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?)
I feel like Mr. Robot has become somewhat cheekier since the last season, eschewing some of its self-serious cinematic techniques for cute gimmicks — like the mute button from the last episode and the omnipresent emoji faces from today’s episode. Of course, I know that Mr. Robot did that for a full episode in season 2 with the sitcom subplot, but that felt more audacious than whimsical.
That’s not to say Mr. Robot has suddenly become a comedy. Things are still dire and darker than ever — the looming emotionless emoji staring Elliot down on the subway is a perfect indication of that — but it doesn’t always have to be a soul-crushing experience. Bobby Cannavale’s gleefully malicious character added to that tone in the season premiere and his absence is felt in the second episode, which once again delves into the nature of Elliot’s depression. To that end, “Undo” is both stagnant and busy story-wise, with the show and Elliot trying to rebuild what he broke. But the episode is thrown for a loop after a major character death that sent shock waves…absolutely nowhere. But it’s too early to tell how this shocking death, and this soft “reboot” episode that calls back to so many elements of season 1, will affect the rest of the story.
This Week’s Breakdown: Joanna Wellick, Literally
Oh Joanna Wellick, we hardly knew ye.
A strange thing to say after spending half a season with her last year, but it’s true. The enigmatic wife of Tyrell Wellick always kept up an impenetrable facade — though we knew she was ride or die for Tyrell. In her first and last appearance in season 3, we see the fruits of Joanna’s (Stephanie Corneliussen) labor have paid off — successfully getting her bartender boy toy Derek (Chris Conroy) to implicate Scott Knowles for killing his wife and clearing Tyrell of all murder charges.
But her success is short-lived — a lovelorn Derek drunkenly follows her on the drive home, causing her driver Mr. Sutherland to accost and threaten him, demanding that he never return again. Joanna whips out that signature smirk just as we see (in a beautifully composed shot) Derek shoot Mr. Sutherland (Jeremy Holm) through the window before shooting Joanna in the head. Roxette’s “Listen To Your Heart” cacophonously plays in the radio, swelling as a dying Sutherland fatally shoots Derek, while Joanna’s blood-drenched baby cries, his wails punctuating the bubbly pop song.
So why did I choose Joanna for this week’s breakdown, for all the upper hand that she initially gained? Because of that first grotesque shot of her skull being cut open during autopsy — it’s a shocking way to say goodbye to one of Mr. Robot‘s most intriguing and obscure characters in a show rife with them. We won’t see the shockwaves of Joanna’s death ripple with the rest of the characters, namely the still-hidden Tyrell, except for FBI agents Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) and her partner, who argue over her death’s relation to Tyrell and fsociety’s scheme, and Darlene’s motivations as their snitch. While Dom’s partner is fixated on fsociety — who had released a new video that Darlene denied was their’s — Dom was rightly focused on the Dark Army.
The Dark Army had put Stage 2 on hold while Elliot and Mr. Robot continue their mental battle, but Whiterose (BD Wong) — angered by E Corp. CEO Phillip Price’s (Michael Cristofer) speech condemning China for “declaring a currency war” — orders his underling to begin Stage 2. “It’s time Phillip Price’s hands got slapped,” he says smugly as this episode’s amazing ambient electronic soundtrack imitating an eerie heartbeat swells to a climax.
The episode kicks off with brisk 10-minute montage set to INXS’s “New Sensation” in a scene so frenetic that I was left breathless. Elliot (Rami Malek) starts his job at E Corp with a skip in his step and a new mission in life: to give up his “dorm room philosophizing run amok” and fix the world he broke. But even as he makes his way through new clothes, new pills, new bosses (all of whom he hacked and exposed for corruption to the FBI), new hacks that will delay the impending Stage 2, and the faces of leering emoji faces staring at him in the subway, it all comes to a screeching halt when Elliot’s depression returns.
With Elliot’s depression returned, so does the shallow depth of field and the off-kilter frames replete with empty space. Like so many moments in this episode, the scene of Elliot sobbing in his room is achingly familiar — a callback to his high and low moods of season 1. But the scene is given a season 3 touch: Elliot’s face in the mirror becomes that leering emoji face that had been following him throughout his bouncy montage — a stunningly authentic depiction of clinical depression. Mr. Robot has always toed the line in its portrayal of mental illness, giving Elliot’s dissociative identity disorder a somewhat flashy stand-in (Christian Slater, who honestly can’t help it), but also showing that depression can never truly go away. While the sleek and stylish depiction of Elliot’s various mental states can verge on uncomfortable, showrunner Sam Esmail does make a point to emphasize the work that goes into dealing with mental illness — the constant therapy, the medication, the grappling with a force that will always remain. It’s part of an encouraging wave of series like You’re The Worst, BoJack Horseman, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that are striving for genuine depictions of mental illness.
“I miss being part of something…important,” Elliot tells his therapist Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben) when she asks whether he misses Mr. Robot. Elliot reminisces about a childhood story, of building a snowman named Kevin McAllister after Home Alone with his sister, and ending up in the hospital after his dad pushes him out the window. Krista is taken aback at this story of “the accident,” but Elliot insists that he’s told it before. The scene suddenly feels discomfiting and surreal as the camera pans slowly into Elliot’s blank face and the electronic music ebbs darkly. Krista asks him what made him think of the story. “I don’t know,” he responds.
Darlene in the Dark
Darlene is being beset upon on all sides again — with the FBI demanding that she reveal Elliot’s connection to Tyrell and Elliot pushing her away once again for being his “trigger.” Her faith in her brother is rocked however, when her certainty that Elliot and Tyrell have nothing to do with each other is upended by Dom showing her a recording of Tyrell’s cryptic call to Elliot in prison.
This apparently is the turning point for Darlene — she gets in contact with Elliot and they meet at the darkened beach by their former fsociety headquarters. She’s still seething at the glib way he had treated her last episode, but her resolve is weakened somewhat when Elliot brings up the Kevin McAllister snowman story. “Do you want to talk about it?” she stutters, but he brushes her off and asks her to stay at his apartment that night. “I don’t want to be alone,” Elliot says tremulously.
At Elliot’s apartment, Darlene breaks into his computer while he’s sleeping, but she’s suddenly interrupted when he awakes. Uncharacteristically, Elliot corners and interrogates her, and she soon realizes that it’s not Elliot but Mr. Robot. Christian Slater’s body replaces Malek’s as he yells at Darlene and demands to know why she’s at the apartment. “Stay the fuck away from me you psycho,” Darlene spits venomously, slamming the door in Elliot’s shocked face — perhaps a sign that Elliot has returned?
The dark, pulsing music returns as Elliot sits in front of his computer after feeding the dog that Krista’s ex-boyfriend had foisted upon him, hesitating to log on. The hack on his screen appears on the screen being fed to the FBI, as Dom turns to a despondent Darlene. “Good job,” Dom says.
Part of Something
At his second session, Elliot asks his therapist to talk to “him.” Krista’s eyes widen, this is what she has been working toward for the past year. They do a breathing exercise and try to draw Mr. Robot out, before Elliot opens his eyes slowly and looks up sinisterly. In the small moments where Malek is playing Mr. Robot, he has been incredibly impressive — the vocal tics and shaking, wide eyes that he’s perfected as Elliot all but disappear when he dons the Mr. Robot persona. It’s not quite a Christian Slater impression, but it’s a harder, cocky persona that Malek has managed to perfect in only a few scattered moments.
Malek leans forward and speaks, a smug smile slowly widening on his face as Slater’s voice reverberates through his mouth. “We were doing just fine” he says, Malek’s body flickering into Slater’s. He struts about the room, monologuing about how he and Elliot were two parts of a whole, but now “we’re just getting torn apart.” Glancing over at Krista, he compliments her beauty but she professionally brushes him off. “As beautiful you are, you’re not getting in my head” he says, before launching into a tirade about how “she” compromised them. When Krista inquires the identity of “she,” he leans over her threateningly and says “I’m done talking to you.” The chilling electronic music swells overwhelmingly and comes to a sudden halt, Krista looking on in fear as Elliot sits across from her, amnesiac and confused.
Elliot panics about the lost time, wondering what Krista and Mr. Robot talked about, and fearful of Mr. Robot’s return. “Were you there? Did you see what he saw?” Elliot asks the audience frantically.
Later, the FBI agents are holed up in their stakeout apartment, joking and listening to the Barenaked Ladies when suddenly they see Elliot rooting around their safehouse on one of their cameras. Dom realizes that the email he supposedly sent to Tyrell was a hack for them, and the episode ends with Elliot on their monitor. The question is: is this Mr. Robot? Or like Elliot’s shocked face when Darlene left implies, is Elliot onto the FBI?Instead of leaving the audience deep in Elliot’s perspective, we see him as everyone else does, and we’re left to guess his motivations and persona. It’s exciting that even three seasons in, Esmail manages to find a way to play with our expectations — it doesn’t feel like a season-long con like last year, but a clever puzzle that we get to solve ourselves.