BY HOAI-TRAN BUI
(We’re going to kickstart our weekly discussion of USA’s Mr. Robot season 3 by answering one simple question: who had the biggest mental breakdown in this week’s episode?)
The first season of Mr. Robot was one of the most compelling, labyrinthine pieces of storytelling to come out of cable television, but its momentum was nearly derailed by the equally ambitious but discordant second season. Happily, it seems like the third season is a return to form for the hacker thriller series.
The season 3 premiere of Mr. Robot brings the USA series back to its noir-inspired roots, but doesn’t let the mystery envelop the show like it had previously. The narrative momentum is back on hyper-speed, with Elliot quickly regaining his footing while supporting characters soon become more transparent. The stark visual identity that showrunner and writer Sam Esmail brought to the series still threatens to disquiet the viewer, but star Rami Malek brings renewed energy to his role, grounding the series with his wide-eyed vulnerability.
This Week’s Breakdown: Elliot Alderson
This one was kind of a given.
Despite our protagonist finally coming out of his paranoid shell to take action, Elliot always seemed two steps behind the forces trying to manipulate and use him. Not to mention his Messiah complex is in full swing, with Elliot constantly repeating mantras like, “I’m the one in control, the one with the power” in his inner monologue. But our favorite hacktivist has a reason for asserting himself — the gunshot wound that he sustained in the season 2 finale has seemed to snuff out the ever-present voice of Mr. Robot. Now, unburdened by the alter ego that had taken over so much of his life, Elliot sets off to stop the Dark Army from initiating phase 2 and killing hundreds of people.
Fascinatingly, season 3 is still set in 2015 — just as Trump’s rise in popularity is starting to gain a foothold; this puts Mr. Robot in an odd self-contained bubble in a time that felt like an eternity ago. But instead of taking the sanctimonious “what should have been” approach from The Newsroom, Mr. Robot expertly weaves in this curious self-contained time bubble into its noir narrative, asking “what happened?” Just as Elliot pieces together his fragmented mind and memory, so do we piece together the events of the past two years, and how it ended up this way.
Which brings us to the best part of the episode: Elliot’s rousing inner monologue — reminiscent of his impassioned season 1 condemnation of society and social media — spills out into reality, as he witnesses the collapse of the darkening city around him (because of an episode-long power outage).
“Did my revolution just bury our minds instead of freeing them?” Elliot wonders, becoming increasingly aggravated at his role in bringing about a worst future, one intercut with images of Fox News talking heads, merchandized fsociety masks, shots of current day protests, and Donald Trump. “I didn’t start a revolution,” Elliot realizes, as he comes to terms with his own villainy and as the show draws the comparisons to disgruntled internet-bound Americans who helped to bring about this polarizing climate. “I just made us docile enough for our slaughtering.”
It’s not society that was wrong, Elliot realizes, in a brilliant deconstruction of the season 1 premise — it was him.
The Red Wheelbarrow
Though Elliot has reached a new level of understanding, the Dark Army is still eager to follow his lead to destroy E Corp. And our latest Dark Army stooge injects some much-needed verve into the series. Bobby Cannavale‘s gleefully menacing Irving is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly somber Mr. Robot, approaching every dire event with an air of breezy disinterest. That we only see him lose his cool two times is telling — the first when he doesn’t earn a free milkshake thanks to a confusing promotion at the Red Wheelbarrow BBQ (named after the William Carlos Williams poem and a recurring motif since season 2), the second when Elliot demands that phase 2 be shut down.
“When we lose our principles, we invite chaos” he proclaims to a confused cashier — some ominous foreshadowing for the character should he ever unleash the menace simmering beneath the surface.
But Irving is still just a henchman for BD Wong‘s mysterious Whiterose, who reveals to the audience that Elliot’s father also once unknowingly worked for the Dark Army — and it was what killed him. Once Elliot had finished the work they needed him for, “he can die for us…just like his father,” Whiterose declares.
After Elliot has fled Angela’s apartment where he was brought to recover from his gunshot wound, finding an emptied warehouse with no Tyrell Wellick in sight, he finally reunites with his distraught sister Darla. If it wasn’t for Malek’s renewed energy as Elliot this episode, Carly Chaikin would be the MVP, all raw nerves and overwrought emotion. She has reason to be — she had just witnessed her boyfriend Cisco be killed by the Dark Army in a diner shootout (one of the standout chilling scenes from season 2), information which her brother vaguely shrugs off. But her loyalty to Elliot is unending, and she helps him find a place where he can close the backdoor to the E Corps servers at a CTF tournament buried underground while the rest of the city is without power.
As the two of them spot two Chinese men from the Dark Army following them, Darla begins to have a panic attack while Elliot all but ignores her, beginning his mission to shut the backdoor. She secludes herself in the bathroom and calls an unseen person for help, but she’s accosted by the two men, who shut off Elliot’s computer just as he’s about to accomplish his goal.
Here the two of them meet Irving for the first time — though Irving knows Elliot’s alter ego Mr. Robot. Elliot attempts to pull rank and demand that phase 2 be shut down, to which Irving concedes, only to drop his jolly facade last-minute. “You know that bullet we took out of you? We can easily put it back in,” he threatens.
Love a Great Mystery
Oh, Angela. The subject of this episode — Elliot perceptively calls her blank, emotionless state “power saver mode” —Portia Doubleday‘s Angela has transformed from the one “normal” of the series into one of the most intriguing antiheroes of the series. Her season 2 arc was at times infuriating, most times unsettling, but it has all led to this: she has allied herself with Mr. Robot.
It’s a twist saved for the last one-third of the episode, in which we switch POV’s from Elliot’s dominating narration to a silent but revelatory Angela. Waking up suddenly in the middle of the night after a despondent Elliot has returned from his wanderings around the city and begged for a job at E Corps, Angela encounters a shadowy figure awake in her living room. She seems to see Christian Slater‘s Mr. Robot, a once-invisible figure that existed only in Elliot’s head, and the two of them set off into the night. It’s revealed that she has been plotting with Mr. Robot for a while, who is less a “Fight Club-multiple personality illusion” now than a full-fledged Mr. Hyde alter ego.
The two of them meet up with Irving at the bunker housing Tyrell Wellick (a constantly panicked Martin Wallström) who is, once again, severely out of the loop. Angela mediates with a skeptical Irving, who is uncertain of re-starting phase 2 after Elliot didn’t recognize him before. But she manages to persuade him, while Mr. Robot calms Wellick.
As the two of them ride a bus home in a city slowly regaining its electricity, Mr. Robot wonders why she’s lying to Elliot. While Angela and Mr. Robot have struck up a business relationship, she insists that they’re not friends — that’s reserved for Elliot. Angela responds, “He started this, I’m just helping him finish this. I’m pushing him along, isn’t that what you do?”