Every week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to discuss USA’s Mr. Robot. This week, we’re talking about "eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes," the fifth 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: After taking its sweet time setting up where season two is headed, Mr. Robot gave us "eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes" — hereby known in this recap as "Master Slave," because okay, we get it, Sam Esmail — which offers us as clear a road map as we’re going to get.
Lately it’s seemed like Elliot is on an entirely separate show from Darlene, Angela, and Dom, and that doesn’t change with "Master Slave." But at the very least, the episode takes a deeper dive into Elliot's psyche with an elaborate '90s sitcom fantasy, in which the Aldersons take a wholesome road trip with a bound and gagged Tyrell pounding away for help from the trunk. The sequence makes for arguably the most purely bizarre 17(!) minutes we may see on a TV drama this year, and I, for one, was thrilled by it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still far more invested in Mr. Robot’s Angela/Darlene/Dom stories than I am in Elliot’s. It’s no coincidence that just about all the sequences that could use a more concise edit are the ones that let Elliot pontificate, whether inside his own head or otherwise. But with that violent, Bizarro World Full House-style sequence — and the subsequent scenes where Elliot embraces Mr. Robot in frantic desperation — Elliot is finally clawing his way back into the narrative in a way I can appreciate.
Did I mention that ALF was there? Because ALF was there. That seems important.
Todd, please tell me all your feelings about ALF.
After the sitcom, Mr. Robot offers up a super fun anti-heist film
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm of two minds about the episode’s opening sequence. Either it should have been shorter (17 minutes, really?), or it should have taken up the entirety of the episode, because when you commit, you commit, dammit.
But speaking of it purely as an example of Mr. Robot's increasingly formal inventiveness, I enjoyed it quite a bit (even if it struck me as perhaps too direct a lift from Natural Born Killers — which also told the story of a character’s childhood trauma via sitcom flashback).
At times, it felt like Esmail and his writers were going crazy without a real thematic core. ALF, for instance, was just there because wouldn't it be funny if ALF were there? And I suspect a lot of what happened during the sequence (like Tyrell being in the trunk) was somehow meant as an Easter egg for the audience that hinted at what transpired between season one and season two (which is still, as I never get tired of reminding everyone, a mystery).
I always like it when TV shows try to do crazy, format-breaking things. Moonlighting, The X-Files, Buffy, and Community — four shows that did this all the time — are among my favorites ever made. But our current era of serialization doesn't really allow TV to experiment as much as it used to, because breaking a show's format requires having a format in the first place, an episodic structure to return to, week after week. Breaking Bad couldn't suddenly do a musical episode, for instance.
Mr. Robot, however, has Elliot's fractured and troubled brain to use as a window into other realities, more or less. And while most of the show’s riffs on TGIF sitcoms (that they all concealed dark cores; that horrible things could happen to laughter; etc.) have been done many, many times before, I thought the reveal that Mr. Robot had brought Elliot to this "world" to protect him was an affecting one, to say nothing of the way the scene was reflected and refracted in the final flashback to a young Elliot naming his father's store.
And here's the secret reason "Master Slave" works as well as it does: The rest of the episode is even better, so if you felt lost in the indulgence of the sitcom sequence (as you very well could have), you had a super fun heist movie waiting for you on the other end.
Caroline, tell me all your feelings on Portia Doubleday.
Caroline: No one on this show is willingly putting themselves in more precarious situations than Angela. For all of fsociety’s tough talk, they know they can’t do everything they need without a mole, but they’re all stuck behind their screens, Elliot in his own head. By committing to taking down E-Corp from within, Angela’s making herself a visible target. No one else can say that, except maybe Dom (who we’ll get to later).
What Darlene and fsociety do is hard. Angela learned as much in her 24-hour hacker cram session, a refreshingly frank inverse of the usual sequence that TV and movies love in which someone works hard and fast to pull off some incredible feat with laughably little prep.
But Angela has to slink around E-Corp itself, train her face to rest somewhere between a smirk and a blank slate, and keep her cool under the most precarious of circumstances. It’s an incredibly difficult task — both for Angela and for the increasingly impressive Doubleday — but watching her determinedly slice through every obstacle thrown her way has been far more exciting and tense than many of Mr. Robot’s splashier sequences (read: Elliot’s).
Watching her pull off a solo heist — or whatever the opposite of a heist is, given that she’s planting rather than stealing — was probably my favorite sequence all season. And you know I mean business here, because again, this episode featured ALF.
Todd: I loved the filmmaking in that sequence, especially the long shot that followed the woman out of the bathroom (where Angela was crouching in a stall, typing on her laptop), then swirled back around to rest on the bathroom door as we waited, excruciatingly, for Angela to emerge.
But the whole sequence — from roughly Darlene breaking into the hotel room to Dom showing up at Angela's cubicle — was pretty thrilling. It also made me realize that in embracing these weirdo, internal battles, Mr. Robot has lost some of the immediacy that defined it in season one.
Back in that first season, every single episode featured some sort of hacking challenge that Elliot had to complete to save the day. Now that he's trying to rewire his brain, it feels more and more like the show has lost sight of that structural cohesiveness and become a bit lost in its own indulgence.
This isn't all bad, of course. There have been some tremendous images and moments. And the show's creative team has come up with lots of different ways to dramatize what is essentially the same basic scene (Mr. Robot wants Elliot to embrace him; Elliot resists).
But with the rest of the show crackling like it is, it's kind of a bummer to watch Elliot slowly move toward the place we already know he's going. I hope Mr. Robot's two halves reunite sooner, rather than later.
Caroline: In every episode so far this season, I think Elliot has reached a point where it feels like his storyline has to go somewhere in the next episode. But then it just … doesn't. I truly hope that's not the case here.
Even if it does, though, at least we have the new combination of Dom and Angela to look forward to. (Seriously, is Dom just gonna show up in everyone's periphery this season out of nowhere? Because I am FOR it.) Dom is extremely good at her job, and Angela is at her steely nerved best. I would excuse another 50-minute episode if it's 90 percent Dom and Angela facing each other down with a smile and an imperceptible head tilt, respectively.
This is Mr. Robot at its most ambitious — for better or worse
Todd: Another TV critic mentioned to me that Dom is the best thing about Mr. Robot’s second season, and for as much as I'm enjoying "Darlene and Angela crash global capitalism," I very much agree. I'm really anxious to figure out how she integrates into the story going forward.
But I'm also starting to regain interest in the larger story of the Dark Army and Price and all of that. The various tentacles of that tale are starting to weave toward each other, and we're getting a better sense of just what the Army wanted with fsociety in the first place. (My guess: The bailout Price keeps pushing will result in some sort of massive windfall for him.)
So far, Mr. Robot's ongoing expansion of its universe has gotten a little more confident with every episode. How do all of these storylines come together? I don't know yet, but I'm more than ready to find out.
Caroline: You’re not the only one. Esmail is also excited about the way the universe is growing; in fact, he said on Twitter yesterday that he considers "Master Slave" to be the best episode of Mr. Robot to date. But with that, I’ll have to disagree.
Instead, I’d say that "Master Slave" is one of Mr. Robot’s most ambitious episodes to date. That first act’s mimic of a sitcom — down to the credits, costuming, and cardboard sets — is remarkable, and incredibly fun in the kind of way that will make TV nerds like us flail in the general direction of our screens. But it goes on far too long and treads far too familiar ground to be as effective as it could be. Like you said, Todd, every scene between Mr. Robot and Elliot this season has been essentially the same, and that goes double for Elliot’s technicolor delusion.
Besides: For as much fun as I was having with ALF popping out of unexpected corners, I quickly forgot about the whole thing the second fsociety started training Angie to hack E-Corp.
But one thing "Master Slave" does particularly well is bring you inside everyone’s head in the intensive way the show used to reserve for Elliot alone. Following Angela around E-Corp and Darlene around the hotel she set up shop in — literally following, the way Esmail shot it — sucked me into their determination, and their simmering panic. As Angela tried to steady her breath, I found myself trying to do the same.
So yes, I’ll always take a well-calibrated '90s homage as a way of burrowing into someone’s inscrutable headspace. But the one that opened "Master Slave" was — as Mr. Robot would say — a distraction, a footnote, a road bump on the way to something that could be so much greater. Season two’s various threads have to start coming together, and fast. I suspect perpetual scene-stealer and unexpected guest Dom DiPerrino will be the one to make it happen.