BY DUSTY STOWE
It wasn’t that long ago that Mr. Robot was one of television’s most bracing, creatively adventurous series. The show, created by writer/director Sam Esmail, is the story of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a hacker who suffers from a split personality disorder; his darker, more chaotic half takes on the guise of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who appears to him like his deceased father. In the show’s widely lauded first season, Elliot comes to terms with his split personality just as he’s helping bring about a global financial crisis with his team of hackers, aimed primarily at the massive, amoral corporation E Corp.
Visually, it was unlike anything on television, using the work of David Fincher was a starting point for some of the most dazzling cinematography the small screen has ever seen. The storytelling was an exhilarating blend of puzzle box mystery, fourth wall breaking social commentary, and meditations on 21st century isolation and anxiety. The show garnered Emmy nominations, with Malek winning for his riveting work as the show’s uneasy center.
The show’s second season was far more polarizing, pushing the show’s stylistic flourishes and reality-bending proclivities to the breaking point, with a “big reveal” that just didn’t live up to the first season’s. The second season, in many ways, was even more artistically daring than the first, but it occasionally missed the mark while take big creative swings.
The current third season, up until now, has felt like an overcorrection. The first four episodes of the season have been relatively restrained characters pieces, the straightest storytelling a show like Mr. Robot is likely capable of. The plot machinations have been interesting, but far from revelatory, as Elliot attempts to prevent the Dark Army (a group of mysterious, violent terrorist hackers) from carrying out Mr. Robot’s plans to effectively decimate the world economy. Unbeknownst to Elliot, Mr. Robot has been collaborating with his lifelong friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday) to make sure the Dark Army’s lethal plans move forward. It’s been a slow simmer of a season, decidedly less flashy than the show’s previous seasons.
That all changed with the season’s fifth episode, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00.” The episode begins with Elliot – who has secured a job at E Corp in an attempt to undo the damage he did as Mr. Robot on the Dark Army’s behalf – feeling uneasy, as if something’s gone wrong within his mind. This isn’t exactly unusual for a character with split personalities who routinely breaks the fourth wall to speak to the viewer, and yet this is something different. As Elliot’s unease grows, it becomes obvious what the show is doing – minutes go by with no obvious camera cut. Indeed, an obvious camera cut never comes in the episode’s frenetic 45 minutes.
This is hardly the first time a single take gimmick has been used – the Oscar winning Birdman famously used the conceit, and The X-Files even did a version of it on television two decades ago. It’s also not actually a single take – there are several hidden cuts woven in to give the illusion of a continuous take. And yet, in this case, the conceit fits the chaos that Mr. Robot is attempting to express like a glove.
In the episode’s first half, Elliot finds himself sprinting through the E Corp building in an attempt to gain computer access to the information necessary to halt the Dark Army’s plans, as he dodges security attempting to remove him from the building after Angela gets him fired. About halfway through, the perspective shifts to Angela, who is essentially attempting to undo what Elliot is up to, securing a hard drive for the Dark Army as a violent riot erupts both outside and within the E Corp building. The Elliot half of the episode is prime Mr. Robot, featuring Elliot’s running internal monologue and the smooth Steadicam sweeps that have become the show’s signature.
The Angela half is where the single take conceit really becomes essential, as the camera switches to shaky handheld as the chaos within the E Corp building explodes, with Angela dodging protestors – who may in fact be Dark Army agents creating a very scary distraction. It feels like a deft combination of a disaster movie and a spy film, as Angela ventures well outside of her comfort zone, and the camera work takes on some surrealistic flourishes, like a scene where she’s inside a small, quiet room and the camera pans overhead, then outside of the building, displaying the chaos unraveling just below her.
While Elliot often ruminates on real world events in his inner monologue by railing against corporate greed and societal unrest, the Angela half of the “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00” feels like the show’s most clear eyed condemnation of the state of the world right now by showing instead of telling, as a riot ostensibly against corporate corruption may simply be a cover for even more nefarious agents. The truth has become a hazy concept in the world of Mr. Robot, not unlike it has in ours.
The politics of the show, which once felt relatively straightforward in their revolutionary aspirations, have revealed themselves to be deeply complicated. The show’s fiery young hackers have proved to be, for the most part, idealistic charlatans or, in the case of Elliot, genuinely unwell. Elliot’s revolution has sent the world into a chaos he didn’t anticipate, one that the world’s power players were able to adapt to in ways that ended up granting them even more influence. Darlene (Carly Chaikin), Elliot’s sister and co-conspirator, has been compromised by the FBI. Angela, once the show’s purest voice of righteousness, has found herself pretending to be an agent of darkness for so long it’s become difficult to tell how much of it is still an act at this point.
The episode ends with Elliot confronting Angela amidst the chaos, the two childhood friends working to undo the efforts of the other. The show has long framed Elliot as essentially his own worst enemy, always needing to remain vigilant in the face of Mr. Robot’s scheming. But the revelation that Angela has been conspiring with his darker half could fundamentally alter the show’s dynamics, as Elliot can no longer rely on his most trusted ally. Coupled with Darlene’s FBI situation and the faltering loyalty of former E. Corp executive Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), Elliot has never been more isolated in his efforts to push back against the darkness.
Mr. Robot is in many ways a show about trust, or the lack thereof: trust in bedrock institutions, trust in family, trust in your own perception of reality. The show defaults to skepticism about every single one of those avenues, and yet Elliot is constantly looking for something he can lean on, something he can put his faith in. If he had fully given himself over to cynicism, he wouldn’t be so wounded when his trust is betrayed.
In a single break-neck episode, Mr. Robot has largely justified the deliberate, sometimes meandering nature of the opening salvo of season three. The show’s relative restraint made its big creative splash all the more exciting, and the show’s ability to make the showy, technically audacious hour its most emotionally and narratively significant is a triumph that suggests that, while Elliot may still have trust issues, fans of the show can put their faith in Sam Esmail that Mr. Robot knows where it’s going.
Mr. Robot season three airs Wednesdays at 10 PM ET on USA.