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.2.2_init1.asec," the second episode of the second season. You can catch up on our previous coverage of the series here, and/or discuss this week’s episode in the comments below.
Caroline Framke: It’s hard to know where to start with "eps2.2_init1.asec," which is weird, since not a whole lot actually happens.
Sure, Darlene finds out the FBI has crashed fsociety’s arcade, while somewhere uptown, Angie tries to make a game-changing move within E Corp. But by the end of the episode — which runs a full hour long — the only thing that’s really changed is Elliot deciding that he can’t continue standing on the sidelines. He decides to hack the FBI.
"eps2.2_init1.asec" didn’t need an hour to tell this story. Usually, I don’t notice the extra length on a Mr. Robot episode, as the show typically feels meticulously calibrated, every part clicking into place exactly as series creator Sam Esmail wants. But this episode definitely dragged, and in places that surprised me.
At this point in the series, for example, I’m far more interested in Darlene and Angie desperately trying to tread water in their wildly different arenas than I am in Elliot trying to beat back Mr. Robot. Their chess match felt like more of the same dynamic we’ve seen so many times before, even though the "reveal" that Elliot could never beat himself was treated like some huge revelation.
The one aspect of Elliot’s story that struck me as particularly interesting and even new was when Krista told him that he couldn’t — and shouldn't — kill Mr. Robot. As destructive as he can be, Mr. Robot is still a part of Elliot, and needs to be managed rather than "deleted," as Elliot would prefer. But how are you supposed to accept yourself when you don’t trust yourself?
The Elliot versus Mr. Robot story is kind of a snooze
Todd VanDerWerff: Geez, Caroline, those words cut deep.
More seriously, though, it’s a bummer the show couldn’t come up with a stronger installment on a day when the headlines intersect so beautifully with its concerns. The battle between Elliot and Mr. Robot feels to me like the sort of thing Esmail is sure he needs to plow through for the show to work, but that most of his viewers could likely do without.
And so long as he's crammed most of Elliot's two-part realization — that he and Mr. Robot are the same, and that he can't very well destroy part of his brain without destroying the whole — into just this one episode, fine.
But good Lord, I don't know if I needed "eps2.2_init1.asec" to be over an hour long. It's always tough for a series to do a set of episodes where the protagonist doesn't want to do the thing that makes him the protagonist, until just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Sometimes, they're necessary. But more often than not, they can feel like the world's worst plot stall.
In those terms, Mr. Robot does … okay. It's not as skillful as Breaking Bad was in its third season, when it believably got Walter out of the game but illustrated that the impulses that led him to cook drugs were still present within him — but that was probably the best blatant plot stall of recent years.
This episode still had some nice moments and some fun scenes. And I'll admit that the build to the moment when Elliot made his big hacking decision was well-handled and compelling. But the rest of the episode felt like the show was desperately trying to find a way to avoid getting to Point B, as has much of season two so far. (We still don't know who was at the door at the end of season one!)
On the one hand, I appreciate the confidence. On the other hand, I'm starting to fear that Mr. Robot is going to pull a rug out from under us, and it's not going to be pleasant.
Caroline: I’m assuming you’re referring to those fan theories floating around about how this whole season could get retconned with another Big Twist, which … yeah, would be a bummer! To say the least.
Letting Elliot and Darlene actually pull the trigger on creating mass chaos — the kind that hackers routinely threaten without following through — was a huge, gutsy decision. I’m eating up every ounce of "this is how a dystopia is created" world-building that’s happening this season. It would be a shame if all that were washed away by a big twist.
For now, I’m clinging to everything outside Elliot’s story. You said last week, Todd, that it’s hard to tell whether or not Angie and Darlene’s stories are being filtered through Elliot’s perspective, but I really don’t think they are (or at least I’m not seeing that, based on the clues the show’s provided so far this season).
And if we’re being honest — and I think we are! We’re all friends here on the internet, right? — part of me wishes season two could be filtered through Angie’s eyes. Her constant, determined struggle to stay ahead of E Corp is currently, for my money, the most complex and interesting part of Mr. Robot by a long shot.
Fortunately, Angela and Darlene’s shows are better
Todd: I agree that we're seeing largely unfiltered versions of both women at this point. We're also seeing unfiltered versions of whatever Whiterose and Phillip Price are up to, which I care about considerably less. (That scene, dropped into the middle of everything else, felt like Mr. Robot trying to be one show too many.)
And I have to say that even in a clumsier episode like this one, these moments are showing as false the idea that the show is only interested in Elliot and what he's up to. Angela's struggle to maintain her integrity in the midst of working for E Corp is working really well for me, in particular, but I've always been an Angela fan.
It's this episode's choice to turn Darlene into what amounts to its second lead that proves to be its strongest decision. Darlene has always been interesting in theory — she’s played by a great actress, and she has a lot of interesting traits and a strong relationship to the protagonist — but she has been rather underutilized so far.
In this episode, she finally steps into the limelight, making the decision to pull Elliot back into the game to try to protect fsociety from the FBI, and the scenes where she walks through a slowly unraveling New York are riveting.
Indeed, if there's one criticism of season two so far that I just can't fathom, it's the idea that fsociety's hack hasn't altered the way Mr. Robot's world functions.
I'd say that you can feel the very fabric of this reality fraying underneath the characters. They're pretending things are okay, but you can feel things falling apart around the edges.
Still, "eps2.2_init1.asec" probably should have cut that lengthy montage of what Elliot imagines a normal life would look like.
Caroline: I’m usually all for Elliot’s fantasy sequences, but that entire section felt more like an excuse to get the actors from all of Mr. Robot’s sprawling stories together in one place rather than anything particularly important — not to mention the fact that we’ve seen Elliot fantasize about being "normal" so frequently that this genre of Mr. Robot daydream might’ve lost its punch by now.
So turning to Darlene is smart, and not just because Carly Chaikin is so much fun to watch. But when the thrust of the season is — or should be — that the world as we know it is rapidly unraveling, Darlene is a far better entry point for that story than Elliot. Elliot is horrified by what’s happening after the hack, but his engagement in the fallout is always accidental.
He exists on the fringes, out of both necessity and self-preservation, but the Darlene we know is fully living in the world she’s tearing down. And she's scared shitless.
Todd: I've always thought Mr. Robot has some sneakily brilliant things to say about how men and women are treated differently in this world, and the fact that the weight of the hack is increasingly falling on Darlene while Elliot gets to essentially remove himself from its narrative (when he caused it) is indicative of the show’s sly sense of satire about this particular trait of our society.
But it's really past time to get Elliot back into the main action, and I increasingly feel like the show isn't going to have a great way to do that. In that case, Mr. Robot may as well rip the Band Aid off and do it as bluntly as possible.
If nothing else, the first few episodes of season two have done a good job of setting up the rest of this world outside of Elliot's paranoid viewpoint. That was probably a necessary thing for Mr. Robot to do. But the show needs him at its center, not dithering away on the edges. Here's hoping this FBI hack will bring him back into it.