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‘Mr. Robot’ review: Of Humanity & Gods

MR. ROBOT
Season 2, Episode 3
“eps2.1_k3rnel-pan1c.ksd”
AIR DATE: July 20, 2016
GRADE: A-

There’s this great (albeit disgusting) moment during last night’s episode of USA’s Mr. Robot where Elliot eats Adderall from his own vomit. Any other show, this would be the eye-rolling “shut-it-down” moment, something that prompts fans and critics to cynically declare the showrunners self-indulgent for no other reason except that the network hosting them has given them carte blanche to do anything they want. For Mr. Robot, it’s sauce for an already incredibly tasty goose. The moment follows an equally disturbing scene involving a kidnapping at the hands of group who, at first, might be government shadow forces. They roll Elliot into an abandoned warehouse and tie him to a chair. No amount of begging stops these people from quickly mixing some concrete and then force-feeding it to him through a big red funnel, all of it executed, in near-operatic fashion, to Phillip Glass’s “Opening” from the film “Mishima”. I mean, holy shit. That moment is preceded by an intense, yet darkly funny, bit between Elliot and Mr. Robot at the basketball court where Elliot originally pops the Adderall like they’re Reese’s Pieces. He does this right in Mr. Robot’s face while Robot grits his teeth, seething.

Elliot’s doing this because he’s just about had it with Robot and since ignoring him usually always leads to a temper tantrum in the form of an imaginary bullet to Elliot’s head (or a funnel of force-fed concrete), Elliot’s resorting to desperate measures. At first, the drug’s highs far outweigh the eventual lows. For instance Elliot actually interacts with Leon now — and finds Seinfeld HILARIOUS(!!!), something that freaks Leon the hell out and which also might be a not-so-subtle jab at Seinfeld and fans of the show. Watching Elliot break his invisible bonds is an absolute treat and serves as a reminder that Rami Malek is not just an actor wearing a hoodie, providing us with monotonous voice-overs while staring blankly into a depressing void. Even when he does that, he’s captivating. Here, he whoops and loudly cheers as a basketball player dunks in the face of another player and you can’t help but be amused.

mr. robot

But, then come the aforementioned “lows”: Elliot’s hyperactive. He’s loud and brash — even in his church group — and worse yet, the audio-visual hallucinations are starting. “Leon’s talking backwards,” Elliot observes. “That’s not good.” Pretty soon, we begin to see signs of an eventual crash or “a kernel panic,” as Elliot puts it. Not only does Leon talk backwards, Elliot’s coming apart, pixel by pixel. Literally. His room gets smaller for a moment. There’s some random code that flashes across the screen. He watches his laundry as it spins, endlessly, the visual of tumbling clothing reflected in his eyes no matter where he goes, crashing into his everyday regimen. It’s here we realize that Elliot’s struggle for control is futile. In attempting to suppress Mr. Robot, he has no control over the consequences of that drug-induced suppression, something Robot reminds him of as he regurgitates the pills:

I have burrowed underneath your brain. I have nested there. I am the scream in your mind. You will co-operate…or else I will MAKE you because I OWN YOU!

Robot slowly lunges into the camera as he says this, getting into our faces like a malevolent being imposing their will upon us. Elliot, on his hands and knees, attempting to dig up the pills necessary to make Robot’s intimidating presence vanish into the darkness that constantly surrounds him. The dynamic reminds us of the first season finale, “zer0-day.avi”, when Robot declared himself “a god” and Elliot his “prophet”. This is never more apparent than when Elliot visits his church support group following a period of sobriety — but instead of obnoxiously yelling “AMEN” at the top of his lungs like a con-man TV preacher, Elliot is slumped in his chair, listening to a yokel describe the time he got so annoyed with an Indian man’s accent, that he just beat the man halfway to death. “It was raining, though,” the man explains. “I walked outside and the clouds parted and the sun came out…and I knew that was God showing up for me!” The group’s leader smiles and says that ordeal was just a “test from Jesus” and the entire class agrees, treating the man’s violent bigotry like a miracle.

mr. robot

Elliot is asked by the leader to share with the group…and Elliot calmly preaches his gospel:

Is that what God does? He ‘helps’? Tell me: why didn’t God help my innocent friend who died for no reason while the guilty roam free? Ok…fine: forget the one-offs. How ’bout the countless wars declared in his name. Ok! Fine! Let’s skip the random, meaningless murder for a second, shall we? How about the racist, sexist, phobia soup we’ve ALL been drowning in because of HIM! And I’m not just talking about Jesus…I’m talking about ALL organized religion. Exclusive groups created to manage control! He’s a dealer getting people hooked on a drug of HOPE! His followers, nothing but ADDICTS who want their hit of BULLSHIT to keep their dopamine of IGNORANCE! ADDICTS afraid to believe the truth that there is no order! There’s no POWER! That all religions are just…metastasizing mind worms meant to DIVIDE US so it’s easier to rule us by the charlatans that wanna RUN us! All we are to them are paying fanboys of their poorly-written sci-fi franchise. If I don’t listen to MY imaginary friend, why the fuck should I listen to YOURS? People think their worships’s some key to happiness! But that’s just how he OWNS you. Even I’M not crazy enough to believe that distortion of reality…so, fuck God. He’s not a good enough scapegoat for me.

The moment is visceral, real, honest — but Elliot has forgotten something: his “system” is down due to his mental “kernel panic”. Unlike last season when he internally monologued about the pitiful state of the world and how truly phony it was to his therapist, Elliot really said all of that outloud and everyone heard it. To see Elliot go from confident in his viewpoints to a shaken-up, frightened individual is striking. Robot wasn’t around to push that point of view, so does it belong to Elliot? Does he have control of himself even when Robot isn’t around to push him to do the things he does? How much of himself exists? It’s also interesting to note the reactions of the people surrounding him. Financial freedom caused hundreds of people to take to the streets in FSociety masks and cheer for their hacker heroes. Here, the church group collective looks like they’ve taken a knife to the gut. Freedom from religion is much harder to celebrate because, like Robot, it’s something that burrows into a person’s brain. It can’t be unloaded easily because of the guilt that comes with unlearning it all.

There’s also a couple of characters we haven’t yet discussed. They both debuted last week but their role on the series didn’t really make enough waves for me to mention them outright. Craig Robinson joins the cast as “Ray”, a man who also talks to an imaginary friend: his deceased wife. There’s a great deal to be said here (and is said) when Ray and Elliot finally have a meeting of the minds. First, Ray doesn’t actually talk to the dead. He talks to nobody. He does so to maintain control of the grief he felt after she passed away. Second, he knows that control is an illusion. He says that his wife never colored outside the proverbial lines and always minded her safety. But none of that mattered and she died anyhow. “Picking yourself up after falling is bullshit,” he says. “The whole thing is a fall. You have to stumble around to move forward.” He invited Elliot to play a game of chess with him as he tells him that keeping his imaginary friends at bay doesn’t actually help things. And the dance begins. Ray is peculiar in that he’s ever so wise — but also has a dark side: he seemingly works with people who rough up the type of people who run FSociety. But one gets the sense that he truly doesn’t enjoy what he does.

mr. robot

The other character is FBI agent Dominique DiPierro, played by series newcomer Grace Gummer. She’s a great officer who takes pride in her work but is just as flawed: she lives alone, appears as though she feels her age, she engages in cybersex late at night (which runs in juxtaposition to the cheap romance reality shows that seem to turn her off completely) and she doesn’t mind rolling a joint for the people she’s investigating. She’s brought into the fold to uncover the 5/9 FSociety hack that brought down Evil Corp, something that has left Mobley frantic since Romero has turned up dead, the victim of an apparent gunshot wound to the head. Mobley’s afraid that the people involved with the hack are being systematically wiped out by the Whiterose and the Dark Army (which would make a killer metal band name) because, as every conspiracy theorist knows, the first rule of keeping secrets is assassinating assassins.

While Mobley is freaking out, Darlene attempts to try to keep control of her fractured group. It’s very much needed since, the last time we saw FSociety, it was comprised of a bunch of careless morons who were out for their own fame. The problem is that Mobley and Trenton are the only real members left without Elliot to guide them — and Trenton doesn’t want to have anything to do with the recent spate of activity, dismissing Darlene’s money-burning escapade in the middle of a New York park by declaring it “stupid hijinx”. All this while Darlene carelessly flips through a copy of Trenton’s Quran — which ties into the sub-theme of religious control that was just described. Despite Darlene’s pleas for calm, Mobley is petrified, telling a worried-looking Trenton: “They’re trying to cover their tracks — and we’re the tracks.”

mr. robot

The final sub-plot is Angela and her dealings with Phillip Price of Evil Corp. After successfully maneuvering Price into a damage-control interview with CNBC, he invites her to dinner with him that night. Last week, we saw Angela brainwashing herself with early morning affirmation television. This week sees her repeating those words to herself in the mirror and we quickly discover that Angela is not above sleeping her way to the top. The problem with her plan is that Price was planning to seduce her in a different manner: by attempting to get her to help him destroy two of the most corrupt men in the company by leaking evidence of their wrongdoing to the authorities. The entire dinner date was a ruse. Angela’s moralistic side begins to resurface as she realizes that maybe she’s not what Price thinks she is. Her control has faded — but Price still has his and makes sure that she knows it with a really creepy moment where he whispers in her ear, exposing her weakness. “You’re panicking right now,” he tells her. “But the minute you remove emotion from this, you’ll do just fine.” The scene serves to underscore the futile irony of her seduction attempt and feels like a sex scene without the physical act being actually shown. It feels dirty, shameful, awful because, no matter what, another piece of Angela seems to have died and it’s even harder to take because Price’s words are not dissimilar from what Angela was saying to hype herself up prior to the date.

The beauty of Mr. Robot is in the execution of each and every scene — nothing is wasted. Everything means something. Everything we see and hear is an exploration of a character or a theme or a variation of a theme or something which advances the story. There’s no “cute” on the show and, if there is, it isn’t without reward. The flaws are minuscule and are easily explained away on later episodes or they’re easily forgivable. One of these lies with the ending of “k3rnel-pan1c.ksd”: Agent DiPierro’s discovery of FSociety’s hideout at Coney Island. The arcade front says “F . . SOCIETY” on it in great big letters. Those spaces in the middle are because it once spelled “FUN SOCIETY”, but the U and the N vanished. Why? It isn’t explained. There’s a bit of exposition at the opening of the episode regarding the marquee: a conversation between Mobley and Romero, but Romero simply promises to reveal the answer at a later date. Even still, for all the careful burning the team did, it’s a bit careless for FSociety to advertise their presence like that — and keep it there for somebody to discover later on.

Even still, Mr. Robot rolls on, giving us an excellent parable on the illusion of control and continuing its sophomore season in fine form.

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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