BY SEAN T. COLLINS
The Dark Army’s plan may have worked, but for the first time this season, Mr. Robot’s plan failed. This week’s episode, “eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk,” follows all of the major players — including a few we haven’t seen since last year — in the hours immediately following the 71 simultaneous bombings of E Corp storage facilities that constitute the dreaded Stage 2. Yet the soul-crushing dread and despair you’d expect, particularly if you remember weathering similar tragedies, is missing in action. Usually surefooted even when traveling the most treacherous and tricky narrative paths, Mr. Robot’s storytelling seems to have stumbled the second it got past the finish line.
Much of the problem lies with the protagonist, or more accurately the lack thereof. Mr. Robot is Elliot Alderson’s story, and the catastrophic success of Stage 2 is something he’s spent the entire season trying to prevent. The past two episodes in particular chronicled Elliot’s attempts to physically put a stop to the operation in practically real-time detail. Yet now that the trigger has been pulled, we cut away from Elliot almost immediately: No sooner does he make it to the office of his therapist, Krista, than he’s subsumed by his sardonic Mr. Robot persona before he can mutter more than a few broken sentences about his role in the attacks. The show pushes him aside at the exact moment he should be front and center.
Hell, he’s not even our gateway into the episode itself. That would be Leon, the sociopathic sitcom fan who serves as the Dark Army’s main American assassin. The hour’s cold open depicts him with Trenton and Mobley, the fsociety members last seen living under assumed names until Leon approaches them in the parking lot of the big-box electronics store where they work in the post-credits stinger for the Season 2 finale. While the country reels from what incessant news reports describe as the deadliest attack in its history, Leon does a deadpan comedy routine about how Frasier Crane’s success with women strains credulity, paling in comparison to the prophetic realism of (drumroll please) Knight Rider. Indeed, the familiar synth-pop theme song for that old-school techno-thriller about a talking car and its Hasselhoffian driver plays over the opening credits. I get the ironic effect the show is going for here, and both the theme song and Joey Bada$$’s performance as Leon are as big a hoot as ever. But with the success of Stage 2, Mr. Robot had the chance to examine the trauma, terror, and grief of its own personal 9/11. Dropping that ball feels like more than just a missed opportunity — it’s almost a dereliction of duty.
Throughout the episode, in fact, there’s an odd disconnect between the magnitude of the unfolding atrocity and the affect of the characters left to deal with it. Within the FBI, Agents DiPierro and Santiago seem more pissed off that they didn’t get their man than devastated by the loss of 4,000 civilians on their watch. Santiago, of course, was in on the plan, but he should still at least act distraught; Dom has no such excuse, making her pissing matches with both Santiago and Tyrell Wellick’s callous lawyer an even weirder substitute for the horror you’d expect her, or anyone, to feel.
Elsewhere, Mobley and Trenton respond both to the bombings and their own captivity by a cold-blooded killer with gallows-humor understatement that rings false throughout their scenes. It’s one thing to psychologically downplay the severity of the situation as a survival mechanism; it’s quite another for Trenton to argue about whether or not Mobley should be using Jdate, or for Mobley to complain that he’s missing out on the evening plans he’d made through the service. Obviously life must go on, even on the darkest of days, and plenty of people went about their business on 9/11 since there was so little else they could do, but none of those people were directly implicated in the attacks or at risk of being executed by their real architects, you know?
To an extent, the whole and-the-band-played-on vibe is a deliberate choice on the show’s part. As Irving tells Mr. Robot when they arrive at a fancy party that the Dark Army’s chief fixer where there’s been an overdose the Dark Army’s fixer has been tasked to clean up, “Literally nothing can stop these shindigs.” There’s an element of that in the scenes set in the purple-hued dining room at Mar-a-Lago, where Whiterose, Phillip Price, and the rest of the rich and powerful continue eating and drinking while Rome burns around them. But even there, Price’s reaction feels wildly inappropriate. Shouldn’t he be concerned with appearances at the very least and seclude himself someplace, or at the very least look concerned and busy handling the fallout from the execution of thousands of his employees and untold billions of dollars in information, rather than swan around with a drink in hand, shouting obscenities at the Chinese defense minister? Actor (and playwright) Michael Cristofer is dynamite as Price during that big blow-up at Whiterose, don’t get me wrong — watching his veneer crack is glorious — and BD Wong seems to be having an absolute ball delivering Whiterose’s gleefully supervillainous dialogue about punishment, world domination, and relocating her secretive suburban New York nuclear power plant to the Congo (?!?), but the context is all wrong.
Even Angela Moss’s total breakdown, which should be a moment of series-defining pathos, falls flat. It’s not the fault of actor Portia Doubleday, who makes Angela’s regression into something between childhood and psychosis awful to behold. (And cleverly staged, too, as she winds up watching news footage of a building collapse from the floor directly in front of her television, the way she watched Saturday morning cartoons during her dying mother’s preemptive wake.) But since she’s the only character shown to be that shattered by the attacks, at least once Elliot is shuffled aside in Mr. Robot’s favor, her state of shock sticks out like a sore thumb, drawing attention to the artifice of her psychological state on a show that has long prided itself on its ability to depict unhappiness as it’s truly lived by young people in the real world.
But in the absence of a wide-scale societal meltdown, individual ones must serve as a sort of emotional substitute. Price’s anger, Angela’s juvenile magical thinking, Santiago’s guilt during a phone call with his frightened mother, and especially Tyrell Wellick’s sobbing, screaming agony upon learning that his wife has been murdered and his infant son has been placed in a foster home where his enemies can hurt him at will — add them all up and you can at least get an approximation of a more realistic reaction to a massive slaughter like Stage 2. And once the comedy routines are over, you get this from Mobley and Trenton as well, as they slowly realize that they’re being set up as the fall guys for the whole scheme, linked to an even more horrific (if ultimately illusory) assault on the air-traffic control system, and forced to shoot themselves in a staged double-suicide. Sunita Mani in particular is so effective at conveying Trenton’s misery and fear that she becomes hard to even look at toward the end.
If there’s a theory that could explain why Mr. Robot chose not to lean hard on the impact of the Stage 2 bloodbath, it too lies with Trenton and Mobley. When the FBI comes bursting into their fake HQ (in an operation overseen not by the President and the Joint Chiefs or even the Director, but plain-old DiPierro and Santiago, like it’s a buy-and-bust instead of a takedown of the world’s most wanted people), they find both fsociety paraphernalia and an Iranian flag. The Dark Army is linking both the 5/9 hack and its own violent follow-up actions with a hated foreign nation and framing people of Indian and Persian descent (one of whom wears a headscarf, both of whom have Scary Foreign Names) as the culprits to fan the flames of xenophobia, nationalism, and war fever that will sweep Whiterose’s hand-picked presidential candidate Donald Trump into power. We managed to do that without the Dark Army’s help IRL, of course, but that’s not the point. If you dread finding out the name and nationality of the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting, or lie awake at night wondering what kind of Reichstag-fire madness will be unleashed if there’s ever another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, this is a horror of greater magnitude, because it will compound those 4,000 corpses here with untold death and destruction abroad, once our military-intelligence murder machine starts retaliating. For every action, there is an unequal and opposite overreaction; Mr. Robot understands better than most shows that as bad as we have it, we’ll make goddamn sure someone else has it worse.