BY MATT BRENNAN
“Metadata,” Elliot (Rami Malek) explains as he breaks into his sister’s apartment, is “the story behind the data”: “how it was created, where and by whom.” In the latest Mr. Robot—defined by its foreboding sonic backdrop, its drumbeat becoming a metronomic thrum, and then the anxious strings of a late-night tail—this notion finds expression in two forms. After the flashback to Tyrell Wellick’s (Martin Wallström) very own Walden, the series presses further on the personal, the intimate, the reflective; as the episode begins, for instance, Darlene (Carly Chaikin) confesses her crimes to an unsuspecting pickpocket, demanding only the return of that palm-sized family portrait, a Polaroid snapped in happier days. (“You stole from me,” she says, “but I stole from you first.”) But there’s another through line here, connecting Irving’s (Bobby Cannavale) ode to ribs, Love Actually and Elliott Smith, one that suggests a certain skepticism of metadata’s uses. It’s an hour spent collecting information, arranging it, redacting it, attempting to control it, and it’s also an hour that questions the stories we create from such data. “Everything means nothing to me,” Smith sings, and in that desperate sentiment there is also a warning: Metadata is not, in itself, a form of meaning. It can obscure as much as it reveals.
Against the sprawling, often frustrating detours of Season Two, the very shape of Season Three—slimmer, more muscular, running headlong for Stage 2 of ECorp’s destruction—points to a tacit acknowledgement, on creator Sam Esmail’s part, that there is such a thing as needless complication, and “metadata.par2” only strengthens this impression. The urge to read meaning into each data point remains, of course; the resonances among ECorp, Esmail, Elliot Alderson and Elliott Smith, for instance, might seem the key to decoding an ancient rune, or otherwise the non-sense of a Dadaist poem. What does Irving’s obsession with barbecue have to do with his assertion that “anything is possible”? What are we to make of the fact that Nouri, the man brought in for questioning by the FBI, is watching a shitty Christmas movie when the agents arrive, his phone ringing and ringing, unanswered? Is Irving’s assurance to Tyrell — “This is the moment you were born for” — genuine faith in fate, or bullshit he’s selling a vulnerable man?
Admittedly, I’m a bad fan of Mr. Robot, and sometimes no fan at all; I watch not for its unfurling conspiracies and intricate mysteries, but for its moments of clarity, as when Angela (Portia Doubleday) looms over Elliot’s desk in that immaculate white suit, Our Lady of Stage 2, the Madonna of the Revolution. But in leaving open the possibility that “everything means nothing,” at least with regard to incidental details, the episode shifts the focus to metadata of another sort, the stuff of biographies and dating profiles, FBI files and long character arcs. Darlene and Dom (the invaluable Grace Gummer) get to know each other over drinks, for example, and though it begins humorously—Gummer’s head-shaking, eye-rolling delivery of “the world-renowned town of Teaneck” made me squeal—it soon touches on exposed nerves, on loneliness and guilt and grief, on the emotional substructure of the characters’ motivations.
See also: Tyrell’s yearning to fulfill a larger purpose, or Angela’s long-simmering rage. In an hour that is, in terms of the larger narrative, mostly a form of table setting, Mr. Robot is at pains to suggest how people tick—how their actions were created, where and by whom. The one figure that still resists interpretation is Elliot, himself the series’ most intricate mystery, and at the same time “the best lead we’ve got.” Just before Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) starts to wig out, like a computer monitor on the fritz, and Angela steps in with her syringe, he and Tyrell argue on this very point—Elliot and Mr. Robot have been working at cross-purposes, the former delaying the shipments that the latter needs in place. “You, as a person, make no sense,” Tyrell cries: Elliot’s metadata is garbled, even to him; his is not a story that scans. That this is how stories and people actually work—the former an order imposed on the chaos of the latter—may be the episode’s central insight, and infuses the final preparations for Stage 2 with fresh suspense. In Elliot/Mr. Robot, it is possible to read opposing outcomes, which Angela/Tyrell/Irving and Darlene/Dom seek to influence, if not outright control. The problem is that we are more than our metadata: No one, as a person, makes perfect sense.