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‘Mr. Robot’ Recap: Orange Is the New Elliot

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “eps2.7_init_5.fve,” the ninth episode of the second season of “Mr. Robot.”

One thing is clear about the second season of “Mr. Robot”: It’s determined to hack the usual components of a TV season and rearrange them into a set-up that is more to its liking. And that’s not necessarily a bug, but a feature.

Last week, we had an episode that focused almost entirely on the members of fsociety, and the week before that, a bifurcated but entertaining hour that depicted Elliot as the star of a multi-camera comedy and then, for good measure, it tacked on a heist sequence starring Darlene and Angela. “Mr. Robot” is merrily hacking linear time, which is obviously a concept sold to sheeple by shady representatives of Big Clock.

This week, the show hit the reset button on Elliot’s experiences since that ominous knock on his door at the end of Season 1, and it showed us everything he has actually been through since that moment. It turned out that guy who’d had the dog Elliot stole not only paid a lot for the dog, he was very mad about Elliot’s hack of all his (seamy) personal info. So Elliot was in the county jail for just under three months, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, as the effects of the fsociety hack played out across the world. Elliot’s guilty plea could be viewed as an act of self-preservation, given that a county lockup might have been a reasonably safe place for the world’s most wanted hacker to hide out. He was hiding in plain sight, and the whole experience got Elliot away from computers, at least for awhile.

(Are we to assume that the warden for a prison is running an illegal site that allows a lot of extremely awful trading and commerce? If so, that seems risky, but then again, all kinds of illegal things go on inside many jails, so the scheme is not beyond the bounds of possibility, though the warden’s site goes way beyond a thriving trade in contraband like cigarettes and cell phones.)

In any event, we already knew that Elliot had not been staying with his mom but had been in jail — that’s a bit of information we got at the end of Episode 7 a couple of weeks ago. So Wednesday night’s installment leads me to a fairly obvious question: If the rewind of what Elliot actually went through in prison took less than one episode, did we really need to spend seven episodes on the fake-out scenario, in which it appeared that Elliot was crashing with his mom?

It’s hard to make the argument that we needed seven episodes — more than half the season — expended on that scenario, but let’s let bygones be bygones. There were some excellent nuggets scattered through the first half of the season: Elliot and Mr. Robot playing chess against each other and finally coming up with some kind of emotionally charged truce; that twisted sitcom set inside the family car; some great conversations and confrontations featuring Philip Price, Agent Dom DiPierro, Angela, Darlene and others. Even Mobley and Trenton got their moments to shine, and Joey Badass and Craig Robinson did excellent work in the first half of the season as well.

But they’re gone now, perhaps for good, and this week, we didn’t see Mobley or Trenton. Also still on the side of a milk carton under a “Missing” label: Tyrell Wellick. I’m a bit worried at this point that Wellick’s arrival in Season 2 won’t be able to live up to the hype — the hype being his long, mysterious, often hinted-at absence. I mean, it’s one heck of a buildup, and there’s not much time to pay off all this anticipation. After Wednesday night, there are only three episodes of Season 2 left, which isn’t much time to bring him in and make him a vital part of the story. Also, all season long, I’ve missed Tyrell’s machinations, which served last year as a gleefully deranged counterbalance to the clammy Elliot storylines, and Tyrell and Joanna have been apart a long time too (their dual weirdness was another of season one’s high points).

All that said, in recent weeks, “Mr. Robot” has surprised me with what it’s been willing to try. Even if not every aspect of the show’s experimentation has worked out this season, it has been gamely willing to reconfigure core elements of its programming in adventurous and sometimes rewarding ways. So I’ll cross my fingers and hope that Wellick returns as the star of an anime about space pirates, or something else that is similarly off the beaten path but somehow right for this slightly surreal show.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the characters this season have been largely locked into their own little groups or solo hells: It’s a show about paranoia and the difficulty of connection, so we got Darlene as the harried leader of a fractious fsociety crew; Angela by herself within the cold grays and blues of the E Corp offices; Whiterose and Price usually in their own orbits, commanding their underlings as they respond to various crises; Dom trying to put the pieces together and Elliot stuck in his own weird versions of hell.

The characters come together here and there, but the show is like one of those pinball machines inside the fsociety headquarters, and the characters are the pinballs. People bounce off each other and ricochet around each other, and things light up and spin around, but everything is heading in a downward direction. Tonight’s installment was one of the most paranoid hours yet. The lights kept flickering on and off, which is an economical yet ominous way to offer yet another indication that the basic functions of modern society are starting to break down. Perhaps my favorite scene of the hour could have come directly from a tightly wound ‘70s thriller: As Elliot unwillingly listens to a man mashing the keys of a portable synthesizer, he realizes just how hard his brain is glitching. Elliot can see “himself” in the next train car, talking calmly to Cisco — but it’s actually his Mr. Robot alter ego. What the hell is going on? 

“Keep it together”  is a thing people say to a person who is freaking out, but Elliot cannot keep it together — the dual parts of him are pulling apart. Is this because he had achieved some kind of mastery over himself and a synthesis between the two sides of him is in the offing? Or now that he is out of prison and doesn’t have any artificial limitations on his behavior or actions, is he spinning apart for good?

Both answers make sense, which speaks to the elements of balance and ambiguity “Mr. Robot” has been able to sustain in season two. The episode itself had its own pleasingly circular quality, in that Darlene answered a door at the end of the episode. She was clearly shocked at who it was — was it a Dark Army emissary? Wellick? Or just the Seamless order she’d expected hours ago? Tune in next week to see — and to see what Joanna and Elliot, and possibly Dom and Angela, have to talk about. Lots, probably.

A few more notes:

  • Why not make Leon’s running commentary on sitcoms an ongoing part of the show? At least give him a podcast.
  • I’m sure there are already message boards abuzz with images from Episodes 1-7 that were visually echoed in tonight’s installment, such as the person who was burning things in the park actually turning out to be an inmate who burned things in the yard, etc. I noticed quite a few of those visual links, but I’m sure there were more I missed.
  • So now Angela is a pretty competent hacker herself, given what she pulled off in the E Corp offices.
  • Darlene did not kill Cisco, which turned out to be handy when the gang needed to get in touch with the Dark Army about Phase 2 — which, apparently, Elliot should already know about. But I wonder — Whiterose does not seem like a character who likes having to answer to anyone else. Would Whiterose really be content to just execute Elliot’s plans? Clearly there’s more to that story. In any case, I’m now worried about hackers bringing down airplanes, so that’s how my day is going. 
  • Speaking of Whiterose, it would seem that the character was behind the shoot-out in China that left several federal agents dead, which in turn led to E Corp’s potential bailout money going away. That, in turn, triggered a series of events that led to a government takeover of the New Jersey site that poisoned Angela’s mom and Elliot’s dad. Presumably this was an outcome Whiterose did not see coming, because that site getting more scrutiny seems like it would lead to a whole lot of outcomes neither Price nor Whiterose want. According to Angela’s research, the Washington Township site still plenty poisoned… and her attempts to blow the whistle on that fact led her to one of the most creepy hallway scenes in “Mr. Robot” history (and this is a show that knows from creepy hallways full of bad omens).
  • Elliot and Darlene’s mom, far from being able to provide a crash pad for either of her kids, is living in some kind of assisted living or institutional setting. I don’t believe we’ve been told what her condition is, though it looks like dementia or mental illness can’t be ruled out.
  • I have to offer up a shout-out to Portia Doubleday, who has had any number of scenes this season in which she hasn’t had many lines, but she has done a terrific job of conveying all the emotions and calculations going through Angela’s mind. Angela has rarely gotten a lot of speeches and has not been handed big chunks of dialogue (in one of her scenes tonight, Dom spoke and Angela barely uttered a word). And yet we’ve seen a lot of her evolution as she has navigated the icy environment of E Corp, where she tried on the corporate culture for size and ultimately decided that it still makes her sick. Doubleday has given a very focused and cogent performance — it’s not showy in any way, but certainly effective. Side note: Angela probably can’t return to E Corp now, I would guess. 
  • Speaking of unexpected meetings and reunions, Cisco stumbled across someone in the smart house — I wonder who it was? Perhaps Mobley or Trenton? That house might not be the safest place for fsociety members to hide in… but it seems doubtful that the show would introduce a brand-new character at this stage in the season.
  • The sequence of shots depicting Whiterose and Price walking around with their umbrellas was really gorgeous, and it offered a welcome contrast from the cramped quarters most other characters have been finding themselves in.
  • If you like reading about “Mr. Robot,” here is last week’s recap, a piece I wrote about the uneven  second seasons of the USA show and “UnReal,” and here’s a great GQ profile of Christian Slater.

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