BY SEAN T. COLLINS
“When code runs, it should run straight through without interruption until all of its tasks have been completed.” Elliot Alderson’s description of properly functioning programming at the start of this week’s episode of Mr. Robot doubles as a mission statement for the episode itself.
Over the course of its commercial-free runtime, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00” hits a quartet of long-running narrative climaxes: Elliot learns that Darlene has betrayed him to the FBI and Angela has betrayed him to his Mr. Robot persona, while the Dark Army clears a path for its lethal “Stage 2” plan as its scheme for China to annex the Congo achieves success.
And it does so, as becomes increasingly obvious with each passing minute, in a single uninterrupted take. Whether gliding along with Elliot via steadicam as he tries to avoid being ejected by E Corp security in the episode’s first half or jittering around with Angela via a handheld camera as she races to install hack the conglomerate’s backup facility in the second half — the transition marked by the start of a Dark Army–instigated activist riot inside E Corp’s stately Manhattan headquarters — the action flows continuously from start to finish.
But don’t get so sucked into the technique that you simply coast on conventional wisdom about what long takes, or even “oners” like Rope, Birdman, and that one X-Filesepisode, are supposed to do. Sure, there are the usual peek-around-corners, cat-and-mouse thrills you associate with long takes from time to time, whether it’s Elliot doing a oner version of the Neo-in-The-Matrix routine, dodging security guards through a sea of cubicles and goldfish bowls, or Angela on that Clive Owen tip, fighting her way through the chaos of battle. But the thing is, there aren’t really any bravura, standout segments of the take — nothing on the level of Children of Men’s backwards car chase, True Detective’s shootout, Better Call Saul’s smuggler truck route, Game of Thrones’s 360-degree battle at Castle Black, or (the holiest of holies) GoodFellas’s Copacabana entrance, where you sit back and marvel at how they could keep it going so far for so long. Indeed, with the exception of the visceral thrill you (or at least I) get when Dark Army agents in activist drag first storm the building like an anticapitalist fever dream, the most memorable moments don’t involve motion at all. By employing a long take, the show is paradoxically even better able to emphasize the times when nothing is happening and no one is going anywhere.
When I think of the hour’s strongest “scenes,” for lack of a better term, I think of the opening, with Elliot stuck in an elevator, unable to remember how exactly he got there or figure out what exactly is wrong; Angela, trapped in a locked room on the 23rd floor, caught red-handed (or latex-gloved) by a fellow employee until an fsociety wannabe breaks in and the other woman maces him and runs away; Elliot, guilelessly crashing someone else’s conference-room meeting, stalling for time and offering pep talks as he waits for nearby security personnel to disperse; Angela, reaching the end of her odyssey, wordlessly exchanging packages with an incongruously chill Dark Army delivery guy. In other words, Sam Esmail, writers Kor Adana and Randolph Leon, cinematographer Tod Campbell, and camera operator Aaron Medick use the long take to capture not action or awe, but unease.
This is true even in the episode’s less tense, make-or-break moments. Take away all the hacking and window-smashing and whatnot and you’re still left with one of the series’ most vivid depictions of the dislocating, almost dissociative effect of corporate office architecture and behavior — the sense that lots and lots of people are scurrying to and fro to little perceivable effect, the total lack of privacy and the need to perform both busyness and boredom when appropriate as a result, the corporation’s use of technology to control what you see and hear (elevator television, the public address system), where you can and can’t go (badge-swipe doors, hired security), even what you can and can’t do in the job they hired you for (computer password lockouts, conference-room reservation calendars, IT compliance demands). To paraphrase a great tweet, Mr. Robot revolutionizes our perception of bodies and spaces.
And that’s just the stuff the long take helps emphasize. Elsewhere you’ll find the show’s usual barely-a-satire swipes at corporate culture: the drab clothes, the tired faces, the ass-kissing and rank-pulling, the junk food and bad music, the way you can overshare to the point of aggressiveness with some colleagues and remain completely anonymous to others, and, quite pointedly, the sexism and ageism, both of which are remorselessly embraced by Elliot when he singles out an older woman to dupe, though his plan backfires. The only misstep here is a slightly anachronistic jab at the BernieBro stereotype. (Esmail supported Clinton in the primaries, which despite the nostalgic “Bernie Forever” bumper sticker shown here had not even happened yet at this point in the show’s timeline; on Twitter, where you’d expect the joke to go over like gangbusters, it seems to have barely registered, if not been outright misinterpreted as a statement of support.)
The visual ostentation of the long take also doesn’t cover the series’ traditionally astute attention to sonic detail. You’ll find that here, too, in the found music cues by Philip Glass, in the bings and buzzes of life in a corporate high-tech highrise, in the electrostatic crackle of Elliot’s brain as he reemerges from his long Mr. Robot psychogenic fugue at the start of the episode, in the complementary endless pulse of the building’s alarm after the riot begins at the halfway point. You’ll also find Campbell and Esmail’s bold sense of composition (Elliot and Darlene shot from below, lit by the sun as Darlene comes clean about her and Angela’s respective deceptions; Angela shot from above in a god’s eye view that literally cuts away the ceiling of the building to give us this vantage point) and color (the washed-out white-gray E Corp office, the Blade Runner glow in the elevator when the power cuts out, even just the contrast of Angela’s blonde hair, white blouse, black cloak, and red-stained fsociety mask as she makes her escape). And of course there are the usual strong performances: Rami Malek shifting from confusion to action and back again as Elliot, Angela’s increasingly soul-deadening determination as Angela, even Bobby Cannavale’s quiet used-car-salesman menace in a phone-call-only cameo as Irving.
Maybe this is too cute by half, but thinking about the episode in this way also helps me crystallize something about what I suspect will be the series’ endgame this season. Like the 5/9 hack and its successor Stage 2, the long take is the showy, tricky stuff, in service to something more substantial underneath.