Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to discuss USA’s Mr. Robot. This week, we’re talking about "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme," the sixth 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.
Warning: Some major, major spoilers follow — like immediately. Here’s a picture of Angela.
Todd VanDerWerff: The moment Mr. Robot fans have been anticipating — or possibly dreading — arrived in the closing moments of "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme," which we shall be calling "Handshake," because it's only right.
Elliot, as many have theorized, is imprisoned, though not in a hospital. No, he's in actual prison, serving time for a crime that hasn't been identified yet. (Since he's getting out soon, it doesn't seem likely it has anything to do with the hack.)
Truth be told, I've been dreading this moment, and I guess I was dreading it enough that I didn't hate the reveal as much as I could have.
For one thing, there's Elliot's voiceover, which could be read as either desperate (essentially, "We're just friends playing tricks on each other? Right? Please be my friend") or self-congratulatory ("Look at this crazy show! Pulling this one over on you!"). If it's the former, then I'm a little more charitable toward this reveal than if it's the latter, mostly because this prison twist, like the Mr. Robot twist in season one, was pretty obvious from a mile away. Elliot clearly wasn't staying at his mom's.
I do think, however, that Elliot's self-awareness makes this latest twist feel a little different from the twists in season one. When Elliot is constructing alternate realities in his head, rather than fooling himself into believing certain things, there's an element of gamesmanship to the whole enterprise that can be fun.
And, honestly, maybe I'm just being charitable because I'm so ready for Elliot to stop being polite and start getting real. Plus, a lot of other stuff happened in this episode. So let's talk about that, too.
Caroline Framke: When I first started watching Mr. Robot, I already knew about the "twist" of Christian Slater playing part of Elliot’s subconscious, and could read all the signs from the get go. (Coincidentally, this is also what happened with me and Fight Club.) But that was fun, because the show played with our expectations by making it obvious, to the point where you realized that preemptively knowing about Mr. Robot didn’t mean you knew the whole story.
I’m not sure yet how to feel about the "surprise, Elliot’s in prison!" reveal, which is strange, given that we've suspected something like it for weeks. I doubt it was supposed to inspire a "well, sure" shrug, which is about all I had by the time Elliot decided to come clean. One thing we can agree on though, is that it’d be awesome to trust Elliot again, because unreliable narrators can only pull so many tricks before you start to dismiss them offhand.
At the very least, this reveal seems to confirm the fact that everything going on with Angela, Darlene, Joanna, and Dom is happening in reality, free of Elliot’s warped perspective — which is a relief. I'm really just so much more invested in these women, which I say every week, but that’s because it gets truer every week.
So maybe at this point it makes sense for Mr. Robot to pivot to Angela, since she’s still working that parallel track to Elliot, caught in a prison of E Corp’s making. How long can she possibly outrun Dom, whose instincts continue to be the most laser-focused of anyone on this damn show?
Other stuff happened in this episode, but we’re going to keep talking about the reveal
Todd: I like Dom because she's a TV super cop, but believably so. She has jussssssst enough information to be suspicious of Angela, so she sinks her teeth into that suspicion and doesn't let go.
And yet Angela keeps her at bay perfectly, too. I've always thought Mr. Robot uses Angela as a rough reflection of Elliot, and that's even more true this season. For one thing, she's trapped in an unforgiving environment, albeit one she more or less created of her own volition. For another, she's exploring two sides of her dual self — there's Corporate Angela, and there's Still Pissed Off About Her Mom Angela, and it's not clear where one begins and the other ends.
So the more this season settles into the two characters mirroring each other, the more it starts to make sense.
But there's lots and lots going on in "Handshake" beyond those two. We get a (probably inaccurate) answer as to what happened to Tyrell. (Mr. Robot tells Elliot that Mr. Robot killed Tyrell. But let's be honest, Mr. Robot is a liar.) We get some intriguing hints about Angela. And we get the revelation that Leon (who is perfectly played by Joey Bada$$, I should say) is watching over Elliot at the behest of Whiterose.
The whole thing is trippy and fun and comes so close to paying off. But I just don't know that it does. Elliot’s alternate reality never really earned itself, is the thing. I'm not sure we gained anything from it, in the way that we did with Elliot's revelations about Darlene or Mr. Robot. It was just an added layer of confusion, one the show didn't really need.
Caroline: It also didn’t need to come quite this late in the season. If we got the same pan back from Elliot in prison in, say, the third episode, it might not have felt like such a tease.
I’m not under any illusions, here; I knew watching Mr. Robot meant signing up for allegorical chess matches and men bragging about how they’re probably gods. But this moment wasn’t a shock. It was the inevitable way out of a frustrating maze.
Also, as a side note: I have approximately a thousand questions about Elliot’s mother, who we’ve only ever seen in most after-school special style abuse role inside his own mind. I’d love to see her outside that context, if only to figure out who the hell she is and why every time Elliot thinks of her, it’s "NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!!!" with even less subtlety. What’s your damage, man?
Todd: Yes. I was thinking about how if the prison reveal had happened in the premiere or something, it could have felt even more like Elliot was slowly disintegrating before our very eyes, instead of whatever this was meant to be.
Alan Sepinwall talked to series creator Sam Esmail about this very twist, by the way, and their interview is worth reading. Esmail clearly thought all of this through beyond, "What a cool twist!" but also seems slightly frustrated people guessed it so quickly.
And I wanted to also call attention to how well Esmail is moving the camera this season. It never feels showy for the sake of feeling showy. There’s always a purpose and a meaning behind it, especially in this episode, where we watch as Elliot’s world disintegrates around him, or as Angela tries to shake off Dom.
So much of the rest of season two has been such an impressive slow-burn that I'm inclined to cut the predictability of the prison twist more slack than it probably deserves. If the show can move past it quickly, maybe we can all pretend it worked better than it did.
Or maybe we can jump to scenes where the characters burn garbage in the streets, which is also just fine with me.
Caroline: Every week I wish we could see more of the dystopian aftermath of the hack, and every week I end up happy with the few details we get, because much more would probably be overwhelming — or, if that hilariously edited CSPAN footage is anything to go by, kinda cheesy.
But hearing the show reference a potential Bitcoin collapse right as E Corp scrambles to create its own currency in an unstable economy is fascinating. Watching Joanna scream in desperate rage as some rando (literally) paints her as a corporate shill gave me chills. Seeing people like Dom rise to the top because she can anticipate the moves of people most bureaucrats probably didn’t know existed before the hack is thrilling.
Altogether, these moments are just enough to remind me that the world Mr. Robot lives in isn’t quite the same as ours … at least not yet.
Now, it’s high time for Elliot to return to it.