Wednesday, August 10, 2016

REVIEW: 'Mr. Robot' - Elliot Escapes to an Alternate World While Angela Goes on a Mission in 'eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes'

USA's Mr. Robot - Episode 2.06 "eps2.4_m4ster.s1ave.aes"

Mr. Robot attempts to show Elliot that he can be useful. Darlene and Angela's plan doesn't go as expected.

"eps2.4_m4ster.s1ave.aes" is one of the most fun episodes Mr. Robot has ever produced. As dark and as cerebral as this show can get, it still remembers to have fun with itself. It never takes itself too seriously while also showcasing a dark and ever-changing world. That's what allows such wonderful and delightful twists like the one that dominates the first part of this episode. This hour is essentially broken into two distinct halves. The first is of Elliot falling into an alternate reality that is essentially a spoof of 1980s, TGIF-style sitcoms. It's a phenomenal sequence that plays into the cheesy punchlines and situations to protect Elliot from the pain and darkness happening to him in his real life - or as real as that life currently is. The second focuses on Angela breaking into the FBI's server to finish fsociety's hack. It's a solid caper similar to last season's infiltrations of the prison and Steel Mountain. It's a testament to how strong Darlene and Angela have become as characters that they are able to hold the screen just as effective as Elliot does. Both of these stories have purpose and meaning. But more importantly, they were just a ton of fun to watch. That adds a new level of excitement to the show that was really needed this season - especially as it seems like things are only going to get darker in the next few episodes.

It takes a certain level of confidence to try to pull off that kind of an opening sequence. This show has always celebrated differences. It doesn't look like anything else on television. It's not shot in the same way. It doesn't tell stories in the same way. It welcomes the viewers into this strange and alienating world. It makes them live this experience with the characters. And then, it uproots that world to truly change everything. Mr. Robot presenting Elliot with a sitcom reality shows just how powerful he is. He has such a strong hold on Elliot that he can produce this entire world so that he can escape the pain. He is being beaten by Ray's men. He looked where he shouldn't have and is now paying the consequences. This isn't something Mr. Robot wanted for Elliot. He truly believes that deep down Elliot wants the same things as he does. It's just so difficult getting him to admit that. Here, the situational humor of a family road trip isn't able to cover up the darkness creeping into Elliot's world. Elliot isn't able to relax into this situation. He is thrown by the laugh track. He constantly hears the thumping of the body in the trunk. This world isn't quite right but he doesn't fully understand what's going on. He's actually living this experience. There is no studio audience providing him with the context he needs to understand what's going on. He believes this is just the happy place he has been banished too because Mr. Robot has finally won.

It's not that simple though. This is just a temporary journey. Mr. Robot really was taking Elliot to a final destination. He created this world so that Elliot wouldn't have to suffer the pain currently being inflicted upon him. Mr. Robot really does care about Elliot. He is protecting him. When it comes to the big monologue at the end of the heightened fantasy sequence at the top of the episode, it's cheesy in a way that so many of those sitcoms were back in the day. But it's still heartbreaking when Elliot wakes up in a crippled state in a hospital bed. He's only alive because Ray is letting him. But his punishment is far from over. In fact, things are only getting started. Elliot may enjoy the bed and some rest for a little while. But Ray's men still have plans for him - starting with kidnapping him once again. Elliot doesn't know what's happening to him. But all of this torture represents a key change within him as well. It's because of this pain that he is able to see Mr. Robot as a beacon of hope and comfort. When he shows up in the unknown basement, Elliot thanks him for taking his pain away during this difficult time. Those two characters embracing like that is a startling moment. But it could also indicate that Elliot is finally ready to stop resisting Mr. Robot and become an active part of his plan again.

Of course, Mr. Robot has always been manipulating Elliot. Even when the face was being worn by Elliot's father, that was still the defining characteristic. Those two characters have always had ulterior motives for Elliot and trick him into doing what they want. The episode ends with a flashback to the moment Elliot's father tells him about his cancer. He uses it as a moment to connect with his son. A way to open up and start a conversation. The audience knows that Elliot's father could be a very abusive man towards his son. But in this moment, he's kind and nurturing to Elliot. He goes so far as to let him name the computer business he is planning on starting. Elliot was the person who gave the business, the character and the show its namesake. That's a fantastic final revelation for this hour. But it also shows that Elliot has fallen into this cycle of being manipulated while being comforted before. Mr. Robot is able to earn Elliot's trust and appreciation solely because he bestows kindness in taking away his pain. Elliot isn't able to understand it in the moment while in the weird world of a sitcom. But it was a gift nevertheless. One that will make Elliot much more malleable moving forward.

Similarly, it's exciting to see how much Angela has changed as a character since the early days of the show. She has now become an active part of fsociety. Darlene needs her right now because she is the only one who can get access in the Evil Corp building. The FBI is moving out following the attack in China. So, the window for fsociety to finish the hack is closing very quickly. Angela is put through the crash course of hacking as quickly as possible. But the question still lingers on whether or not she'll be able to pull this off. It's a very dangerous situation that she is willingly putting herself in. It could go wrong any number of ways. She would have to carry the blunt of those consequences. But she is determined to succeed. That's been her mission statement for this season. She has been listening to those self-affirmation tapes and is now repeating those statements back to herself to get through this process. She even sets aside her own feelings towards Cisco and his role in getting her involved with this whole mess. That's a huge moment. The whole mission could be ruined just because Cisco is the one to show up and deliver the device they need. Angela is in the thick of it now. She has accepted that and moves forward despite this new information.

With Darlene watching from afar (and sporting a badass disguise), Angela infiltrates the FBI floor of the Evil Corp building. It's a floor understandably on lockdown. But Darlene's plan seems like it has the potential to go off without a hitch. Of course, that's not the case at all. Angela runs into problems the moment she steps into the bathroom to execute the program. It's a sequence made even more thrilling because the majority of it is directed in a massive one shot. It's a continuous and fluid sequence filled with people walking across that floor, into and out of the bathroom, getting distracted by noisy and flirtatious agents, plugging in the final piece of the puzzle and walking out of there as calmly and rationally as possible. It's so damn exciting to watch as Angela is able to handle the FBI agent much more effective than Darlene and Mobley are able to. She knows how to interact on a personal level that will lesson suspicion about her. And yet, she still runs into problems even once she's back on her regular work terminal. Darlene needs her to do one last thing to turn the program on. And right in the middle of that progress, she is interrupted by Dom who comes up to ask Angela a few questions. That's a tantalizing and ominous place to leave the characters for the episode. It's a thrilling moment to end on because it shows just how smart and capable all of these women are. The walls are closing in on them and it's becoming much more difficult to remain hidden in this escalating war for power and control.

Some more thoughts:
  • "eps2.4_m4ster.s1ave.aes" was written by Adam Penn and directed by Sam Esmail.
  • Even Alf decides to stop by to fully realize the parody happening in that opening sequence. Elliot refuses to high four him and then Alf gets his revenge by later showing up just to drive over Gideon. It's a dark and twisted moment that's played for hilarity.
  • It turns out that Tyrell is the man in the trunk that Elliot keeps hearing. When he escapes, he proclaims that he's an important businessman. And then, he hilariously runs directly into the back screen projection. That was one of the funniest moments the show has ever done.
  • Hopefully now that Elliot appreciates what Mr. Robot does for him, it will lead to more concrete answers as to what happened on the night of the Five/Nine hack. The mystery with Tyrell is starting to wear a little thin.
  • Cisco is forcefully reminded not to question anything Whiterose does. And yet, that scene in particular really dragged on much longer than it needed to.
  • Phillip Price is powerful enough that he can be talking to the Speaker of the House on speakerphone. But he's not influential enough to get a bailout with Chinese money at the moment. Plus, the protests against the company are only growing in scale.
  • Dom survived the trip to China because the attackers let her. They chose to turn the weapons on themselves and let her live. It's stalled the FBI's investigation into Five/Nine. But it has also re-motivated Dom to find the truth.
  • Plus, it's still great that all of this darkness really hasn't broken Dom's spirit. She's a complex and troubled individual like most of the characters. But she also genuinely cares about her local convenience store going out of business because it doesn't have the money to stock its shelves with products.