BY MATT BRENNAN
This week’s Mr. Robot begins with a long, intricately staged shot of Elliot (Rami Malek) in an elevator, ascending to E Corp’s upper floors in the fog of his “autopilot” mode. As it proceeds—through news of China’s attempted annexation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the stranger’s German and that choral tune—one begins to anticipate the first pause in the action, the first cutaway to Irving or Tyrell. That it doesn’t come might be a Birdman-esque gimmick, another of creator/director Sam Esmail’s strained aesthetic experiments, except that the episode reflects one of the series’ core strengths, which the current season seems set on recapturing. Despite the hour’s technical complications, its almost studiously “virtuosic” construction, Mr. Robot’s “one take” wonder is a model of streamlined storytelling. It sets each of its characters a simple task—Elliot must get out, Angela (Portia Doubleday) in—and stands back as they leap over the hurdles.
In this sense, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00,” which USA (admirably) aired uninterrupted and commercial-free, is a fair metaphor for the series itself, always most formidable when it scuttles its philosophical baggage and conspiratorial Easter eggs in order to keep moving forward. (Elliot’s rather clumsy use of the phrase “runtime error” — “Sometimes corrupted memory can lead to one” — in his voiceover narration is the notable exception, as if it were Season Two’s vestigial tail.) And move forward it does, even—albeit briefly—in slow motion, through Elliot’s impending termination, his attempted escape, his conversation with Darlene (Carly Chaikin) and, finally, the revelation that Angela and Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) have been working against him. Perhaps most impressive, given the cat-and-mouse aspect of the episode’s first half, is the levity it finds in Elliot’s situation; I loved the way it uses certain assumptions—an older woman sniffing white-out can’t be a computer whiz—to create small, potent reversals—this lady knows her shit, actually. See also, Malek’s note-perfect deadpan of corporate chumminess as he intrudes on a meeting to elude ECorp security. “Sean, of course. Dave Kennedy. I worked with Craig on the Q4 push. I had longer hair then.”
Elliot manages to make his way out to the street, where a vociferous protest against ECorp is underway (“This is what democracy looks like!”) and Darlene confesses that she’s turned FBI informant. Smartly, though—and perhaps unexpectedly, for a series whose visual style is defined by asymmetries—Mr. Robot remembers Angela, who we spied in the elevator with Elliot in the opening sequence, and goes in to find her. The camera’s leaping, bounding advance into the building, as rioters rush the police barricade, ranks with last season’s finest entry, “python-pt1.p7z,” for formal vigor, and it signals the episode’s shift toward horror. The fsociety masks, the organ music, the cans of red spray paint, the incessant alarms, the occasional blood-soaked body in the office rubble: The second half of “runtime-err0r.r00” nicely reverses the first, as the episode itself were enacting a kind of transference. Now, Angela is the indefatigable crusader, the ideologue; Elliot is the cautious operator, carefully weighing pros and cons. (To underscore the point, Angela literally dons the fsociety uniform, their mask and dark hoodie, to make it back to the elevator unscathed.)
This wouldn’t be Mr. Robot without a twist, but for once the series chooses not to dwell on the details. The riot has been bought and paid for by Irving (Bobby Cannavale), we learn, though he understands that no amount of planning is enough to eliminate chaos, that the “perfect” conspiracy only seems so to outsiders: “Just because we lit the fuse,” he tells Angela, “doesn’t mean we control the explosion.” If this sentiment is a reflection of the episode’s headlong momentum, though—once set in motion, its highly constructed action begins to feel almost inevitable—the episode’s success is itself no surprise; “runtime-err0r.r00” is the most thoroughgoing expression of Season Three’s pared down shape, which has reanimated Mr. Robot by going back to basics. Elliot says as much in the episode’s opening minutes, as if to acknowledge that the series is strongest when it’s as lean and tightly wound as he is. “Do not leave me,” he urges. “Stay focused.”