BY KYLE FOWLE
When Mr. Robot closed out its second season, it left us in the dark. There was the literal dark, as the rolling brownouts that accompanied every single episode finally led to a blackout across the city. Only the blueish glow emanating from cell phones provided any light, our technology our only beacon when we find ourselves staggering around in the dark. Then there was, of course, the more metaphorical darkness. The season finale didn’t exactly answer all of our questions, and it certainly isn’t obligated to do so. We came to understand the plan known as “Phase 2,” but what else did we really know? As Angela spoke to Tyrell on the phone, we were left with more questions than answers.
I’m not sure I’d have it any other way.
The season 3 premiere doesn’t immediately transport us back to Angela’s phone call or Elliot’s body bleeding out on the floor. Instead, we’re taken to Red Wheelbarrow BBQ and its grand opening. Despite the blackout, the restaurant is in full swing. A man (Bobby Cannavale) who looks like an extra on a ’70s cop drama argues with the server behind the counter. He can’t understand the logic behind the punch card for a free milkshake. He challenges the reward-based scheme; where his eyes are wide open to the constructed gratification of loyalty programs, the employee’s are closed, only following the rules and insisting she can’t do a thing about it.
Before long the man has given up on his free milkshake. “Is he dead?” he says into his Bluetooth earpiece — technology, still alive, still pulsing and asking us for our participation — before hopping in his car and driving to meet Tyrell and Elliot. The former is freaking out, and the latter is dying, bleeding out from his bullet wound. The man with the earpiece doesn’t seem too worried though. He makes a call, and we wait.
We cut to a nuclear power plant. The blackout is in effect, but the backup generators are running smoothly here at the E Corp Power Plant. A scientist is in the process of giving a tour, musing on the idea of parallel universes. “How many copies of ourselves exist?” It’s a question that’s plagued Elliot Alderson for some time, and one that got him shot at the end of last season.
Walking past the group is someone who certainly has copies of themselves. Whiterose, wearing an outfit that’s closer to her Minister Zheng persona, takes in the power plant and all of its possibilities. Her aide begs her to give him the lead on Phase 2, saying that Tyrell and Elliot are too unstable to get it done, but Whiterose refuses. “Time presented us Mr. Alderson when we needed him,” she says. “We need his unadulterated, focused rage.” But whose rage do they need exactly? Is it Elliot’s? Or is it Mr. Robot’s? Technically, they are the same person, but the season premiere begins to cement the idea that they’re not as codependent as we might have thought.
Themes of control and perspective dominate “Eps3.0power-saver-mode.h.” There’s a reason why the blackout plays such an integral role in the premiere; this is an episode about power, be it electrical, financial, or mental. Whiterose believes she’s in control — and there are nods to her want for control over time and reality — and that Elliot will serve his purpose and then “die for us, just like his father.” But that’s just her perception. Who know if it’s true? As the scientist guiding the tour says, there’s no real way to be sure that our reality is exactly as we perceive it.
Then the camera pulls back, careening through a long tunnel, which sure does look like the Large Hadron Collider, further teasing the show’s teasing of potential time travel. It continues to pull out as the lyrics of “Whistling in the Dark” ring out before dying off in a blaze of static. “Tell me dreams really come true.”
Elliot wakes up.
“What did we miss? Did you see anything?”
TThe blackout has been in effect for one whole week when Elliot wakes up. He’s bewildered, but he’s not alone, and I’m not talking about the constant presence of Mr. Robot (not yet). Angela is there with him. She’s apparently nursed him back to health. She says she received a call, he was brought to her, and that’s all she knows. But that’s not true, is it? She was talking to Tyrell at the end of last season. Perhaps she’s just simplifying things for Elliot at this stage. She’s earned some benefit of the doubt.
Elliot doesn’t stay still for long. He tells Angela that he has to go stop Phase 2 from happening. He needs to close the backdoor on the E Corp hack to prevent the Dark Army from blowing up the E Corp building that’s housing all the paper records that would restore their database of debt, property, and clients. He throws on the only sweater Angela has on her — “Property of Josh Groban” is emblazoned across Elliot’s chest, presumably because Angela raised him up — and heads to the warehouse.
There’s nothing there though. Tyrell and company have wiped everything clean. Elliot heads back to his apartment instead, and finds Darlene there. He learns about Cisco’s death, another connection wiped clean. Darlene may be angry about Elliot’s involvement with Tyrell, but she agrees to help him try to stop Phase 2 after he shouts, “It wasn’t me!” Elliot insists he’s in control, and yet he lays the blame on Mr. Robot.
With no internet connection in the apartment, Darlene takes Elliot to an underground hacker club. It’s seemingly called “1984.” The eye of Big Brother watches over the hackers — watches over everybody, really. A man stands against the wall, the straight line of his body transforming the “1984” into “1884” for a brief moment. 1884: the year that birthed the oldest stock index still used today. The year that gave way to the eight-hour workday. The year the Fabian Society was formed in Britain, calling for equality of power, wealth, and opportunity. A happy coincidence? As Whiterose says, there’s no such thing.
After indulging in a little bit of creative frivolity — Elliot mutes the loud action in the club as if he’s hitting a button on his Mac — Elliot gets down to business. He joins in on a hacking competition, easily winning it for the team competing against others from around the world. A moment of triumph, but it’s not what he’s here for. With the competition done, he can now close the backdoor at E Corp and stop Phase 2 from happening.
All of this is captured by a single long take, and it’s a stunning sequence. We see Elliot taking in the club, then Darlene noticing a couple of Dark Army guys watching them. She heads to the bathroom, the camera follows, and she breaks down screaming and crying. She doesn’t know what to think or believe anymore. Who here does? And she doesn’t get much time to think all of this through, to analyze who Elliot is siding with and what it means for her. It’s not long before the Dark Army guys are leading her and Elliot outside.
The two hop in a cab after our man from the cold open, the one with the Bluetooth earpiece, beckons them in, telling them the FBI is on their tail. They would be after letting Darlene go. Are they using her to get to Elliot? Is part of her anguish just guilt? Is she working with the FBI? These are the questions running through my head as the man who identifies himself over the phone as “Detective Robert Athey” — the quotation marks are necessary until we know who this man really is — calls in the license plate of the vehicle chasing them, and has his people (who exactly?) shut down the car remotely. As always, our reliance on technology leaves us stranded and isolated when it all shuts down.
The man takes them to Red Wheelbarrow BBQ, because of course he does. Seeing the restaurant running, Elliot understands it to be a front for the Dark Army. That’s why he was sent the BBQ menu, and somehow that’s how he got the name for his journal in prison. Once more, Elliot tries to assert his control. “I’m calling this operation off,” he says. The man says that’s not a great idea, that their boss will be mad. “I don’t have a boss,” replies Elliot. We all have a boss, whether we know it or not; maybe Elliot’s eyes aren’t as wide open as he thinks.
The man leaves without a fuss. Well, he does say that “they” could put a bullet back in Elliot any time they want to, but that mostly feels like empty intimidation at this point. We all know how important Elliot is to Phase 2 and any other Dark Army plan.
In fact, in mere moments, Elliot reckons with his importance.
As “Eps3.0power-saver-mode.h” enters its closing stretch, a truly stirring, visceral sequence sees Elliot reckoning with his role in the chaos around him. He sees the way the revolution has been corporatized and monetized. He sees Fsociety t-shirts for sale on the street — previously the legacy of Che Guevara — and the evocative mask being used as a marketing tool for the news. “5/9 didn’t get rid of the invisible hand. It turned it into a fist that punched us in the dick.” Good for a laugh, but it’s not really funny. Elliot sees how the 5/9 hack has been stolen by those in power and used as a way to further divide the population.
“What if instead of fighting back, we cave? Give away our privacy for security, exchange dignity for safety, trade in revolution for repression?” Flashes of Donald Trump and the rhetoric he uses to stoke fears and bolster racial division (head here for creator Sam Esmail’s take on how Trump figures into season 3); Teresa May, Trump’s fear-mongering counterpart in the U.K., flashes a smile as she seeks literal division. The call for a wall to be built between the U.S. and Mexico is nothing but a prison, muses Elliot. “I’m the one to blame,” he says, despite the evidence to the contrary. This is not the revolution he asked for. This is Mr. Robot at its most overtly political though, capturing the tone of our times.
Putting the blame on himself, Elliot searches for a way to fix things. He tells Angela that he needs a job at Evil Corp. He says it’s the only way he can fix everything from the inside. Angela isn’t so sure. She teases Elliot with a question: What if she had a way to make it like nothing happened, including what happened to each of their parents? It’s a question that echoes Trenton’s in the post-credit sequence of last season’s finale, and once again it feeds into the idea that some form of time travel may be possible in this universe.
Elliot: “How?” Angela: “Never mind.” And that’s it. A tease until, perhaps, Trenton and Mobley are back in the picture. Elliot assumes they’re dead. We know they’re not.
Then, everything changes. Elliot’s attempts at control, seemingly working — he recovers from his wound, cancels Phase 2, and Mr. Robot seems to be absent — are suddenly revealed as fruitless. After asking Elliot to stay with her, Angela wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mr. Robot in the living room. He sits in the dark before walking into the frame and into the light. She’s not scared though, not worried that Elliot is having a psychotic break. Rather, this is what she’s been waiting for. “I need to get dressed, then we’ll go.”
You see, Angela’s “I don’t really know how you got here” shtick from earlier was all a ruse to stay close to Elliot. She’s actively working with the Dark Army ever since her trippy meeting with Whiterose. More importantly though, it’s made perfectly clear that while Elliot is working to stop Phase 2, Mr. Robot is forging ahead, and Angela is using Elliot’s “unique condition,” as Mr. Robot puts it, as leverage for her own goals.
She brings Mr. Robot back to the Bluetooth earpiece man, and says that Phase 2 is still underway. Mr. Robot sits down at the computer and boots up Shodan, a search engine for power plants and internet-connected devices. Angela says that she’s in this because EvilCorp killed her mom. Mr. Robot is in this for…well, who knows. Anarchy? Justice? Whiterose changed the game for Angela, and now she’s exerting her control over Elliot, using his trust against him.
The lights come back on. Power is restored (to some, taken from others). Suddenly, in the season premiere, there’s light where there was once darkness.