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 "eps2.7_init_5.fve," the eighth episode of the second season. You can catch up on our previous coverage of the series here.
Todd VanDerWerff: At the end of Mr. Robot’s first season, when Elliot Alderson caught up to everybody else and realized that Mr. Robot was simply a figment of his imagination, it felt like a major breakthrough.
And it was! The character, finally aware of his true reality, could perhaps start to put the pieces together. That's what we saw in the first half of season two, prompting some dissension among the show's fans but at least sort of making sense in terms of Elliot's arc.
But now that he's out of prison and back with Darlene as Mr. Robot enters its season two endgame, I'm not entirely sure why we're getting this whole thing where both Elliot and Mr. Robot seem freaked out by how neither is in control.
(My deepest fear is that their panic will somehow reveal Elliot has also been Tyrell all along, but that seems like it would go against basic logic.)
"eps2.7_init_5.fve," which I guess we'll just call "Init," is a piece-moving episode. It needs to get certain players into place for the season's final three hours (a penultimate episode, then a two-part finale aired over two weeks).
And some of these scenes work pretty well. For instance, Dom laying her cards on the table for Angela was something that could send both characters in exciting new directions, as was the Wellick-mobile pulling up outside of Elliot's apartment. I even appreciated the scenes where we saw Elliot's arrest and guilty plea.
But I don't really need more Mr. Robot trickery at this stage of the game. Please say it's almost over.
Is Mr. Robot Dom? (Probably not, but who can even tell anymore!)
Caroline Framke: I don’t think I’ll ever need another "but WAIT, there’s MORE" reveal regarding Mr. Robot. There was a moment in this episode where I genuinely thought the show was about to reveal that Elliot was also Dom. (I don’t even know.) Inspiring that kind of paranoia is surely part of the point, but at the same time it’s gotten pretty boring.
That being said, I actually didn’t mind the Mr. Robot weirdness this week, for the first time in a long time. It felt right that Elliot would experience some confusion coming out of prison — which we see in the cold open, via a flashback that catches us up on what we actually missed while the show was busy trying to trick us — and having him and Mr. Robot physically glitch in and out of each other was a smart way to portray it.
But for my money, the most interesting dynamic this week wasn’t one of the more obvious ones (e.g., Elliot and Mr. Robot or Dom and Angela). Nah, I’m most intrigued by Elliot/Mr. Robot coming back to fsociety after Darlene’s spent so much time in the trenches, leading the movement to the brink and back again so many times. He immediately reassumes control, but is that fair? Or more importantly, is that even smart, given how fractured Elliot’s brain is right now?
Todd: I think one of the best points the previous episode (my favorite of the season and maybe the series so far) made was that in many ways, Darlene is a better leader for fsociety — but she's also a more ruthless leader for fsociety.
Then again, maybe that's what fsociety needs right now. One of the complaints I've seen about this season is that the apocalyptic vibe you would expect to accompany the collapse of the world economy just isn't there.
And yet I've found the slow boil so much more effective. When the lights start flickering in and out in "Init," it's such an eerie choice. The characters created the end of the world, but it didn't happen all at once, and now they have to experience the destruction as it unfurls.
Keeping all of the characters apart has tried the patience of just about everyone who watches this show, but it's also perversely made the episodes where the characters start to come together that much more exciting. Scenes where Darlene chats with Mr. Robot, or Whiterose and Price talk about how they could just as easily start World War III, among any number of other scenes, have that much more punch because we've been seeing the periphery of this story, and not the meat.
The risk, of course, is that if your finale doesn't have the goods, the whole season feels like a dud. But with the way Mr. Robot season two has been perking up in recent weeks, I'm starting to think the finale might make all of this worth it.
Caroline: I’m betting there were two things Sam Esmail knew he wanted for sure going into the second season: the Elliot in prison reveal, and whatever big reveals are coming in the finale. That would explain the more measured, if arguably lethargic, approach to season two. Mr. Robot clearly knows where it wants to go, but for the rest of us with no idea, the in-between stages — most notably Elliot’s prolonged illusion that many viewers saw right through — have felt more muddled.
But I agree that season two has given us far more fun character combinations than season one, even if their interactions have been more splintered in general.
We got more insight into the relationships between Mobley and Trenton, not to mention Darlene and Angela. We got to watch Dom — a laser-focused hunter wrapped in a deceptively earnest smile — brush up against Angela and even Whiterose’s orbits. Next week, we’ll get Joanna and Elliot, which feels just as random as it does overdue.
And while I can see how so much focus on the inner workings of E Corp versus the weekly hack of the week might be frustrating for fervent Mr. Robot fans, I’ve loved following the corporate intrigue — especially as Angela winds herself tighter while trying desperately to bring the whole thing crashing down.
I suspect that’s kind of the key to enjoying Mr. Robot season two as much as or close to the first (which I marathoned very close to watching the season two premiere). If someone is at all into the kinds of insular details that make this show tick — like the slow unfurling of bureaucracy, bombast, and bullshit you alluded to earlier — then season two is pretty okay! It’s not as immediately thrilling in the moment, but like you said, if the finale can deliver, it will make up for a lot of hedging along the way.
Mr. Robot is taking us somewhere it wants to go. Let’s just hope the destination’s worth it.
Todd: I think good TV shows give us more of what we want, but great TV shows take us where they want to go and make us enjoy it.
It's that second part that's tripping up Mr. Robot’s second season — I can't say I've enjoyed every single step of this particular journey — but I also can't deny that it's headed in a direction of its own choosing and changing itself in the process.
In some ways, Mr. Robot's worst qualities have shined unfortunately bright in season two, especially when the show relied too heavily on those season one vibes. The big reveal, in particular, feels like everybody involved wasn't convinced the show could work without pulling the carpet out from under the audience. Meanwhile, the increased prominence of the supporting characters has easily been the best thing about the season.
And you can even feel that in this episode, which covers everything that happened between seasons one and two in perfunctory fashion but really comes alive once it's jamming up odd character pairings.
So if I want anything out of the rest of the season, it's the sense that, yes, spending all this time in the wilderness has been frustrating, but it all meant something — even if it wasn't the something I thought I wanted in the first place.
Caroline: Yes! It’s been kind of fascinating to watch the show’s impulses fight against each other. I’ve heard that many Mr. Robot die-hards don’t love season two because Elliot has been so generally aimless, but it’s a shame that they’re not responding to Darlene, Angela, and Dom, who have all been involved in the kinds of weekly stories that once kept Elliot’s arc float.
I will say, however, that I hope the connections between Whiterose, the Dark Army, E Corp, and the FBI all start to come together and deepen soon. As much as I enjoy watching Whiterose wrap everyone she encounters around her finger — not to mention B.D. Wong's silken delivery of every single line he gets — I’m going to need a more solid explanation of how, exactly, they’re all intertwined.
Mr. Robot has a habit of waving away some bigger questions with some variation of, "This person’s just super powerful, don’t worry about it," and I’d be disappointed if that were the case with Whiterose, who’s quickly becoming one of the show’s most compelling characters.
Todd VanDerWerff: Yes, anytime there's a "don't worry, there's a secret global conspiracy that's going to serve as the villain" plot, I start to get worried.
Whiterose is a great face for whatever the massive conspiracy the Dark Army serves as the tip of the iceberg for ends up being — and the show is giving her some of the "I can't believe that character did that" moments that Tyrell had in season one — but by being so big-picture and inscrutable, it's not hard to feel a little confused all the same.
Still, things are coming together rapidly, and the story is starting to make more and more sense. Here's to all Tyrell in the season's penultimate hour!