Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to discuss USA’s Mr. Robot. This week, Todd abandoned television to take a vacation like some kind of heathen, so Caroline is instead joined by fellow culture writer Constance Grady to talk about “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12,” the seventh 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: Last week, I said it was time for Elliot to re-enter the real world, or at least become even the smallest part of everyone else’s narrative.
This week, I’ll admit I was wrong. Elliot doesn’t show his face once in “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12” — which we’ll hereby refer to as “Successor” — and I was totally fine with that.
Instead, we pick up with fsociety releasing an intercepted FBI call online, Angela sleepwalking through a Fourth of July party, and Dom still hot on all their trails. While Elliot’s been in prison spinning us stories, everyone else has been trying to stay afloat in the very real and incredibly chaotic new world his vision created. (Which hardly seems fair, but okay!) But that struggle hits a breaking point as fsociety fractures apart, and Darlene exacts deadly revenge on E Corp’s Susan Jacobs, a woman who has ties to her father’s case, making her realize she’s capable of wreaking even more havoc than she already knew.
Between Darlene calmly accepting that side of herself and beating Cisco over the head with a baseball bat after his[?] computer reveals that he’s been tracking her for the Dark Army, it sure seems as though the (tellingly titled) “Successor” is christening Darlene as the new Mr. Robot, and I am down.
Taking a break from Elliot for a week allowed the show to give its secondary characters some welcome attention
Constance Grady: You've been saying for a while that the best part of Mr. Robot this season is its women, and that's never been clearer than it was in this episode. Between Darlene's grande entrée as Mr. Robot's successor (which, yes, would be a thing of beauty) and Angela's calm and methodical takedown of her father's neighbor — reminiscent, I think of Elliot's deconstruction of the midlevel security exec last season — the women have more than demonstrated that they can carry an episode on their own. “Successor” is even full enough that I don't miss Dom, who's been a bright spot this season but has almost no POV scenes this week.
It's not that I don't like Elliot or I don't think Rami Malek is a necessary part of the show. But at this stage of the game, I'm wondering how much Elliot we really need. I can imagine a world where Mr. Robot consists entirely of Darlene wreaking havoc, Angela climbing the cutthroat corporate ladder, and Dom just one step behind them both, and I can't say I'm seeing any downside. We could just check in on Elliot for five minutes or so every week, see how he's doing, and let the ladies get back to business.
Caroline: I’m a sucker for an atypical episode that lets us in on what everyone outside the main character is doing, so “Successor” is just what I needed, because I’ve been close to hitting Mr. Robot fatigue.
Even outside of Darlene (who we should talk about in more depth soon) I loved getting to see Trenton’s perspective on the whole post-hack mess, since she’s been a fixture since the beginning with very little else to do beyond the borders of her computer screen or Darlene and Elliot’s respective dramas. But when Trenton panicked at the idea of having to leave the city and Mobley told her she shouldn’t have gotten into this mess if she had “that much” to lose — meaning her family — my heart broke for her all the same.
(Here’s where I get to acknowledge the wonderful and understated performances Sunita Mani and Azhar Khan have been turning out since day one, which have always thrown Elliot and Darlene’s illusions of grandeur into stark relief.)
In fact, “Successor” is one of the more intimate episodes Mr. Robot has aired this season, even while existing entirely outside of Elliot’s head. There wasn’t even that much hacking, really. Instead, we watched as Angela and Darlene approached rock bottom, rejected it, and forged ahead, because at this point, what else can they do?
Does Mr. Robot even need Elliot’s Mr. Robot anymore?
Constance: One of the biggest critiques of Mr. Robot since its premiere has been that it tends to take itself too seriously, like it's the TV equivalent of a first-year philosophy student, sipping a beer and explaining the ways in which we're all just cogs in the machine, man.
This episode has me wondering how much of that tendency is intrinsic to the show, and how much of it is just Elliot, likable as he is. Without him, Mr. Robot seems a lot more clear-eyed about how destructive fsociety's mission is — and how sophomoric its philosophy can be — and part of that comes from giving Trenton and Mobley the room to realize exactly what they've done.
But what most impressed me this week was the thematic resonance between storylines, as we realize that the men in Angela and Darlene's lives are plants trying to screw them over — and we're left wondering whether Mobley is trying to do the same to Trent. (IS HE???) Mr. Robot has always been profoundly paranoid, so it makes sense that when it leaves the claustrophobic confines of Elliot's head and moves over to the women, that paranoia becomes gendered. Men really are out to get them.
Caroline: I did appreciate that the episode’s opening flashback to Trenton and Mobley's first meeting ended with Darlene dismissing Elliot/Mr. Robot’s opening voiceover as “a little dramatic.” It’s especially fitting now that I know this was as much as we’d get of Elliot throughout the episode. Mr. Robot has become such a looming figure that taking a step back from him and his tantrums was like taking a deep breath — and then, of course, getting punched right in the stomach the instant Darlene tased her E Corp hostage into the pool.
It’s a chilling moment, especially thanks to Carly Chaikin’s determined acting and Sam Esmail’s direction in that indoor pool room. The camera is slow, patient, and considered, until Darlene snaps and the perspective slices sideways into the pool behind Susan’s lifeless silhouette.
More than just being a welcome detour from the usual, though, you’re right that “Successor” is tighter than maybe any other episode this season. Everyone’s grappling with the deepest, darkest parts of themselves, and it’s a testament to the actors that their struggle is always obvious, even when their characters are trying desperately to pretend like they’re in control.
Mr. Robot’s second season has been met with a decidedly more tepid critical response than the first. There are a few reasons for this — which Todd and I discussed a bit last week, in the aftermath of Elliot’s long-overdue prison reveal — but I think a big part of the cooling off is due to the fact that Mr. Robot’s pontificating is incredibly repetitive. That was clear in the first season, so in the second, the circular conversation swirling inside Elliot’s head just feels like retreading old ground. Ditching it entirely made “Successor” feel like something new.
Darlene and Angela are bigger unknowns to us than Eliot — and that’s exciting
Constance: It's also refreshing to deal with characters whose psychologies are opaque, not because they're hallucinating elaborate alternative realities at us, but because they're in complex situations and they keep reacting unpredictably. While you can sense a method to what they're doing, it's hard to grasp exactly what that method is.
The scene where Angela is singing karaoke, her face blank and on the verge of tears while the spotlight turns her hair into a halo, is fascinating. I have no idea what Angela thinks she's up to this season, or what her endgame is, but every time she's onscreen I have to sit still and make sure I'm not missing any of the micro-expressions that flit across her face.
Darlene has always been more straightforward about her motivations than Angela is; she'll tell you exactly what she's thinking and how she feels about it. But she's still complex enough to surprise you without resorting to tricks like this season's "guess what?? Elliot's been in prison all along can you believe how edgy and shocking!!!" bit.
Before this episode, I never thought Darlene would kill someone, but now that she's done it, it's easy to see how prone she is to externalizing the same rage and despair that Elliot internalizes to become Mr. Robot. They come from the same place, after all.
Which brings me to my big question: Is Elliot and Darlene's mother going to be the key to this season? It's becoming clearer and clearer that she molded her children's psychology in very specific ways, but the only times we've ever seen her, she's committed cartoonish after-school-special abuse. We have no idea what drives her or why she acts the way she does. Are we going to find out by the end of the season? If the heart of season one was Elliot's dad, is his mother at the heart of season two?
Caroline: Honestly, I hope she’s the key to this season, because otherwise she’s one hell of a weird red herring, not to mention a cruel cliché.
My hope for the rest of the season is that Darlene fully takes the wheel — as she’s been trying to do ever since we met her — and that we get to see the inevitably spectacular fallout. Like you said, she and Elliot are cut from the same cloth, and she’s suffered the same loss he has. We just hadn’t seen it from her perspective until the moment Darlene crouches down next to Susan, strangely calm, and explains that Susan destroyed her life by helping cover up what E Corp did to her and Elliot’s father.
I want to see the rest of that story, and if Elliot’s along for the ride, so be it.