Wednesday, August 17, 2016

REVIEW: 'Mr. Robot' - Elliot Lets the Audience In on His Big Secret in 'eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme'

USA's Mr. Robot - Episode 2.07 "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme"

Mr. Robot and Elliot try to make nice. Darlene and Angela FTW? Joanna is given an ultimatum.

Mr. Robot has conditioned its audience into expecting mind-bending twists that completely reframe all that has happened previously. The show doesn't play these moments as big surprises meant to shock the audience with their ridiculous nature. All of the big reveals were apparent early on. The audience just had to be looking for them. It wasn't surprising last season when it was revealed Mr. Robot was all in Elliot's head. But it was a meaningful moment because it showcased just how troubled Elliot's mind really is. It was surprising when it was revealed Darlene was actually Elliot's sister. The focus had been so predominately on the Mr. Robot twist that that moment was able to fly under-the-radar. It too was a very powerful reveal. And yet, this season the audience is aware that these kinds of twists are going to happen. So, they can spend every episode analyzing every frame for any hidden clues for any of the big reveals that may happen later on in the season.

The second season has passed its halfway point now. It's heading into its final stretch where all of the plot beats will start paying off against each other. So it's not surprising at all that now is the time Mr. Robot slips in the big illusion about this season so far. It also brings a nice share of resolution to it as well. Elliot has spent this whole season in a prison. Every interaction the audience has seen with him this year has just been his coping mechanism to deal with everything that happened at the end of the first season. It's an isolating experience. He no longer believes he can trust the audience with this crucial piece of information. He believes we kept the truth from him last season about Darlene, Mr. Robot and the hack. So now, he purposefully did the same to us. He wanted us to be disoriented about our surroundings and the unfamiliarity of his world. He was fully aware of the conceit as well. He didn't know what was happening last week when Mr. Robot transported him to the wonderful world of '80s sitcoms. He just didn't know that Mr. Robot had that kind of power and control over him. And now, Elliot is only further proving just how in control of his life he really is by exposing the truth to his friend.

It's very telling that Elliot now feels comfortable with the audience enough to let us in on the big secret. He purposefully kept himself isolated because he no longer felt he could trust the world or the friendships he made. He gave himself a routine just to regain control over his life. This season has been very introspective with his character arc. At times, it has been very slow-moving. The other characters in the ensemble have been more engaging to watch on numerous occasions. But it has still been a moving character journey for Elliot. This prison reveal doesn't discredit anything that has happened with him this season either. The reveal purposefully shows us just how all of the sequences translate to the life he was actually living. When he was in his bedroom at his mother's house, he was actually in his cell. His mother is actually just a strict prison guard. When he was at the diner for every meal with Leon, it was actually the prison cafeteria. When he was watching basketball games, it was just the prison yard. It's still completely unclear why Elliot is in prison in the first place. The characters have alluded that he did it to himself. But Elliot didn't inform the audience of why all of this was happening. Nor does he let us know how Ray figures into this whole mess.

This is an important and pivotal episode with Ray as well. He has helped pull Elliot out of his funk. Elliot broke his routine in order to help Ray with his IT problems. He did so to get access to a computer to help Darlene hack the FBI. That really did happen. Just because the surroundings were all an illusion that doesn't mean the actions weren't real. That's the tricky part of doing these big reveals. It forces the audience to question everything that is happening. Do we believe this is something that's actually happening? Or will it all be undone once it's finally revealed what's truly going on with Elliot? In this case, everything that happens with Ray actually happens. The context has just shifted a little bit. More than likely, Ray has some kind of official job at the prison. He got close to Elliot because of his computer skills. And then, Elliot exposed Ray's criminal website to the feds. It was all a part of a careful chess match for superiority. Elliot wasn't able to emerge victorious when he faced off with Mr. Robot earlier in the season. But here, he is able to do so easily against Ray because he's certain about his life again. The confidence of that victory is enough to pull Elliot into action as a leader once more.

Of course, the questions still linger of how much the audience can actually trust what the characters are saying. Elliot offers a handshake to say that he is being completely truthful about his reality to the audience. But he will always remain an unreliable narrator. The audience is on this journey with him. We see everything through his eyes. Elliot has formed a new relationship of trust with Mr. Robot as well. He does so because Mr. Robot has able to show him compassion in last week's episode. Mr. Robot took away Elliot's pain as he was being beaten by Ray's guys. And now, Mr. Robot is actually telling Elliot the truth about what happened the night of the Five/Nine hack. Of course, should we really believe Mr. Robot when he says he killed Tyrell with the gun from the popcorn machine? It's uncertain. In the moment, Elliot needs to believe him because he needs to accept what happened that night in order to move on from it. That acceptance is what allows him to trust Mr. Robot and the audience again. He is a part of him just like we are a part of the show. Elliot has chosen to be a very isolated quality this season. But now, he's choosing to become a more active character once again. He's gotten the letter saying he'll be released soon. Now, he just has to decide if he can be a leader for fsociety as himself and not as Mr. Robot. Or if he's even aware enough to spot the difference.

Isolation proves to be a defining characteristic for a number of other characters as well. Elliot's story has been contained to one portion of the show. But the rest of the ensemble has been free to roam throughout this universe to collide with each other. They've done so in interesting ways too. But once again, the stories highlight just how isolating and disorientating this world can actually be. To Elliot, the audience wasn't completely trustworthy. Angela feels the exact same thing because Elliot and Angela didn't trust her enough to let her in on their plans as fsociety. She figured it out that it was them awhile ago. And now, they needed to bring her into the fold because of her Evil Corp access. But after that mission was completed, she went back to living her own life separated from the people she was once close to. Meanwhile, Darlene is too distracted by all the craziness going on around the world with fsociety demonstrators. She's not given the time to truly think by herself. She's too busy dealing with the latest complication to fsociety's plans. Yes, it's a victory that they were able to successfully hack the FBI. But that could only further open the doors of investigation into them. Dom proves that she knows all about Angela and is curious to hear her side of the story and what she truly wants at Evil Corp. It's clear that Angela's ambitions doesn't operate in an easily understood way eithere. She delivers the exact solution Price needs for the class action lawsuit against Evil Corp. But she only uses that victory to ask for a move within the company. A move that means she'll be able to internally investigate these cases of criminal negligence. And yet, it seems like she won't be taken as seriously in that job as she was working for Price when he needed something from her. Something she only realizes after the fact and with a tray of shrimp in front of her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "eps2.5_h4ndshake.sme" was written by Sam Esmail and directed by Sam Esmail.
  • Joanna gets in on the thematic connection of loneliness and isolation as well. All she has is a baby and public ridicule for people angry about Tyrell. She's not just sitting around waiting for his call either. She's moving on to a new man. But a new guy who doesn't seem any more genuine than the last. And yet, getting divorce papers seems to suggest she's ready to move on.
  • Whatever Ray was doing, it connected to the other inmates in prison in some way as well. After Elliot gets him arrested, a handful of the guys try to beat him up and rape him as punishment. It's a horrifying sight but one that doesn't go according to plan.
  • Leon has been so close to Elliot because he has some connection to Whiterose. It would seem he's protecting Elliot on the inside and Whiterose may have something to do with his release. It's cool when it's revealed Leon's the one to save Elliot from the criminals hellbent on raping him. But it only further teases a bigger mystery.
  • Elliot's therapy sessions with Krista haven't been an important part of his routine this season. And yet, they provide the context to reveal the big secret about Elliot actually being in prison. It's through that familiarity that Elliot is comfortable letting the audience in on the shocking truth.
  • Price and Angela's relationship has been so aloof and interesting. They find themselves opening up to each other in unexpected ways but never garnering the reaction they hope to receive. Here, Price tells Angela it's his birthday but then she flat out rejects him when he offers to do something together to celebrate.
  • It's been so interesting to see the show imagine a world where the financial market has completely collapsed. Society is breaking down while Evil Corp has still been able to manipulate the system to its benefit. But now, the lack of trash collection has started to get out of hand and led to burnings throughout the city.
  • A lot of people were able to correctly guess the big twist that happens in this episode - even after just the season premiere. Once one became aware of that theory, it was hard to ignore the signs that Elliot was institutionalized in some way. Sure, a prison is slightly different than a psych ward. But the thought process still tracks incredibly well.
  • It's been true all season long but the music cues were especially on point here.