BY SEAN T. COLLINS
It’s probably the horror nerd in me talking, but you’ve got to admire when what was once just a well-regarded cyberthriller with political overtones does something as confrontationally repulsive as this.
The sudden murder of Joanna Wellick and her ignominious post-mortem fate — autopsied on screen, her beloved baby sent to Social Services to keep the crime a secret — are the most shocking element of this week’s Mr. Robot (“eps3.1_undo.gzh”), in terms of both surprise and extremity of content. They also mark an unexpected end to the tenure of actor Stephanie Corneliussen, a series regular who looked and acted like a sinister demigoddess forced to interact with mere mortals. In the end, it was the merest of those mortals, the bartender she toyed with to get her missing husband off the hook on murder charges and pin them on her enemy Scott Knowles, who brought her down. On a show as concerned with power as this one, that’s no coincidence.
Nor is it an accident that this horror-movie brutality comes in an episode that kicks off with Elliot gleefully becoming a cog in the E Corp wheel. To the tune of INXS’s still-luminous “New Sensation,” the one-time commander of fsociety assimilates into the conglomerate he once sought to destroy. Sure, he’s still hacking away and doxxing the misdeeds of the company bureaucrats in the way of his plan to stop his former comrades from blowing up one of E Corp’s buildings.
Now, however, his mission is reform rather than revolution. In this new worldview, “Evil Corp” is “a necessary evil that just needs to be kept in check.” Get rid of “the corrupt, moronic managers” — “purge Evil Corp of all their shitbags” — and the company will “no longer be evil, because changing the world is never about tearing E Corp down — it’s about making them better.” These could be Obama or Clinton campaign slogans. Meanwhile, of course, CEO Phillip Price is igniting a global currency war with China in order to make himself the supreme ruler of the world’s economy. Elliot’s reformist bromides are the kind of technocratic liberal bullshit we’ve been hearing for the better part of a decade as the entire planet goes to shit and billionaires fund fascist takeovers. The sequence is a savage own of empty centrism, just as Elliot’s dismissal of his previous motives as “dorm-room philosophizing” is a fuck you to critics who levied that charge at the show. Look around you, folks. The dorm-room philosophers were right.
As for Elliot, his new change-the-system-from-within routine is a handy excuse to avoid contact with his family members, both the living and the imaginary. He stays away from Darlene because she brings out the Mr. Robot personality in him; she learns this the hard way when, after crashing at Elliot’s place per his invitation, he wakes up as Mr. Robot and demands to know what the hell she’s doing there. Awful as he is, he’s right to be suspicious. As part of her deal with the FBI to stay out of jail, she gives the Feds remote access to Elliot’s computer. (Considering that his therapist’s ex-boyfriend also drops by to drop off the dog he’d once stolen, our hero’s gotta get better opsec in place.) But Darlene’s plan backfires when Elliot traces it back to the source and shows up at the Bureau safehouse where Agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer, back again) and her colleagues are staking him out. A single genius is tough enough to fool; Elliot’s two for the price of one.
Mr. R comes out again, this time with Elliot’s consent, during a session with his therapist Krista; he’s sexist, vulgar, and intimidating in a way we haven’t seen before. It seems like their firm separation has turned him into a repository for more and more of Elliot’s repressed and unpleasant feelings. This is not the guy you want in charge of Stage 2 once it moves ahead on the accelerated schedule Whiterose puts in place to punish Phillip Price. (Lines like “Don’t mistake my generosity for generosity” are cool, but Whiterose is probably right that actions will speak louder than words with this asshole.)
One more thing struck me as I watched this episode. When Elliot walks around the world he helped make — one much like our own, except its collapse into economic and interpersonal barbarity is the fault of a hacker conspiracy rather than our own worst selves — it’s literally covered in garbage. It looks like being alive in 2017 feels.