BY KYLE FOWLE
While both the first and second seasons of Mr. Robot boasted their fair share of paranoia and anxiety, that kind of atmospheric tension has been even more integral to this third season. Perhaps it’s because the plot isn’t covering as much ground as before, and so the atmosphere becomes the focus. But that’s not entirely true either. Rather, the atmosphere and the plot drive each other, working in tandem to create this horribly oppressive, hopeless feeling. I’ve mentioned it before, but season 3 is going full political paranoid thriller, similar to The Parallax View or The Conversation.
What paranoid thrillers achieve in their deployment of that type of atmosphere is a sense of instability. As the characters work to piece together a puzzle, they find the ground shifting underneath them. Everything that they once thought was true suddenly isn’t; sometimes the fear comes not from the actions of the villains, but rather the fact that they can operate without us even knowing. The evil we don’t see is more terrifying than the evil we do see.
Mr. Robot, and especially “Eps3.6_fredrick&tanya.chk,” is playing on that terrifying shift in perspective. This is an episode that, much like last week’s, interrogates not only our understanding of what is happening with the Dark Army and Elliot’s revolution, but also the characters’ understanding of their role within it all.
While most of the episode deals with the shifting perspectives of Elliot, Angela, Dom, and Mr. Robot, “Eps3.6_fredrick&tanya.chk” begins with three characters we haven’t seen in quite some time: Leon, Trenton, and Mobley. As we know, the two former hackers are hiding out in Arizona, just trying to move on with their lives. As we also know, Leon works for the Dark Army, a group that’s not big on loose ends.
Leon sits in between Trenton and Mobley on a bed in their apartment. Their roommate lies dead on the floor, his throat slashed. Leon has a knife in his hand. Trenton and Mobley are shaken and scared. As usual, Leon is calm and chatting about sitcoms, musing on the idea that Frasier is overrated because Frasier could never get laid that much, and that Knight Rider doesn’t get enough respect for foreshadowing man’s reliance on technology.
As news of the attacks plays out on TV, Leon puts the roommate’s body into the trunk of his car, lights a blunt, and starts driving out to the middle of the desert with Trenton and Mobley chained up in the back seat. Trenton and Mobley bookend the episode, and it’s appropriate because their arc is the one that, on a micro level, defines this season. Their hopelessness, their misunderstanding of their role in this revolution, is the driving force of this season; they represent everybody who’s wrapped up in this story. This is a tragedy, and by the time we check in with Trenton and Mobley again at the end of the episode, it’s clear that it’s too late for anybody to save them.
Essentially, what “Eps3.6_fredrick&tanya.chk” establishes, in more certain terms than ever, is that the major players in this “revolution” are not our morally complicated protagonists. Rather, we don’t see who’s pulling the strings, other than Whiterose of course. Even Mr. Robot, who’s been positioned as the architect of every plan, so much so that he has to fight off Elliot to get the job done, is now railing against the Dark Army.
Mr. Robot is outraged by the attack that demolished 71 E Corp buildings and killed upwards of 4,000 people. He tells Krista that “they’re manipulating everything, always,” and that he’s just a pawn in whatever big plans they have. It’s shocking to see Mr. Robot not only lay out that he planned and executed 5/9 and Stage 2, but also admit defeat. While Mr. Robot has been struggling to control Elliot, he lost sight of the Dark Army’s hold on him. Again, his perspective has shifted. He’s starting to see the bigger picture. Odds are that the bigger picture is too vast to truly understand though, unless you’re an architect of reality like Whiterose.
Season 3, then, is less about what makes a revolution, and more about how easily it can be co-opted. Now, perhaps Elliot’s ideas were never his to begin with; who knows how far back the Dark Army’s plan goes? But Elliot at least had the intention of dismantling the power structures that allow the rich to get richer while everybody else hands over their personal information and money before falling into a lull of complacency while staring at their phone.
That idealistic shift in power didn’t work though, and with each new episode this season it would seem that such a shift isn’t possible. Later on in “Eps3.6_fredrick&tanya.chk,” Irving takes Mr. Robot on a trip with him. He pulls him out of a car and points to a rooftop party where a number of rich people are enjoying drinks and food while a violinist sets the mood. “Your revolution was only allowed to happen because it was bought and paid for by people like them,” he says. No matter what happens, be it more than 4,000 Americans dying in coordinated attacks, or the mistress of a senator dying in the guest bathroom of said party, these people stay in power and keep going about their day as if nothing’s happened. They thrive on the chaos.
It’s the chaos, after all, that keeps those people in power. Whiterose says as much to Phillip Price. She, in her Minister Zhang role of course, says that nothing is better for lining pockets than consistent fear and conflict. It’s common rhetoric used by the elites to bolster their calls for a more widespread surveillance state. The more people are afraid, the more they’re willing to hand over their personal freedoms in exchange for security. That security is a mirage though. It’s nothing but a front for people like Phillip Price, Whiterose, and Donald Trump to make more money and gain more influence.
A quiet storm is brewing. Mobb Deep plays as Leon gets Trenton and Mobley to dig a grave for their roommate after Trenton fails to escape in Leon’s Caddy. Leon muses on how funny they are, in a “George and Elaine” kind of way. Leon sees everything through the lens of pop culture; perhaps that’s why he’s so cold and unemotional. Cold and unemotional is what these Dark Army people have to be. It’s the only way to keep the storm quiet, to keep it from getting out of hand and hitting too early.
In “Eps3.6_fredrick&tanya.chk,” everything is falling into place as the storm continues to build. More and more connections become clear. Santiago relishes in telling a captive Tyrell Wellick that his wife is dead and that his son is now in the care of Peaceful Acres, a foster home that Santiago is proud to say has a “1-in-5 abuse rate.”
Remember, Santiago isn’t saying all of this because he’s excited the FBI got their guy. He knows Wellick isn’t the mastermind because he’s working for the Dark Army. In fact, he’s integral to their plan. He tells Wellick to make sure he follows through with everything they’ve discussed, otherwise he’ll make sure bad things happen to his son. So, Wellick plays his role. He “admits” that Trenton and Mobley were his associates and that they planned the attack on the 71 E Corp buildings, and that they’re planning another attack sometime in the next 24 hours.
It’s all bogus, of course, but us knowing that is exactly the point. It contributes to the atmosphere I mentioned above. Season 3 is succeeding by going full paranoid thriller, and that means allowing us to reasonably guess ahead about what horrible things might be coming for our protagonists, while also understanding that there’s no way to stop those things from happening.
In most other stories there’s a last-ditch effort that saves the good guys or allows the bad guys to finally get their comeuppance. Mr. Robot isn’t interested in such a rosy outcome. Instead, the shows posits this line of thinking: The word’s elite will sacrifice you for their own gain. They will bleed you dry and exploit your labor in order to line their own pockets. When that isn’t enough, they’ll use you as a pawn in their game and then execute you in the end. There’s no avoiding this. There’s no escape.
“I can make you dance. I can make you sing.” Those are the words Robert Plant croons over and over again as Irving draws Mr. Robot into his trap in order to reveal to him that he is, in fact, trapped. Plant’s words have context though: “If you want me to.” Irving, on the other hand, isn’t looking for consent. He’s letting Mr. Robot know that he has no control over his future or the outcome of his revolution. In fact, it was never his revolution. Anti-authority and anti-capitalist sentiments have been co-opted by the authoritarians and the capitalists. They’re spinning a complex web of lies via media control and careful violence in order to keep the peasants off balance.
The thing is, some of the peasants thought they were improving their own situation, only to realize they’ve been doing the bidding of the ruling class all along. Angela sits in front of the TV flipping through the news — her endless scrolling, despite the horror, taps into a particularly modern, masochistic condition — repeating the same thing to herself over and over again: “They’ll be fine.” More than 4,000 dead, thanks in large part to Angela. She’s retreating into herself, wanting to believe that everything will work out okay because Whiterose said it would. It won’t. We know that Whiterose manipulated Angela; she says just that when scolding Phillip Price for his own inability to stifle Angela’s lawsuit.
Hopeless. Everybody is hopeless. There’s seemingly no stopping what’s coming.
In a brutal, nerve-racking final sequence, that mantra is underlined. Trenton and Mobley are back at their house. Leon hands them over to the Dark Army, and they proceed to bring the two hackers into their garage. Back at the FBI headquarters, Santiago, Dom, and their team look on as agents infiltrate the house.
Trenton and Mobley are forced to sit at two computers. They take in the information on the screens in front of them: code for more attacks, specifically targeting air traffic control. Mobley posits that the Dark Army wants them to crash planes in another attack.
Wrong. This is all a scene, a fabricated set piece for the FBI. They want Trenton and Mobley dead by suicide. It’s all part of controlling the narrative, pulling those strings. We don’t see the moment where the Dark Army forces Trenton and Mobley to kill themselves, but we see the aftermath.
Dom watches as the FBI breaks into the garage, seemingly hours later. Trenton and Mobley are dead on the ground. Santiago reassures Dom that this is a win, because of course he would. He knew exactly what they would find there.
So few people know even a semblance of the truth though, and those who do are powerless to stop the Dark Army. Angela can only deploy a coping mechanism to deal with her anguish. Mr. Robot can only watch as Irving tells him there’s nothing he can do. Then there’s Dom, the supposed figure of law and order. All she can do is pin Whiterose’s name up on her whiteboard and mutter a single line: “You’re actually going to get away with this.”
Everything is hopeless.