BY JEREMY EGNER
Season 3, Episode 2, ‘eps3.1_undo.gzh’
“You know when you [mess] something up and you wish you had the power to hit undo?”
Of course I do. Don’t we all? While I imagine most of us are more familiar with the “offending co-workers” example than the “crashing the world economy” one Elliot offered in the sublime extended montage that kicked off Wednesday’s episode of “Mr. Robot,” the undo superpower, and the freedom it affords us to fix mistakes and manage our circumstances, is central to the allure of digital life.
Real life is messy and often painful, we’re frequently reminded on “Mr. Robot” (and, you know, by the world). It’s easy to prefer the curation and control — another “Mr. Robot” preoccupation — we bring to our online identities, or that a gifted hacker brings to his mastery of lines of code and complex networks.
Because no matter how smart or adept at social engineering we might be, people can’t be definitively controlled, not forever. Their own desires, vulnerabilities and emotions make them potential bugs in any system, threatening to corrupt, sometimes fatally, any program we might design and leading to outcomes we don’t anticipate and often can’t undo.
That was repeatedly apparent in Wednesday’s thrilling, poignant and occasionally horrifying episode, as characters saw the unpredictable human elements of their schemes subvert them.
Elliot’s sister Darlene, his right-hand woman during the fsociety glory days, has been turned by the F.B.I. and is now working against him, including by secretly planted a mirroring device on (or within) his computer. The F.B.I.’s plan to use Elliot to lead them to Tyrell Wellick was foiled by Elliot’s suspicions and abilities, which led him to them instead.
Dr. Krista’s plan to further Elliot’s progress by talking to an increasingly boorish Mr. Robot instead further riled his alter-ego, revealing to her the toxic depths of Elliot’s disorder. Phillip Price and Whiterose, locked in a deepening clash of egos and global power-politics, threaten each other’s plans for world domination.
And in the darkest scene of perhaps the entire series, Joanna Wellick’s disposable hunk Derek took his final manipulation and betrayal badly, shooting her through the forehead and splattering her infant son with blood.
The individual miseries and miscalculations reflect a broader theme of Season 3 so far: As the aftershocks of the 5/9 hack ripple ever outward, the players hoping to shape or capitalize on the chaos are finding it harder to manage than they anticipated.
This includes Elliot, who now is trying to reverse the entire thing. Appalled at what resulted from his world-shattering masterstroke, he has joined the enemy, E Corp, as a security analyst and aims to undo the hack. But first, he aims to counteract Mr. Robot and Wellick’s murderous Stage 2 plans, by convincing E Corp executives to change how the company digitizes its records — tough luck, aboynamedg00 — and buying time by manipulating shipping manifests and Coenesque delivery drivers. (You know Earl, he does what the paper says.)
Sam Esmail and company have become some of TV’s best montage artists over two-plus seasons, and Wednesday’s edition was among the show’s most electrifying. Set to INXS’s irresistibly propulsive “New Sensation,” the sequence so effectively conveyed the energizing effect of Elliot’s new sense of purpose that I almost missed how bogus much of it was.
Which was the point: The empty optimism Elliot spouted as he plowed through Zoloft and Trunk Club officewear was transparent corporate drone denial, conveying the extent to which he’s still trying to sort himself out. “It doesn’t mean I’m selling out; I’m growing up,” he chirped at one point, before coming back with an even bigger whopper: “Changing the world was never about tearing E Corp down; it was about making them better!” (As for how a convicted hacker could get a cybersecurity job, well it’s happened before, but I guess in this case we’re supposed to believe Angela has pull and Price doesn’t mind having Elliot where he can keep an eye on him? Or something? I suppose some explanation or revelatory twist could come later.)
But back at home, Elliot’s weeping over “Dancing With the Stars,” gutted by the “empty void” he feels inside where Mr. Robot used to be (he thinks) and his own disconnection from being part of “something important.”
It’s better for everyone that he’s not here, Elliot tells his therapist, which was an even more unconscious form of denial, because Mr. Robot is not only there, he’s feeling cornered. He’s more caustic and menacing as he and Elliot become, paradoxically, both more fluidly interchangeable, moment to moment, and more detached as they work against one another.
Clearly this center cannot hold — Elliot’s struggle to put himself back together parallels his efforts to do the same with the post-5/9 world. (Quite the to-do list.) But while I’m enjoying the mechanics of portraying this conflict — particularly Rami Malek’s brief Christian Slater impression during the hypnosis scene — it’s another character that’s carrying most of the emotional weight so far this season.
That would be Darlene, who is barely hanging on in an impossible position: Coerced by the F.B.I. into betraying her brother as his alter ego threatens her, all of it coming as she endures the trauma of seeing her boyfriend get assassinated not long ago. (And also of her murder of Susan Jacobs not long before that.)
Darlene spent much of Season 1 as a one-note agitator before deepening last year, as events and her movement spun out of control. This season she has emerged as the lone relatable human perspective connecting the various strands of the show’s dense plot, a more sympathetic counterpoint to Elliot’s magnetic but distancing (and unreliable) one.
Carly Chaiken’s large, expressive eyes (it’s kind of this show’s thing) most commonly flashed with contempt in the first two seasons, but here they telegraph her wounded state, as well as the mix of concern and resentment that fuels her interactions with her brilliant but complicated brother.
“Don’t think for a second that our [bad] childhood was only yours,” she told him at their usual Coney Island spot. This story’s not only Elliot’s either, and he’s not the only one who would like to hit undo. But the difference is Darlene has no illusions about how little control he has, and she’s seen that sometimes broken things stay that way.
A Few Thoughts While We Fire Up the Bone Saw
• The slow pan across Baby Wellick’s blood-spattered little face was one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen on TV in a while. The goriness of Joanna’s exit, which also included a close-up of her head being cut open in an autopsy and the upsetting news that her son will be handed over to social services, felt like a gruesome retort to those who have loudly complained about the character online. Happy now, haters?
• Within the story, of course, Joanna’s murder would seem destined to turn Tyrell Wellick into an even looser cannon.
• A little meta goes a long way, but so far this season “Mr. Robot” is staying on the right side of the line. In the premiere we saw it poking fun at its own dramatization of angst and revolution with posters for “Shift + Control,” coming this fall to NBC. This week we heard Elliot wondering if his deep contempt for E Corp was a result of his “my dorm room philosophizing run amok,” which might strike some viewers as a succinct critique of this paranoid series.