BY SEAN T. COLLINS
There’s an exchange in this week’s episode of Mr. Robot that I can’t stop chewing on. Throughout the hour, Elliot and his Mr. Robot personality are in open war. Neither is in control, neither is able to hide his existence or actions from the other for very long, and both are working directly to undermine the other. Elliot spends his days working at E Corp, throwing monkeywrenches into the machinery of sabotage and espionage Mr. Robot and his comrades spend their nights building. Mr. Robot has already deployed Elliot’s childhood friend Angela to keep an eye on him — a “keep your enemies close” plan he and his ally Tyrell Wellick learn has gone disastrously wrong, since Elliot’s using his E Corp gig to fight them instead of help them. Elliot, meanwhile, asks his sister Darlene to do something similar, watching him at night (Mr. Robot usually seizes control in the small hours) to prevent his alter ego from re-breaking what Elliot’s been working so hard to fix. (While doing so one night, Darlene discovers Angela’s betrayal…and reports it to the FBI, on whose behalf Darlene herself is also betraying him. It’s complicated!)
Anyway, strolling around that night as Elliot walks his dog Flipper before bed, Darlene asks him to make “a vengeance pact” with her. If “shit goes down — like, bad shit,” whichever one of them survives will kill whoever killed the other. When all else fails, death is the last best friend.
“eps3.3_m3tadata.chk” is a death-haunted episode all around, in fact, one more focused than most on the characters who’ve been murdered and the people left behind to grieve. For starters, Elliot is still in pain over the loss of his one-time drug dealer, neighbor, and girlfriend Shayla. Even as he moves Darlene into her vacant apartment so she can stay close to him, he can bring himself to utter neither her name nor their relationship status aloud.
Based on her episode-opening confession to a would-be pickpocket on the subway, Darlene is close to the breaking point over many of her past actions, her cold-blooded revenge killing of an E Corp lawyer most of all. Later, when she meets her FBI handler Dom DiPierro at a bar, she smothers their abortive attempt at small talk by bringing up the Dark Army’s slaying of her boyfriend Cisco. “My last relationship didn’t end very well,” she deadpans to the Fed. “Remember? You were there.”
For her part, Dom continues to insist on the role of the allegedly mythical figure Whiterose and her Dark Army in the 5/9 hack. It’s not only because she’s a good investigator, seeing through the bullshit of a phony fsociety operative the Bureau has arrested, but also because she has a personal stake in it, surviving not one but two gun battles with the cyberterrorist leader’s goons.
Finally, Tyrell Wellick, who was forced underground in part because he murdered the woman with whom he was having an affair, demands that Irving reconnect him with his wife and their infant son as a condition of continuing to work on the “Stage 2” project after Elliot proves unreliable — a crushing request to hear, seeing as how she was shot to death by a jealous ex-lover, news that will probably destroy him completely since his family was the last reed he was clinging to.
And what’s the main driver of the action involving all these figures? Whether or not Stage 2 will go forward, brining with it the bombing death of perhaps dozens of E Corp employees in the records storage facility that its planners aim to destroy. Thus far, fsociety’s revolution against corporate tyranny has been bloody only by accident or overzealousness; Stage 2 makes murder central to that revolution’s continuation, no matter what bullshit reassurances Irving and its other main architects offer their more squeamish collaborators.
Historically, this is a point nearly all such movements have reached and chosen to go forward past anyway, for better or worse, the calculation being that the ancien régime would rack up an even higher body count were it to remain in place. Often, that calculation is correct. For Elliot and Darlene, the blood on E Corp’s hands — that of their father, the basis for Mr. Robot, as well as Angela’s mother and countless other victims of their environmental negligence — was what made them the company’s enemies in the first place. The inspiration for fsociety’s money-man mask was a slasher film about the massacre of the rich, remember?
It’s all gussied up in cyberthriller drag, but what Mr. Robot is now really forcing us to confront is whether or not bringing down the hypercapitalist backers of American hegemony — ending its endless death dance of credit-card debt and drone strikes — is worth the risk, and the cost. Who is the hero of this story? Elliot, with his humane reluctance to kill? Or Mr. Robot and those conspiring with him to keep Elliot down, with their insistence that in this case, killing is humane? Placing Elliot’s good-hearted, if broken-spirited, friend Angela on the side of the sociopaths is an indication that Mr. Robot sees this question as harder to answer than it looks.
How should we see it, though? How do we see it? Who’s seeing it at all? Normally I don’t pay much attention to how a given show I care about is going over with the general viewing public, mostly because I don’t give a shit. In a world where we can get four miraculous seasons of Halt and Catch Fire despite an audience size not much larger than the cast, how much does it really matter? I’m much more concerned about shows I dislike (the empty Reaganite culture recycling of Stranger Things, the fascism of The Walking Dead) getting more attention than they deserve than shows I like getting less.
But I am curious about how this season of Mr. Robot is playing with the people who are watching it, and the people who watched the first two seasons (in varying quantities) as well. There’s a bleak, enervated energy to this year’s run so far that resonates so closely with the relentless awfulness of life under the Trump regime that I wonder if it’s hard for some viewers to take — like two notes nearly identical in pitch but off just slightly enough to become discordant and abrasive.
Though this season has been both stylistically and narratively straightforward compared to the previous outings, it’s no less challenging a viewing experience. Watching it so far, this episode included, feels like wandering around a big empty room, where the walls are gray and your voice falls flat and the light is an eye-clouding haze and rising up from the floor is the faint but unmistakable smell of death. Tonight’s episode ended to the tune of Elliott (ahem) Smith’s grindingly grim “Everything Means Nothing to Me,” a song he wrote while blood from a self-inflicted injury was literally dripping on to the keys of the piano he was playing, from the final album he released before he is believed to have stabbed himself to death. If you’re of a certain mindset that values the catharsis of hopelessness, this can be a nice place to visit. Mr. Robot is asking you to live there.