Every week, critic-at-large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to talk about USA’s Mr. Robot. This week, we’re talking about "eps.2.1_k3rnel-pan1c.ksd," the second episode of the second season. You can catch up our previous coverage of the series here, and/or discuss this week’s episode in the comments below.
Todd VanDerWerff: Why is Mr. Robot good?
This might seem like a weird question, but I think it's a pertinent one. The show comes so close to defying so many typical TV rules — here, we've got a self-indulgent, overstuffed, overlong episode that brought to mind when Sons of Anarchy would routinely run two hour episodes — but by the end of every episode, I'm a little more in love with it.
I have some theories as to why this works (of course), but I wanted to start with that question above. Because I can easily see a bunch of people watching this episode and tuning the hell out. But I'm ever more entranced by this series.
Or, put another way, after watching my screener, I immediately put on the Republican National Convention, and Mr. Robot feels like the one show on TV that's tapped even remotely into the sort of scared paranoia that animates so much of our political world right now.
Yet I can also see that the two played as a kind of inadvertent but perfect double feature turning lots of people off. Caroline, you are about the least likely person I know to like this show, which is why I asked you to catch up on it — and yet then you, too, enjoyed it. What's going on here?
Yes, even Caroline likes Mr. Robot
Caroline Framke: I was a few episodes into my season one marathon when I realized that your plan to get a writer who wouldn’t like Mr. Robot to talk about it was backfiring. (Or did you actually just want me to like it? See, the paranoia’s firing on all cylinders now, THANKS, MR. ROBOT.)
The fact that I ended up really liking this show surprised the hell out of me. But even though self-indulgence is a trait I truly loathe in television, Mr. Robot’s comes laced with something else that makes it not just manageable, but way more intriguing: self-awareness.
Once it became more clear that the show and creator Sam Esmail know exactly how myopic many of their characters are — not to mention how myopic Elliot’s Fight Club-esque rants against The System are — it became much easier for me to get into Mr. Robot. It’s dark and weird and confident as hell, which is good, because even when the show veers close to falling down a confusing rabbit hole, it can usually pull itself right out.
But I think you’re onto something with the idea that Mr. Robot is one of the only shows on right now that feels current, in the most crucial sense of the word. While other shows do "ripped from the headlines" plots to reflect the world around them, Mr. Robot would rather set that world on fire and sift through the ashes to show you exactly why it burned to the ground — and how you never could have seen it coming.
TL;DR: I thought Mr. Robot would be empty fanboy nonsense but now I think I might love it, please advise.
Todd: I think that self-awareness is key to the show's success. Take tonight's episode, for instance, which features lots and lots of random jokes and moments that probably could have been cut to get the episode down by 10 to 15 minutes. But why not include them? The reason for including stuff seems not to be self-importance, but a weird spirit of generosity: We thought this was cool. Maybe you will too?
That said, I really like that you read the show, as I do, as a series about how Elliot isn't the sort of person we should turn to as a genius or leader. He might be a great hacker, but his brain is fundamentally broken, and even he's aware of this now.
The bulk of this episode features Elliot trying to banish his hallucination of his father (whom I'm going to call Mr. Robot) so he can heal himself. But he takes so much Adderall that he doesn't sleep for six straight days, and all of these sequences are over-long and self-indulgent as hell. But they're also thrilling and like nothing else on TV, which buys a lot of space to fuck around for 15 minutes at a time.
The show is also getting much better at focusing on characters other than Elliot. The lengthy check-in with Angela in this episode is perhaps overlong, but I'm loving the time we spend with Grace Gummer's Dom, who's super smart, overtired, and working for the FBI. She's like a flipside version of Elliot, whose gifts took her into helping the government, instead of trying to bring it down. (I luv her.) And then Craig Robinson's Ray gets his own intriguing shades in this episode as well.
I want to talk a little bit about the most popular fan theory of "what's really going on" this season, but before we get there, let's talk about Rami Malek, because good Lord, he's astonishing. The scene in the church group meeting where he rants about God, and we finally see what he's like when he's "Mr. Robot"? Tremendous stuff.
How Elliot is like Kimmy Schmidt. (Stick with us.)
The way both Malek and Kemper make their tricky characters believable and deeply human anchors their respective shows, keeping those series from flying off the rails. It’s not a stretch for me to say that the initial reason I bought what Mr. Robot was selling was Malek. Elliot could have easily been one of the more annoying and confusing protagonists on TV right now if Malek weren’t playing him.
So yeah, the montages of Elliot on Adderall were definitely slick for the sake of being slick, but now that I’m this invested in him, I can be wholly thrilled by him bouncing up the stairs to the tune of what you hear in your Apple headphones when you turn up the volume, or seeing his mental glitches as fuzzy pixelation. (I mean, come on. That’s just fun.)
But man, watching both Malek and Elliot snap into Mr. Robot mode was something else. I full-on laughed when he delivered an entire, scathing speech that ended with "fuck God," only to freeze in horror that he might have said everything out loud. Elliot absolutely believes every word he said, but the idea that anyone could — or should — listen to his words has always been mindboggling to him.
If there’s one thing we and Elliot know for sure about Mr. Robot, though, it’s that he loves an audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s fsociety, Evil Corp, the whole damn world, or a dozen people gathered in a basement. Mr. Robot believes that Mr. Robot knows best, and watching Malek rip into that side of Elliot’s personality was just fantastic.
This episode still didn’t concentrate as much on Elliot as we’re used to, maybe because Elliot still doesn’t trust "us" — or whomever he thinks he’s talking to — like he used to. I’m cool with it.
I love seeing how fsociety interacts when neither Darlene nor Elliot are there, even if it was because someone straight up murdered Romero(?!). I love watching Angie become "Angela" as she keeps getting better and better at being part of Evil Corp.
But as for this episode, I love Dom the most. I think it’s fascinating that Esmail shot her in her apartment just like Elliot, with overhead shots of her in bed, shuffling around a dark apartment, both alone and lonely. But since she’s already found fsociety’s headquarters at Coney Island, where do you see Dom's story going as of now?
Todd: Dom's secret love with her Amazon Echo, Alexa, is some of the best product placement I've seen in a while.
Caroline: I only this second learned what an Echo is, so I just thought Mr. Robot existed in the cinematic universe of Spike Jonze’s Her.
Todd: I'm always fascinated by how we're supposed to read scenes that don't feature Elliot — which is a lot of them, now that he's on his "program" to get better (about which more in a second). Are they still filtered through his point-of-view, so we still can't "trust" certain details? Are they more or less objective?
My vote has always been "somewhere in between," but I think it varies from episode to episode.
For instance, the scene where Darlene and Angela are suddenly revealed to be friends in season one — a key to the season's big reveal — is more or less probably what really happened, as are the various adventures of the Wellicks (who sometimes feel like they're going to be spunoff into their own program, like the Ropers on Three's Company). But then you'll have the Angela scenes within E Corp, which often seem like they're heavily filtered through Elliot's point-of-view, even though he's not around.
But the other characters, at least, have more or less non-fractured perspective on what's happening. For a while, I thought we were going to get the first look at Elliot-as-Mr.-Robot in the scene set in the arcade, but nope. We got that later, at the most disturbing possible moment, when we're still more or less focused on Elliot.
So are the characters being kept separate from Elliot for some larger purpose? The most popular theory (probably best explained by Vulture, in that link) is that Elliot is in prison for the hack (though you'd think Dom would have mentioned this by now) or that he's in a mental hospital, to which Tyrell has committed him.
I would not be surprised by either of these theories being accurate, but episode two goes out of its way to suggest that, no, all of this is "really" happening on some level (especially because Ray seems to have a life outside of his periodic visits with Elliot).
I really hope that reality is reality. If season two is built around another huge reveal — no matter how well executed — then for the rest of the show's run, all we'll do is talk about what's real. Now that Elliot is trying (no matter how haphazardly) to get better, it feels a little wrong to pull the rug out from under him and the audience. The show needs a ground floor somewhere, and season two could do a good job of setting it.
But I'm as into this show as I've ever been, warts and all. And some of that is that confidence you mentioned. When Dom found the arcade at episode's end — something most shows would delay until, say, episode seven or eight — I was all in. I can't wait for what's next.
What do you think? Tell us in comments!
We’ll try to drop in throughout the day.