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‘Mr. Robot’ review: A nice game of chess

MR. ROBOT
Season 2, Episode 4
“eps2.2_init_1.asec”
AIR DATE: July 27, 2016
GRADE: B

Last week, I remarked that USA’s Mr. Robot never wasted a scene and that every single sequence was beautifully executed with sound and fury. The very first sequence of “eps2.2_init_1.asec” is a prime example of what I’m talking about –albeit a little more over-the-top and grandiose than what we’ve seen on this show, but the execution is still flawless. As the first season of Mr. Robot began with a knock at Elliot’s door, so begins “init_1.asec” — though not in the same timeframe. This is Halloween night, a few years prior to the 5/9 Hack — and FSociety’s existence — and the person knocking is Elliot’s sister, Darlene, donning a familiar article: the item which we recognize as the FSociety mask. At this point in time, however, it’s of more simple significance: it’s movie memorabilia from “The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie”, a satirical horror film seemingly known only to them. The movie (called “Init 1” on Elliot’s hard drive, hence the title of the episode) is a “debunking of the notion that society is classless.” This, according to Darlene under a marijuana-induced haze. The murderer in the film dons the aforementioned mask while Darlene, mirroring her brother’s present attitude, complains about society and how it’s become too complacent. This prompts Elliot to confess that he lost his job because he destroyed a bunch of secure servers in his company’s server room — he just doesn’t remember doing it…something about anger toward the people who couldn’t go on their expensive vacations on time unless he fixed the servers.

Darlene’s reaction seems coldly ironic considering her earlier societal objections and because of what we know about her in the future: meh, it’s just a dumb corporate job. It’s this very moment where the revolution is born: Elliot shows his sister their dad’s “Mr. Robot” workman’s jacket which Darlene practically begs her brother to wear. But even that is not enough for her: for reasons that aren’t quite clear, she wants him to put on the soon-to-be-FSociety mask as well — and he does. At first, this amuses Darlene — but as Elliot stands there, motionless and staring, the mood becomes creepy and ominous and only grows more intense once Elliot arbitrarily begins to elaborate upon a complex plot to bring down Evil Corp, an idea that appears to leave Darlene slightly disturbed — but not all the way against it. Elliot and Mr. Robot are, of course, two different people but, under the mask, they’re one. And when Elliot removes the mask and looks down at it, he appears transformed. Accordinly, this historical moment in Mr. Robot mythology is set to the soft, mysterious, John Williams-esque strains of Holst’s “Op. 32: VII, Neptune”. Neptune, in more spiritual philosophies, symbolizes illusion and the nature of change — which is much in keeping with the moment — and, during the close-up of the mask, it’s cleverly spliced with “Op. 32: I, Mars”. Mars, as most everyone knows, is the symbol of angst and the god of war in Greek mythology. This is also fitting as the mask is FSociety’s “war paint” and this is the moment where was quietly declared.

robotmask

The issue is that Elliot’s exit strategy in terms of his original battle plan, are something he, himself, either won’t follow or has forgotten, something his sister points out to him when the story jumps back forward to the present. “That wasn’t me,” he tells her, “That was him.” But what can Elliot do? It isn’t like he can simply take a knife and chop off an infected portion of his body…or can he? The answer might lie with Ray who, last week, challenged Elliot to a game of chess as an attempt to meet him halfway in an emotional sense. While Ray’s game does draw Elliot out of the shadows, Elliot is plain terrible and loses every game he plays — though he’s stubborn and won’t quit. This is when Ray tells Elliot to play himself because he thinks that Elliot is “hiding something.” This sets up the big plot of the episode: Elliot vs. Mr. Robot for all of the marbles — or, at least Elliot’s marbles. The idea, however, feels heavy-handed and lazy for a show that prides itself on hiding its metaphors a lot better than this and, for that, this week’s episode stumbles and breaks the A-class streak the show has been on.

Not only does it contradict Elliot’s pseudo-acceptance of his mental state from last week, it also turns out to be a futile endeavor since Mr. Robot and Elliot share the same brain. Neither of them can win because they both know what the other is thinking. This is where Leon comes in: he sees the chess board and tells Elliot that chess was mental stimulus to those who lived in the age of Enlightenment. How Leon would know this since all we’ve seen him interested in is Seinfeld is beyond me, but it prompts him to ask Elliot what he gets from the game. “Existence,” Elliot says. Leon asks if Elliot dreams and tells him that people often do so because they want to see the best of themselves and their lives. This gives us a glimpse into Elliot’s fantasies: a slow-motion montage featuring a future with Angela, a healthy relationship with his happy sister, an unthinkable friendship with the Wellicks — and even an incredibly moment where Elliot stops by the house of Bill Harper, the man Elliot emasculated during FSociety’s breach of the Iron Mountain facility. All of this culminates with a big “family dinner” with all of the aforementioned — and all while Evil Corp’s main building plummets to the ground in the background.

robot_s2ep4_elliotbed

But none of it is real or even realistically attainable for the time being. This is something Joanna Wellick reminds her boyfriend of after they’ve engaged in coitus and before she decides to give him oral sex as a way to make up for her boldness. It may sound like I’m giving a pass to Mr. Robot after I criticized Scream for the same thing — and one could argue that Joanna is simply a sexual object — except that Joanna is a complex and strong female character who is, at times, also incredibly frightening. She drips with raw sexuality (and is about as kinky and free as one can be in that regard) but there never seems to be a moment where Joanna isn’t in control. Even when her boyfriend manhandled her in the first episode this season, her boyfriend was the weak one, insecure in his sexual prowess instead of attempting to assert his dominance over a goddess he’s not even close to capable of handling.

Never is this more apparent than when they lay in bed together and her boyfriend fantasizes of taking her to Madrid — only to have Joanna step on his dreams by splashing him in the face with the cold reality that he’s poor and can’t give her what she wants — except in bed. Sex is something Joanna needs and her new boyfriend is nothing to her except a beautiful body. The scene is darkly amusing and ironic in that, as she goes down on him, his face is that of a man reduced to emotional impotence. Even colder is Joanna’s attempt to get a hold of her husband’s severance package from Evil Corp. The money isn’t so much for her as it is for their child, something Joanna inexplicably has a soft spot for. She’s even willing to sell out her deadbeat husband to Scott Knowles who knows Tyrell murdered his wife (last season) in order to get it. Except Scott, as we saw in the season opener, is disenchanted with Evil Corp and may be incorruptible.

wellick

The two other females on the show, Darlene and Angela, have their own problems. To say Darlene is annoyed with her brother for ditching FSociety in their time of need and betraying his own plan of attack cannot be overstated. It’s also driving her nuts. Strange men in trench coats seem to follow her no matter where she goes and she isn’t as solid a rock as she pretended to be last week. She knows something’s up and her suspicions are confirmed when she finds out that the FBI has found the beginning of the FSociety’s proverbial trail. An aside, if I may: last week, I had criticized the notion that FSociety’s secret lair would be front and center for the public to see. This leads to a fairly humorous scene involving FBI agent Dom DiPierro and her squad that, I will admit, shut me the hell up while explaining everything to me:

AGENT: You really like this place for our guys? An arcade? With the goddamn sign outside?
DOM: They’re hackers. Brazen. They believe in hiding in plain sight.
AGENT: This is just…too stupid…
DOM: Well, what does that say about us, then, that we’re just now finding it?

Cute. A bullet casing was found at the scene, one that might possibly explain the fate of Tyrell Wellick and push FSociety into the open. The operation is dubbed “Berenstain”, a nudge-nudge-wink-wink nod to those who are well-versed in “The Mandella Effect”, a phenomenon wherein a person swears they remembered something in a certain way and shares this memory with several other people who also remember the same thing. The operation’s name is taken from the children’s book series, “The Berenstain Bears” — something many people apparently remember as “The Berenstein Bears”, not “Berenstain.” This is a thing, believe me. It’s fitting for several reasons being that it’s in keeping with the overall plot arc this season in relation with Elliot’s struggle to recall things he should remember.

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As strong as she is, Darlene needs help. The irony isn’t lost on Elliot but he knows that it took all of Darlene’s strength to come to him. But what happens when your leader goes awol and your sister wishes Mr. Robot was running things again? Apparently, it involves sex in the bathroom of a seedy dive bar with Cisco. It’s here we see Darlene’s resolve begin to crack and Cisco is the first to see her bleed. The sex in the bathroom is as expected as it is unexpected: it’s an outlet for Darlene and a way for her to regain control over her mental battleship as it struggles through rough waters. Cisco enlightening her about the FBI being on their six might just be the key Darlene needs to get her brother back into the fold.

Angela, meanwhile, is still dealing with the fact that she had it in her to sell out Evil Corp execs Jim Chutney and Saul Weinberg — but it’s also given her an inflated sense of self-importance. She believes that Phillip needs her to help him through the fallout from the 5/9 Hack. It’s the reason they’ve helped put a roof over her head and paid her what she’s worth. But Angela believes that she’s in a position to get more. Namely, a cushy office on the high floor of Evil Corp’s skyscraper and the job of her nemesis, Melissa. She wants all this because she and her former lawyer, Antara Nayar, have found a chink in Phillip’s armor in the settlement papers: a line about factory inspection that would finish off Price and seal his fate — except that Phillip is a veteran at this game and Angela’s still a rookie and he has no problem brushing her demands away like stray cobwebs. It’s not entirely clear why Nayar is still in the picture or why Angela continues to deal with her if she effectively dumped Nayar in the season opener, but here we are.

wr

While he put a brave face on for Angela, he certainly doesn’t know how to explain things to Whiterose (B.D. Wong, returning to reprise his role), who expresses frustration with Phillip’s methods and his insistence on using Angela for all his dirty work. The duality here is delicious: Whiterose is transgender female who pretends to be a man when working with Phillip but is a woman when she’s heading up The Dark Army. On one side of the phone, Phillip is scheming, plotting, attempting to go ahead with an ambiguous ECoin currency program. On the other side of the phone, Whiterose is donning a wig, applying make-up, and attempting to choose just the right pair of earrings to go with her dress. Neither knows what the other is up to, though both people have their agenda and this runs parallel to the chess game played between Elliot and Mr. Robot.

And the chess game brings us back to the very beginning: nobody won, which was the obvious solution to the plot. Perhaps, Ray surmises, Elliot should start listening to the voices in his head, not shutting them out. This logic prompts Elliot to open up to Ray in a way Ray wasn’t suspecting: he’d like to help Ray with his “computer issues”. Alas, nothing is simple on this show and, as we’ve seen, Ray isn’t exactly the most innocent of people and his “issues” are, in reality, an “online business” involving Deep Web browsers. If you remember way back to the very first moment of the pilot, Rohit Mehta, the owner of the fictional “Ron’s Coffee Shop” used fiber Internet connections for his customer Wi-Fi, something so awesome to Elliot that it “scratched a certain part of his brain which didn’t allow good to exist.” Ron, if you’ll remember, was using TOR networking to cover his deepest, darkest secret: a child pornography ring. Here, Elliot has the same feeling about Ray — except, with hired muscle in the room with Elliot and Ray’s darkness coming to the surface, Elliot resolves to “ignore that feeling” from here on out. But with his own livelihood and the livelihood of his sister at stake, can he afford to be so apathetic?

Despite a few faults, “eps2.2_init_1.asec” is still a very good episode of Mr. Robot. For a show to stagger a little and still come up roses is nice change of pace. Viewers of this show have been spoiled week after week and that’s a beautiful thing.

About Matt Perri

Matt Perri
Matt Perri is one of those literary Ronin you’ve never heard of until he shows up and tells you he’s a literary Ronin. He’s a native Californian, a film buff, old school gamer geek, and a sports/entertainment fan. A lifelong Giants, 49ers and Sharks fan, he also covers the world of pro-wrestling, writing recaps for WWE Monday Night RAW and Total Divas at Scott’s Blog of Doom. You can follow the guy on Twitter via @PerriTheSmark as well as here at The Workprint and his own blog, We Hate Your Gimmick.

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