BY SEAN T. COLLINS
Mr. Robot may have bobbled the immediate aftermath of Stage 2, the mass murder at the center of its Season 3 storyline. But in its own melancholy way, the follow-up feels like the show has found itself again.
Entitled “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” this week’s episode avoids the pitfalls of the previous installment. Last week, most of the characters were too blasé about the terrorist attacks they’d either unwittingly helped unleash or failed to prevent, with the exception of Angela, whose regression into childlike magical thinking felt cartoonishly severe. This time around, characters do what people really do, a couple of weeks into the new normal following a catastrophe. They drift apart, or drift together; they settle on self-destruction, or rebound to self-improvement; they watch movies they love, from The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie to Back to the Future. They act like we’ve all been acting for a year now.
It helps that the episode puts the focus back on Elliot, our viewpoint character for the duration. With his Mr. Robot persona consigned (for now) to the junk heap of history — literally so, since he gives away his father’s “Mr. Robot” jacket to be burned with the rest of the garbage piling up everywhere — we finally get to see how Elliot himself is handling “The 71 Cyber Bombings,” as they’ve come to be known. With thousands dead, two of his friends murdered and framed, E Corp stronger than ever thanks to their E Coin cryptocurrency, and the sinking suspicion that somewhere inside himself he wanted this all to happen, as the continued existence of his Mr. Robot side would seem to prove, it’s no surprise he’s not handling it well.
Before long you can connect the dots of his behavior easily enough: Buying a massive quantity of morphine (from a menacing gay drug dealer named Hard Andy — get it? — who looks, sounds, and acts like he came straight out of a then-stylish late-90s cyber-thriller) makes it look like he’s planning to go on the mother of all benders. But as he says his goodbyes to his sister and his dog with transparently insincere promises to see them again soon, then visits relatives of fsociety “terrorists” Trenton and Mobley to assure them of their innocence, his true intentions become clear. He’s going to sit on the beach at Coney Island, with the Wonder Wheel at his back and the water before him, and kill himself by overdosing.
His plan is thwarted by the arrival of Mohammed, Trenton’s precocious younger brother, who followed Elliot there following his visit to Trenton’s family’s house. Or did he? The show certainly teases the idea that Mohammed isn’t actually there, that he’s a psychic defense mechanism concocted by Elliot as a healing substitute for both Mr. Robot’s rage and Elliot’s own suicidal agony. However, employees at the movie theater they visit to kill time after they return home to find Mohammed’s parents out for the evening seem to see him just fine.
Either way, the result is the same. Elliot drags the skeptical kid to a screening of Back to the Future Part 2 being held in honor of Back to the Future Day, October 21, 2015 — the date in the then-future to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel. (This is also something of a callback to the cold open, which shows Elliot’s dad passing out at the movie theater after an argument in which young Elliot pointedly refuses to forgive his old man for knocking him out a window. Complicated relationship.)
When Mohammed flees the screening (he’d have preferred to see The Martian, which Elliot savagely rips into for reasons known only to Sam Esmail, I guess), Elliot tracks him to a local mosque with the help of a friendly ultra-orthodox Jewish ice-cream man (played by Richard Masur, one of my favorite character actors) who listens to Orson Welles’s War of the Worldsbroadcast in his truck, which tells you something about the level of heightened reality we’re operating on here.
Considering all the hideous real-world shit that happened on November 29, 2017, the day this episode aired, it couldn’t have been more fortuitously timed. It’s impossible not to think of the rapidly deteriorating racist currently occupying the White House and his retweets of Islamophobic bullshit from a British hate group when Trenton’s family says “This country now blames Muslims for everything. There’s no room for us here anymore.” Or, for that matter, when Elliot and Mohammed sit together in the mosque, and Elliot jokes that Mohammed would be a dictator if he were to become president the way he daydreams about: “What’s a dictator?” the kid asks. “It’s like a really bad president,” Elliot replies. Indeed it is!
Restored to optimism by Mohammed’s gratitude for their night out together, Elliot springs back into action. He blackmails Mobley’s asshole brother into holding a funeral for the wrongfully accused hacker. He opens an email from Trenton that he recovers from deletion, containing a plan for undoing the 5/9 hack that started this mess. In between, he stops by Angela’s apartment, talking her out of her breakdown by reminiscing about wishes they’d make together as kids. The shot, which bifurcates the frame in fields of black-on-red and white-on-black with Angela’s doorframe in the middle, is one of the loveliest Esmail and cinematographer Tod Campbell have created for the show to date, which is saying something.
And here it’s worth noting the words of the ice cream man, just as relevant to our current predicament as those of Trenton’s father or Elliot himself. When Elliot says he finds War of the Worlds to be rather grim listening given the apocalyptic state of the world at the moment, the guy gently corrects him about the outcome of the story. “Things get a little farkakte for a while,” he says, smiling, “but at the end, humans actually persevere.” In the background, Welles’s character looks back on the brief reign of the Martians (there we go with Martians again!): “All that happened before the arrival of these monstrous creatures in the world now seems part of another life, a life that has no continuity with the present.” That’s a great description of 2017, but the hope is that the ice-cream man’s description of the future pans out, too.