BY JEREMY EGNER
Season 3, Episode 5, ‘eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00’
The long take has a special mystique, the most famous examples (“Touch of Evil,” “Goodfellas”) being among the most celebrated moments in movie history. But as with any ostentatious technique, the challenge is to incorporate it alongside the other elements without breaking the spell of the story.
“Mr. Robot” solved that dilemma this week by making a take seemingly last an entire episode — there were camouflaged edits throughout — in effect making its spell and the story’s one in the same. From the opening moments with Elliot and Angela in the elevator to the final one when they reunited, after a very busy 43 minutes or so for each of them, the camera tracked an unbroken path through an E Corp headquarters thick with skulduggery, rioting and panic. The result was one of the year’s most electric episodes of television.
While some of its tricks have fallen flat, “Mr. Robot” has a pretty good track record when it comes to long takes. The first season included evocative sequences like Elliot’s dark and woozy morphine withdrawal fantasy. A few weeks ago a four-plus minute shot took Elliot and Darlene down into the hacker Olympics and a Dark Army confrontation, a descent that carried viewers along with Elliot into the underworld he’s been trying to negotiate since.
Similarly, though the camera moves and choreography Sam Esmail and the director of photography Tod Campbell dreamed up for this week’s episode were technically stunning, the approach succeeded because it added new layers to the story.
Long takes stress out the audience by withholding the cutaways our minds crave, making us feel the anxiety wracking the characters. On Wednesday this intensified the show’s radically subjective perspective in an episode in which both Elliot and Angela were not only under the gun, but were so in opposition to one another. Their race to the hardware security modules — with Elliot aiming to prevent the destruction of the recovery building, and Angela trying to ensure it — was apparently won by Angela, though the emotional costs were substantial.
The nervy visuals also brought to full boil a number of subplots that have been simmering all season or longer. The scope of Elliot’s conflict — with not just Mr. Robot and the Dark Army but also Wellick and Angela — finally came out into the open. Angela was forced to prove herself to her Dark Army overlords, and also face the fact that she is in league with killers, her protestations about building evacuations notwithstanding. (R.I.P. Lydia Riley, probably.)
Darlene confessed her F.B.I. informing to Elliot. The escalating protests outside E Corp exploded into violence, with Irving’s help. China’s long coveted annexation of Congo finally went through — the repeated elevator scenes, perhaps a nod to John Woo’s famous single-take hospital sequence in “Hard Boiled,” were an ingenious way to provide a ticktock on the U.N. vote (and presumably cut between shots). Offscreen Phillip Price’s empire and plans for world domination seem less certain as Whiterose’s position grows stronger.
Even Samar’s dope anecdotes found resolution in the revelation that they have been as fictional as they were florid and gross. (Man, you can’t trust anybody on this show.)
In dispensing with secrets that brought tension to the first half of the season, the episode set up a new phase of the story in which the alliances and conflicts are out in the open. However things shake out over Darlene’s snitching, she and Elliot would seem to be aligned against the Dark Army coalition of Angela, Irving, Wellick and Elliot, er, Mr. Robot. (You know what I mean.) By the end of the episode one of the core emotional bonds of the show, between Elliot and Angela, has been shattered and we’ve been made to feel, through their divergent experiences, the breadth of their separation.
At the same time, the border between Elliot and Mr. Robot has become so tenuous, it remains to be seen how useful he really is to either side. From Elliot’s awakening in the elevator onward, the glitchy crackle that seems to signal a breech between them arose repeatedly in stressful moments. (The episode made inventive use of sound throughout, as when the shock of Darlene’s F.B.I. revelation literally cut through the noise of the protests.)
This being “Mr. Robot,” another twist or two is sure to come. Beyond the specific subplots serviced, the episode was also a sort of microcosm of the entire series, Elliot using the size and disconnected structure of E Corp against it as he expertly manipulates its networks and vulnerabilities. We were reminded that for all of his emotional turmoil and trauma, Elliot is a kind of superhero, as adept at hacking peevish sales managers, Blues Traveler-loving doofuses and custody-disputing dads as he is shipping manifests. (Bad call on Edie the white-out huffing I.T. whiz, though.)
In that way viewers got perhaps their closest glimpse yet at how Elliot sees the world: a system to debug line by line, looking for the errors that make everything go awry. At times this point of view was made literal, as when Elliot decided to slow everything down before concluding “this isn’t gonna work” and speeding it back up, the action onscreen reflecting his commands. The show turned back on itself in other ways, as with Elliot’s excellent advice to Sean the E Corp head of sales, a parody of a corporate pep talk that nevertheless applied to Elliot’s own immediate situation.
You know, Sean, sometimes I get a lot like you, where you have a lot of anxiety because of a deadline. Where you feel pressure because something has to get done, and then all of these damn little unknown variables keep popping up. When you find yourself at the center of one of those storms, you just gotta breathe, just let go. Get it done.
The speech exemplifies another key aspect of the episode: It was just really fun. After Elliot outlined the game’s objective — he had to find a computer and figure out the Dark Army’s plan — and set off, things unfolded like a hacker crusader version of Donkey Kong, Elliot climbing floors and surmounting obstacles. “Do not leave me; stay focused,” he said, a rhetorical wink that also put us on his shoulder, riding along.
The exchange of perspectives between Elliot and Angela implicated us further, the camera leaving him to travel through the protesters until a bottle was thrown and suddenly we were at a shaky sprint, losing ourselves in the mob. As Angela made her way through the chaos into the HSM room, our perspective climbed high above her, suggesting her smallness within the Dark Army apparatus.
The episode wasn’t flawless. The Angela half dragged at times, perhaps reflecting the ever grimmer reality of her association with the Dark Army. But from an experiential standpoint, her search for the USB drive, in particular, displayed the pitfalls of real-time storytelling. And we will have to wait at least another week to see if the E Corp recovery building is actually going to blow up, a plot point we’ve been dealing with since last season.
But overall it was one of the most unforgettable episodes of 2017. Filmmaking trickery works best when it enhances the narrative, but that’s not the same as saying “story is all that matters.” TV is a visual medium, and its best works use its elements to convey a story’s visceral and emotional undertow as well as its narrative details. Exceptional ones, like this week’s “Mr. Robot,” make you reconsider the limits of the art form.
A Few Thoughts While We Order Rosetta Stone
• Any German speakers out there know what that mystery man in the elevator said at the beginning of the episode?
• Flipper fans rest easy: Darlene gave him to Elliot’s landlord, so he’s at least getting fed, at least.
• A couple of weeks ago we saw Frank Cody getting Trump-pumping instructions from Whiterose, which he’s now putting into action. China’s annexation of Congo is “why we need a man with a business acumen like Donald Trump as president,” he told Annika Pergament on NY1.
• A persistent theme of “Mr. Robot” is the way revolutions ripple out in unexpected ways, a phenomenon Irving neatly encapsulated in a remark to Angela about the protest distraction. “Just because we lit the fuse, doesn’t mean we can control the explosion,” he said.
• The long take has traditional been a film phenomenon but the most celebrated one in recent memory was actually on TV: Cary Fukunaga’s six-minute tracking shot in the first season of “True Detective.” (“Better Call Saul” also had a great one last year.) Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.