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?)
Excuse my language but, holy shit. What an episode. After the last few weeks of hemming and hawing, Mr. Robot delivered on the explosive potential it had hiding within its grim, contemplative reservoirs.
“Runtime Error” was a technical marvel of filmmaking, doing what no other series has ever done: shoot an entire episode in one relentless, grueling long take. While other TV dramas — True Detective‘s “Who Goes There,” Band of Brothers’“Why We Fight,” every other episode of “The West Wing” — have utilized the long take for one or two tension-filled scenes, this episode uses the technique for one entire 45-minute episode.
Creator Sam Esmail’s stylistic flairs could be seen as gimmicks — this season has had particular fun with elements like a mute button or emoji faces amid its sobering takedown of reality. But Esmail has always pushed the boundaries of TV cinematography with his splashy techniques, and “Runtime Error” was like a culmination of all those moments — as well as the shifting perspectives that I touched on a few weeks ago. Like the title of this episode implies, the slightly sluggish Mr. Robot suddenly broke into a full-speed run. It was a wonder to watch.
This Week’s Breakdown: Angela
The cracks in Angela’s icy veneer finally gave way to a flood of emotions that she had until now kept tight lid on. I have to commend Portia Doubleday’s balletic navigation of this long take episode, both physically and emotionally. It’s difficult enough to flawlessly deliver a performance in an episode such as this which demands high-level technical maneuvering, blocking, and camera movements. It’s even more difficult to portray a character slowly crumble emotionally until Angela breaks down into quiet sobs, interrupted by Elliot’s abrupt approach and demand to know if there’s “something you want to tell me.”
But Portia Doubleday performs the role with aplomb. Ever since Angela allied herself with the Dark Army, she had been distancing herself from Elliot — and by extent, the audience. It felt like a true villainous transformation, with Angela arming herself with stark white blouses, blank stares, and stilted speech. But in “Runtime Error” we saw fleeting glimpses of the innocent normie who knew nothing of Elliot’s double life, in the small moments of introspection in the hallway, in the elevator, rounding a corner. It’s amazing how much room this episode allows characters to breathe in a long take that feels so breathless.
Hanging By a Rope
I’m getting ahead of myself. Jumping straight into a deep dive of Angela’s storyline feels wrong, interrupting the smooth flow of this nail-biting heist episode. “Runtime Error” expertly transitions from Elliot’s quest to get to the bottom of his missing time to Angela stepping up to enact the final steps of Stage 2, all this amidst the chaos of a planned Dark Army attack on E Corp under the guise of a protest gone wrong. It’s a relatively simple plot with suspense built into its premise: three disparate parties moving toward separate goals. But it’s all heightened to an extreme thanks to the long take.
There are shades of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the most famous movie to be filmed in one long take in “Runtime Error,” especially in the invisible transitions between cuts — a zoom into the back of a dark hoodie, the rounding of a shadowy corner, a recurring pan to a news program playing in the elevator. But while Rope feels more akin to an uninterrupted stage play, Mr. Robot never loses any of its stylistic DNA. Because far be it for Mr. Robot to sacrifice its signature bird’s eye view shots and empty space in favor of an easy long take. Instead, the maneuvering is nothing short of breathtaking, with steadicams effortlessly changing into drone shots, into handheld shots. One particularly stunning shot consists of a pan to a local journalist with the frame suddenly changing to resemble a news report. This episode better get Mr. Robot its next Emmy.
No Longer on Autopilot
“It’s like I’m on autopilot,” Elliot intones in his cursory monologue at the beginning of the episode — but something’s off. A quiet static crackling is interspersed throughout the first few minutes, growing louder as Elliot realizes he’s facing four days of missing time. From there, the episode kicks into high gear, with Elliot’s frantic attempts to stop the Dark Army initiating Stage 2 coinciding with a group of security personnel chasing him down to fire him from his short-lived E Corp job, as the static crackling becomes nearly deafening and the camera become increasingly jerky.
It’s not until Elliot meets Darlene outside the building, surrounded by angry protesters does that crackling suddenly cease — replaced by a high-pitched whistle when Darlene drops the bomb: she had been working with the FBI. And Angela was working with Mr. Robot. The camera swerves around Elliot until we see a familiar low Dutch angle with the wide expanse of sky taking up most of the frame: Elliot is alone once again. Betrayed by his family and his friends, his POV is the next to be betrayed, with the camera soon panning out amongst the crowd, through the rioters, and back into the building to none other than Angela.
What Would Mr. Robot Do?
Up until this season, Mr. Robot had been almost exclusively encamped in Elliot’s perspective, but as we saw with the Tyrell-centric episode a few weeks ago, and the abrupt shifts between Elliot and Mr. Robot, that was no longer the case. Elliot’s reality was leaking out of his inner musings, no longer relegated to him and his “imaginary friend.” It culminated in Elliot’s accidental verbalizing of his monologue to his coworker and the subtle E Corp commercials snuggled between real commercials on USA Network. Now that we, the audience, are more hyper aware of Elliot’s unreliable narration, the show is revealing more to us than it is to our protagonist. We see Christian Slater when Mr. Robot has taken over Elliot’s body. We see exactly what happened in Elliot’s missing time.
Elliot’s idiosyncratic way of viewing the world — this week taking the form of the a long take that shifts its perspective to various strangers in the crowd until finally settling on Angela — has expanded. Where the rest of the season will take this shift, who knows. But if a mid-season episode could take Mr. Robot to new creative heights like “Runtime Error” just did (so much so that I barely even noticed when we didn’t see Irving onscreen!) then I anxiously await what Esmail and co. have in store for the finale.