BY KYLE FOWLE
“Eps3.4_runtime-error.r00” begins with a humming. It’s a static, digital kind of hum that operates on a strange frequency. It’s persistent and annoying and induces a feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia. It’s the kind of sound that leaves us whispering to ourselves: “Can everyone else hear that?” Elliot waits in an elevator on Monday morning as this hum rings out. A man speaks German to him. He’s confused and paranoid. We’re all a little confused and paranoid
That feeling of paranoia is the anchor of this episode. It’s an episode that comes with a production choice that could easily fall into the realm of gimmickry: “Eps3.4_runtime-error.r00” unfolds as a commercial-free single take. It’s the kind of stylistic choice that could hinder the season’s slow-burn storytelling, drawing attention to itself in a season that’s been defined by a more patient and subdued approach to its narrative.
It’s immediately clear, though, that Sam Esmail and cinematographer Tod Campbell are in total control of their creative vision. The key is that the single take isn’t the draw in and of itself; it’s not doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the story. Rather, it enhances and underscores what’s already there, which is the feeling of dread, paranoia, and impending doom. Stage 2 has been talked about for a very long time, and it’s finally underway, and Esmail’s vision matches the monumental feeling of the moment.
But back to the story. Back to that hum.
A TV screen in the E Corp elevator tells us that it’s the day of the U.N. vote on whether China can annex the Congo. We know that’s the day Whiterose has pegged for Stage 2, which involves blowing up an E Corp building that houses paper records of the digital files compromised during the 5/9 hack, or at least all the ones Elliot hasn’t rerouted.
Also in that elevator is Angela. She’s watching Elliot very closely. We know she’s trying to get a read on whether or not he remembers their brief encounter over the weekend, when he “woke up” and saw her and Tyrell working together. As of now, Elliot is unaware. He knows something is off, that he’s missing pieces of the weekend — the static and buzz are his runtime error, his inability to compute what’s happening/happened — but he can’t quite click everything into place.
So he goes about his routine. He shuts down his misogynistic coworker, but even that’s an off moment; he was supposed to complain to us about the coworker, not tell him off to his face. The lost weekend, and whatever drugs Angela pumped him full of, have him reeling. He thinks he needs to meet with the VP of technology to make his presentation, but then he realizes he’s already done that. Plus, he’s locked out of his account. He can’t make sense of any of this.
When he uses his coworker’s computer to check on Stage 2 though, he realizes that the Dark Army tried to execute it at 6 a.m. but failed due to his patch. That means something is coming. Elliot’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch. He knows he’s involved in this somehow. When security shows up in the office to clearly fire and escort someone out, Elliot knows it’s him. He can feel it.
The first 10 minutes or so of the episode build to this moment of recognition, and it’s truly stirring. As Elliot packs up his bag and frantically dashes away from his desk, he takes a single second to look up at the camera, at us. “Do not leave me. Stay focused,” he says. We’re in this with Elliot now. The single take immerses us in his anxiety and paranoia. It’s unbearable, and that’s the point.
The next section of the episode follows Elliot as he evades security and tries to stop Stage 2: It’s like The Raid (minus the sweet fist fights) meets Children of Men, and it’s incredible. The single take allows us to feel the same things Elliot is feeling at every single moment. When he slows everything down after escaping to another floor — the scene literally starts moving in slow motion — we take a breath with him. When he realizes that won’t work and that he must find a station to get into the system, we’re right there with him, fretting over the fact that this busy Monday morning doesn’t leave him much room to undertake his covert operation.
Elliot does find the necessary station though; I love the fake-out of him approaching the old lady sniffing white-out, assuming she’d be an easy target for his lies, only to find out that she really knows her stuff. Again, in that moment, we feel the swerve with Elliot. We feel the bridge burning behind him, and we’re urging him to keep moving, for his sake and ours.
Eventually Elliot realizes that he needs to get to an HSM computer in order to have any chance of stopping Stage 2. He paces down the hallway looking for a way to the room that houses the HSM but turns into a random conference room when he sees security lurking near the elevator. The following scene is a wonderful display of visual storytelling. As Elliot tries to buy time inside the conference room, even as “Sean from sales” tries to tell him that he’s in the wrong place, we get periodic shots of security outside the glass windows.
The fact that we can see them enhances our already buzzing paranoia. We ask ourselves: Will they turn and see Elliot? Will they search the conference room next? Will Sean from sales cause a scene that will draw security’s attention? Every move of the camera brings the security guards closer to the conference room door, and closer to catching Elliot.
None of that happens. Instead, Elliot buys just enough time to sneak out, but he’s seen on the way, and that forces him to run for the elevator. He gets inside just in time and begins pacing. The camera follows him as he walks around in a circle. Our disorientation is his disorientation. Then Mr. Robot shows up, because Elliot is in a bind and needs a way out, and he says only Mr. Robot can help him with that.
But that’s not true. This isn’t Mr. Robot, but rather a ghost of Mr. Robot (which is somehow different than the other, more controlling ghost of Mr. Robot). In other words, Elliot forces himself to think like his counterpart without actually calling on him, and that leads him to a decision: He won’t be able to access the HSM, so he should try to evacuate the building that’s being targeted by the Dark Army.
He goes outside, where protesters are gathered for what CNN labels “a variety of reasons,” and calls the building. He tells them there’s a bomb that’s set to go off, and that’s it. We get no further update on the building after this moment: a cliffhanger in the middle of the episode. Seemingly, there’s nothing else Elliot can do. He’s stuck. He’s left passive. When he’s passive, all he can do is listen.
So he listens to Darlene. She tells him everything: that she’s been working with the FBI, that she’s trying to make a deal for the both of them, that the FBI wants Tyrell, and that Angela is clearly working with Mr. Robot. It’s a bombshell for Elliot, and while the Angela stuff should be devastating, he’s more hurt by his sister’s lies, at least for now. Again, Elliot and Darlene’s relationship is put through the wringer.
It’s been fascinating to watch Mr. Robot tug at the fraying strings that hold Elliot, Angela, and Darlene together. Everybody is trying to do what they believe is the right thing, but the sum total is nobody ending up happy. Angela and Darlene are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin. They are both trying to control Elliot in their own way, and neither has been totally honest with him. When Darlene tells him about the FBI and Angela, the static from the beginning of the episode kicks in again. Another variable unexpectedly introduced to Elliot’s code, and now he’s on the fritz.
The truth about the FBI throws him for a loop. The truth about Angela seems to give him clarity. Everything clicks back into place. He remembers seeing her and Tyrell over the weekend. He turns to head back into the building — to get to the HSM or to get some answers? — and the camera moves away from him for the first time. It pushes through the crowd of protesters; the close quarters are uncomfortable. We’re in the thick of it as the protesters’ anger overflows and they storm the building, smashing everything in sight.
It’s a shift in tone. This is full-blown panic and anarchy. Angela watches from her office, scared, and the episode seamlessly shifts our perspective, but the anxiety remains. It’s a masterful transition, as “Eps3.4runtime-error.r00” moves us away from Elliot’s anxiety and paranoia and immediately situates us inside Angela’s.
Angela’s instructions come from Irving. He says that the raid is a distraction from the Dark Army, at least in part, and that she needs to get moving and get a package so Stage 2 can be completed. She walks past the E Corp slogan — “Still on your side” — that’s been spray-painted over by the protesters. Irving says that once she gets the package, she needs to find Elliot and give it to him. The instructions are for him.
But that’s not really possible, is it? Angela knows she can’t go to Elliot. He won’t do what the Dark Army is asking; only Mr. Robot answers that call. She grabs the package. She sees Elliot calling her phone and ignores it. She gets in the elevator, along with a security guard, and it’s here she starts to fumble. She drops a fake identification badge meant for Elliot, and that makes the security guard suspicious. When they get to the 23rd floor, where the HSM is located, the security guard won’t let her go until they sort this whole thing out.
Then the violence begins. A masked protester, or Dark Army militant, smashes the security guard across the face with a computer, and another comes to help beat him down. It’s a brutal, shocking turn of events, and it comes as a moral reckoning for Angela. She’s starting to see the very real effects of what she’s helping make happen, and much like Elliot after the 5/9 hack, you can tell that she’s terrified.
The last section of this episode relies on that moral reckoning for its atmosphere. As the chaos and violence escalate, Angela is our center. She’s our conduit for emotional responses, and Portia Doubleday puts in an incredible performance, as she’s done all season long, chipping away at Angela’s previous confidence one horrified facial expression at a time.
Eventually, after evading security and violent protesters, Angela is alone with the HSM and the instructions left for Elliot. She does everything she’s supposed to do, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that Stage 2 is underway, in some form. But did Angela do everything that was left in those instructions?
Irving doesn’t sound too pleased when he finds out it was Angela, and not Elliot, who followed those instructions. He underscores that every single step must be followed. So Angela delivers the package back to the Dark Army’s guy on a different floor — once again, he’s chowing down on some BBQ — and in return he hands her a bag. It’s a Red Wheelbarrow BBQ bag, but it doesn’t look like he’s handing her lunch.
With the news of the Congo annexation being approved hitting the TV screens, Angela takes the bag and starts walking back to her office. She looks absolutely distraught. She’s on the verge of tears, and every breath is shallow.
Is it because of what she’s done? Is it because there’s another step that she’s afraid to carry out? My brain is racing for ideas. My best guess is that there’s a gun in the bag, and that the Dark Army was going to have Elliot/Mr. Robot kill himself once Stage 2 was complete, but I have no evidence to support that claim. It’s just a thought that popped into my head as the Dark Army’s plan unraveled, as Angela questioned what she was doing, and as Irving expressed disappointment in Elliot’s lack of involvement.
If Stage 2 is underway, an E Corp building is about to come crashing down, and a number of innocent lives will be taken or forever changed. That’s true of Elliot’s life too. As Angela comes back to her office, Elliot is there waiting for her. “Angela, is there something you want to tell me?” he says.
The single take ends. The credits roll. We can all take a breath now, at least until next week.