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Mr. Robot season 2, episode 4: right now, the show’s women are the best thing about it

This propulsive episode suggests Elliot has become the weakest element in his own series.

Mr. Robot
Angela (Portia Doubleday) thinks about her next move.

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 "eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc," the fourth 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.

Todd VanDerWerff: "eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc" — which I'm going to call "Logic Bomb," because Jesus Christ, Sam Esmail — is the best episode since the two-hour season two premiere, and I can't believe how relieved I feel about that.

I mean, there have only been two other episodes between then and now, but they were hugely overstuffed and suggested a show whose writers and editors don’t know what to cut and what to keep. And that's a big problem in a medium that often thrives on concision.

And "Logic Bomb" isn't exactly concise. It's still longer than a typical episode of an average TV drama (50 minutes to 42 minutes). But it's not over an hour like the last two, and it actually moves with confidence and purpose. For once, the scenes mostly seem to all belong in the same episode of television.

And I think there's a big reason for that: This episode contains the least Elliot of any episode so far this season.

For a long portion of the running time, "Logic Bomb" more or less takes the form of a version of Mr. Robot where Dom is the protagonist, as the troubled FBI agent tries to track down hackers who tanked the world economy.

And I realized how happy I would be to watch that show! Or the Darlene show, which involves ever more impossible choices, or the Angela show, which involves trying to decide between past and future, or, hell, the Joanna Wellick show, which would at least be crazy and weird.

While Elliot spins out in his own head, the women surrounding him are busy getting shit done

Mr. Robot
Dom is closing in on the hackers.

Caroline Framke: Basically: Elliot/Mr. Robot have been the least interesting part of the show all season, and this felt like the first episode to acknowledge as much.

While Elliot finally gets somewhere interesting and fittingly horrifying with the revelation of just how fucked up Ray’s operation is (it turns out he’s selling all sorts of illegal stuff on a black market website), "Logic Bomb" — bless you for granting us this abbreviation, Todd — puts most of the focus squarely on Mr. Robot’s women, and is so much better for it.

(Also: Ollie was there, but come on, who has time for his reindeer games?)

Angie, Darlene, Dom, and Joanna all have much more active storylines this season, even if only out of necessity. Season one got a ton of mileage out of Elliot’s hacking, but season two just can’t sit behind a computer in the same way. Everyone’s living in a whole new world now — and Elliot, stuck in his house and head, can’t be the person to help us dive into the mess.

I’m a recent Mr. Robot convert who now holds Angie close to her heart, so this episode felt like it was made for me. I love her and Darlene together as a team, not only because they’re obvious polar opposites, but because their recognition that they can only accomplish their goals with each other’s help represents some real forward motion in the story.

Also, a quick shoutout here to Mr. Robot’s carefully curated aesthetic, which takes pains to reflect where the story’s going. You could watch the scene in Angie’s apartment on mute and still understand what’s happening, not only thanks to Carly Chaikin and Portia Doubleday’s electric friction, but also thanks to their costuming and the production design. Angie wears a corporate uniform in stark black and white, matching her equally austere apartment — but there are still pops of orange in the pillows, almost exactly matching Darlene’s shorts.

Despite everything, Angie and Darlene are still tied together, still each other’s best hopes to survive the increasingly apocalyptic world they inhabit. So I wasn’t surprised when Angie showed up at fsociety at the end of "Logic Bomb," because that first scene clearly telegraphed where she was headed, even outside of the script.

Todd: We're writing this from the Television Critics Association summer press tour, and USA offered a "women of Mr. Robot" panel this week that was met with some snark from a few of the other critics in our midst. But the women of Mr. Robot have always been one of my favorite things about it.

I think, in some ways, the show is structured similarly to Mad Men. The first season was almost entirely about the main character's journey, and in season two, it's trying to suggest just how rich the inner lives of its supporting players are. (Though Mad Men, with 13 episodes in its first season to Mr. Robot’s 10, was able to spend more time on its supporting cast earlier in its run.)

On Mr. Robot and on Mad Men, the supporting players are almost all women. That’s particularly true on Mr. Robot, because the major male supporting player (Mr. Robot himself) is literally the inner life of the protagonist, so he can't really have an inner life of his own. And Esmail and his team are slowly showing us how these women are defined by their compromises with the world around them, compromises that have been necessary to make but which have cut them off from loved ones or their own humanity.

They're also played by some pretty tremendous actresses. Doubleday, in particular, has really come into her own the more Angela has fallen into ECorp's embrace, and her scene with Rami Malek this week is maybe the most human Elliot has felt all season long.

But, hey, I was also in awe of how Grace Gummer and BD Wong just held my attention for the entirety of that long scene where they're pretty much just talking about clothing. Mr. Robot is interested in the divide between presentation and personal reality; that it's reflecting that so well in its women now is telling, I think.

Caroline: I loved those scenes between Dom and Whiterose (though of course Dom didn’t know the person she was speaking to was Whiterose), if only because I never could’ve guessed we’d ever see those two in the same room, let alone genuinely getting along. I didn’t totally buy that Dom would open up like that about her former partner’s role in bolstering her FBI career, but Gummer and Wong committed to the scene in such a way that their intimacy became convincing pretty quickly.

Elliot’s storyline has never felt further from the point — but does that matter?

Mr. Robot
Not when Joanna is around to play crazy mind games!

Caroline: So okay, we should probably mention Elliot’s storyline this week (though it’s important to note that I’m bringing it up reluctantly, in contrast to my gushing on just about everything else). The revelation of just how awful Ray is — with his shadowy black market of drugs, sex, weapons, slaves, you name it — is horrific, plain and simple. The guy is a Bad Dude, and now, Elliot knows it.

I can see myself being interested in this story in season one as some sort of standalone story of the week, but with everything else going on, I’m having trouble focusing on it in season two.

Am I alone here, Todd? Is not being as invested in Mr. Robot a problem while watching Mr. Robot?

Todd: I don't think so, because the more that Elliot gets wrapped up in Darlene and Angela's storyline, the more invested I get. And having Ray turn out to be a Really Bad Dude also helps raise the stakes for whatever's up with Elliot (though it continues to be a mystery as to how Ray knows that Elliot is a world-class hacker).

But I also like how this episode went about pre-emptively mitigating any fallout from some sort of reveal that the world Elliot inhabits is at least partially in his mind, by suggesting that, mentally, he's somehow turned the hospital he's staying in into a visit with his "mother."

Granted, this episode also made me less likely to believe the show will "go there," so to speak, and I don't really want some sort of "reality is not what you think it is" reveal. I still think playing this season entirely in "reality" is the best course of action for building the show's world, because I hate it when shows force other characters to speak in stilted fashion to hide the true circumstances of what's going on (as when, say, Darlene said Elliot was unavailable in last week's episode).

But by playing so much of this with a nervy kind of confidence, and by reducing Mr. Robot to what amounts to a cameo while playing up Elliot's seeming spiral back into both hacking and the mental issues the hacking exacerbated, the series both reduced him to a supporting character in this episode and smartly advanced his overall storyline.

Though I'm still annoyed with the endless absence of Tyrell.

Caroline: Yuuuuuuuup!

Even Elliot has forgotten that Tyrell exists, which isn’t a great sign. And while I love Joanna, her and Tyrell’s game of cat and mouse is far less fun when you have no idea what the mouse is doing. (Because let’s be real: In that relationship, Joanna is absolutely the cat.)

At the very least, though, we get to watch Joanna scramble to keep her family and lifestyle together the only way she knows how: manipulation.

As we saw with her Lady Macbeth machinations with Tyrell in season one, Joanna is an incredibly skilled reader of people, and uses that skill fully to her advantage. There was something weirdly satisfying about watching her ascend from the depths of her desperation to recreate her life with Tyrell to become a fearsome figure in her own right, drawing lines in the sand to justify her ruthlessness.

When she nonchalantly told her hitman that she let a man she needed to die do so "with answers, otherwise, we're nothing but worthless murderers," I got chills — as well she would have wanted.

It was a cool counterpoint to Tyrell’s heated tantrums, most notably the one that killed a woman in a particularly inflamed moment, and I hope (and suspect) there are many more moments like it to come.

Though Esmail has said many times that Mr. Robot is Elliot’s story, "Logic Bomb" sure as hell made it clear that the fascinating, incredibly complex women orbiting him are the ones fueling it.