sales know it’s okay to get anxious, but chill the hell out and get it done without being so emotional.
  • It’s pretty early on during this Birdman-esque experiment that Elliot realizes Mr. Robot was in control for four days, all weekend long. We know that Irving and Tyrell had already made all the arrangements for stage two, with no need for Angela or Robot to be involved (until this mini-crisis, of course.) So Elliot asks a good question: What did he do all weekend?
  • Mr. Robot again demonstrates why it deserves a technical Emmy for sound editing. The moment where Darlene tells Elliot she’s been working with the FBI was the showiest (the ring of a loud noise laying waste to the eardrum takes over the audio), but the entire buzzing, glitching background of the episode was very well done.
  • Of course the random careless employee Elliot boots from his computer was listening to “Runaround.” God, does Sam Esmail hate Blues Traveler.

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