BY ALAN SEPINWALL
A review of tonight’s Mr. Robot coming up just as soon as I have tickets to the Goo Goo Dolls reunion concert…
“I don’t want to be alone.” –Elliot
“Undo” was a reminder of how nimbly Mr. Robot can tell its story, but also of just how much story there is to move through at this stage of things. At times, it was as much pure fun as I can remember the show being while still staying on-mission (as opposed to an interior departure like the Alf cameo), while at others, I felt like I needed to go to the craft store to get conspiracy board supplies just to keep track of it all.
We start off with a (new) sensational montage, as Elliot embarks on his new career at E Corp — even mentally referring to it as such, while admitting that the “Evil” name may have been “my dorm room philosophizing run amok” — and finds himself living a new Moebius strip existence where he keeps trying to prevent the paper files from getting to New York, only to run into one corrupt executive after another standing in his way, which forces him to play vigilante again in between regular work, anti-Mr. Robot work, and opening up his shipments from Trunk Club. It’s caper-as-drudgery, and it’s marvelous to watch.
Now that Elliot and Mr. Robot are in open war with one another, and now that several other characters are aware of the existence of this separate personality, the show also gets to be more creative and unsettling in the ways that it shows the transition from one to the other, and how the world perceives it versus how we do. Elliot goes back to Krista for help with this immediate problem, still not understanding how much more help he needs from her — just look at how startled she is when he casually mentions the time his father shoved him out the window — and of course has to invite Mr. Robot to come out in hopes Krista can persuade him in a way that Elliot himself can’t. But in both that scene and the earlier one where Mr. Robot threatens Darlene in Elliot’s apartment, we get an opportunity to first see and hear Rami Malek playing Mr. Robot before an edit or camera move can reveal Christian Slater. There’s always a danger of imitating Slater that it just turns into Jack Nicholson (this has been a danger for Slater himself at different points in his career), but Malek found the sweet spot of evoking and sounding like his co-star while still seeming threatening — in some ways, even more, because we can better appreciate it that it’s Elliot’s body doing and saying these things, even if his personality isn’t controlling it at the moment.
At the start of the series, before we knew for sure what Mr. Robot was, there was an imbalance between Elliot scenes and ones featuring other characters, simply because what Malek was doing — and being given to do by Sam Esmail and others — was just so compelling that it was hard to care about anybody else. That’s no longer an issue, as Darlene, Angela, Dom, and everyone else have been built into such complicated figures in their own right that I care about what happens to them almost as much as I do Elliot, and in fact wound up enjoying the Elliot-less “Successor” more than almost any other episode last season.
But there’s a new kind of imbalance between Elliot and everybody else at this point. Elliot’s goal for the moment is pretty straightforward: stop Mr. Robot and Tyrell from blowing up the backup building, then do whatever possible to reverse the effects of the Five/Nine hack. He doesn’t know everything we do about the other players — that Angela is now working with Whiterose, that Darlene is informing for Dom, etc. — but he knows enough that his scenes are easy to follow no matter how baroque the style choices are for them. Everyone else is running at least two or three layers of games — Angela thinks she’s using Whiterose just as much as Whiterose is using her, Darlene is trying to keep Dom from realizing that Elliot, not Tyrell, is the mastermind behind fsociety(*), Whiterose and Price are battling for dominance in multiple arenas (including proximity to Angela) — and Mr. Robot itself is doing the same with a lot of them. The exact nature of Stage 2, Angela’s endgame, and many more ideas are being deliberately withheld as mysteries to reveal at a later date, which is a fair storytelling device but also diminishes some of the emotional impact of a lot of scenes with the supporting cast, since it’s never clear how sincere most of them are being. Plus, they can risk feeling like homework. I don’t mind a show making me put in the effort to keep track of it (I’m a devout believer in David Simon shows, after all), but the payoffs have to be worth it, and Mr. Robot has a mixed track record in that regard. Will, say, Whiterose and Price’s gamesmanship over the Congo be worth it? We’ll see.
(*) In my review of the season two finale, I mistakenly thought that Darlene’s look at Dom’s conspiracy wall meant that the FBI knew Elliot’s true role. Whoops.
It’s for that reason that I’m okay with the decision to kill off Joanna at the hands of the bartender she used and discarded. Stephanie Corneliussen and the creative team made Joanna into one of the show’s most memorable and unsettling figures, but she was yet another character playing several sides against one another and keeping her true agenda close to the vest. Plus, a lot of her function last season was to serve as a proxy for Tyrell while the question of his whereabouts (or if he was even still alive) lingered; with him back, and with the board so crowded with other players, she had become less essential, and any move to simplify the overall narrative even a little seems sensible to me.
But man, when this show is humming the way it did during that opening montage, or Krista talking to Mr. Robot, I’ll forgive a lot of the rest of it.
Some other thoughts:
* Mostly old-school soundtrack choices this week, including INXS’s “New Sensation” over the Elliot at work montage, Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart” playing when Joanna is killed, and Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” (which the You’re the Worst season premiere beat this show to) as part of Dom’s partner Norm pranking her. But we went relatively recent for Elliot and Darlene’s Coney Island reunion with “Renegades” by X Ambassadors.
* No Irving this week, unfortunately, but there’s a lot of him in the next two.
* I always wonder what conversations are like between production and the parents of babies being used as glorified props for scenes like Joanna’s murder. “So, your child’s face is going to be covered in fake blood, and if they could scream their little head off for a bit, that’d be just great, okay?” “…”
* What a tragically dysfunctional relationship the Alderson siblings have. Darlene admits she joined fsociety just so she and Elliot could be close again, and her life has been destroyed as a result of that, on top of her brother occasionally channeling the ghost of their abusive father.